Richard Barrios has lectured extensively on film, served as a commentator on numerous DVDs, and co-hosted a series on Turner Classic Movies. He currently lives outside Philadelphia. His book, A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, 2nd edition, illuminates the origins of the movie musical from the smash hits of The Singing Fool and Sunny Side Up to bizarre flops like Golden Dawn and Cecil B. DeMille’s Madam Satan. In the original post below, Barrios looks at the 10 worst musical films ever made.
Musical films, as most of us are aware, are among the greatest mixed blessings in American art. They can be transcendent and glorious at times, and quite often they can be inept, foul, and obnoxious. On a few choice occasions, some individual movie musicals can offer us all these at once. They are part of our lives and our culture and our subconscious, and yet often we are not permitted to adore them unreservedly; they have let us down too often for that.
While I was writing my history of the early movie musical, I was struck again and again by the trial-and-error nature of how the musical was born, and how the mistakes counted for as much as the successes. The two coexist steadily, especially in early musicals, which usually lack the smooth-grained professionalism of later efforts. The filmmakers learned as much from what they got terribly wrong as what they did correctly, and sometimes more so. The resulting films demonstrate this so vividly that, as a historian, I found myself steadily compelled to reflect on both sides of the coin. This naturally sets aside the entire fact that the dogs are often a great deal of fun to write about.
Fourteen years after Oxford first published it, A Song in the Dark now sings anew in an extensively revised and updated second edition. In celebration, I’ve compiled a “Ten Worst” list—technically, it’s “Eleven Worst”—that spans nearly the entire 80-plus year history of musical films, with the genre’s most odious cinematic mistakes and annotations of how and why they got that way. While it may strike some as a somewhat perverse celebration of musicals to offer a list of their worst achievements, I remain gleefully unapologetic. We all learn from our errors, and if they should not be celebrated they must still, ever, be recalled. Naturally it all must remain subjective, much like politics and religion, and I hope that readers will feel free to compose their own lists as well. As a palate-cleanser, I promise a “Ten Best” list in the near future.
The Singing Fool (1928)
A major film, in fact the biggest sensation of its time. Far more important in many ways than The Jazz Singer, beloved by many millions, one of the highest-grossing films made prior to Gone With the Wind. Alas, all this history and triumph don’t count for much when you just try to sit through it today. The annoying technique—back and forth between silent and “talkie”—is the least of it. The most is Al Jolson, who redefines “star ego” for all time. For anyone wondering why The Jazz Singer is shown so frequently and this follow-up so seldom, spend a few minutes communing with Jolson and his excesses, and you’ll know. If you were ever inclined to like the song “Sonny Boy,” seeing it introduced here, and driven into the ground with bathetic repetition, will cure you.
Golden Dawn (1930)
Seldom has terrible ever been this irresistible. A monstrosity of a Broadway operetta—think Emperor Jones meets Rose-Marie—transferred to the screen with all its excesses utterly intact, and for good measure it’s almost as racist a tract as The Birth of a Nation. Stalwart British soldiers try to keep the peace in East Africa, and the native heroine is considered a goddess because she wasn’t born black. There’s lots more, including a fearful idol who resembles a Smurf, a put-upon cast who somehow manages to keep straight faces, and songs such as “My Bwana” and “Africa Smiles No More.” Until you’ve seen and heard a darkly made-up Noah Beery sing “The Whip Song,” you don’t know from bad taste.
Down to their Last Yacht (1934)
Have you ever seen a film destroy itself while it runs through the projector? Behold, then, this ridiculous indigent-millionaires-meet-randy-Pacific-islanders concoction, so incoherent that it appears to be slabs of several unrelated movies glued together. Sidney Blackmer (Ruth Gordon’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby) stars as one of the most ill-at-ease musical heartthrobs in history. There are lots of jokes about cannibals and sex, and if it had been made in recent years there probably would’ve been a song about Viagra. The climactic number, an enormous and incoherent “South Sea Bolero,” seems to have been done by Busby Berkeley while high on drug-spiked papaya juice. Depression audiences weren’t fooled, and Yacht lost so much money that the angry studio fired the producer.
Overblown, overpriced, overstuffed, overproduced, overlong, overeverything. There’s a teeny princess-meets-commoner story, which is buried under so many tons of rotten MGM meringue that watching it gives you a headache. Eleanor Powell was an incredibly skillful tap dancer, but this thing doesn’t give her enough opportunities to redeem tons of excess and inertia. Nor are Ray Bolger and the beautiful Ilona Massey treated well, while Cole Porter’s songs range from wonderful (“In the Still of the Night”) to stupid (the title song). And chunky, placid Nelson Eddy as a college football star? In what universe?
