The hyping-up of Musical Comedy’s size and bombast was not limited to the stage: the phenomenon was, indeed, arguably even more severe among film musicals, largely due to the unprecedented success of two massive hits: Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music.
Mary Poppins is one of those movies that is regarded with arguably more affection than it really deserves because most of its fanbase first saw it when they were about six years old. The film is not without merit, admittedly, and is certainly more polished and capable than its most immediate predecessor (the 1961 Disney film adaptation of Babes in Toyland), but it is not remotely the masterpiece it is generally treated as by those who grew up with it.
For one thing, like most of Disney’s feature films features around that time, whether animated or live-action, Mary Poppins doesn’t really have a plot, or even a particularly focused throughline: it’s episodic, with one delightful but rather pointless whimsical set-piece scene after another. And while Julie Andrews may have won an Oscar for her performance, it was purely meant to be a consolation prize because the judges thought she should have been cast in the film version of My Fair Lady that came out the same year. Andrews does sing beautifully in her musical numbers here, but the character didn’t give her much in the way of acting opportunities, beyond being genially charming, unflappable, and slightly mysterious. And Dick Van Dyke, for all his talent, gave probably the worst performance of his career in this one: there’s a reason jokes about his appalling fake Cockney accent have been a persistent meme for the last fifty-plus years, and even Van Dyke himself was mortified when he saw the film and realized how terrible he sounded.
The score also tends to be remembered as better than it actually is. There are gems, to be sure, especially the quieter moments like “Chim-Chim-Cheree” and “Feed the Birds”, but there’s also no shortage of duds. “Sister Suffragette” is an utter waste of time, the warmed-over Henry Higgins imitation “The Life I Lead” gets pounded into the ground with an endless string of reprises, and I refuse to believe anyone over the age of seven actually likes “Supercal…”, as it’s been dubbed by people quite reasonably unwilling to type out the full multisyllabic nonsense title.
The Sound of Music, which began as a stage Musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein at the end of the Fifties, was a much more respectable item. It’s still flawed, admittedly: the stage book, the only one to an R&H musical not penned by Hammerstein himself, was mediocre at best and entirely too saccharine, and while the film script improves upon it for the most part, especially in the placement of the songs, the results are still severely uneven, with intelligent and touching scenes alternating with clumsy and irritatingly cute ones.
Also, Hammerstein was dealing with his final illness when he wrote the lyrics for this score, and it seems to have taken something of a toll on their quality. To be honest, I’ve never understood why the “lark who is learning to pray” line in the title-song gets so much grief (I think it’s a pretty well-chosen description of who Maria is at this point in the plot), but despite its marvelous melody, the inane list of mundane objects in the lyrics to “My Favorite Things” borders on the idiotic. The inspirational platitudes in “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” sound more like greeting-card poetry than the hymn-like profundity achieved by its obvious precursor, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel, and the coy attempt at humor in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” is really more annoying than charming. Also, apart from “(How do you solve a problem like) Maria” for the chorus of Nuns, all of the numbers that made it into the film are completely self-contained and extractable, which accounts for some of their popularity outside the show but seems oddly disappointing coming from the team that basically founded the art of the integrated musical.
But the fundamental story is a sound and strong one, and Rodgers’ score might just be the catchiest ever written for a Musical…not the best, by any distant means, but the catchiest (and I’m including Operas like Carmen and Faust in that estimation). It features unforgettable tune after unforgettable tune…the title-song, “My Favorite Things”, “Do Re Mi”, “Edelweiss”, “So Long, Farewell”, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”.
And while the movie certainly made the show even more lavish and outsized, especially with the addition of the magnificent on-location Austrian scenery, it actually improved on the stage show in more ways than just the script. For one thing, it added two of the show’s most famous songs, “I Have Confidence” and “Something Good” (with lyrics by Rodgers himself because Hammerstein was no longer alive by the time the film was made). Granted, “I Have Confidence”, as catchy and rousing as it is, can come off as a little bit irritating in its sheer chipperness, but “Something Good” was a particularly significant improvement, as it replaced the stage show’s weakest song, the dreary ballad “An Ordinary Couple”. It’s worth noting that even in stage productions that are otherwise dogmatically faithful to the original Broadway book and score, “Something Good” is almost always used in place of “An Ordinary Couple” (it helps that you can substitute one for the other without changing a single line of dialogue).
