Archive for the '100 Movie Musicals' Category


100 Movie Musicals #40: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

An interesting failure, too stagey for the screen, too Hollywood for a good theatrical adaptation, with sawdust visibly leaking out of every seam. An interminably boring frontier musical about a fascinating historical figure where all the most interesting moments are shunted to the margins. The Titanic sinking is shoved to two of the last fifteen minutes!

bless her, she’s trying

We’ve had some bad movies on this list, ones I personally hated or that were thick with really blunt racism, but few of them have felt as perfunctory and tired as The Unsinkable Molly Brown, or so completely trapped by the more is more requirement of the big budget musical. Especially coming off three all timers like West Side Story, The Music Man, and A Hard Day’s Night, the sagginess of Molly Brown is hard to excuse. Even the color, normally a dazzling highlight of these productions, is wasted here on beautiful but uncanny scenery shooting or opulent but hideous interiors. Debbie Reynolds, so sparkling and joyous in Singin’ in the Rain, gives a committed performance as Molly Brown (for which she was bafflingly nominated for an Oscar), but she still spends 90% of the movie hollering in a cornpone accent, and Harve Presnell, her costar and the only Broadway actor to make the jump to the big screen, is tall and handsome and blandly mellifluous and deeply, deeply dull as Johnny Brown.

the boundary between hollywood and reality is seldom so stark

There’s an air of uncanniness to the entire production. Some elements — the frontier sets, the American performances, the dreadful costuming — are thoroughly artificial, but then they’re put against real locations or the second act’s detour into European cosmopolitanism, and it becomes almost viscerally uncomfortable to watch. West Side Story and The Music Man embraced artificiality, and thrived; A Hard Day’s Night put a vaudeville spin on New Wave realism to great effect; Molly Brown marries Hollywood hyperreality with Broadway theatricality and it just doesn’t work.

the tightest of pants against the widest of skies

Something also clearly went askew in the production. They cut 12 songs from the stage production, and it shows: Debbie Reynolds only gets two songs, and they’re both out of the way early on, leaving the rest of the tunes to be carried by Presnell, who is… I mean, he’s fine, he can sing perfectly well, but it’s so noticeable that he’s the only one who gets a number. There’s a song at the end of the second act that is notionally performed by Reynolds, but she spends the entire song with her back to the camera like she’s been replaced by a stunt singer, a baffling decision in a decade that was routinely still using ghost singers — My Fair Lady came out the same year, and didn’t feel the need to hide Audrey Hepburn’s face while she was being dubbed. The producers originally wanted Shirley Maclaine for the role, then Judy Garland when Maclaine couldn’t do it, so admittedly Reynolds was a compromise casting, but even then, why treat her like this?

very weird, very noticeable

I’m not a big fan of frontier movies in general — that whole Little House on the Prairie genre gives me a pain — but there’s plenty of narrative grist in that genre that the movie doesn’t bother with, even as it spends the vast majority of its runtime on the tension between these nouveau riche hicks and the second generation snobs of Denver. Things don’t start to really come alive until Molly splits from Johnny, returns to Europe and an affair with an impoverished prince and loses her accent, but that isn’t until the last fifteen minutes of two and a half hours; Reynolds does bitter and jaded and cosmopolitan so much better that it’s a shame the movie didn’t spend more time in that period of Brown’s life. The Titantic sinking, and Brown’s survival of it — the survival that earns her the sobriquet “Unsinkable” — takes less than two minutes of screen time, and is made of footage from the 1957 black and white Barbara Stanwyck Titanic. Baffling decisions all around. Debbie and Molly deserved better.

where was this energy the rest of the movie?

