Meanwhile, the film musical was also breaking new ground, though nothing as staggering as what was happening to Broadway at the time. Still, a similar movement toward deeper, more intelligent scripts was definitely underway. Meet Me In St. Louis provided a kind of screen equivalent to Oklahoma! in its themes of nostalgic Americana and comforting values of family, patriotism and optimism. Admittedly, it wasn’t as musically integrated as Oklahoma!, with three (admittedly fantastic) original songs surrounded by period chestnuts like the title song and “Skip to My Lou”. But the script was just as touching and characterful as Oklahoma’s book, and the film was driven by the same kind of organic character drama. It was the first Judy Garland vehicle to qualify as masterpiece in its own right since The Wizard of Oz, and had a major role in revitalizing her career.
In addition, two legendary 1943 films, Stormy Weather and the not very faithful, but still excellent in its own right, film adaptation of Cabin in the Sky, introduced the concept of the all-Black Hollywood musical (there had been a few previous attempts at this idea, but they were dismal failures that are almost painful to watch today). And while even these films may both seem, for all their musical splendor, a bit insensitive and patronizing to a modern audience, at the time they were smashing through boundaries and stereotypes and giving Black performers far more opportunity than the limiting and often offensive bit parts they played in most previous musicals.
Meanwhile, a series of sophisticated song-and-dance comedies established the new model that was to take the place of the Thirties dance movies in the Astaire-Rodgers vein. Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic based on the life and music of George M. Cohan, was the first hint of this new model’s potential. There would be plenty of other Jukebox composer biopics made in this era, but Yankee Doodle Dandy, while it still glossed over the more unpleasant details of its subjects’ life, featured a far better-written and more sophisticated screenplay than most of the others, which helps explain why it’s the only item in that field that remains popular to this day.
The next step in this progression was the first of a series of vehicles co-starring Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, Anchors Aweigh. To be honest, the film’s arch, unfunny script wasn’t any better than your typical Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers vehicle, and several of its plot elements were blatantly ripped off from Broadway’s On the Town, which had debuted the previous year. That said, the film did break impressive ground in the use of choreography, especially in an enchanting sequence where Kelly dances with Hanna-Barbera’s cartoon mouse Jerry (in what was, by the way, the very first attempt to combine animation and live action in a single frame…yes, before even Song of the South). It also featured a very fine score, including a ballad, “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, that could hold its own against On the Town‘s “Some Other Time” any day, and that became one of Sinatra’s earliest signature hits. This score was largely the work of future Broadway legend Jule Styne, in what was arguably his breakthrough score for a Musical.
These films, with their pronounced emphasis on choreography and their impressive achievements in that field helped foreshadow the breakthroughs of three more dance-oriented musical films of the next decade…An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon. Like Yankee Doodle Dandy, these films all drew on the work of vintage Musical-Theatre songwriters, and like Anchors Aweigh, all three featured elaborate fantasy sequences in dance. The first two also featured Gene Kelly as both choreographer and star, and his work on Anchors Aweigh and the other vehicles he shared with Sinatra served as a kind of dry run for these groundbreaking films.
A pair of clear companion pieces, both Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon had screenplays by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and Jukebox scores based on the work of famous Musical Comedy songwriters who were already considered old-school even at the time. Singin’ in the Rain’s score was drawn from the works of Herb Nacio Brown and Arthur Freed, and apart from the iconic title number, sounds rather forgettable as music to modern ears, but the performances and Gene Kelly’s superb choreography still make the numbers absolutely enthralling to watch on screen.
The Band Wagon, based on the work of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Deitz and sharing its name with their most famous Revue from the Thirties, had a significantly superior score, with classic gems like “I Guess I’ll Have to Change My Plan”, “A Shine on My Shoes”, “Triplets”, and “Dancing in the Dark” (even if the latter was only presented as a dance instrumental). It’s worth noting that, while the famous added song in Singin’ in the Rain, “Make ‘Em Laugh”, is really notable only for its superb comic staging, the new song written for The Band Wagon, “That’s Entertainment”, has become as enduring a standard as anything else used in the movie, serving as a kind of runner-up to “There’s No Business Like Show Business” as the definitive showbiz anthem.
Singing in the Rain satirizes the backstage and production processes of Hollywood, while The Band Wagon spoofs the then-novel craze for ‘serious’ Musical Theater on Broadway. Both screenplays, while still a bit short on emotional depth, show far more wit, intelligence and insight than the scripts to even most of the truly great film musicals of the Thirties.
An American in Paris, coming out a year before the other two and also featuring a Jukebox score based on an already well-established composer (in this case, the legendary George Gershwin), featured a less adroit screenplay than its successors, but it pioneered their use of choreography, which was even more sophisticated than the Astaire-Rogers films of the Thirties. Notably, each of the three films climax with elaborate fantasy ballets that serve as a screen equivalent to what stage choreographers like Agnes DeMille and Jerome Robbins were developing in the stage musical at the time.
This trend for deeper, more sophisticated Hollywood fare reached its pinnacle in 1954 with A Star Is Born, a bluntly tragic piece that openly deconstructed the very myths that Hollywood, and especially Hollywood musicals, had previously been built on. This film was given an unnecessary and inferior remake in the Eighties and a significantly more respectable one in 2018, but there’s no replacing the original. Composer Harold Arlen, working with Ira Gershwin, did some of the best work of his career on this film’s score, particularly on the indelible torch ballad “The Man That Got Away”. The score’s other highlight is an epic medley of existing standards, “Born in a Trunk”, that stands as one of Hollywood’s greatest musical showstoppers. It took many years for this film to be fully recognized as the classic it was, partly because of heavy cuts made to its initial release but also probably because its story and message were just too depressing for audiences at the time. Remember, this was three years before West Side Story debuted, and openly tragic musicals were almost unheard-of at the time outside of the realm of Opera.
