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TCM Spotlight: Mad About Musicals
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Mad About Musicals - Tuesdays & Thursdays in June


This month TCM salutes a great cinematic art form, and one that has its roots placed firmly in American culture: the movie musical. Our celebration, which traces the development of the genre through the decades, coincides with the third free online course offered by TCM and Ball State University, TCM Presents Mad About Musicals, running June 3-30. This interactive experience offers a deep-dive into the world of the film musical, along with ongoing interactions with fellow fans. Click here to enroll in the course.

Co-hosting the TCM musical fest alongside our own Ben Mankiewicz, is Vanessa Theme Ament, who has worked as a Foley Artist on such films as Beauty and the Beast and Batman Returns. In addition to her sound work, Ament is also an author, musician, voice talent, songwriter and academic who currently teaches telecommunications at Ball State University.

Viewers can get into the spirit by watching our lineup that traces the development of the musical genre through the decades. Movies range from 1929's Hallelujah, which happened to be one of the first all-black films from a major American studio, to 1975's Tommy, a British film based on a rock opera by The Who.

Musicals of the 1920s and '30s saw the dawning of sound technology that made the genre possible, and its quick development into the sparkling black-and-white Art Deco musicals that put smiles on the faces of Depression-era audiences. The Broadway Melody (1929), was the first musical (and first all-talking film) to win the Academy Award® as Best Picture.

With his kinetic style and kaleidoscopic patterns, director/choreographer Busby Berkeley put his distinctive stamp on such early '30s musicals as Footlight Parade (1933), 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Dames (1934). Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy formed a charming pair in such filmed operettas as Naughty Marietta (1935), Rose Marie (1936) and Maytime (1937).

The musical's most popular star couple of the '30s was undoubtedly Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, who glided through such dance vehicles as The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937). The decade ended with a burst of gorgeous Technicolor fantasy in The Wizard of Oz (1939), featuring the young performer who would become arguably the greatest of all movie-musical stars, Judy Garland.

Musicals of the 1940s were affected by the changing times--most notably the turmoil of World War II--which made the escapism of the movie musical especially welcomed. Most major musicals were now shot in color, although James Cagney pranced to a Best Actor win in a black-and-white one portraying the super-patriotic George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).

Significant changes were being made in the areas of pre-recording, post-sound and location shooting. Meanwhile, the '40s put the spotlight on new musical stars like Betty Grable (Moon Over Miami, 1941), Esther Williams (Bathing Beauty, 1944), Gene Kelly (Anchors Aweigh, 1945 and On the Town, 1949), Doris Day (My Dream Is Yours, 1949) and Kathryn Grayson (Two Sisters from Boston, 1946 and That Midnight Kiss, 1949).

Astaire lost Rogers as his dancing partner, but he rebounded with such co-stars as Rita Hayworth (You Were Never Lovelier, 1942) and Bing Crosby (Holiday Inn, 1942). Garland emerged as the brightest star of the studio most adept at making musicals, MGM. She starred in, among others, Strike Up the Band (1940), For Me and My Gal (1942), The Harvey Girls (1946), Words and Music (1948), The Pirate (1948) and Easter Parade (1948).

Musicals of the 1950s reflected the broadening scope of contributions by directors, producers, composers and editors, along with further technical developments including, as it was put in a song from the 1957 musical Silk Stockings, "Breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound." The times may have been conservative, but the musicals were often dazzling.

Gene Kelly, a homegrown MGM dancing talent, achieved new heights in such movies as An American in Paris (1951), which was directed by Vincente Minnelli and won a Best Picture Oscar®. Other Kelly highlights of the decade included Singin' in the Rain (1952, considered by many as the greatest of all movie musicals), Brigadoon (1954) and It's Always Fair Weather (1955).

Meanwhile, Astaire--whose early years at RKO had been so sensational--entered a new Golden Age as a performer in MGM musicals including Royal Wedding (1951), The Band Wagon (1953, directed by Minnelli) and Silk Stockings. In the latter two films, Astaire found another perfect partner in Cyd Charisse. A second Minnelli film, Gigi (1958), was honored by a Best Picture Academy Award®, along with eight other Oscars® including one for Minnelli as Best Director.

A big trend of the '50s was transforming popular Broadway shows into film musicals, an endeavor that encompassed Show Boat (1951), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Guys and Dolls (1955) and Pal Joey (1957). Betty Hutton had a big success in another of these adaptations, Annie Get Your Gun (1950), and Doris Day challenged her by playing a similar character in the original musical Calamity Jane (1953).

Other originals of distinction included Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), which won an Oscar® for Best Scoring along with four other nominations including one as Best Picture; and High Society (1956), the great Cole Porter's musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story, which earned nominations for Best Scoring and Best Original Song ("True Love").

Musicals of the 1960s and '70s reflected the turbulent changes in society, the end of the Hollywood studio system, the influence of independent filmmaking and the invasion of such British talent as The Beatles in their film A Hard Day's Night (1964).

Screen adaptations of stage musicals continued apace, with two of them winning Best Picture Academy Awards®. My Fair Lady (1964) won a total of eight Oscars®, including Best Picture, Director (George Cukor) and Actor (Rex Harrison). The British-made Oliver! took home six awards including Best Picture and Director (Carol Reed).

Stage adaptations that had a favorable reception included Bells Are Ringing (1960), Gypsy (1962), The Music Man (1962), Bye Bye Birdie (1963), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), The Boy Friend (1971), Fiddler on the Roof (1971) and 1776 (1972). A less enthusiastic response greeted Camelot (1967), Finian's Rainbow (1968), Man of La Mancha (1972) and, especially, Mame (1974), starring Lucille Ball.

In the 1950s, it wasn't usual to award Oscars® to performers in musicals (although Garland came close to winning for 1954's A Star Is Born). But the Academy has been more generous to musical stars in subsequent decades. In addition to Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady, winners of the 1960s and '70s included Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1968); and Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey in Cabaret (1972), which also brought an Oscar® to director Bob Fosse. The last two films also were adapted from Broadway successes.

by Roger Fristoe
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