Archive for November, 2021

25
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #14: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

What can I say? An utter classic, gorgeous, heartfelt, catchy as hell, tremendous performances from everyone involved, as great today as it was in 1939.

The ur-text of US sci fi and fantasy films

It’s hard to overstate the importance of The Wizard of Oz. The narrative and structural beats of the film cemented the rules of musicals for almost a century, from the yearning I Want of Somewhere Over the Rainbow to the importance of a campy, vampy villain; heck, the full-on special effects assault that plagues the third acts of superhero movies today is right out of Oz‘s playbook. It’s been a cultural touchstone for queer people, stoners, libertarians, and socialists. It’s also incredibly watchable and approachable in a way a lot of similar milestone films from the same era aren’t.

25
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #13: The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)

One of a series of all-black westerns starring Herbert Jeffrey, with songs by the Four Tones. Very shaggy, and more interested in a talking mule than any kind of plot, but a fun little trifle, and the songs are great.

This wasn’t the original movie we had on this list in this place — that was the first film in the series, Harlem on the Range, only that movie has been lost for decades so it’s literally not possible to watch. This isn’t the first time a movie on this list was difficult to find, and it won’t be the last, but this is notable not just because the film is entirely gone, but also because it’s one of the very few movies from this period of US cinematic history that starred Black actors.

Note that the movie only stars Black performers; the director and producer were both white. This is a dynamic that will occur repeatedly with most of the Black musicals on this list. Cabin in the Sky (#15) was directed by Vincente Minelli, and Stormy Weather (#16) was directed by Andrew L. Stone, both white; both were written by several layers of white writers. Carmen Jones (#24) and Porgy and Bess (#33) were both directed by the very white Otto Preminger. Both The Wiz (#56, Sidney Lumet) and Purple Rain (#63, Albert Magnoli) were directed by white men; Ray (#84, Taylor Hackford) and Dreamgirls (#86, Bill Condon), ibid. It won’t be until Idlewild (#89, Bryan Barber) in 2006 that Black actors will be in a movie directed by a Black director. I’m not sure how much of this is an issue with our list specifically and how much is an issue with American movie culture write large; my gut says that if neither Bill Robinson nor Prince could demand a Black director, no one could.

25
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #12: Snow White (1937)

A weird movie, this one, because it’s doing a bunch of stuff that is absolutely definitional to what musicals become, and also very little happens and most of the movie is an animator’s showcase. Come for the dwarves, but *stay* for the witch.

bringing the heat

This has been an interesting project, because the movies we’ve seen so far have mostly been working in a musical format that is nearly unrecognizable to modern audiences — the songs have all been diagetic, and mostly or entirely unconnected to the plot. They’re stories that break for musical numbers, usually using a theatrical setting or background to justify the songs, rather than stories that revolve around the numbers as a way to express an internal or emotional truth. That all changes with Snow White, which is absolutely in the modern mold where songs are dramatic monologues that only half-exist within the reality of the story. It’s almost shocking how modern Snow White still feels structurally, 90 years later.

Color too is a major innovation that wouldn’t spread out to wider movies for decades, but it’s been a feature of musicals since Rio Rita in 1929. 1929! Then you’ve got Snow White in 1937 and the Wizard of Oz in 1939 exploding off the screen; there isn’t a musical on this list past 1943 that isn’t in color, and that didn’t happen for horror movies until 1960. Musicals were special effects smorgasbords for the first several decades of sound film, and doing this project has really driven that home for me.

24
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #11: Alla En El Rancho Grande (1936)

The first film of Mexico’s Golden Age, and it’s a lot. That classic story: boy and girl fall in love, then their adopted mom tries to pimp the daughter to a rich landlord. Also: guitars, cockfights, slutshaming, and communism.