Something I’m curious about but don’t know enough about to really go into here is that Molly wasn’t just a rich hick trying to buy her way into society, the way she is in the movie, she was a rich philanthropist that did a lot of whatever you call rich person organizing? The closest the movie comes to that is a single gigantic gift bestowed at random on a priest, and a throwaway line that they pay their servants “too well,” whatever that means, but in real life she wasn’t just a donor and wasn’t just on philanthropic committees, she was actively forming them, and traveled the US and Europe to implement them. Like, real!Molly organized a survivor’s committee to ensure that all the survivors were taken care of after the wreck, and that wasn’t in the movie at all. In fact, anything that would have suggested that film!Molly had any conception of the world and the power relationships in it was cut out in favor of the sub-Caddyshack slobs vs snobs storyline, which is so much duller.

stop crying, hildy!

Also, she didn’t just survive the sinking, she took an oar in the lifeboat, and threatened to throw the lifeboat captain overboard if they didn’t go back and help more survivors; the movie version of that scene has her giving her clothes to other rich women who are cold and slapping a hysterical woman. I don’t know if the real life Molly Brown was an actually good person or not, but she was definitely more deeply engaged in something than anything that shows up on screen here, and that’s… I don’t know what the term here is, exactly. Richwashing? The movie strips any discussion of the power of the wealthy away and boils it down to a personal snobbish meanness instead.


100 Movie Musicals #39: A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Shockingly contemporary; feels like it’s from an entirely different universe than everything else we’ve seen on this list so far. Certainly the most New Wave things’ll get. The songs are just okay.

they wouldn’t do that, would they?

I’m not a big fan of the Beatles or New Wave movies, but it’s startling how well they come together here. I’m definitely here for the band more than the songs, and for the visuals more than the band. It’s just such a breath of fresh air after the rest of the list — even after two all timers like West Side Story and The Music Man — that’s it’s hard to contemplate dipping back into more traditional waters.

It’s kind of wild that A Hard Day’s Night didn’t have a bigger impact on musicals as a genre, given how influential it is on everything from music videos to mockumentaries to television editing; nothing else on this list looks anything like it. Even the later Beatles movies don’t do anything nearly as ambitious interesting, and certainly nothing as effortlessly cool.


100 Movie Musicals #38: The Music Man (1962)

Cynical traveling salesman gets his foot caught in the door and I cry like a baby.

that’s my barney!

The Music Man probably isn’t the most cynical movie we’ll watch for this project, but it’s almost certainly the most cynical movie that manages the transition to aching sincerity the best — and without sacrificing any of that cynicism. None of the things that the movie viciously skewers in the first act have gone away by the third — the River Citizens are still as stupid, pretentious, and self-regarding as ever — but then those are their strengths, too, and it’s love that makes the difference. Not a blind love that wishes away or forgives their venalities, but a knowing, encompassing love that recognizes that the gap between what people are and what they want to be can be beautiful.

i always think there’s a band, kid

And this is an insight that applies to all of the characters in the movie: Robert Preston’s magnificent flimflam man “Professor” Harold Hill is all pretense, all cynical disdain, but he’s not any less parochial than the rubes he sneers at, he’s just chosen to be the grinning Satan in their morality plays — see for example the way he jumps to the exact same conclusion that Shirley Jones’ Marian the librarian must have been sleeping with the rich old man who bequeathed all the books in the town library to her; what other way can men and women interact? You’re either a simp or a con artist. He spends most of the movie trying to hoodwink Marian into loving him, but she’s onto him from the start, and comes to love him because of that, rather than despite it, without forgiving any of it. She makes the active choice to love him because his con is nevertheless actually improving the town — her brother Winthrop comes out of his shell because of the con, and even if the band isn’t real, his joy and newfound gregariousness is.

tearing out the proof of his fraudulence

Marian herself isn’t exempt from this central insight: she holds herself at a remove from both the town and Hill, but that’s no less pretentious. She knows how to pronounce “Rubaiyat,” but she’s living in the same small town, and holding herself above them all makes her stated goal of elevating the culture so much harder. She’d rather cling to her self-perception as a miserable cultural sophisticate living in exile than unbend enough to improve things — and no one in the town thinks well of her; they all think she’s an intellectual fraud that secured her position by sleeping with the richest man in town. Hill doesn’t challenge that perception, but he doesn’t care, and also doesn’t think that it undermines her self-perception. The gap is beautiful.

