What are the typical conventions of musical films? According to David Parkinson, the author of The Rough Guide to Film Musicals, these are:
- On the surface escapist entertainment but spiritually in fact closer to the art house than the studio system.
- Three types of stories: the backstage, the fairy-tale and the folk musical.
- Structure and meaning of the film established not by the chronological story, but by the musical numbers - the oppositional aspects of the love relationship between the main characters are resolved in the music.
In other words: the musical numbers are not just loosely inserted, but in good musical films they carry structural meaning.
Backstage years (1929-1932): When musicals started being made, people were uncomfortable with singing and dancing in film stories, so they devised films where song and dance would be part of the story - the "backstage" story, i.e. a story about how against many odds a new stage production is made, which could then be shown. The first example is Broadway Melody (1929), which is also the first real musical film. This type of set-up remained popular in the next "Berkeley period." Also in this period Ernst Lubitsch made four charming musical films with Maurice Chevalier which fall in the story type of "fairy tale" (Love Parade etc.). In 1930 alone, 100 musical films were made, leading to rapid saturation.
Busby Berkeley years (1933-1934): Musicals revived thanks to choreographer Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) who used military drill precision to develop a unique style. His ingenious routines often transcend the limitations of the stage, such as when human bodies form kaleidoscopic patterns meant to be viewed from straight above. But for his many chorine close-ups he has also been accused of exploitation of the female form. In the later 30s and 40s Berkeley also worked as prolific director.
Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers years (1934-1939): formulaic screwball romances structured around set routines (Swing Time, The Gay Divorcee, etc.). "Chaste" big-screen musicals due to reinforcement of Hays Code. Fred falls for Ginger at first sight but is spurned because of an unintentional faux-pas. Later they are reunited by coincidence and dancing brings them closer together (their dance duos include both "challenge" dances and "woo to win" numbers). Then happens another misunderstanding after which a reconciliation concludes the film on a happy note. These films formed an antidote to despair in the Depression. Of course, this period was very rich in other musicals with a positive message as well.
War years: during the war, 400 musicals were made to boost morale and emphasize patriotism.
MGM Freed Unit years (1948-1957): Arthur Freed at MGM gathered a team of skilled professionals around him, such as Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Directors include Robert Mamoulian, Stanley Donen, Charles Walters, Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minelli. They brought new depth and refinement to the musical. In the same period, also the other studios churned out countless musicals.
Decline: Changing musical tastes in the sixties led to the demise of the musical film as a genre, although individual musicals keep being made to this day.
Dance in musical film was structured by three men: Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. All three worked as choreographers, designing the dance routines, and the last two were at the same time the most important dancers of all time in musicals. Busby Berkeley had a military background and devised the huge chorus routines popular in musicals of the early 1930s. They were made with clockwork precision. Berkeley uses frequent cuts to emphasize the legs of the chorines, or film geometrical patterns from above. Fred Astaire was a perfectionist, who wanted his difficult routines to look as if they were executed effortlessly. In order to bring out the nature of the dance, he had his routines filmed in one shot. Gene Kelly was an athlete who introduced contemporary ballet techniques into his routines. He also filmed in one shot, but in contrast to Astaire, had the camera move around to emphasize the flowing movement of the dance.
The best classical Hollywood film musicals are in my view:
- Singing in the Rain (1952) by Stanley Donen and with Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. The perennial favorite, and that's easy to understand for it is a sparkling satire without any sentimentality. The music and dances are swinging off the screen, too. The story is a "backstage story" set in Hollywood during the transition to talkies: an aspiring actress who has to provide the words and vocals for a silent star whose voice "could shatter glass," falls in love with the leading man. MGM Freed Unit film. (10)
- Love Me Tonight (1932) by Rouben Mamoulian and with Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald and Myrna Loy. Fresh and lively fairy tale. A tailor goes unpaid and follows the insolvent customer to his castle, where he is mistaken for a baron and falls in love with a princess. Playful and innovative way of filming, starting with a "symphony" of natural sounds as Paris awakens. The first song is started by the barber after which the catchy tune is taken up in sequence by various others, until the princess is finally singing it from her balcony, bridging the geographical gap that separates them. Sweeping tracking shots and shrewd use of the music to change scenes. The ending puts convention on its head, too - here the woman (on horseback) chases the man (in a train). (10)
- Silk Stockings (1957) by Rouben Mamoulian and with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Among the last of the classical (Freed Unit) musicals. Based on Ninotchka by Lubitsch (with Greta Garbo). Comparisons between both films are useless - Silk Stockings expresses with dance and music what Garbo expresses with her acting. The story of a female Soviet commissioner who on a visit to Paris to fetch three tarrying agents is herself encapsulated by a movie producer man-about-town. She surrenders to love but keeps her head high in this stylish movie - anyway, what attracts her most is a pair of silk stockings as the ultimate symbol of capitalism. (9.5)
- High Society (1956) by Charles Walters and with Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong. All-star cast remake as musical of screwball comedy The Philadelphia Story. Here, too, comparisons are useless, as the nervous verbosity of the earlier film is replaced by music and style. A successful popular composer living in a mansion near his ex-wife's family estate tries to break-up her engagement to a bland and safe guy and win her heart again. Tabloid reporter also falls for her while covering the impending nuptials. Grace Kelly in her last film role is great as icy-cold blonde, Sinatra shines as the sleazy reporter and Crosby also does fine in his relaxed role as first husband. The icing on the cake is the presence of Louis Armstrong and his band. Energetic and highly enjoyable. See also the review by James Berardinelli. (9.5)
