It’s hard to imagine a sunnier musical than Easter Parade. Everything fits together perfectly, from the sublime song-and-dance pairing of Judy Garland and Fred Astaire to the score packed with great Irving Berlin standards. Yet this brightly-coloured holiday favourite was at first intended to be darker and sadder, and it almost came together in its final form by a series of accidents.
This backstage tale is set in the vaudeville days of 1912, centred around New York’s famous Easter Parade. It has a warm, nostalgic flavour to it, though the gorgeous costumes would have been fashionable in the 1940s as well as in the period being portrayed. There are plenty of lavishly produced musical numbers, including scenes from the Ziegfeld Follies, but there are also scenes of Garland singing in a dingy nightclub, and glimpses of quirky vaudeville attractions such as a number featuring performing dogs. There is very little dialogue between the songs by comparison with most musicals, but it doesn’t feel too sparse, because every line is made to count.
There’s a Western musical number in one of Fred Astaire’s least-known films, Let’s Dance (1950), where a TV set is seen on the wall, showing a cowboy film. Astaire eyes it disbelievingly for a second – then whips out a gun and shoots the screen. A slightly less drastic method of getting rid of the competition is used at the start of another Fifties film musical, Young at Heart (1954.) Here, an elderly Ethel Barrymore is sitting watching a boxing match on television, but the commentary is deliberately drowned out by her musician brother (Robert Keith), until she switches off – and the message is driven home by a wry comment that he “won the fight”.
In real life, however, the fight wasn’t so easy to win.The audience was falling away to television, and the writing was on the wall for big-budget Technicolor musical extravaganzas. When The Band Wagon was released in 1953, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, which had made so many great films, was facing a struggle for funding, and Astaire’s contract with the studio was coming to an end. It’s hardly surprising that, despite its lavish musical sequences, including Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s romantic Dancing in the Dark, the film at times has a sad, wistful feeling about it compared to the high spirits of Singin’ In The Rain the previous year.
Frank Loesser’s amazing score for Guys and Dolls has to be one of the greatest ever written, packed with unforgettable songs, from Fugue for Tinhorns to Luck, Be a Lady and Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat. Michael Kidd’s fast-moving choreography in the colourful street scenes, using Cinemascope to its full effect, adds to the atmosphere, while the dialogue is full of sharp one-liners. However, the film has had much adverse criticism over the years.
So what’s the reason for the widespread lack of enthusiasm? I think it might be mainly that the stage musical is so beloved and frequently revived, with the film coming off second-best by comparison . As with so many adaptations, a few of the songs from the stage show were jettisoned for the film, including such greats as I’ve Never Been in Love Before – Marlon Brando, controversially cast in a singing role, is said to have struggled with some of the notes. However, as compensation, Loesser wrote some new songs for the film, including A Woman in Love for Brando and Sinatra’s show-stopper Adelaide, which, going full circle, is now sometimes included in stage productions.
I’VE just seen the 1999 film version of Trevor Nunn’s London stage revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s great musical Oklahoma, starring Hugh Jackman – who was then pretty well unknown. He makes a great Curly and to be honest I might prefer his relaxed singing in this film to his acclaimed role as Valjean in the latest adaptation of Les Miserables, though of course he is excellent in that too. Anyway, seeing the London revival of Oklahoma! reminded me that I wrote a piece about the 1955 film for the musicals countdown at the Wonders in the Dark website, so I thought I’d re-post it here, and will add a few thoughts about the Trevor Nunn version at the end, plus links to the two different versions of my favourite song from the show. (I’ve never actually seen the musical on stage, but would really love to do if I get the chance).
Rodgers and Hammerstein were surely second to none when it came to creating musical scores full of great standards – and Oklahoma! is one of their finest. The 1955 film’s 145-minute running time is packed with unforgettable numbers like the title song, The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, People will Say We’re In Love, I Cain’t Say No, and, of course, the stunning opening song, Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. The story of this Western musical romance at first seems very simple and impossibly sunny, not to mention a little old-fashioned, as two very different young girls in Oklahoma at the turn of the 20th century are each courted by two rival men. However, there are some darker themes amid all that sunshine and ripening corn, with occasional shadow-filled scenes showing the way forward to R&H’s Carousel, filmed the following year, which again starred Shirley Jones and Gordon MacRae.
Laurey (Shirley Jones) is obviously made for boy next door Curly (Gordon Macrae), but is also being wooed, or stalked, by older, sinister farmhand Jud Fry (Rod Steiger). Meanwhile, fickle Ado Annie (Gloria Grahame, looking completely different from her roles in film noir!) just cain’t decide whether she should marry adoring cowboy Will Parker (Gene Nelson) or plump for flirtatious peddler Ali Hakim (Eddie Albert). What she doesn’t realise is that the peddler is even more fickle than she is.
