Gotta dance, gotta have big production numbers

Jun 23, 2006 (Updated Aug 12, 2006)

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In making this list, I have excluded from the category "musical"
operas (including movies about Chinese opera performers as in "Fleeing by Night" and "Farewell, My Concubine," and "Phantom Lover," as well as Otto Preminger's movie of "Porgy and Bess"),
ballets (and movies about ballet, such as The Red Shoes, the Carlos Saura's flamenco trilogy, Billy Elliot, The Turning Point ,Tales of Hoffman,
biopics of singers and instrumentalists (such as Round Midnight, Lady Sings the Blues, Ray),
and I classified "Some Like It Hot" as a comedy (even though it is mostly set amidst a traveling female band) and "Gilda" (a great noir in which Rita Hayworth is a dancer. I really like "Topsy Turvy" but not for its musical numbers. I don't see it as a "musical," though, like most of the best musicals, it is about putting on a show ("The Mikado" in this instance).

None of the musicals made elsewhere that I've seen (mostly France and India) provided competition with my American choice (after excluding the focus on instrumentalists eliminated "'Round Midnight," which I think is a great movie, with Dexter Gordon, directed by Bertrand Tavernier in 1986). I've recently praised an inventive dance number in the Indian movie Mango Souffle, but the movie clearly is not a musical. "The Guide" arguably is, but it is the musical parts of it that I dislike. I love the Brecht/Weill songs of "Die Dreigroschenoper" (3-penny opera), the sardonic 1928 musical adaptation of John Gay's "Beggar's Opera" that G. W. Pabst brought to the screen in 1931 (with the great Lotte Lenya, Weill's wife, and others from the original Berlin production). However, it has no dancing and I don't count crowd scenes as "production numbers."

I've also excluded animated movies (of which my favorite musical is "The Lion King").

Although Marlene Dietrich has very memorable musical numbers in three of her films directed by Josef von Sternberg and plays cabaret performers in them, I don't consider "The Blue Angel" or "Morocco" or "Blonde Venus" to be "musicals" (and the one movie with her in it that I do consider, "Kismet," is bad, as is she in it.

And I already have a list of best rock 'n' roll movies up

My List:

(20) The Full Monty (1997, directed by Peter Cattaneo) I think that musicals would be better with more male nudity—and that "The Full Monty" would be better with more male nudity. It is not a gay musical, but is very much about putting on a show, an all-male strip by unemployed blokes (former steel-workers in Sheffield). It has oodles of charm and good humor. As Gary, Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting' has a flirty charisma, and a very wise young son (William Snape). The crazy endeavor is an attempt to make Gary's child-support payments, in fact.

(19) The Sound of Music (1965, directed by Robert Wise) I was very unhappy to be forced to see this when I was 15. It has some songs I love and one that makes my skin crawl (16 going on 17), but the alpine scenes make up (to some degree) for the too-cute children.

(18) Fame! (1980, directed by Alan Parker) may not live forever, but burns bright in my memory. It has multiple storylines, as well as big production numbers (the impromptu dance around and over a student's father's taxi cab of the title song and the finale of what the students in the School for the Performing Arts put on as "I Sing the Body Electric"). The play derived from it, which I saw in London, is almost all production numbers.

(17) Funny Girl (1968, directed by William Wyler) netted Barbara Streisand an Oscar in her first big-screen role. She felt the need to have Anne Francis's part all but cut out (though, admittedly, the movie is still too long). Beside Ziegfeld numbers, it has that famed tugboat with la Streisand singing. It seemed old-fashioned in 1968 and like a throwback to an earlier era now.

(16) New York, New York (1977, directed by Martin Scorcese) is one of my favorite romances that ends with the singer portrayed by Liza Minnelli not going to meet her abusive ex-husband, a saxophonist played by Robert De Niro. Both are superb, and Minnelli has at least two great songs. I don't remember much in the way of dance numbers (though they first meet at a wartime USO dance). It has the visual stylization of a musical. It was not a commercial success, alas.