- Footlight Parade (1933) by Lloyd Bacon and with James Cagney, Joan Blondell and Ruby Keeler. A producer struggles against time, romance, and the competition to produce spectacular live "prologues" for movie houses. Blondell is great as the secretary who has her boss firmly in hand. Perhaps the most spectacular of Busby Berkeley's choreographies, with myriads of legs and a sexy water ballet. (9)
- Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) by Mervyn LeRoy and with Warren William, Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon. A millionaire turned composer rescues unemployed Broadway people with a new play. Great Busby Berkeley choreography. Even more than that, this movie ends with a flaming protest against the Depression and government inaction. It as as gritty as the year in which it was produced. (9)
- The Band Wagon (1953) by Vincente Minelli and with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. Aging musical star hopes a Broadway play will restart his career, but the play's director makes it a pretentious retelling of Faust, and brings in a prima ballerina who clashes with the star. Ballerina and musical star iron out their differences in a great romantic musical movement "Dancing in the Dark" and the star turns the failure of the show into triumph by remaking and financing it into a lively musical. Real melancholy of being passed up by the passage of time tangible in this beautiful musical. Only deficiency is that the story is a bit thin. (8.5)
- 42nd Street (1933) by Lloyd Bacon and with Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels and George Brent. The ultimate backstager. An ailing director puts everything into what may be his last Broadway show. At the last moment a chorus girl has to replace the star who has twisted her ankle. Again sensational choreography by Busby Berkeley - watch for the violins glowing in the dark. On the other hand, this is the most conventional of the three 1933 Busby Berkeley musicals on my list. (8.5)
- An American in Paris (1951) by Vincente Minelli and with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Another famous MGM classic, set in a type of fairy-tale Paris that only exists in the Hollywood imagination. Lavish production in which the songs and dances blend perfectly with the story. The romance between an American painter - who rather coldly spurns a wealthy lady-sponsor - and a coltish French girl features a climactic, 17-minute, half-million-dollar "dream ballet" - one of Arthur Freed's dance highlights. Energetic and exuberant, and not devoid of satire. (8.5)
- The Gay Divorcee (1934) by Mark Sandrich and with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The quintessential "Ginger and Fred movie," with a farcical story meant to bring some sunshine into the dark Depression years. To get a divorce from her unwilling husband, a woman has to pretend she is having an adulterous relationship. An American dancer is mistaken for the man who has to pretend being her lover, but of course he has already fallen in love with her. The story is just a pretension for the great dance routines. (8)
- Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) by Howard Hawks and with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. While MGM made the artistic musicals, Fox made the "vulgar" ones - and this one certainly is visually opulent fun. Two lounge singers make a transatlantic voyage to Paris, trying to hook a rich husband, although one of them is already engaged to the son of a millionaire. Sharp satire on a Gold Diggers level, featuring the iconic song "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friends." Monroe and Russel both give great performances - why is this movie never included in lists of best musicals? It's bubbly but great fun. (8)
- Funny Face (1957) by Stanley Donen and with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. A sales girl in a book shop who is in the grip of French philosophy is scouted rather forcibly by a fashion magazine and on a shoot in Paris falls in love with the photographer who teaches her to prefer fashion to philosophy. Anti-intellectual stance harps on French Existentialism which was then going strong. But there is real chemistry between Hepburn and Astaire, and that makes a lot good. (7.5)
- Cover Girl (1944) by Charles Vidor and with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. With its cliched and conservative plot this is no second film noir Gilda, although Rita Hayworth is more beautiful than ever. This 1944 flag-waving movie was meant to boost the morale of the country. Leggy dancer of a Brooklyn joint becomes "cover girl" as a step up in her career, endangering the relationship with her buddy who is the owner of the small theater where she dances. But in the end she gives up glamour and returns to her guy. Loyalty is an important virtue, especially in war years. Film boosted the career of Gene Kelly who does an ingenious dance with his own reflection. (7)
This is a personal choice. It is often said that musicals are an acquired taste - and indeed, I only recently started liking them. What kept me from doing so in the past, is the sentimentality of many musicals, as well as the fact that some famous ones are really meant for children (Sound of Music, Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins). I have left these out - my preference is as always for the sharp and satirical (therefore the four Pre-Code musicals on my list). I also prefer classical musicals to the "rock" and other musicals of the 1970s and later, not only because of the music, but in the first place because these contemporary productions are flat and empty and have no soul. Finally, I have selected film musicals that are interesting as movies, and not just straightforward recordings of an original theater production.
Classical musical is a typical American phenomenon, a quintessential Hollywood genre. It has never been as popular abroad as in the United States. Still, there are some interesting international musical films, such as Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (with a very young Catherine Deneuve) and its sequel, Les Demoiselles de Rochefort; a contemporary French musical film, 8 Femmes; and, though not technically a musical, Black Orpheus (not to mention Bollywood, but that is a phenomenon in itself).
Filmsite has a more detailed article about musical / dance film.