The film’s casting was an improvement, too. Mary Martin was certainly a wonderful performer, but by the time she did The Sound of Music on Broadway, she was forty-six years old, and even the most ageless star on Broadway had trouble convincingly conveying a twenty-year-old character at that age. Julie Andrews, on the other hand, was a beam of pure focused perfection as Maria–aside from her Eliza in My Fair Lady, this role is probably the greatest performance of her career.
As for the Captain who serves as Maria’s love interest, the part in the stage show was deliberately underwritten so as not to upstage Martin’s star turn. It didn’t help that the original performer in the role, Theodore Bikel, while a fine singer and actually able to play the guitar onstage during “Edelweiss”, was something of a wooden actor. Christopher Plummer reportedly never liked working on the movie (he was the first person to dub it by its perennially insulting nickname “the sound of mucus”), but he was one of the best things about it. taking an underwritten role and reinterpreting it as a quietly striking presence, a man who doesn’t have to say much to make a powerful impact.
Really, the movie was a step up from the stage show in all but two ways: firstly, it cut the two wry, cynical songs for the Baroness and Max, “How Can Love Survive?” and “No Way to Stop It”, which provide a welcome relief from the extreme levels of sweetness and sentimentality in the rest of the work. They also would have helped provide a clearer purpose to the traces of stylistic dissonance they left in their wake, since the scenes where they were originally sung are still written with an aphoristic sophistication very different from the naive simplicity of the rest of the script.
The other change for the worse in the film version (and it’s a pretty key one) is the ending. In the original stage show, Rolf, the former boyfriend of eldest daughter Liesl, finds the protagonists hiding at the end, but his lantern just happens to shine right on Liesl’s face, and he tells his superiors “There’s no one there, sir”.
The movie trades this in for a cliche Hollywood climax full of melodramatic action and inappropriate comedy, which is far less touching and inspiring than the original ending. Yes, the stage ending seems very idealistic, but it was also based on a number of real-life accounts of subordinate Nazi operatives doing the exact same thing (look it up), so you can’t really argue it’s unrealistic even by real-life standards (which the show hadn’t remotely been following up to that point anyway).
The real problem with The Sound of Music, from a legacy point of view, is that its beyond-blockbuster success created unrealistic expectations for future Hollywood Musicals, resulting in the market being flooded with a superabundance of big-budget Musical extravaganzas intent on trying to recreate its success. Unfortunately, only two of these efforts (the film versions of Funny Girl and Oliver) were actually box-office successes at the time. Pretty much every other title in the genre from this era, regardless of how it is regarded today, was a commercial disappointment at the time, if not an outright bomb.
Granted, part of this happened because when you overload a genre with new material, especially when that material is created in a rush to capitalize on something, quality control is going to pretty much go out the window. Indeed, some of the most notorious disasters in Film Musical history date from this era. One of the more notorious stinkers of the period, the Mame movie, is a case in point. The most obvious problem with this movie is that it cast an aging Lucille Ball to play Mame. Now, Ball would actually have been ideal for the role if she could have played it twenty years earlier (and had her singing dubbed), but by the time it actually happened, she was far too old for the part and her singing voice was in even worse shape than it had been in Wildcat, and her insistence that the film switch to a soft-focus lens every time she was on-camera to hide her advancing age looks every bit as ridiculous and desperate as you’ve all no doubt heard.
Frankly, the direction was every bit as much a problem as Ball, if not more so. The filming itself is hopelessly haphazard and inept, the two actors playing Mame’s nephew Patrick at differing points in his life look and sound like zombies, and even Robert Preston, Bea Arthur and Jane Connell (the latter two reprising their roles from the stage show), while they turn out reasonably capable performances, are all operating at significantly less than their best.