(15) Oliver! (1968, directed by Carol Reed) has some great songs and production numbers, a wide-eyed Oliver Twist (Mark Lester) and the perfect Artful Dodger (Jack Wild). No great dancing, but some intricate choreography.

(14) The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975, directed by Jim Sharman). I saw this (in Toronto) on its failed initial release, before it became a midnight movie "cult classic." I love (most of) the music and the leering Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter identifying with Fay Wray and making a muscle man who disappoints him, Rocky Horror (Peter Hinwood).

(13) Chicago (2002, directed by Rob Marshall, retaining some of the stage choreography done by Bob Fosse) has stand-out performances (not particularly great musical performances except in the last instance) by Catherine Zita-Jones, Richard Gere, Renée Zellwegger, John C. Reilly, and Queen Latifah. I enjoyed the movie, l but have my doubts about how well it will age. Check back after another ten years have passed. For sure, the musical is superior to Roxie Hart, which has a non-dancing Ginger Rogers hamming in the title role. Making it not a one-woman show was one very good idea in the genesis of the musical version.

(12) Stormy Weather (1943, directed by Andrew L. Stone) has Bill Robinson, Lena Horne, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, Dooley Wilson and a big finish. The story is thin even for a musical.

(11) Damn Yankees (1958, directed by Stanley Donen and George Abbot from Abbot's play about the Washington Senators aided by Ray Walston's Devil and unforgettable for Gwen Verdon's "Steam Heat")

(10) On the Town (1949, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly) has Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as sailors with a day's shore leave in New York City; it has sensational dancing by Ann Miller and the boys. Kelly and Sinatra also played sailors on leave in LA in the 1945 Anchors Aweigh (directed by George Sydney, which is not as good as "On the Town" and runs on far too long, but has its delights, including a young Dean Stockwell.

(9) My Fair Lady (1964, directed by George Cukor) I never saw Julie Andrews in the part of Eliza Doolittle, though I'm inclined to believe that like Audrey Hepburn, who took the movie part, she was more convincing after her makeover than as a guttersnipe. I don't think the part needs a big voice and that Hepburn could have sung her songs (Lord know, Rex Harrison couldn't sing!). Not much in the way of dancing, but there are some inventive big production numbers. Plus great songs, fine performances all-around, and an entertaining story.

(8) Someone should extract all the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dance numbers from all their movies and jettison the stories (well, there are some songs that should be salvaged, too). The consensus is that the best of their pairings are Top Hat (1935, directed by Mark Sandrich), Roberta (1935, directed by William A. Seiter, and Swing Time (1936, directed by George Stevens. I'll go with Top Hat, in part because it has the every-droll Edward Everett Horton, but mainly because "Swing Time" has the hideous Astaire-in-blackface number (probably sincerely meant as a tribute to Mr. Bojangles (Bill Robinson), but deeply creepy).

(7) I enjoy the movies in which Rita Hayworth got to dance (none more than "Gilda" with her torrid "Put the Blame on Mame," but I can't consider that classic noir a "musical"). Her best musicals were two with Fred Astaire as a partner, "You'll Never Get Rich" (1941, directed by Sidney Lanfield You Were Never Lovelier (1942, directed by William A. Seiter), and one with Gene Kelly, Cover Girl (1944, directed by Charles Vidor). The funniest is "You'll Never Get Rich," which features Robert Benchley, though Adolphe Menjou is amusingly skeptical in "Lovelier," and "Cover Girl" has Phil Silvers and Eve Arden. All three have great dancing. "Cover Girl" has bigger production numbers, and was filmed in Technicolor.

(6) There has to be a Judy Garland slot. Having (like many Americans of my generation) grown up with annual broadcasts of "The Wizard of Oz," I really have no idea whether it is a good movie. It is the source of many cultural references, for sure. Garland also starred in the quintessential "putting on a show" (in a barn) movie, "Summer Stock." Garland's greatest performance, however, was in the 1954 re-make of A Star is Born, directed by George Cukor with James Mason as Norman Maine, the alcoholic fading star who discovers and promotes Vickie Lester (Garland). It has some great production numbers amidst the backstage melodrama.