there were birds all around but i never heard them singing

It gives the love story such an energy, a playful combativeness that isn’t mean, exactly, but gives their flirting layers. It also enables the final turn to sincerity, as they both grapple with what it means to be truly seen and loved anyway. It makes love a conscious, active choice, rather than chemistry or fate or fatuousness, and that’s so much more interesting than the 38th iteration of moonlight and water.

This all comes to a very literal head in the film’s climactic scene, where the outraged townspeople, whipped into yet another fury by yet another traveling salesman, drag Hill into the gymnasium and command him to lead the band in a performance of Beethoven’s Minuet in G. The band is legitimately terrible in the way that school bands usually are, but the aching yearning in Preston’s face as Hill stops hearing what the band actually sounds like, and starts hearing what he wants them to sound like is a dagger to the heart — and then each of the parents jump up, tearfully ecstatic that their Davey is actually playing music, and it’s beautiful. He didn’t expect anyone to actually listen to what he was saying and try to actually do it, and he’s completely helpless in the face of their belief. I cry every time, I can’t help it.

it’s a visual metaphor

I haven’t even touched on the music, which is phenomenal, and an entire class on the use of leitmotifs to build and reinforce characters across a huge cast; the way that Hill and Marian trade motifs to symbolize their romantic movement toward each other is particularly moving. It’s also delightfully complex, with lyrics and melodies layered on top of each other that somehow never get swallowed in the mud. It’s as showy and formalist as West Side Story, but without any veneer of hipness to hide behind. It’s a perfect film.


100 Movie Musicals #37: West Side Story (1961)

A triumph of filmmaking: a fantastic score, phenomenal cinematography, all time choreography, and killer performances (with one lamentable, Tony-sized exception); undermined thoroughly by an atrocious amount of brownface.

God, it sucks about all the brownface in this movie, because it’s so close to greatness otherwise. Everything looks great, sounds great, moves great, but then you get down to the vast gap between the text’s attempt to grapple with racist tensions between different waves of immigrants, and the ways that European immigrants get to ascend to whiteness while Puerto Ricans — who are already US citizens, in 1961 no less than 2022 — are locked out of it, and you’re staring at all of these white actors in brownface and it just sits there like a turd in a bowl of soup. There’s no eating around it!

manhattan as seen from above, believe it or not

West Side Story is such an ambitious movie from the moment it opens — with an overture card that eventually reveals itself as an abstract depiction of Manhattan — with a real understanding of the ways that cinematic musicals can be inspired by stage productions of musicals but need to bring their own visual language and approach to them, and the script hammers home repeatedly the ways that whiteness protects and privileges even hardscrabble white immigrants at the expense of everyone else, I’m frankly at a loss to explain how nobody stopped the browning up. Were they not paying attention to their own story? Had they not internalized it at all? How did the actors deliver their lines without cracking?

how do you let this go forward? how do you deliver bernardo’s lines looking like this?

If — and I’ll admit that’s a huge if — you can get past that, the film is, as I said, fantastic, a giant leap forward in how American musicals are shot and framed and scored, with an approach that draws a lot more from horror techniques than from MGM. There are a ton of low and high angle shots that don’t distort or obscure the (incredible) dancing, but that do emphasize the cinematic theatricality of the numbers. The musical numbers here are a thorough break from reality, emphasized by the framing, color palette, and focus tricks; you end up with more striking still images during the numbers than we’ve seen — normally these movies live in the entire sequence, rather than any one shot, but not West Side Story.

the camera is not an in-universe human observer, the camera exists within the scene solely as a camera