The musical film version of Lost Horizon was even more of a disaster. Every decision about this turkey seemed to be wrong. First of all, it was resuscitating source material that frankly wasn’t that good to begin with, and that had only become more dated and uncomfortable since the time of its first release. Also, as with the Harry Warren stage musical based on the same source, setting this story to music only serves to draw attention to the fact that Brigadoon has almost exactly the same premise and executes it about a billion times better. The cast consists almost entirely of non-singing actors who sing about as badly as anyone expected, with the only Musical veteran in the group being Bobby Van, a notoriously annoying dancer-slash-“comedian” who is at his most irritating here. Even Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s score constitutes some of the weakest music they ever wrote: the score did manage to somehow throw off two hit singles in the title-song and “Living Together, Growing Together”, but even they are fifth-rate Bacharach at best. And that’s ignoring the fact that Bacharach’s sound wasn’t remotely suitable for the film’s subject matter and setting to begin with, and probably would have sounded just as out-of-place even if it had caught him on a good day.
Two of the other really legendary flops of this era, Paint Your Wagon and At Long Last Love, have really been rather overhyped in terms of their awfulness, although neither qualifies as a good movie by any means. Paint Your Wagon, based on the stage musical of the same name (‘based’ in the sense that they took about half of the songs and a couple of the characters’ names and proceeded to write an entirely new story), has a laughably absurd plot and some pretty serious pacing issues, but what’s really won it legendary status as a disaster is that it stars two big-name Western stars who never did another musical (Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin) and allowed both of them to do their own singing.
The truth is that Lee Marvin actually acquits himself pretty well…his performance is really rather charming in a grizzled sort of way, he’s given songs that he can basically talk his way through Rex Harrison-style (thus negating any concerns about his voice), and his rendition of one of the stage show’s standards, “Wand’rin Star”, is genuinely haunting. The real problem is Eastwood. Not only is he quite obviously phoning in his acting performance, which displays none of his trademark charisma, but the film makes him try to sing the big ballads like “I Talk to the Trees”, and the results really do get kind of ugly.
That said, the film isn’t by any means the rock-bottom horror that its reputation tends to paint it as being. There are occasional passages of really well-written dialogue, Harve Presnell in the supporting role of “Rotten Luck Willie” is glorious (his “They Call the Wind Maria” is probably the best performance that song has ever received), and overall, about half the musical numbers range from satisfying to downright thrilling.
When this film was made, Frederick Loewe was still alive, and would occasionally come out of his self-imposed retirement to do a project with his old collaborator Alan Jay Lerner, but perhaps understandably, he did not choose to make this movie one of them, leading Lerner to write five new songs to the music of Andre Previn. Of these songs, two (the ballad “A Million Miles Away Behind the Door” and the raucous “The Gospel of No Name City”) are almost up to the level of the songs from the stage score, one (the comic quartet “Best Things”) is in the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ category, and the other two, “The First Thing You Know” and “Gold Fever”, land somewhere between embarrassing and simply forgettable.
At Long Last Love is at least as bad as Paint Your Wagon, but in a far less interesting way. Because it was unavailable on any kind of video release for a couple of generations, all kinds of legends circulated about how terrible it supposedly was, but for the most part, it is merely a tedious and emotionally uninvolving romantic comedy featuring highly unlikable characters and set to badly-sung covers of Cole Porter songs. Only one aspect of the film really lifts it into ‘record-setting disaster’ territory–the laughably inept choreography, which quite seriously might be the worst I’ve ever seen in anything. Otherwise, the film is just a garden-variety bad movie, the kind that’s a dime a dozen in the rom-com genre, and certainly not interesting enough to justify the hype.
But even the Musical films from this era that are considered classics now (like the 1776 movie, which is now required viewing for thousands of American families on the Fourth of July) lost money at the time. And I’d like to close out this chapter with a consummate example of this phenomenon: the once-controversial but now generally beloved film version of the Broadway hit Hello Dolly.
