After decades of films with no sound, there was only one way to go when audio was first introduced in 1927. The Jazz Singer used it well and turned to song and dance now that the possibilities of film were endless. The ‘Musical’ was born and with that came a genre that dominated the awards and box office for over 40 years. The following list is for all musical lovers and if you haven’t seen these classics, you definitely should soon.
1.Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Warner Bros. found its comedy in the hardest place possible when it set its all-star picture around the Great Depression. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy and choreographed by Busby Berkeley, Gold Diggers of 1933 centres around four aspiring actresses trying to make it on stage as well as survive the Great Depression. It contains direct references to it with the quips made by the ensemble as well as Ginger Roger’s performance of “We’re in the Money” that’s accompanied by showgirls dancing with giant coins. The film highlights Berkeley’s ability designing, staging and choreographing all four musical and dance sequences. AFI still regards it as one of the greatest movie musicals today.
2. Top Hat (1935)
Musical star Ginger Rogers returns once again with her most famous collaborator, Fred Astaire. Top Hat was the fourth of ten dancing partnerships for the duo, with this being the first time a screenplay was written specifically for them. Astaire plays American dancer, Jerry Travers, who comes to London to star in a show produced by Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Whilst tap dancing in his room, Jerry awakens Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) who storms upstairs to complain. Mistaking him for Horace, the mishaps then unfold in this classic screwball comedy. It also provided us one of the finest musical numbers in “Cheek to Cheek” where Astaire attempts to seduce Rogers.
3. Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Famed director, Michael Curtiz, uses his prowess to help James Cagney deliver one of his finest performances portraying real-life composer and performer, George M. Cohan. Known as the ‘The Man Who Owned Broadway’, Cagney won his only Oscar for his portrayal in this musical biopic. Although he was renowned for his gangster flicks, Cagney preferred the glamour of musical pictures and so became the first actor to ever win the Best Actor Academy Award for a musical performance. He’s dedication to the role included him breaking a rib whilst filming a dance scene, but opting to continue dancing until the scene was completed.
4. An American in Paris (1951)
Inspired by George Gershwin’s orchestral composition, An American in Paris focuses on Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), a struggling American painter in Paris. He is discovered by an influential heiress (Nina Foch) who has more than just an interest for his art. However, he falls for Lise (Leslie Caron), a young French girl already engaged to a cabaret singer. This technicolour classic has Jerry joke, sing and dance around these glorious set designs, all with this ensemble including his best friend Adam (Oscar Levant). It won six Oscars for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, including the grand prize of them all, Best Picture.
5. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Essential viewing for any musical fan, this kaleidoscopic fantasy is driven by its cast’s charm. Featuring the likes of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, Singin’ in the Rain focuses on a silent film production company struggling to make the difficult transition to sound in 1927. It has appeared twice on Sight & Sound’s list of the ten best films of all time as well as ranking fifth on AFI’s revised 100 greatest movies list. It has a wide range of classic songs, “Singin’ in the Rain”, “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Good Morning” all making AFI’s 100 song list as well. Despite appearing as the perfect film, the behind-the-scenes information reveals a differing opinion on Gene Kelly. O’Connor has stated he was somewhat of a tyrant and for the first several weeks he was terrified of making a mistake and being yelled at by Kelly. Reynolds’ also said that making this movie and surviving childbirth were the two hardest things she’s ever had to do. All this endurance provided one of Hollywood’s greatest pictures.
6. West Side Story (1961)
Spielberg has almost set himself an impossible task trying to improve Jerome Robbin’s and Rob Wise’s early 60s classic. A modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set during a New York gang war, the Jets and the Sharks steamrolled their way through the Academy Awards with 10 wins, the most for any musical film. Leonard Bernstein’s emphatic music is perfect for the long-take dance sequences included in the film. Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer may have been dubbed for the numbers but their chemistry as Maria and Tony make for a story that even Bill Shakespeare would be proud of.
7. My Fair Lady (1964)
1964 may be the best year for musicals ever. George Cukor’s previous work on A Star is Born is evident with this musical epic. The story centres around snobbish phonetics Professor Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison) who agrees to a wager that he can make flower girl Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) presentable in high society. There’s a case to be made against this film for its possible Stockholm syndrome and also for Hepburn’s British accent; but Hepburn’s charm is what leads the film throughout. It has provided classical numbers that are now second-nature to musical lovers, “I Could Have Danced All Night” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” just to name a couple.
8. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)
French New Wave director, Jacques Demy, perfectly mixes the innovativeness of new wave and the style of Hollywood musicals with this richly coloured classic. Catherine Deneuve plays a young woman who now faces a life-altering decision after she was separated from her lover (Nino Castelnuovo) by the war. Rather than over-the-top musical numbers, Demy has small talk singing forming over Michel Legrand’s music that makes for a hauntingly beautiful film. The production design has inspired many films over the years, the most known being Damien Chazelle’s La La Land that has taken a direct influence from many components of the film.
9. The Sound of Music (1965)
If you somehow have been living under a rock, or have never sat down with your family on a Sunday afternoon, you would not have seen The Sound of Music. This film is as synonymous as the Musical genre itself, with Julie Andrews as the bright apprentice nun having to rescue Christopher Plummer and his loveable family from the Nazis in the Austrian mountains. Based off a true story, Hollywood had tried to make this story before with The Trapp Family. It wasn’t until Twentieth Century Fox purchased the film adaptation rights to the stage musical in 1960 that the long process of making this classic began. “Do-Re-Mi”, “My Favourite Things” and “So Long, Farewell” all perfect examples that this film flew further than just the musical genre.
10. Cabaret (1972)
Nothing quite changed like Hollywood did in 1969, goodbye to the Golden Age and hello to the New Age of Hollywood; one that could now fill theatres with X-rated movies and still be loved by critics. Bob Fosse was one of the key figures that welcomed this change to Hollywood and incorporated it within one of the most family-centric genres around. Set in Weimar Republic Berlin, Cabaret focuses on a female club entertainer (Liza Minnelli) romancing two men whilst the Nazi Party continues to rise to power around them. The film isn’t just escapism, informing the worry of humanity as well as the explicit pleasures you can endure. It also makes an astounding case for how Minnelli really was the cover girl for this decade.