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20 Musicals From Warner Bros

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.

Grayson's Hideous Gowns: the boob dress, assymetric doilies, muppet shoes

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?


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Reader Comments (18)

So, what are the other two you haven't seen?

There's absolutely no comparison between the '36 and '51 Show Boats. Irene Dunne lords it all over Kathryn Grayson, James Whale is a more dynamic director than George Sidney, and Paul Robeson plays Joe, which would pretty much win it for the older film even in the absence of anything else. Its absence from DVD is a perversity

The only thing the '51 has going on that works at all, I'd say, is Gardner; she's obviously miscast as a tragic mulatto, but the sexual self-confidence is perfect. And I guess the whole MGM in the '50s Technicolor thing is good, but as you point out, that means we have to deal with that costume design. "Muppet shoes" = laughed out loud

February 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim

Slightly off-topic, but that 24601 shirt is awesome.

Also, I might have to pick up that collection. I haven't seen most of them, but there are a couple of gems in there that I'd love to own.

February 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonny

jonny -- at $60+ it's only like $3.33 a movie ;) ...yep, i had to have the shirt.

February 17, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

Tim -- the Jazz Singer and Viva Las Vegas.

February 17, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

The Show Boat entry reminds me of Tom & Lorenzo Musical Monday posts. Show Boat was among them and while it is hard to pick a favorite post, this was pretty classic and hysterical:

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

Reminds of Tom and Lorenzo's hilarious recap of Show Boat:

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterCMG

My unseen 3 include Show Boat, Viva Las Vegas and Camelot.

I understand we live in a very different landscape of corporate ownership today, but it somehow feels like a desecration to have all those great Freed Unit and other MGM movies in a set called "Best of Warner Brothers". Call it Time Warner or make it a TCM presents or something, but don't use the exact name of the studio that was the cross-town competition (as in the 1954 Best Original Score Oscar race) to refer to MGM movies.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Darr

ZOMG! Jelly...

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Didn't realize it was so long since the last Broadway revival of Showboat. I feel old... Coincidentally, I've been looking for that cast recording recently on itunes, but had no luck. I may need to order an actual CD.

I'd love to see a new film and/or theatrical version - the music is really beautiful.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusanP

I'm going against the tide and saying that I prefer this version of Show Boat to the earlier one. It might be a case of nostalgia since I watched this version so many times when I was a kid.

Anyway I do agree that the designer went color crazy with all the costumes and seemed to have a particular vengeance against Kathryn Grayson and the hideous hues they stuck on her. However the songs are so great and Ava Gardner so affecting that I find the whole thing irresistible.

About Ava's lip syncing, it was done without her consent and much to her consternation. In her wonderful biography she pulls no punches about her indifference to stardom and the studio system but that she had actually applied herself feverishly to the part of Julie recognizing it as the plum that it was. She had inherited the role originally slated for Judy Garland when Judy melted down and was fired from the studio. Ava could sing and had recorded all the songs but at the last minute they decided to dub her and it left her bitter and disgusted. MGM was forced to release the cast album with her vocals however because of legal issues with representation of her name on the album sleeve so in a way she got the last laugh.

I also don't think there is a better version of Ol' Man River, including Paul Robeson's, than the one William Warfield performs here, it gives me chills every time I hear it. Add in the great team of Agnes Moorehead and Joe E. Brown she at her vinegary snipping best and he full of mirth and charm-it's a shame they didn't work together again so well matched are they. I have also found that this version is more relatable, probably because of the color, to younger viewers than the original. I showed it to my nieces when they were young, they loved it and both now own the DVD.

I would love to see a PROPERLY CAST! remake. By that I mean people who can actually sing!!! I could see Hugh Jackman as Gaylord, he's much more suited to the vocal demands of this than Les Miz but not sure about the rest of the cast. Please NO Anne Hathaway!

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

the last Broadway revival of Show Boat ran from 1994 - 1997, so you juuust missed it. (Elaine Stritch in the role Agnes Moorehead played in the '51 version!)

@Brian Darr, thanks for your post -- I thought I was going crazy to see all these movies from different companies presented as "Warner Brothers" productions. As if.

and speaking of the show Business, apparently some kind of contractual issues are keeping the 1936 version from getting a DVD. There were rumors of a Criterion release a few years ago, but nothing ever came of it (yet.)

Another cultural calamity.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJeeJay

I haven't seen the James Whale rendition, but the 1951 Showboat is a magnificent entertainment. Make Believe is a favorite in a wonderful score. Ava Gardner is very touching as a damaged soul, and that look on her face during the final scene as Warfield sings Ole Man River--always gives me goosebumps. Well-mounted, dramatically paced, Showboat just keeps rolling along. It would be wonderful to see a cool remake--but please, no Carrie Underwood.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

You HAVE to see the 1936 version. Irene Dunne is divine. I mean, she's always divine, but she's especially divine in Show Boat.

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRose

Rose -- i do love Dunne but i haven't yet found that movie. Hoping it plays at film forum or something soon and I notice that it's there (i'm sure i've missed opportunities. i think they did a whale retrospective a few years ago. shoulda gone then)

February 18, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I love that they included HAIRSPRAY. I mean, it's not much of a musical tbh, but a John Waters film alongside all of those others? AMAZING.

February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

I'm really excited that Nathaniel gets to see Viva Las Vegas for the first time. I consider it Elvis' best because he's finally matched (and trumped?) by the always underrated Ann-Margret. (I've got the correct movie, no?).

I've seen Show Boat probably five times and can never really remember huge amounts of it. I think I tend to zone out whenever Kathryn is on screen singing (even though I met her porn star son once at a party unless that guy was lying to me! He was impressed I knew who Kathryn Grayson was). I remember liking the crazy colors and all the movement. I guess it's because I was young and was easily impressed by all that stuff. I also remember being very confused about Ole Man River and who that guy was and what he was singing about. ;-)

For all its flaws, Show Boat was huge at the box office. You'd think by now they'd have made a TV version of this. But then I suppose they'd cast someone like Mariah Carey as Miss Julie. Sigh.

February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

As a music student (more than a film student), I'm thrilled that you included some historical context as to the importance of the play/movie regarding integration and black characters as people, not jokes.

I'd wager that the reason it hasn't been remade is twofold - it really is ridiculously long as a play (nearly 4 hours run time without significant cuts), and that the book is hiiiideously racist... You'd basically have to re-write the show to make it appropriate for the current, Disney-fied Broadway audience.

February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBilly

First thought: Dave in Alamitos Beach needs to comment more. You, sir, are awesome. Also, I find the musicals they include in this box-set fascinating. Some of it seems dubious (Camelot), others seem inspired (Viva Las Vegas ).

March 6, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

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