(5) I'm tempted to put the documentary "Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof (1998) here, since it compiles many of his delirious production numbers shot from above, but settled on the foundational story of putting on a show and a chorus girl (Ruby Keeler) stepping in and triumphing, 42nd Street (1934). With Warner Baxter as Busby Berkeley, I mean as the director of the stage musical within the movie.

(4) Moulin Rouge (directed by Baz Luhrmann). The first time I saw this, I was very put off by the opening quarter to half hour, but won over by the passionate Ewan MacGregor (climbing the elephant and launching into batting song opening back and forth with Nicole Kidman). It is a deliriously, highly stylized romance, with a loving parody of the big production number at the end. It has a more contemporary one in "Roxanne," and Jim Broadbent doing "Like a Virgin" (ultra-campy) and "The Show Must Go On" (dramatically). I also love Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom" with the charismatic Paul Mercurio sliding across the floor. I am well aware that the rapid-fire cross-cutting disturbs some (but look at my list's top choice!).

(3) Singin' in the Rain (1952 codirected by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly) is the consensus pick as The Great American Musical. I have no complaints to make about it. It has two phenomenal production numbers, plus comedy and pathos, and quite a cast (not just Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor, and Jean Hagen's bit©h, but Rita Moreno and Cyde Charisse is small roles). It works and remains a delight. I enjoy the less highly regarded flamboyant 1948 Vincente Minnelli musical "The Pirate" starring Kelly and Mrs. Minnelli (Judy Garland) plus Gladys Cooper and Walter Slezak) and the Kelly-Garland vehicle "Summer Stock," which has a phenomenal demonstration by Gene Kelly of what can be done with the simplest of props (a newspaper page). (I also like the ballet in Minnelli's "An American in Paris" with the lovely young Leslie Caron and the wisecracking Oscar Levant, but it has never worked for me as a movie, despite the great Gershwin music.)

(2) The Band Wagon (1953, directed by Vincente Minnelli) is my favorite of all the MGM musicals. The Mickey Spillane parody, featuring Cyde Charisse as the noir femme fatale and Fred Astaire as her intended patsy who won't be one, may be my favorite MGM production number. It has much, much more going for it, however, including the very funny Oscar Levant and Jack Buchanan... and that song (That's Entertainment). I'm not at all sure that it is better than "Singin' in the Rain." Both are indispensable.

(1) Cabaret (1972, directed by Bob Fosse) is my favorite musical, and a movie that has content beyond romance and putting on shows. It has delightful production numbers, some great songs (even if I sort of hate myself for liking two of them), and sexual ambivalences distinct from the antagonism that one knows will turn to romance in old-fashioned musicals. I love the big finale in Fosse's "All That Jazz," but don't think that that is a great movie or a great musical movie. And Roy Schieder is considerably less sympathetic than Michael York and considerably less charismatic than Liza Minnelli (who won an Oscar as Sally Bowles in "Cabaret"; Joel Grey's sly MC picked up the award for best supporting actor and Fosse won the best director Oscar for his great direction, a tough but right choice IMO despite the formidable competition of Francis Ford Coppola for directing the first "Godfather").

Some other good/enjoyable musicals:
The [delirious] 5000 Fingers of Dr. T
the filmed stage productions of Stephen Sondheim's "Into the Woods," "Sweeney Todd," " and "Sunday in the Park with George," and of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "The Pirates of Pezance" (with Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Angela Lansbury)
Zoot Suit
Bells Are Ringing
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (which needs more tunes)
The Young Girls of Rochefort
On connaît la chanson (Same Old Song)
8 Women (if it's considered a "musical"; it's the only Ozon movie I like)
Saturday Night Fever
Babes in Toyland
The Gang's All Here
Oklahoma! (oversugared, but when I was 6, I was terrified by Rod Steiger in it)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (we'll see how well it ages!)
Little Shop of Horrors
Lili (once upon a time)
Show Boat (both incarnations)
Jesus Christ Superstar
Meet Me in St. Louis (though it gives me a toothache)
Easter Parade
Green Pastures and Hallelujah!
Robin and the 7 Hoods (if it counts as a "musical")
Viva Maria! (if it counts as a "musical")
Esther Williams musicals? (it's hard to be disappointed when one has such low expectations, but their value is their campiness)
Copacabana (Groucho Marx and Carmen Miranda! She's funnier than Zeppo, which is very faint praise and has to be mentioned somewhere, though no one would mistake this for being a good movie)