The story itself is… well, I mean, it’s Romeo and Juliet, innit, with all the strengths and weaknesses that brings along. The biggest issue is that Romeo and Juliet need Shakespeare’s eloquence to make them interesting, and when you discard the poetry and drag them down nearer to the real world they’re pretty insipid. Natalie Woods’ Maria has flashes of a personality, but Richard Beymer’s Tony is just a lunk-shaped void with a nice singing voice; the script makes him out to be a hulking, quick-tempered bruiser with a sore ego, but Beymer’s performance is all affable puppy dog, and it’s deadly considering how much screen time he has. Three of the four (four!) love songs are iconic, but then the Bernstein/Sondheim rapture ends and you’re left with nothing.

tony does always get the most arresting shots, though

There’s some interesting gender stuff going on in the background, particularly with the character of Anybodys; Anybodys reads so strongly as a trans boy now, with the character demanding repeatedly to be one of the (male) members of the gang — a position he only achieves after Riff dies, and which eventually entails participating in the near-rape of Anita, the film’s intentionally queasiest moment, and the catalyst for the final murders. There’s some stuff to unpack there; some parallels to the ways that the Polish immigrants are offered an ascent to whiteness if they’ll drive out the Puerto Ricans for the cops. It’s unclear how intentional that is — Anybodys is credited as part of “Their Girls,” along with Graziella and Velma — but it was prominent enough that the character is explicitly transmasculine in the Spielberg remake.

“why don’t you act like a girl” is tony’s final line before getting shot, too

Ultimately I don’t know about this one. It’s phenomenal in so many ways, and it’s both hugely ambitious and mostly successful in achieving those ambitions; it’s just impossible to look past the racism inherent in the casting. It didn’t have to be like this. With just slightly different choices — a stronger commitment to matching the textual anti-racism of the script with a corresponding anti-racism behind and in front of the camera — this could have been an all time classic.

but then i guess it was doomed to end poorly

100 Movie Musicals #36: A Woman is a Woman (1961)

An insufferably smug “idea of a musical” that fails to capture or satirize any of the pleasures or weaknesses of the genre while being bluntly, thoughtlessly misogynist. Airless, obnoxious, pretentious, and shallow.

it’s time for a book fight

God in Heaven, do I loathe Jean-Luc Godard. A Woman Is A Woman is the third movie I’ve seen of his, after loathing both Band of Outsiders and Alphaville, and I don’t know why I keep subjecting myself to his drivel. He has this huge reputation, but as far as I can tell even his best works are shallow reworkings of genre pieces that fail to understand the genres they’re tinkering with on even the most fundamental level.

Godard called this “the idea of a musical,” rather than a musical itself, and that’s true enough — the movie deploys music aggressively and oppressively, but only ever to undermine a scene or yank your attention away from any sort of emotional connection to these characters or this story and point it firmly at Godard’s craft as director. It’s exhausting and irritating, an actively hostile film that dares you to watch it, but simultaneously has nothing at all to say that’s worth the irritation of sitting through it.


100 Movie Musicals #35: Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

Sprawling historical melodrama; epic in the fullest sense of the term. Gorgeously excessive and operatic, centering on a doomed romance between a prince and a slave in the Mughal empire. Worth every minute of the 3+ hour runtime.

A dancer reflected in a giant prismatic mirror

This movie fucking rocks, it’s huge and sprawling and gorgeous and tragic and weird. Any picture that opens and closes with a narration from the entire Indian subcontinent gets my love, what can I say?

i’m a giant landmass, and even i don’t know

You don’t see a lot of historical epics in the musical genre in the US, which is a little odd because you definitely do get a lot of period pieces and a lot of musicals that deal with darker subjects or broader social issues, but usually that’s through the lens of two mostly random characters, not the rulers of a kingdom like this. You don’t normally see one half of the romantic leads try to solve his father’s disapproval by literally declaring war on him, say.

