I was going to show the unreal and completely amazing “Say It With Firecrackers” dance by Fred Astaire – from Holiday Inn – but it seems to have disappeared off the internet, which is a very odd phenomena. It was there recently. Perhaps it will be back again. It is from the movie Holiday Inn, as I said, which is a movie often viewed at Christmas time, but really has a song for every holiday imaginable. Fred Astaire stars with Bing Crosby and the music is by Irving Berlin. For holiday fare, you can’t get much better than Bing Crosby singing, Fred Astaire dancing and Irving Berlin’s music. In the firecracker dance, Fred Astaire’s character ad-libs a dance, using firecrackers that he tosses on the stage. They crack and pop and he dances in time.
But anyway, since I can’t show the dance, I thought I would mention a few musicals, that are the perfect way to celebrate the 4th of July, and remember the rich history of our nation…musical history, that is. They’re not very historically accurate.
Musicals are a uniquely American contribution to the musical world. Much of the early American popular music was taken from our musicals and revues in the 1910s-’30s. The American musical developed as a combination of European Opera, Negro Spirituals, jazz, Jewish music, American folk music, blues – in short, a beautiful blend of musical traditions. Here are some examples of uniquely American musicals.
Yankee Doodle Dandy – 1942, with James Cagney as George M. Cohan
I can’t think of a performer more associated with patriotism than George M. Cohan, a huge figure in the 1900s -1910s and in the musical theater world. Not only did he write songs – “The Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Mary Is a Grand Old Name,” “Over There,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag” – but he produced musicals, wrote the stories and acted and danced. He is considered a pivotal and important figure in the development of the musical – a step up from vaudeville and revues, where he at least used the songs and dances as a part of the story.
In Yankee Doodle Dandy, James Cagney plays Cohan. It’s a biopic of his life, from childhood to WWII. I grew up watching this film and I loved it, especially for the dancing. Most people know Cagney for his gangster roles and are surprised to hear that he got his start as a dancer on vaudeville, but I was the opposite. I knew he could dance and was surprised to hear that he usually played tough, mean guys.
The movie was made during WWII, so it’s very focused on the flag and people cheerfully entering WWI and WWII. There is even a conversation between Cohan and an actor playing Franklin Roosevelt (Roosevelt was referred to, had his picture in, and portrayed by actors more than any president I know, and while he was president! Can you imagine that with Bush or Obama?). All the songs in the movie are the songs written by George M. Cohan (except one song at the end, “Off the Record” written by Rodgers and Hart). It’s a rousing, fun, inspiring, heart-warming film. It always leaves me with a glow and I hum the tunes all day long.
Show Boat – 1936, with Irene Dunne, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan, Allan Jones, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein
The most famous version of Show Boat was made in 1951, with Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel and Ava Gardner, but the best one, I believe, is the version made in 1936 at Universal Studios, which has only just been released on DVD. It is based on the 1927 musical, by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. Coming a little before such composers as George Gershwin or Cole Porter, Kern had his start in the 1910s and 20s (though he went on to compose many more musicals, many of which were movie musicals) and is credited as being the one to most successfully bridge the gap between operetta and a more American style of song and paved the way for people like Gershwin with plots about people who actually lived in America.
Show Boat was based on a popular book at the time, about the riverboat life, racism, women loving their no-account men, endurance, sacrifice. It stars Irene Dunne in the lead, as Magnolia and she does an excellent job of playing her as the character ages through the story. There is Helen Morgan as Julie, the woman who is partly black, but passes as a white woman and breaks the listener’s heart singing “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “Bill”. Perhaps the best part of the movie is the performance of the riverboat hand, Joe, played by Paul Robeson. You have to hear his version of “Ol’ Man River.” It’s powerful. Although he was not the first to play Joe, the part was written for him and Kern said that he got the idea from hearing Robeson’s speaking voice.
Show Boat is considered a turning point in American musicals and one of the only musicals of its time to actually be revived today.
