History of Musical Film

Screen 1940's I:
Warners, Goldwyn & Paramount

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

WWII: "Yankee Doodle Do or Die"

Holiday InnThe original sheet music cover for Irving Berlin's "Be Careful, It's My Heart," introduced by Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942). This lighthearted musical comedy was filled with the nostalgia and patriotism that were the hallmarks of Hollywood's World War II-era musicals.

Throughout the 1940s, America was either preparing for, fighting in or helping the world recover from World War II. Since movie goers needed breaks from often nightmarish realities, humor and unquestioning praise for "American values" were Hollywood's cinematic order of the day. A number of major stars (Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, etc.) served in battle, but others pitched in by providing entertainment. Almost every important musical screen star toured military camps and sold war bonds. At the same time, Hollywood's musicals, sometimes patriotic, sometimes nostalgic (and often both), provided a much needed morale boost before, during and after the war.

The songs were key attractions. In the 1940s, film songs frequently topped the pop charts. The most popular songwriters of the era all wrote for Hollywood, including Kern, Berlin, Porter, Fields, Warren, Rodgers and Hammerstein. So it is no surprise that many of the biggest hit songs of the World War II era ("White Christmas," "You'll Never Know," etc.) were introduced on screen.

As in the 1930s, each major studio had its own approach to churning out hits, what some scholars refer to as a "house style."

Warner Brothers

After the departure of Busby Berkeley, Warner Bros. had no director specializing in musicals. Occasionally, the studio dipped into its talent pool to produce musicals, most notably several biographies using existing songs.

The best, and arguably the most entertaining musical film bio of all time, was Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), which soared thanks to James Cagney's Oscar-winning performance as Broadway legend George M. Cohan. Top-rank director Michael Curtiz gave the film exceptional overall polish. This flag-waving film sanitized any controversial aspects of Cohan's life, providing a first rate morale booster for a nation at war. Thanks to frequent broadcasts on television, this film has reintroduced several generations to Cohan's most memorable songs, and kept alive a great name that might have otherwise faded into obscurity. There were many patriotic screen musicals during World War II, but none matched this one's lasting appeal, even though it was filmed in budget-conscious black and white.

Warners and director Curtiz had less success with Night and Day (1946), its Technicolor musical bio of composer Cole Porter. Even the suave Cary Grant is unable to find much humor in the lifeless screenplay, but the real embarrassment is the equally lifeless performances of Porter's great songs. The only moment of real magic comes when Mary Martin recreates her star-making performance of "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."  Otherwise, this film makes for dull, factually fatuous viewing. Sadly, Hollywood would do an even worse job with its next Porter bio, De-Lovely (2004).

In the late 1940s, Warners began a profitable series of musicals starring Doris Day, a band singer who proved to be a fine actress with an appealing screen presence. Her most memorable musicals would come in the next decade.

Goldwyn: Danny Kaye

When his 1930s star Eddie Cantor eased away from film projects,  independent producer Sam Goldwyn went in search of new musical comedy talent. He found Danny Kaye, whose zany comedy had won praise in the Broadway hits Lady in the Dark (1940) and Let's Face It (1940). Goldwyn featured the slim, nimble Brooklyn comic in a series of hilarious screen musicals, including Up in Arms (1944), Wonder Man (1945), The Kid From Brooklyn (1946) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947).

Although Kaye could be difficult to work with, he had a good professional relationship with the equally difficult Goldwyn. Kaye went on to other studios after 1947, but re-teamed with Goldwyn for Hans Christian Andersen (1952). With a delightful score by Frank Loesser ("Anywhere I Wander," "The Ugly Duckling," "Thumbelina"), it remains a perennial favorite on TV and home video more than half a century later.

Paramount: Bing Crosby

crosbymartin.jpg (16557 bytes)Rhythm on the River (1940) was no classic, but it offered innocent fun with Bing Crosby and Broadway favorite Mary Martin as struggling songwriters.

Bing Crosby remained America's most popular entertainer and Paramount's top musical star through the 1940s. He became the only person who ever reigned as Hollywood's top box office star for five consecutive years -- 1944 through 1948. Affectionately referred to as "Der Bingle," his warm vocals and laid-back screen personality made him one of the most recognized celebrities in the world, and a nation at war saw him as a reassuring presence.

"Launched by The Big Broadcast (1932), Bing Crosby's career soared in a steady arc; a trajectory ascending with greater velocity every year until, at its late 1940s pinnacle, he would be transformed from an actor-singer-star into an incontestable national icon, a match for motherhood, apple pie and and baseball."
- Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years 1903-1940 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p. 297.

Aside from Crosby's weekly radio shows and numerous hit recordings, he toured extensively to entertain the troops, raised millions for war charities, and starred in more than two dozen films. Not all were full-fledged screen musicals, but even his comedies usually included a song or two. America loved to hear Bing sing. For example

Crosby's position slipped somewhat with the rise of rock n' roll in the mid-1950s, but he remained one of America's most beloved entertainers, making top-rated appearances on stage, screen and television right up until his death in 1977. The reason for his lasting popularity is simple -- however musical styles changed, people liked Crosby. To this day, December is not complete without Bing's mellifluous rendition of "White Christmas."

Next: Part II - Universal, Columbia and Fox