I’ve never even met Anarkaliiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!

Along the way you’ll get drunk 12 year olds, carpets of pearls, poetry written on a sword, more flowers than you can shake a dick at, and intense family drama. It’s a long movie, but every scene has something wild or beautiful or wildly beautiful going on that you’re never bored. It’s very easy to soak into as pure soap opera.


100 Movie Musicals #34: Black Orpheus (1959)

Brazilian retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice by way of a white French director that plays fast and loose with the myth but is so casually grounded and real that it doesn’t matter. Charming, trifling, tragic, bordering on colonial folk horror.


100 Movie Musicals #30: Pyaasa (1957)

Crisply gorgeous classic about poetry, lost love, the marginalization of women under patriarchal capitalism, and the hollowness of artistic success. It’s more sprightly than that sounds!

stairs and glamour

You don’t get a lot of movies about the radical power of sad love poems about your ex, do you? But by god Pyaasa pulls it off, mixed up with a lot of cutting remarks about how degrading life is under capitalism oppressive class and gender roles in midcentury India. The protagonist of the movie is sad sack poet Vijay, who spends two thirds of the movie moping around, despondent about his ex, getting laughed out of every room for his poetry, haunting the demimonde where his work is appreciated: he writes lyrics for an itinerant head masseur, and his biggest fan is a down at the heels sex worker named Gulabo. Things take a turn when a homeless man dies saving Vijay’s life, and gets mistaken for him: Vijay’s work is a massive posthumous success, but his brothers and publisher scheme to keep him insitutionalized because he’s worth more dead than alive. The masseur breaks Vijay out of the hospital just in time to attend his own massive funeral, where he delivers a despairing jeremiad about the fallen world and inspires a riot, before walking off into the fog with Gulabo like Rick and Louis at the end of Casablanca.

“Here Love and Friendship count for nothing/would I care if such a world were mine?”

It’s not less melodramatic than it sounds, exactly, but it’s got such a plaintive, melancholy mood that the melodrama isn’t so overwhelming, and the black and white cinematography creates a series of starkly beautiful images that you can lose yourself in. It’s a long, strange walk from Vijay sadly serenading a bee in the opening scenes to inciting a riot and vanishing at the end — there’s a lot symbolically here that I’m missing, I think, not being particularly familiar with what was going down in India at the time except in broad strokes — but even on a surface level Pyaasa is riveting. It’s also swooningly romantic at points: Vijay continuing to pine for his married ex-girlfriend is goony, but Guru Dutt and Mala Sinha bring a lot of plausible tragedy to a relationship torn apart by economic precarity.

a single tear for lost love

The whole thing is available for free on YouTube.


100 Movie Musicals #29: The Pajama Game (1957)

Tonally messy but rousing labor musical from Stanley Donen, Bob Fosse, and Doris Day. The songs are merely fine, but by god how many full-throated union organizing musicals are there? Never trust a boss, and especially don’t date one.

workers of the world unite

Real wide gap between the sex farce the posters make this look like and the relatively (by musical standards, anyway) grounded labor and gender politics movie it actually is. The movie is about the manufacture of pajamas, not the wearing of them, and Doris Day’s Babe Williams is an organizer and workers’ committee leader who starts dating the new floor manager, despite everyone including them recognizing what a fucking terrible idea that is during the buildup to a strike.

