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From Garland to Zellweger: The Ten Best Musical Films

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 9780195377347book, 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 best musical films ever made.  Be sure to check out his 10 worst list here.

Any art, naturally, is inherently subjective. Film, with its particular blend of the personal and the egalitarian, is more subjective, even, than most art. And film musicals— intensely collaborative, yet frequently driven by one dominating force—are among the most very subjective of all films. They also have the potential for being exhaustively uneven and profoundly inconsistent, with higher highs and lower lows. As Pauline Kael once noted, many of them have superb moments, but rarely can they sustain the greatness through their entire length. On rare occasions, through skill and synergy and historical currents and sheer luck, they do. Simple song-and-dance achieves transcendence, words and music matter unutterably, and we are privileged to witness possibly the purest form of American popular art.

Having tested the waters with a lovingly mean-spirited Ten Worst Musicals list, I now venture farther afield with my Top Ten choices. Doing so makes for an oddly fraught process, as it is somehow more difficult to honor the distinguished than to excoriate the guilty. Few observers, in fact, could agree on which films scale this particular Parnassus. There will be a select handful that might be on everyone’s “Top Ten” list—Singin’ in the Rain above all, Love Me Tonight for those in the know–but it remains a slippery slope on which to climb, or for that matter tap dance. The result, then, is a list at once conventional and daring, idiosyncratic and iconoclastic, whimsical and dead serious. It takes into consideration history and influence, innovation and accessibility, innocence and sophistication, and lots of charisma. The choices range from the primitive origins of musical film to its slickest 21st century incarnations. (And, coincidentally, it is the youngest and oldest films on the list which are, along with Gigi, Best-Picture Oscar winners.) Each entry in this pantheon has a variety of reasons for being here. Suffice it to say that these reasons are as valid as they are debatable, and every movie here, and the runners-up too, are, in their own ways, magically irreplaceable. Now, on with the celebration, and more arguments!

The Broadway Melody (1929)
Where it all began—the first true movie musical, a show-biz Rosetta Stone. And, let it be noted immediately, what was a staggering hit eighty years ago is today an ineffably creaky and primitive experience for all but the most dedicated viewer. But that’s part of its magic—it was so innovative, and so influential and imitated, that it was almost immediately obsolete. Artistically and technologically, they were figuring everything out as they went along—how to deal with microphones, how to stage and shoot musical sequences, how to connect script and music. As a result, everything that followed, over eight decades, can be glimpsed here in its earliest, most primitive form: the endearingly clumsy production numbers, the attempts to harness the new sound-film technology, the wisecracks and clichés. Is all its value solely historical? Not quite. There are some fine songs, sharp writing, and a great deal of antique charm. Most extraordinarily, there is the lead performance by Bessie Love, whose movie career spanned seven decades. In 1929 and today, she’s wonderful.

Love Me Tonight (1932)
In three hectic (and Depression-fraught) years, a quantum leap forward to a genuine American masterpiece. This modern-dress fairy tale about a princess (Jeanette MacDonald) and a tailor (Maurice Chevalier) is told by virtuoso director Rouben Mamoulian with devastating humor, a battery of marvelous cinematic tricks, and a first-rate cast. (Myrna Loy sparkles as the most genial nymphomaniac in film history.) The result flashes unparalleled wit, grace, and charm in quantities matched by few other films of any kind. Nor does the music serve as mere icing, for it’s one of the all-time best efforts by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. MacDonald and Chevalier sing “Isn’t It Romantic?” and most of the French countryside joins in. You will too. No caveats needed about context or history, either—it’s still as fresh and beguiling as it was seventy-seven years ago.

42nd Street (1933)
The film that restored musicals to Hollywood’s profitable “A” list, nearly as influential as The Broadway Melody, and still a stunner today. What could have been a routine putting-on-a-show-and-nice-unknown-becomes-a-star plot gets a dynamic facelift through fierce Depression-era Warner Bros. energy, knife-edged writing, and a first-rate cast. Plus the outlandish, yet forceful, musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley. If a line like “You’re going out there a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” can ever not sound hokey, it’s here, and everything is so well-coordinated that even the endearingly amateurish Ruby Keeler fits in perfectly. Forget the later Broadway show, which was a bloated, garish copy: this is the real article, fast and funny, brash and melancholy, ultimately poignant and unforgettable.

