History of Musical Film
Screen 1950s I: End of an Era
by John Kenrick
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The 1950 s were both the brightest and the saddest years for the Hollywood musical. The genre reached its zenith, with two musicals winning the Academy Award for Best Picture. At the same time, television drew millions of customers away from movie theatres and sped the death of the studios that had made lavish screen musicals possible. How sharp was the change? In the mid-1940s, 90 million Americans went to the movies each week by the late 1950s, that figure had dwindled to 16 million. This coincided with the U.S. Federal courts forcing the studios to sell off their nationwide theater chains. Shaken by these these changes, a long-profitable system fell apart with amazing speed.
By the decade's end, the major Hollywood studios disbanded most of their fulltime employees, from the rank and file tech crews to the stars, writers and directors. Now production teams were hired on a project by project basis. Without resident talents, studios stopped generating their own original screen projects and became little more than distribution companies with production facilities available for lease. The actual film making process gradually fell into the hands of independent producers. This gave low budget film makers greater creative freedom. On the other hand, the experienced production teams required to develop original screen musicals became a thing of the past. As a result, the few producers still filming musicals relied more and more on adapting works originally created for the stage.
In a business where profit margins are everything, original screen musicals were suddenly not worth the risk. Why invest time and money in developing a quality original musical when a quick, low-budget "Beach Party" movie could rake in millions? And if an even quicker and cheaper comedy or drama aimed at a teenage audience would make the same kind of maximized profit, why bother making screen musicals at all?
A number of 1950s Hollywood musicals were done on the cheap, and the results could be embarrassing. Phil Silvers' Broadway hit Top Banana (1953) was filmed right on the stage of Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre for a paltry $150,000. The result may be a unique visual record of period stage techniques, but it is a disgraceful excuse for a feature film. MGM's soundstage version of Brigadoon (1953) is far classier but feels claustrophobic, and the screen versions of Damn Yankees (Warner 1958) and Li'l Abner (Paramount 1959 look chintzy despite the presence of their original stage stars.
Even as the studio system faded, Hollywood managed to turn out a number of solid musical films -- and a few remarkable originals were scattered among the adapted stage shows. Here's a studio breakdown:
20th Century Fox filmed all of Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II's stage hits. Oklahoma (1955) and Carousel (1956) turned out well and King and I (1956) turned out even better, but South Pacific (1958) was marred by the use of annoying colored filters and the musical overdubbing of most of the cast. Fox's most successful R&H adaptation would come in the 1960s more on that later.
Warner Brothers created a series of vehicles for Doris Day, a former big-band singer who proved to be a solid screen actress. She followed up her success in such films as Tea For Two (1950) and On Moonlight Bay (1951) with a standout performance as singing cowgirl Calamity Jane (1953). Those who underestimated Day's acting ability were wowed when she played Ruth Etting in MGM's powerful musical bio Love Me or Leave Me (1955). Day joined members of Broadway's original cast for Warner's energetic screen version of The Pajama Game (1957), and made her final musical screen appearance in the underrated Jumbo (1962) the last film with musical sequences staged by Busby Berkeley.
Songwriter Irving Berlin old and new songs in the score of White Christmas (1954). Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen shared "Sisters" then co-stars Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye camped their way through a reprise, lip-synching to the ladies' soundtrack.
Paramount's White Christmas (1954) had Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye , a polished presentation by by veteran director Michael Curtiz, a trunk load of old Irving Berlin hits, plus the new charmers "Sisters" and "Counting Your Blessings." The setting was borrowed from the 1942 Crosby-Astaire hit Holiday Inn (in which Crosby had introduced "White Christmas") in fact, Fred Astaire turned down a chance to be part of this project because he felt it too reminiscent of the previous hit.
Walt Disney produced a string of animated musicals that remain classics today. Cinderella (1950), Alice In Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), The Lady and the Tramp (1955) and Sleeping Beauty (1959) all had fine scores, but superb animation was the real key to the popularity of these films. Although Disney made several live-action musicals in the 1960s, most notably Mary Poppins (1964), animated musicals remained Disney's forte right up to his final film, the Academy Award-winning Jungle Book (1967).
Whatever the other studios were doing, the best musicals were still coming from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Among MGM's under-appreciated 1950s jewels you'll find
Royal Wedding (1951) had Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling, partnering a hat rack (and making it look good), and joining Jane Powell for the knock-about duet "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life?" Stanley Donen directed, composer Burton Lane and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner wrote the score, and Lerner penned the story of what happens to a brother/sister dance team when sis wants to marry a British nobleman and big bro falls for a West End dancer (played by Winston Churchill's real life daughter). This serviceable plot was inspired by Astaire's real life story his sister Adele had ended their long partnership in order to marry a British nobleman in 1932.
Kiss Me Kate (1953) featured Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson as the battling co-stars in a remarkably strong adaptation of Cole Porter's stage hit. (The only musical ever filmed in 3-D, it is televised in a standard version.) Ann Miller gave her finest screen performance as Lois, and the exceptional supporting cast included Bob Fosse and Carol Haney in numbers co-choreographed by Fosse.
High Society (1956) boasted an original score by Cole Porter, a book based on The Philadelphia Story, and the powerhouse stardom of Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly and Frank Sinatra. Crosby and Sinatra shared "Well Did You Evah?," but this highly entertaining film could not quite match the sparkle of the comedy it was based on.
If these were MGM's "also rans," what were the landmark films? For details on the finest screen musicals that Hollywood ever made, continue on to . . .