It was around this time that a surprising number of Broadway shows began to be filmed in a far more faithful, reverential style than was common in prior years, which some critics have dubbed the ‘prestige treatment’ and which would become even more popular in the early 1960s. There were even a few musicals very clearly in the Broadway style (and featuring Broadway songwriters) that were made exclusively for film around this time. Gigi, one of the most legendary examples of this, was fairly obviously modeled on My Fair Lady, with its ultra-literate lyrics, lush period décor, and a leading man who delivered his songs in Henry Higgins-style Sprechstimme, but it was such an utterly charming film that few cared to complain. Leslie Caron’s performance as a spunky child gradually blossoming into a graceful woman is mesmerizing, easily the best acting work of her career. Maurice Chevalier gives perhaps his most irresistible screen performance ever, Louis Jordan makes for a deliciously crisp and sardonic leading man and an atypically subdued Hermione Gingold provides quietly indispensable support. Lerner and Loewe’s score, bolstered with a cut song from My Fair Lady (“Say a Prayer for Me Tonight”), is exquisite, with an almost unheard-of delicacy and wit.
Several stage musicals were also filmed for television in their original stage format during this period, but two famous musicals in particular were specifically written for television. The first of these, the Peter Pan musical written as a vehicle for Mary Martin, did technically play a Broadway engagement first, but for a deliberately limited run that was immediately followed up by the first of its two television productions. This was actually the third musical version of the story, after a forgotten attempt by Leonard Bernstein that failed to capture the magic of the material and the popular but disappointing Disney film, which featured some amusing animated slapstick but completely botched the tone and atmosphere of the piece. The two television films of this musical captures the magic of Mary Martin’s performing style for posterity…apparently she was like this in all her stage shows, but her cast albums and rare movie appearances never managed to capture the full impact of her performances the way this intimate filming of a stage production did. Cyril Richard was a gloriously campy Captain Hook, hamming his way deliciously through no less than four villain songs, and the score (by two sets of songwriters) is unforgettable, with such irresistible classics as the gentle lullaby “Tender Shepherd”, the exquisite ballads “Never-Never Land” and “Distant Melody”, the adorable children’s songs “Wendy” and “I Won’t Grow Up”, and the thrilling “I’m Flying”.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella, on the other hand, was first produced as a television special, and it was the TV musical to end all TV musicals. With a score by Broadway’s greatest team of the era and a luminous cast centering on Julie Andrews just after My Fair Lady had made her the hottest star in the Broadway universe, it’s not surprising that it set records for simultaneous television viewings that wouldn’t be broken for years to come. Indeed, one of the problems that every subsequent production of this show has faced was having to compete with a nigh-perfect original that none of them could possibly have lived up to. Granted, the original television film of this show was unavailable to the public for many decades after its release and even now is only preserved on a very primitive kinescope recording, but it had perfect casting, a flawlessly charming and witty script, and the purest delivery of the show’s message that would ever be achieved.
Unfortunately, the later productions used to fill in for its long absence have been mixed at best. The 1965 version was an abomination, with stilted, faux-operetta dialogue, a dull cast, amateurish production values, and R&H’s unique take on the story deleted altogether in favor of something more akin to the Disney version. The 1997 version was a distinct improvement, but still far from perfect. At least the cast had sparkle, and the dialogue was often amusing. But the overall feel was more Disney than R&H, and the film offered a somewhat heavy-handed and belabored delivery of the show’s empowerment message (though to be fair, that’s still better than deleting it altogether like the previous version had).
As for the long-awaited Broadway mounting, it would probably have been much more effective as a one-act. After all, the original version was only 76 minutes long, and it was already about 70% padding (charming, witty, entertaining padding, but padding nonetheless), since you can tell the plot of the original fairy tale in about ten minutes. To reach the length of a typical two-and-a-half hour Broadway show, this version had to waste time with a ridiculous plot about kid-friendly versions of Les Mis-style revolutionaries and an evil Prime Minister manipulating the Prince, which is all ultimately beside the point of the material. The Broadway production was more interesting than the 1965 version and less homogenized than the 1997 version, but it turned the show into a gigantic, over-the-top cartoon version of the material, with frantic tempos and the songs blown up into big production numbers (not to mention Laura Osnes’ frighteningly perky performance in the title role).
The only thing that saves these later versions is the strength of the original material. Rodgers and Hammerstein had a very unique concept for their Cinderella, a retelling that was about empowerment as opposed to wish-fulfillment, a world where, as Ethan Mordden put it, “You don’t just deserve happiness…you have to work for it.” Applying this idea to the Cinderella mythos would become very popular in later years (for example, the Drew Barrymore film vehicle Ever After), but R&H were, to my knowledge, the first ones to do it, and all of those later iterations owe something to their original vision.
And the original ten songs the team wrote for the production are easily the best of their efforts outside of their five big hits. Granted, the extremely unique, perfect fairy-tale sound they capture has become as much a curse for producers as a blessing, since it makes padding the score out with interpolations (which is necessary in any longer version, given the short length of the original score) difficult and awkward; the interpolations, even when drawn from the team’s other work, never quite match the original sound. Still, even in the 1965 film’s stodgy operetta-lite performances or the stage version’s hyperactive renditions, songs like the achingly lovely “In My Own Little Corner”, the ecstatic love-at-first-sight duet “Ten Minutes Ago”, the wryly hilarious “Stepsister’s Lament”, and of course the show’s all-important message song “Impossible” are almost impossible to destroy. If you preserve both the Rodgers and Hammerstein message and the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, then however much you muddle them up with overcomplicated plotting or oversell them in performance, the thing you create will have too much merit based on those elements alone to be easily dismissed.