The amazing thing—the incredibly bracing, delightful thing—is that when push comes to shove, Babe chooses solidarity over love, and the floor manager is the one who has to betray his class, sneaking a look at the company’s books to discover that the owner has been denying the workers a raise merely to pump up their profits margins. That this is treated as a huge scandal is shocking from the vantage point of 2022, frankly.

the most rousing paean to tiny raises

The gender politics of this thing are all over the place, or rather they’re pretty good for 1957, but the way the grievance committee is ready to throw down against physical violence and economic extortion from management is starkly at odds with the way that sexual harassment and fraternization are just taken as a matter of course. John Raitt’s Sid Sorokin harasses Babe repeatedly from the instant he meets her, and not only does management not care, the union people don’t either. Babe’s coworkers tease her repeatedly about how cute the abusive new boss is, and how much he’s hitting on her. Narratively, she doesn’t have to back down to his goals, or change her beliefs for love, which is nice and all, but you have to wade through a lot of “so what if the boss doesn’t force a kiss on you at the company picnic? it’s his Once a Year Day!” to get there. There’s also an extended runner about how poisonously jealous the shift leader gets about his bookkeeper girlfriend that culminates in an extended chase where he’s trying to stab her that the movie plays entirely for laughs, and it’s unnecessary and horrible.

sexual harassment in the workplace: fun for the whole family!

This is the first movie choreographed by Bob Fosse on our list, I think? It’s not particularly Fossean, except for the Steam Heat number, which goes straight to the friggin’ wall with bowlers and slacks and jazz hands. It’s ridiculous as an amateur performance during a union convention, but you know, that’s fine, let the man have his fun. God knows it’s less out of place than Gene Kelly’s dream ballets.

ssssssteam heat, indeed

100 Movie Musicals #28: Funny Face (1957)

Surprisingly downbeat and grounded musical about a romance between a reluctant bohemian turned fashion model and her photographer. A real sense of visual style, if you can get past the ridiculous idea that AUDREY HEPBURN is goofy lookin’.

i mean we have eyes

I don’t know that I have a ton more to say about Funny Face, honestly. Stanley Donen musicals are always solid, with a persistent melancholy to them that gives them a little more heft than the fizziness of the plot would necessarily indicate. The fashion industry setting is unusual, and leads to several gorgeously surreal sections, but the casting is just bizarre. Hepburn is of course one of the most (widely-acknowledged-as) gorgeous people of the 20th century, and the movie barely bothers to frump her up; the idea that Kay Thompson’s hardboiled magazine editor Maggie Thompson would think she lacks “grace, elegance, and pizzaz” is laughable.

how can i possibly be a model, she says

Fred Astaire is also a weird choice, though apparently someone that Hepburn specifically requested as her co-star. He’s 30 years older than Hepburn, and even in his heyday was always something of a twerp, so he comes off as more of a patronizing sex pest than anything — it’s hard to not pine for frequently Donen collaborator Gene Kelly, who oozes charm and could have sold things better, though even he would have been 17 years too old. There’s a palpable generation gap, reinforced by the easy working relationship Astaire and Thompson’s characters have.

joie de vivre, as they say

But if you get past all of that, there are some real shining moments. Kay Thompson is fantastic as the movie’s underbilled third lead, Astaire gets a showpiece dance with his own coat, and Hepburn absolutely crushes it in a centerpiece dance at the beatnik bar. Never have black pants and a smoke-filled basement looked so cool. The cinematography is particularly good, with a number of visually striking shots that have been rare in musicals but that happened all the time in horror movies from the same period — and, probably more intentionally, in fashion shoots. They brought in an actual fashion photographer to do the fashion shoots, and you can tell — all of the stills they take are great, interesting, playful, and slightly sad.

There’s a whole beatnik plot, too, which gets as cringey as you’d expect — big budget movies struggle to capture any kind of a counterculture without seeming square as hell — which has a double whammy of a climax where Astaire and Thompson perform a number in dialect (which would 100% have been in blackface even a decade earlier), followed up by an attempted sexual assault from the chief beatnik. It mostly exists to shame Hepburn’s character for her intellectualism, and to underscore that she really can’t do any better than Astaire. “He’s not any more interested in your intellect than I am,” Astaire yells at Hepburn during a fight, which is (a) a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re supposedly in love with and (b) absolutely the empirical truth as far as the movie is concerned. It’s a backlash moral for a backlash decade, but what a lousy thing way to wrap things up.