History of Musical Film

Screen 1950s I: End of an Era

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996-2003)

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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.

Better Efforts

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:

White ChristmasSongwriter 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 the song "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. It grossed more than $20 million in its initial release, and has become a perennial holiday season favorite on television.

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).

MGM Gems

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 –

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 . . .

Next: Film 1950s - Part II