Many great musicals have plots packed with drama and unlikely coincidences. By contrast, on the surface anyway, Meet Me In St Louis has almost no plot at all. However, there is far more to this holiday classic, starring Judy Garland in one of her best-loved roles, than meets the eye on first viewing. Producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli and the team at MGM agonised over the ingredients just as the Smith household’s cook, Katie (Marjorie Main) worries over her homemade ketchup bubbling on the stove in the film’s opening scene.
Katie is afraid the ketchup may be too sweet. MGM’s powers-that-be saw the same danger in this adaptation of writer Sally Benson’s humorous Kensington magazine stories, recalling her girlhood in St Louis at the turn of the 20th century. Various scriptwriters were drafted in and encouraged to add exciting plot twists, such as an unlikely blackmail plot involving a Colonel, to make the mixture a little stronger.
My Fair Lady has one of the greatest scores of any musical, by Lerner and Loewe, with many songs which have become standards, such as With a Little Bit of Luck, Wouldn’t It Be Loverly and On the Street Where You Live. It is also one of the most gorgeous musicals to look at, making full use of Super Panavision, with its dazzling Cecil Beaton costumes and colourful sets. It wasn’t filmed on location in London, but Covent Garden flower market and the dingy back streets look convincing enough to me, while scenes like the Embassy ball and Ascot have all the visual flamboyance you’d expect from director George Cukor, aided by art director Gene Allen. Yet this celebrated film was allowed to deteriorate into a sorry state and needed full-scale restoration by the mid-1990s. The DVD I have, part of an Audrey Hepburn box set, features the restored print, looking great, plus several special features – and there are also a couple of different two-disc special editions available, as well as a region 1 Blu-ray. But what I’d really like would be to see this on the big screen some day.
This was one of the first musicals that I came to love, as a child of the 1960s. But the version I knew back then was the soundtrack of the Broadway show, starring Julie Andrews as Shaw’s Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle, whose life is transformed when eccentric phonetics expert Henry Higgins decides to teach her to speak “like a lady”. My mother had a copy of the LP which someone had brought back for her from America (it wasn’t allowed to be sold in the UK at that time, presumably for copyright reasons), and we listened to it endlessly. So when I hear anyone else singing those songs, I still always have Julie’s voice in the back of my head somewhere.
Just editing this posting to say that the Summer Under the Stars blogathon is currently running all through August, and today (August 23) is Gene Kelly’s special day. Please visit to read lots of great postings on his films.
Judy Garland and Gene Kelly starred together in three movies. The best-known is undoubtedly The Pirate, a lavish Technicolor production which I’ll admit leaves me cold. For Me and My Gal, made by Arthur Freed’s famous production unit at MGM, is in black and white and on a much smaller scale altogether, despite having Berkeley as director. Its tightly-constructed musical numbers bear little resemblance to those in his breathtaking pre-Code extravaganzas. The film as a whole is a strange mixture between musical comedy, melodrama and wartime flag-waver, with an intriguing flawed hero. It is set during the First World War, but clearly the scriptwriters were thinking of the Second, and there are scenes urging characters to buy war bonds, echoed in the final frame with an appeal to moviegoers. The fashions also look contemporary for the 1940s. I saw the film on TCM in the UK (it is also due for a showing on the US TCM at 6am (ET) on August 23, 2012), but it is available on DVD in both regions 1 and 2.
Even if it doesn’t always completely hang together and is occasionally corny, I found the film riveting to watch and enjoyed the chemistry between Garland and Kelly, as well as the array of great songs – highlights include the title song and the song-and-dance dance number Ballin’ the Jack – many of which date from the First World War or earlier. It’s just a pity that, in a film with Berkeley as director and starring Kelly, there is relatively little dancing overall – co-star George Murphy, in particular, gets very few scenes where he is able to show his tap-dancing prowess. According to TCM’s article on the movie, 40-year-old Murphy was originally intended as the male lead, but the part was instead given to Kelly, who was 10 years younger and making his movie debut fresh from his success in Pal Joey on Broadway. A disappointed Murphy was demoted to a support role. Another change was that originally the film was supposed to have two leading ladies, a singer and a dancer – but both these roles were combined to give Garland, who was only 19, her first fully grown-up role, with her name as the only one above the title. Looking at the posters for the film, Garland’s name and image dominate and it was clearly seen as her movie all the way. However, Kelly certainly shows his power and charm as both dancer and actor, in a role which made him a film star – while Murphy is also impressive in the few scenes he does get.