Overall disappointing musicals with some good parts:
"West Side Story" has great songs and great choreography and compelling performances by Rita Moreno, George Chakriris, and Russ Tamblyn. My problem is with the leads: Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer. I have no trouble accepting Chakiris as Puerto Rican, but balk at Wood, and there is no chemistry between the modern Romeo and Juliet.

"The Great Ziegfeld" (as much as I adore Luise Rainer and enjoy William Powell) and "The Ziegfeld Follies"

"Gigi" (a musical starring Leslie Caron that doesn't have even one dance number for her?! but "I Remember It Well" has grown on me with age)
Evita (I loved the play and can't put my finger on why the movie doesn't quite click—not, I think, Madonna or Banderas)

"A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" (the young leads are so vapid, but Phil Silvers is entertaining)

"South Pacific" (Ray Walston and John Kerr are excellent and Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote many great songs; the main problem is the leads, Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi, though it also drags)

"DeLovely" (despite fine performances by Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, the Cole Porter songs, and some imaginative staging doesn't work for me)

And Fiddler on the Roof , Camelot, Footloose, Hair, High Society, Guys and Dolls, Paris Blues, Hello Dolly, Kiss Me Kate, Silk Stocking, Bamboozled, Yankee Doodle Dandy, tom thumb, There's No Business Like Show Business, The Harvey Girls, Kismet, Holiday Inn.

Musicals so disappointing that I consider them unwatchable (in rough descending order): Night and Day, Till the Clouds Roll By, The Horn Blew at Midnight, all of the Crosby/Hope/Lamour road pix and the MacDonald/Eddy ones, Paint Your Wagon, Rent, Chorus Line, On a Clear Day You Can Forever,The Wiz, all the Elvis Presley movies, The Producers, Athena, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Loves of Carmen, tom thumb, Torch Song, 7 Brides for 7 Brothers, Tommy, Grease, Rich Young and Pretty,The Eddie Cantor Story, My Heart is Calling You, The Triplets of Belleville, A Star is Born (Streisand version), A Mighty WInd, Babes in Arms and Babes on Broadway (more hideous blackface!), Sombrero, Can't Stop the Music, Finian's Rainbow, Brigadoon, Annie, The Little Prince, Sextette, and (do I need to mention it?) Xanadu.

P.S.I haven't seen more than bits of
Gypsy, Mary Poppins, 1776
but doubt that they would make it into my top-20 if I saw the rest of them. And I haven't seen "The Last Days of Disco," "Dames," "Dance, Girl, Dance," "Artists and Models," "Roman Scandals," or "Lady of Burlesque."

And the ones I'm most ready to watch again are "Damn Yankees," "Stormy Weather," and "New York, New York." (I've only seen each of them once; I don't know how many times I've seen my top four picks!)

©2006, Stephen O. Murray

I've also posted lists of then 10 greatest films,
my favorite films.
best non-English-language movies by country,
best noirs,
best westerns not set in the American west,
best romantic movies with happy endings,
best romantic movies in which the lovers do not end up together for reasons other than the death of one or both of them,
best romantic movies including the death of a lover,
best religious movies celebrating a religious figure,
best movies portraying the dark side of religion,
best holidaze (Christmas and Thanksgiving) movies,
best rock-n-roll movies,
best gay feature film,
best gay documentary film,
best cult movies,
best black comedies,
best World War II movies,
best post-WWII German films,
best epics,
and best anti-epics,

best movies of the 1940s, the 1980s,
1939, 1999, 2000, 20001, and 2005.

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