The movie certainly can’t be faulted for lack of fidelity, with all of the show’s famous comic quotes intact in the script and only two songs added, both penned by the stage show’s composer Jerry Herman. The first, a new opening number called “Just Leave Everything To Me”, shares its subject matter and intro verse with the stage version’s “I Put My Hand In”, but is generally brassier and serves as more of a vocal showcase. The second is a ravishing ballad called “Love Is Only Love” that was originally a cut number from Mame. Presumably these changes were made to offer some more vocal opportunity to the film’s star, Barbra Streisand, than the stage show, which was after all written for Carol Channing, offered its star. Apart from “I Put My Hand In”, the only number cut from the film was the embarrassing Bob Merrill interpolation “Motherhood”, which seems like more of a blessing than anything else.
And there’s no denying the cast was luminous, one of the best this show has ever seen. Walter Matthau is note-perfect as Horace Vandergelder, grouchy and misanthropic but so irresistible in his grumpiness that you can honestly understand why Dolly goes to such lengths to snare him. Michael Crawford, in the role of Cornelius Hackl, is called on to play the gangly comic, convey quiet emotional sincerity under the surface, and sing the show’s most beautiful ballad. Charles Nelson Reilly, who played the part on Broadway, did the first two superbly, but when it came to “It Only Takes a Moment”, he just didn’t have the voice to do it justice. Future Phantom star Crawford, on the other hand, has in addition to his comic chops one of theater’s greatest voices, and he unfurls it gloriously here, providing arguably the definitive rendition of one of Broadway’s loveliest ballads.
Marianne McAndrew is a far more appealing and bewitching ingenue than Eileen Brennan was in the stage version (Brennan was a veteran of operetta spoofs like Little Mary Sunshine, and she played Irene Malloy in the same deliberately stiff manner, which did not suit the part at all). Granted, all of the movie leads except perhaps Matthau are giving wildly outsized, over-the-top performances (particularly the hyperactive E.J. Peaker as Irene’s sidekick Minnie Fay), but that’s exactly what this extravagant cartoon of a show calls for. Subtlety has its place in some shows, but in Hello, Dolly it would be missing the point.
And most outsized of all, in the center of it, was Barbra Streisand, the primary bone of contention some people have with the movie. She has exactly the right personality for the part, and she certainly sings the score better than anyone else ever did, but she is miscast for exactly one reason: she was in her twenties at the time and looks it, making Dolly’s entire character and backstory seem completely illogical. But as Harold Prince once famously pointed out to David Merrick, the whole show makes absolutely no sense to begin with, so how much is one more layer of absurdity going to hurt? Worrying that a production of Hello, Dolly makes no sense is like worrying about your bath water getting wet.
In any case, Streisand is ideal in every other respect, and gives probably her greatest film performance outside of Funny Girl here, so it’s surprisingly hard to generate a plausible complaint about her. Granted, Streisand and Matthau famously hated one another, but that doesn’t hurt their screen chemistry nearly as much as you might think. It does detract a little from the very last scene, particularly in the moment when he serenades her with the reprise of the title-song that leads into the finale…you can kind of tell he’s forcing the tenderness there. But since most of their scenes consist of her gleefully tormenting him and him being intensely annoyed with her, their contentious onscreen dynamic does more to make their scenes crackle than it does to undercut them.
The director, the legendary Gene Kelly himself, reportedly hated working with Streisand too, but he did some of the best work of his directing career here. He managed to find a screen equivalent for the stage show’s mega-showstoppers, creating four of Hollywood’s best production numbers in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, “Dancing”, “Before the Parade Passes By”, and the restaurant sequence that builds up to the title number (and features a thrilling cameo by Louis Armstrong himself, which makes no sense with the setting and period, but as I observed, why start now?).
As I stated, this movie was a financial and critical failure at the time of its release, but it has won a large following ever since it became available on home video, and while it still has its holdouts who carp about Streisand’s casting, most musical-theater enthusiasts now regard it as a classic. And while its reception when it came out still causes it to show a misleadingly low score on most critic aggregate websites, I’d say it has been effectively vindicated by history. In any case, if you need your stories to make sense or consider excess and bombast to be ipso facto bad things, then neither the stage show nor the movie are for you in the first place.