It would be incorrect to say that musicals were made to lift one's spirits since plenty of great musicals are as grim as any ruthless drama. But the genre lifts mine even through tears. So I was instantly in love with the new box set that Warner Bros sent. It's called Best of Warner Bros: 20 Film Collection Musicals (on sale now) and it will serve me well in March once I have time to settle in with some older movies again. I wish I had a copy to give away but I'm keeping this one all to myself - mine! mine! mine!
The collection consists of the following films, packaged in chronological order: The Jazz Singer (1927), The Broadway Melody (1929), 42nd Street (1933), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), An American in Paris (1951), Show Boat (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), A Star is Born (1954), The Music Man (1962), Viva Las Vegas (1964), Camelot (1967), Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Cabaret (1972), That's Entertainment! (1974), Victor/Victoria (1982), Little Shop of Horrors (1986), and Hairspray (1988).
Wanna know which musical I watched the first time last night? Continue reading...
Once I tore open the package I threw in Show Boat (1951) because it was one of the only three pictures here I hadn't yet seen. I was also really in the mood for Ava Gardner who was lipsyching for her life. THOSE LIPS! She even quivered them with the notes and everything. THOSE NOTES. Her character, Julie is the original star of the travelling vessel and has two of the musical's most famous songs "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man of Mine" and "Bill". (Not sure why Gardner was dubbed because her voice is quite pretty)
But Julie has a secret. She's actually biracial and married to a white man and in Mississippi at the end of the 19th century that will get you booted right out of your own movie just as its begun. Glorious exit music at least: Ol' Man River.
Ava's early exit (she pops up again later) explains Kathryn Grayson's top billing. She plays Magnolia who is swept off her feet by Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), a charmer with a gambling problem just as she's becoming a star. So suddenly we're in Funny Girl (1968) territory...albeit with much less personality. (Grayson & Keel were far more dynamic as a singing couple a couple years later for Kiss Me Kate)
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Show Boat, it's historically of major significance. In 1927 it was the first musical with integrated songs and serious themes as opposed to a revue or a musical comedy ... so it's sort of the ur musical when it comes to dramatic tuners. Given it's historical significance I was disappointed that the film hadn't been restored for DVD -- the colors bleed like VHS -- but restoration supposedly costs a million or two per picture so the studios only go there with the all time classics that people are likely to rush out and buy in big enough numbers to justify the expense (like Cabaret). It probably also doesn't help that there are two other film versions and the 1936 version is more acclaimed.
I haven't seen that earlier black and white version with Irene Dunne as Magnolia and Helen Morgan as Julie but surely it's better. At the very least it would save your unsuspecting eyes from the abso-hideous colorology of the gowns in 1951.
My eyes! My eyes!
For all of its flaws, and there are a lot of them, I found it sort of endearing. It helps that the plot is circular and Agnes Moorehead is waiting us there as we return to the boat. She made a whole career out of being a sourpuss so it's wonderful when she drops the tight lipped disapproval for a little flirty joy in the last reunion scene.
As the boat sailed away to "Old Man River," Julie looking on plaintively as her world leaves her behind, I kept wondering why there's been no Broadway revival in my 14 years in New York City? If the musical genre keeps Hollywood's interest long enough why not a third film version? It wouldn't be sacrilegious at all as remake material. The show's been revised and altered so often due to its controversial subject matter and each era's social mores that it would be tough to argue that a definitive version exists. The time is certainly ripe for looking back at this country's complex racial history and marriage-rights battles.
Have you ever seen Showboat?
What is it with musical heroines who can't stop lovin' dat (troubled) man of theirs?