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History of Musical Film

Screen 1940s II:
Universal, Columbia & Fox

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

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

Universal: Deanna Durbin

Deanna Durbin in Can't Help SingningOperatic ingénue Deanna Durbin remained an audience favorite, starring in more than a dozen Universal Studios musicals during the 1940s. But some of these vehicles clunked. Spring Parade (1940) featured Durbin as a young baker's assistant who sings her way to glory in Imperial Vienna. Can't Help Singing (1944) was Durbin's first adult role, with a score by Jerome Kern and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg, but the story of settlers in the Wild West seemed a strange choice for an operetta.

Durbin's vehicles grew weaker as the decade progressed, culminating in a lavish but uninspired screen version of Up In Central Park (1947) that dropped most of Romberg's charming stage score. Disenchanted with Hollywood, Durbin retired at age 27, refusing all invitations to return to performing – including a plea from Lerner and Loewe to create the role of Eliza in My Fair Lady.

Columbia: Ann Miller & Co.

Hollywood's most cost-conscious studio concentrated its efforts on low budget comedies and action films. However, Columbia also filmed a series of inexpensive black & white wartime musicals featuring statuesque tap dancer Ann Miller, including the popular Reveille with Beverly (1943). Although the presence of jazz greats Duke Ellington and Count Basie helped draw audiences, these films were made on the cheap, with production numbers that look as if they were staged in high school auditoriums. Miller soon moved on to MGM, where her outstanding dance talents found classier showcases.

Columbia's most memorable wartime musical was Cover Girl (1944), the story of a Brooklyn nightclub dancer who becomes a top magazine model. Designed as a vehicle for screen beauty Rita Hayworth (whose singing was always dubbed), it marked Gene Kelly's transition to stardom. On loan from MGM, his "alter ego" dance with a reflection of himself in a glass window proved to be the first of many classic screen moments. The number was conceived and staged by Stanley Donen, who would play a major role in Kelly's career and direct several great MGM musicals over the next ten years. Cover Girl was such a hit that MGM refused to ever again loan Kelly out for a musical role.

After the war, Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn (whose harsh managerial style won him the nickname "White Fang") decided to film Al Jolson's life story, taking the usual liberties with historic fact. For once, this parsimonious studio mounted a costly production, hiring Jolson to record the songs that actor Larry Parks lip-synched to on screen. The Jolson Story (1946) revived Jolson's popularity and led to that rarest of things, a successful musical sequel – Jolson Sings Again (1949).

The Fox Blondes

The original sheet music for the Academy Award winning song You'll Never KnowThe original sheet music for "You'll Never Know," the Academy Award winning ballad introduced by Alice Faye in Hello Frisco, Hello (1943). One of the most popular ballads of World War II, it captured the longing of separated lovers.

20th Century Fox lost a major asset when Shirley Temple reached her teen years and stopped making musicals. (She retired from the big screen altogether in 1949.) But the studio had a battery of adult female stars who continued to churn out lighthearted musicals, delighting servicemen and civilians alike. Most of these films relied on the same premise the studio had perfected in the 1930s – an all-American girl (almost always a blonde) tries to hold onto her man in the crazy backstage world of show business. For example

State FairDick Haymes, Vivian Blaine and Jeanne Crain appear on the original sheet music cover for "It's a Grand Night for Singing," the hit waltz from State Fair.

State Fair (1945) was the only Rodgers & Hammerstein musical written directly for the big screen. This gentle, reassuring bit of wartime Americana involved the adventures of an Iowa farm family at the annual state fair. The score featured "It's a Grand Night for Singing" and "It Might As Well Be Spring." One of its subplots involved a farm boy (Dick Haymes) who tries to hold onto his girl (Vivian Blaine) in the crazy show-biz world of touring bands . . . Rodgers and Hammerstein took the sacred Fox formula, reversed the genders, and didn't even feature a blonde star.

As impressive as all these films were, one studio turned out a consistetnly superior musical product throughout the decade.

Next: 1940s Film Part III - MGM