Meet Me In St. Louis – 1944, with Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Lucille Bremer, Mary Astor, Marjorie Main, Leon Ames
A combination of period songs (“Meet Me in St. Louis,” “Skip to My Lou” ) and originals songs written by Ralph Blaine and Hugh Martin (“The Boy Next Door,” “The Trolley Song,”) Meet Me in St. Louis is a heartwarming, nostalgic story about a family from 1904, when the world’s fair is going to occur in their home city. Judy Garland is, of course, the star, and it is one of her finest movies (along with The Wizard of Oz and A Star Is Born).
It’s a beautiful movie, music, acting, costumes, sets, singing. I actually didn’t care for it much when I was younger, but recently I have fallen in love with it – the effervescent good humor and affection. It might be considered rather sentimental, but it is a lovely sentiment, about family and young love and belonging to a certain place – things we ought never to lose sight of. It struck a chord with contemporary audiences, too. It was made in 1944, during WWII, and people loved it. It was considered a small travesty that it wasn’t nominated for best picture (Going My Way won, another sentimental and popular film).
By far, the greatest hit from that movie was the song “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s one of the last great classic Christmas songs to be written. The movie is often viewed during Christmas time, but it actually begins in the summer, goes to fall, Christmas, then ends in the spring and I think makes wonderful viewing any time of the year.
Annie, Get Your Gun – 1950, with Betty Hutton and Howard Keel, written by Irving Berlin
Irving Berlin wrote “God Bless America,” “Easter Parade,” “White Christmas,” “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” He wrote more holiday music than any composer I know of. He was wildly popular, a celebrity himself, and his career lasted over a half a century, with his first hit in 1911. He is the ultimate immigrant success story. Born in what is now Belarus, he changed his name from Israel Bielin to Berlin. He could hardly play the piano, couldn’t read music, but become the most successful and durable (except possibly Richard Rodgers) of composers. He even wrote his own lyrics.
Annie Get Your Gun was one of his later hit shows. Originally opened on Broadway in 1946, it was made into a movie in 1950. It encompasses that theme that has always been very close to America’s identify and idea of itself: the American west. The musical takes quite a few liberties with the Annie Oakley story, but that isn’t usually an issue in musicals. In life, Annie Oakley had a very good relationship with her husband and fellow sharpshooter, Frank Butler. He promoted her career and never once seems to have been jealous, knowing she was the better shot. However, in the musical, they have a rather more combative relationship.
There’s Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and it’s a tremendous spectacle. There is the fun song “I Can Do Anything Better Than You Can” and it was here that the song “There’s No Business Like Show Business” was introduced.
An American in Paris – 1951, with Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin
It’s not my absolute favorite movie, but An American in Paris is certainly memorable and an excellent introduction to some of the music of George Gershwin. Gershwin is the quintessential American composer. His “Rhapsody in Blue” was the first piece of music that was both classical and jazzy. He composed hit songs, an opera (Porgy and Bess), several classical works, and many musicals for both Broadway and Hollywood. He was brilliant, but tragically, he died when he was only 38, in 1937.
Not only is this an excellent showcase for Gershwin, but it is an excellent showcase for Gene Kelly. A dynamic and athletic dancer, he wanted to show that dancing and ballet was not sissy, but could be very masculine. He did all the choreography and it was his idea to do Gershwin’s piece “An American in Paris” as a dance where the characters go in and out of different, famous paintings. He received an honorary Oscar for his choreography and dance and the film won six Oscars, including Best Picture, which is unusual, since musicals traditionally have been looked down as a lesser art form than drama.
Personally, I think Americans should be proud of their musicals and musical and dance history. It is the combination of many musical and ethnic backgrounds, full of exuberance and joy and energy and feeling and, I believe, is unfairly overlooked in music history. From Scott Joplin to George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Bing Crosby – there’s so much richness to be discovered and appreciated.
As a bonus, here is Paul Robeson’s version of “Ol’ Man River.”