Swing Time (1936)
The Fred AstaireGinger Rogers films, sleek and sophisticated, were a breed apart in 1930s musicals. Here, thanks in part to composer Jerome Kern, lyricist Dorothy Fields, and director George Stevens, they reached their peak. Fred is a habitual gambler, Ginger is a dance instructor, and their “Fine Romance” (one of the many terrific songs) is played out in a magically never-never soundstage Manhattan. Nor is it all just surface and dazzle—the peerlessly beautiful “The Way You Look Tonight” remains one of the best, most heartfelt love songs ever written, and the wrenching “Never Gonna Dance” is probably the single best number the pair ever did. No question about it: Astaire, that worrywart perfectionist, did achieve his goals here. Simply glorious.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Is there anything left to say about what is probably the single most seen and loved film of all time? Well, we could start with the innovations of the “Munchkinland” sequence, with all its rhymed verse and connecting pieces of song showing the art of Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg at its most sublime. We can rhapsodize about the lush Technicolor, which by comparison makes real life seem very drab indeed. We can expound on the Freudian genius of casting Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton as good/evil mother figures. Then there’s the unobtrusive rightness of Victor Fleming’s direction (with a big assist, in the Kansas scenes, from King Vidor), and the simple fact that “Over the Rainbow” may be the best song ever written. And, first and last, there’s the effortless way in which Judy Garland’s bedrock sincerity and artless virtuosity anchor the whole fantastic journey. Sure, it’s always been a part of our lives—but don’t ever, ever take it for granted.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
A bigtime movie factory like MGM would never consistently be the ideal habitat for a gifted artist. Happily, there was room for exceptions, as stage designer-turned-director Vincente Minnelli proves in this loving piece of musical nostalgia. Sight and sound and emotion are fused into a beautifully designed, utterly heartfelt and seamless whole, and the lives and crises of an close-knit family in 1904 St. Louis becomes less a narrative per se than a series of incidents both trivial and wrenching. (This is one of the great films about parents and children.) Once again Judy Garland’s uniquely guileless show-biz savvy provides a sturdy mooring point, and as her little sister Margaret O’Brien is both weird and wonderful. “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” are musical standouts, but really it’s a unified mosaic that must be taken as a single, glorious whole. It’s not an authentic portrayal of the past, nor a documentary look at family life…but when done with this level of artistry and taste, idealism is definitely better!

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
The movie musical takes a wry, loving look back at its birth, including The Broadway Melody, and the results are so heavenly that this is a prime candidate for Greatest Movie Musical of All Time. Sure the musical numbers are great—Gene Kelly at his peak, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds in inspired support, an indelible few minutes from Cyd Charisse—but, thanks to the genius writers Betty Comden and Adolphe Green, this is one of the rare musicals where the script matters as much as the songs. (It doesn’t happen as often as you might wish—just go back and think about some of the more popular musicals.) The trip-ups and foibles of the late 1920s and the “Dawn of Sound” are presented with loving, hilarious exaggeration, and as a silent star with an insufferable voice and worse ego, Jean Hagen is priceless. Everyone knows that image of Kelly dancing in the rain—but the remaining 100 minutes are equally grand. What a wonderful feeling, indeed.

Gigi (1958)
Vincente Minnelli again recreates the past—fin de siècle Paris this time, in a slightly naughty and extremely lovable fable about how not to train a courtesan. With its period atmosphere and Lerner-and-Loewe songs and script, it was intended as MGM’s high-class knock-off of My Fair Lady—but remains incomparably better than the solemn waxworks that is the Fair Lady movie. (L&L even managed to find a slot here for one of that previous show’s castoff songs: the lovely “Say a Prayer for Me Tonight.”) The design and songs are impeccable, the script and tone are managed so beguilingly that the insouciance never becomes either tiresome or smutty, and Leslie Caron and Louis Jourdan make one of the best musical couples since Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. Chevalier himself shares in the triumph as well, and it’s fitting that, in a movie that gives us “The Night They Invented Champagne,” his presence here shows that great performers really are like fine wines.

Cabaret (1972)
Some film adaptations of Broadway musicals adhere too literally to their sources. Others destroy themselves by removing and replacing the very reasons the shows worked in the first place. Then there’s dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-stage-then-film-director Bob Fosse. He had directed only one film prior to this one—the wildly uneven Sweet Charity. That had intimations of a strong personal style, but not enough to prepare anyone for his stunning reimagining of Broadway’s Cabaret. Removing the stage subplots and character songs, he made less definitely more: the musical numbers at the seedy Kit Kat Club tell us all we want to know about the deluded Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) and her friends, and even about the impending evils of Nazi Germany. Minnelli and Joel Gray as the insidious Master of Ceremonies are terrific, but ultimately it’s Fosse’s show, dynamic and diamond-hard and pretty much a masterpiece.

Chicago (2002)
It took thirty years for a movie musical to equal or even approach Cabaret, but director/choreographer Rob Marshall finally did it when he brought back movie musicals nearly single-handedly after their long, depressing hiatus. Fittingly enough, it was with the film version of a Bob Fosse show, reimagined for film in much the same fashion as Fosse had done with Cabaret. Some viewers feel that Marshall treated the tacky saga of murderess Roxy Hart (Renee Zellweger) in too mega-edited a music-video fashion, but for most observers the show—with its echoes of Watergate and even O.J. Simpson—works as charismatically on film as on the stage, and better than any movie musical in more than a generation. That Best Picture Oscar was well deserved, and so was the Supporting Actress nod for the stunning Catherine Zeta Jones. “All That Jazz” and “We Both Reached For the Gun” now join “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “Never Gonna Dance” in the roster of essential movie scenes. The Top Ten circle is now complete. So, where do we go from here?

The Greater-Than-Ten Second Best, all of them absolutely wonderful:
The Love Parade (1929), King of Jazz (1930), Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Gold Diggers of 1933, Music in the Air (1934), Top Hat (1935), Show Boat (1936), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Cabin in the Sky (1942), The Band Wagon (1953), A Star is Born (1954), West Side Story (1961), Mary Poppins (1964), Fiddler on the Roof (1971), Beauty and the Beast (1991)

Recent Comments

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Rebecca, Christian Purdy. Christian Purdy said: RT @oupblog: From Garland to Zelweger, the 10 BEST Musical Films: http://bit.ly/852yvV (I vote for Cabaret) […]

  2. Brayden

    Thanks for this list! I’ve actually never seen a couple of these best musicals (nor heard of them) so it seems I have some catching up to do. “Chicago” is absolutely brilliant and I’m excited about the upcoming Rob Marshall musical film “Nine” which will have a similar style.

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