Panama Hattie (1942)
Ann Sothern, a talented and appealing performer, wasn’t a good fit for Ethel Merman’s stage role. Strike one. Most of Cole Porter’s Broadway songs are cut or mangled, and replaced with lesser work. Strike two. And the strike three nail in the coffin is some interminable and boring slapstick relief involving Red Skelton and a haunted house. Only Lena Horne emerges unscathed, probably because she’s only given two songs and no role in the wretched script. The producers reshot and tinkered with the film, and must have felt redeemed when wartime audiences, eager for escapist relief, made it a hit. Just remember that the public isn’t always right.
Pal Joey (1957) and Can Can (1960)
Sure, Frank Sinatra was a great singer and could be a fine actor, but these two Broadway adaptations were made around the time he decided that he would only need to do one take of any scene. The results of such a blasé lack of commitment? A pair of lavish, worthless dinosaurs. Pal Joey lost all the nasty cynicism, and many of the Rodgers/Hart songs, that made it so striking and innovative onstage, and Can Can—set in 1890s Paris—is about as French as a small order of McDonald’s fries. Some of the other performers do try, but Frank’s phone-it-in Rat-Packy attitude sabotages them. Definition of a dispiriting experience: watching an expensive movie whose center is occupied by a star who doesn’t give a damn. Listen to the soundtracks, and skip the rest.
Paint Your Wagon (1969)
The late 1960s was rife with expensive and bloated musical blockbusters that were totally out-of-step with the time. This was the worst of all of them, and further proof that even an accomplished stage director like Joshua Logan shouldn’t necessarily be allowed near a movie camera. There’s a dumb Gold Rush plot, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood and poor Jean Seberg form a musical ménage-a-trois, both men do their own vocals (alas!), and the whole thing comes off like a suburban dad trying to pass as a hippie. Lerner and Loew’s Broadway show deserved better, but as Lerner was co-producer he doesn’t rate a pass. With overblown rubbish like this, no wonder audiences turned to films with smaller budgets, bigger brains, and less music.
Lost Horizon (1972)
A debacle that deserves its near-legendary reputation, this abomination spelled finis to the film career of producer Ross Hunter. There had already been a failed attempt at a Broadway musical version of Frank Capra’s classic romance, but this one, with painful songs by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, was worse. Poor Peter Finch and Liv Ullmann head a worthy, completely misbegotten all-star cast, and the details, script, and musical numbers are all minor classics of wrong-headedness. Choicest detail: the shelves of the Shangri-La library, supposedly a repository for the world’s finest literature, upon which can be clearly seen a number of Readers Digest Condensed Books.
Perhaps not a musical in the conventional sense of the word, but why pass up any opportunity to call out this classic backstage stinker? Trying oh, so hard to be a scorching erotic exposé, it succeeds in being asinine, juvenile, and very funny. Writer Joe Eszterhas cribbed his plot from All About Eve and his dialogue from old issues of True Confessions and Hustler, forming a worthy setting for Elizabeth Berkeley’s star-breaking acting and hysterical (lap) dancing. Given the appalling musical numbers, it’s somewhat of a surprise to note that Marguerite Derricks is the credited choreographer, not St. Vitus. It’s all cheaper, in every sense of the world, than a trip to Vegas, and if you’re in the right mean mood a whole lot more fun. Viewing note: the hilarity is even greater if you have a pitcher of Cosmopolitans.
Mariah Carey’s high-powered, multi-octave vocalism is not to all tastes, but at least it demands a certain amount of respect. Then there’s her acting… As with Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, Johnnie Ray, and many other pop singers, she tries to make the leap onto the big screen and fails utterly. A downtrodden-waif-makes-good saga, this is a glaring of example of old, bad wine poured into a new, cheesy bottle. Nobody wins, Mariah can’t read lines and isn’t photogenic, and the single worthy moment is a shot—one of its final screen appearances—of the World Trade Center. It was fortunate that Chicago came along the following year to rescue movie musicals after Glitter nearly killed them.
Mother’s Boy (1929), The Lottery Bride (1930), Take a Chance (1933), George White’s 1935 Scandals, Anything Goes (1956), Song of Norway (1970), Man of La Mancha (1972), Mame (1974), At Long Last Love (1975), A Chorus Line (1985), From Justin to Kelly (2003)