20
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #10: Show Boat (1936)

Ambitious but deeply flawed film about the evolution of white american musical culture from minstrelsy to vaudeville to the musical through the lens of a white theatrical family. It wants to say more about racism than it ultimately does.

yiiiiiiikes

Show Boat is set in the South during the 19th century and was made in the early 20th century, so uh content warning for racism and blackface

There’s some crossover with our 100 Horror Movies list here, since this version of Show Boat was directed by James Whale, the father of American horror movies, and was the passion project he insisted on doing in exchange for agreeing to direct Dracula’s Daughter (#12 on that list). Dracula’s Daughter ran into a ton of problems with the newly empowered production code because of its rampant queer horniness, and Whale ultimately couldn’t do it, but he’d already made Show Boat, suckers!

This version was a big hit, but it’s hard to find now because MGM buried it when they decided to remake it in the 1950s — an issue that affected Rio Rita, too, which got remade as an Abbot and Costello vehicle around the same time. This is where musicals are actually harder to find than horror because of their dominance as a genre; earlier versions were suppressed to avoid competition with the new versions, rather than merely ignored as disposable.

Show Boat is about blackface in a way that The Jazz Singer wasn’t — it’s thinking about the evolution of American popular music from minstrel shows to Broadway over the course of about 30 years, and it frequently places black characters on the margins to silently watch as white performers caricature them, but it never quite rises to the level of actually critiquing those traditions textually. The black characters bear witness, but they stay firmly to the margins; Paul Robeson’s Joe and Hattie McDaniels’ Queenie are fairly substantial characters on the riverboat, but they’re the only characters we don’t check in on in the later acts.

Structurally, it’s also a bit of a mess. The movie is split into three sections: a traveling riverboat show in the South, Chicago, and New York, but we spend so much time on the riverboat — four separate love songs, which is at least 3 love songs too many for any movie, let alone a single act — that the other two sections don’t have time to do anything thematically. Stretching the story out over decades allows the central romantic couple to come together, split apart, and tentatively reconnect in a way that’s striking even today, but that’s more interesting on paper than in practice since we only spend enough time in the later eras for the plot points to happen.

One of the special features included with our copy of the movie goes into detail about how the Black actors, particularly Paul Robeson, worked hard to make the songs less racist than they were in the stage play; Robeson in his later organizing years turned Old Man River into a labor anthem. It’s a shame that the movie didn’t extend that work through the entirety of the film.

13
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #9: A Night At The Opera (1935)

Nobody does live action cartoonery like the Marx Brothers, and A Night At The Opera has some absolute classic bits… *plus* an honest to god opera performance at the very end. It’s not the best Marx movie — that’s probably Duck Soup — but it’s the Marx movie with the most focus on music as a plot element.

All the movies the Marxes made were musicals to a greater or lesser extent; that’s probably an outgrowth of the everything always all the time approach of vaudeville that they came out of, as much as just the way films worked in a decade where radio was just barely becoming a true mass media. If you wanted to hear new music, you had to go out for it, and if you wanted to hear widely popular music you had to go to the movies. Were the songs great? No, not really; they were all mostly shtick. But it was a comforting shtick.

13
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #8: Zouzou (1934)

As a vehicle to watch Josephine Baker, Zouzou phenomenal and she’s great. As an actual movie, it’s messy as hell, particular once the crime plot shows up. Baker’s worth it, but it coulda been more with the smallest bit of narrative editing.

11
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #7: Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Gorgeous, ambitious, hilarious mashup of the backstage musical and the rom com reuniting the 42nd Street cast and crew. Luxe costumes, *incredible* final number, and the best hardboiled dames so far. Easily recommended.

None of these Busby Berkeley showstoppers are remotely plausible as theatrical performances
06
Nov
21

100 Movie Musicals #6: 42nd Street (1933)

Backstage musical about a kid breaking out of the chorus into stardom, with an emphasis on class and gender issues that gives it a bit of an edge. The Busby Berkeley numbers are in their own world at the climax, but they’re good, too.

You’re going places, kid