The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films & Stars
With the new movie musical, Les Miserables (which Jane was not crazy about and Connie Wang was only slightly more kind) generating all kinds of buzz about sweeping the Oscars, my thoughts turn to musicals on screen.
Where have the movie musicals gone? Adaptations for film, like Chicago (2002) and the new Les Miserables will do, but really, when is the last time you saw a movie musical exclusively made for film? I can’t remember.
The web site American Music Preservation lists ten essential Hollywood musicals, and the latest one on their list is 1776, which was made in 1972. Yikes! I recently re-watched 1776, and if you haven’t seen it, I’m happy to report it holds up very well. I particularly love this number.
The star-packed Les Miserables does, however, share one trait with the Golden Age of Musicals (1930’s and 1940’s). In those days, the studios, particularly MGM, used every big name they had on contract in musicals.
Jimmy Stewart sang and danced. Jimmy Cagney went back to his roots as a hoofer in between playing tough guys. Romantic hero Tyrone Power played in musicals. And Jane Withers went from child star to musical star to TV actress.
I am relatively sure you don’t need a reminder to check out the classic films of the two dancing geniuses of the musical to come along in the 1930’s and 40’s — Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. These two changed the focus of musicals from spectacle focusing on girls, girls, girls, to stories featuring a couple who danced their way through romance. But I’m skipping them because you already know all that. I am more interested in reintroducing people you may have overlooked.
The thirst for movie musicals started in the 1920’s and increased in the 1930’s with the pairing of the wildly popular Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. So treacly sweet that even today’s overweight population would not be able to swallow the sugary plots, this pair blended light opera with popular music and a sort of pristine romance at odds with the behavior of followers of real-life hell raisers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and his fast-living wife Zelda.
A more roguish character charmed everyone when Maurice Chevalier traveled from France and started making movies in America.
Chevalier made a few movies with Jeanette MacDonald, starting in 1929, and I need to look those up, because I’m sure I’d like him better than the stiff Nelson Eddy.
I’ll never forget seeing Chevalier on stage late in his career. The impish twinkle in his eye and crooked smile were alluring even in his late seventies. If you haven’t seen him on screen, take a look at Gigi with Leslie Caron (1957).
And then there was Eddie Cantor, famous for Making Whoopee! He had a black-face act he couldn’t get away with today. His comedic persona and songs grew directly out of the minstrel shows with white people wearing burnt cork complexions and singing and cracking jokes. (Although it seems unbelievable today, I remember my father performing in a fund-raising minstrel show put on for the PTA of my grade school in the 1950s.)
But there was much more to Cantor than just the black-face songs with which he is identified. In fact, he typifies the background of many entertainers in the era and comedians in early television, in that his routines came out of vaudeville. In his career, he bounced from stage to screen to television and his wacky humor cheered people through the Great Depression. The video below shows his famous pop-eyed eye rolls ( a stereo-type left over from the minstrels) and jerky dancing.
Part of the fun of looking at classic movies is trying to put ourselves in the frame of mind that the audience was in when it first came out. For instance, the phrase “making whoopee” would have been pretty sexy in its day — back before we became blasé about hearing profanities and more-than-suggestive language in our Tarantino-ized movie dialogues.
Amazing how many big stars of 70 or so years ago have slipped from our consciousness. There are a lot more big names of the Golden Age of Musicals who are worth a second look, so this discussion is definitely to be continued …
[Note: corrections made in this article because of commentary by Paul E. Brogan. Thanks for setting me straight.]