The 70 Best Musicals Countdown at Wonders in the Dark is complete. (Click here to see the results.) Taken together, the seventy reviews written for the countdown by a number of contributors are a great introduction to, and overview of, the genre. I didn't vote in the countdown, but I did contribute one post (on the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical Top Hat, no. 11) and I did follow the countdown. Now that it's over, I thought I would present my own list of favorite musicals.
The classic Hollywood musical is one of my very favorite genres, and I'll watch just about any of them, even the lesser ones, with enjoyment. One of the quirks of the WitD countdown was that each of those who voted determined what constituted a musical film (although, to be fair, I don't see how the countdown could have been conducted any other way). Quite a few films that received votes would not have occurred to me as falling within my own definition of a musical film. This made me realize that my definition of "musical" is a fairly narrow one. If I had voted, I would not, for example, have included any operas, even though several made the final cut of the 70 Best Musicals. I love classical music, but I must confess that in general the experience of watching an entire opera from beginning to end is one that is beyond my endurance. Still, I have seen a few outstanding movies of operas that I thought worked as films, but not nearly enough to be able to pick among all the possibilities with any confidence. Moreover, I'm not sure that, strictly speaking, opera movies really strike me as musicals in the movie sense. Nor did I include any animated films, four of which placed in the countdown. Because I'm not a big fan of animated movies, I just don't watch them in the same way I watch live-action movies and don't feel able to judge them the same way I do live-action musicals.
A Hard Day's Night came in at no. 44. This is another film it would not have occurred to me to include, because I don't find that it really fits comfortably with musical movies as I see the genre. The same goes for the other rock-music movies I especially like: the wonderful Quadrophenia based on the album by the Who, those two hugely enjoyable Irish musicals The Commitments and Once (no. 57), and of course the other Richard Lester-Beatles movie, Help! Coming in at no. 28 was Yankee Doodle Dandy, the musical biography of James M. Cohan with James Cagney so memorable in the lead role. Again, this is a movie that before seeing the results of the poll would not have occurred to me to include. The same goes for other musical biographies that I find especially good: I'll Cry Tomorrow, Love Me or Leave Me, The Buddy Holly Story, Coal Miner's Daughter. When I think of musicals, I just don't think of movies like these, even though they're movies and music is performed in them.
So what did make my list? I was able to come up with a list of thirty movies that I consider either masterpieces of the genre or, falling short of masterpiece status, still excellent films. There are many more musicals that I can watch with pleasure, but because the qualitative differences between them are so slight, I didn't see any sense in ranking them in any kind of order. It should be clear from the list that I prefer the classics. The most recent movie on the list is Cabaret, released in 1972. I also seem to prefer the musicals from MGM over those of any other studio. Ten of the thirty films on my list came from that studio, including fully half of the top ten and all of the top three. It's also clear that I have a strong preference for original movie musicals over stage-to-film adaptations. I'm not sure why this is except possibly that adaptations of stage musicals so often emphasize faithfulness to the original version over cinematic values. Movie musicals conceived as movies from the beginning seem to me generally more successful as films.
Another thing I noticed when comparing my choices to those of the voters in the countdown poll is that some of those who voted seemed to place a higher value on their response to the music in the movie than I did. South Pacific, for instance, which placed no. 35, has one of the loveliest scores of all musicals, and I'll go along with the voters' and commenters' consensus that its score is the best of all those the great Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote. But as much as I love the songs from South Pacific, I could never find a place for it on a list of the best movie musicals because the film version has so many obvious faults. The same goes for the film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel (no. 42). It occurs to me that some voters might also have been swayed by memories of stage productions they'd seen of some of the musicals they voted for.
Before getting to my list of favorite musicals, I'm going to repeat part of what I wrote in the review of Top Hat for the countdown, in which I explain what for me are the defining characteristics of the musical film:
The musical film is an inherently artificial genre. . . . The basic aim of the musical film is to heighten reality through contrived and often frivolous plots, simplified characterization, and the combining of speech with song and movement with dance. Artifice, stylization, and exaggeration are the engines that drive musical films.Anyway, here is my own list of the best musicals. For those that placed in the top 70 of the countdown, I've placed their WitD position in parentheses after the title.
MY 30 FAVORITE MUSICALS
1. Singin' in the Rain (#1)
2. On the Town (#16)
3. Meet Me in St. Louis (#5)
4. Love Me Tonight (#8)
5. Top Hat (#11)
6. Gold Diggers of 1933 (#3)
7. West Side Story (#4)
8 . Cabaret (#7)
9. The Wizard of Oz (#2)
10. The Band Wagon (#10)
11. A Star Is Born (#19)
12. Gigi (#22)
13. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (#12)
14. Swing Time (#6)
15. Funny Face (#45)
16. 42nd Street (#15)
17. Easter Parade (#33)
18. An American in Paris (#13)
19. My Fair Lady (#37)
20. The Music Man #(14)
21. The Pajama Game
22. The Merry Widow (1934) (#26)
23. Oklahoma! (#27)
24. Kiss Me Kate (#48)
25. Annie Get Your Gun
26. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (#56)
27. The King and I (#23)
28. Shall We Dance (1937)
29. The Gay Divorcée (#46)
30. French Cancan
I can't claim to have seen every musical ever made, so there are bound to be omissions for that reason. For one, I've never seen The Sound of Music, although I'm familiar with its score and plot, so it was not possible for me to include it. (Someday I'll have to write a post on the most shocking gaps in my film-viewing history.) There are three highly regarded musicals I've tried to watch, some more than once, but have never been able to watch for more than about twenty minutes before giving up: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Fiddler on the Roof, and Oliver! I can't say exactly what it was about these films that rubbed me the wrong way, but I do know that I couldn't face the prospect of another two or three hours of them.
If anyone has a favorite musical you think belongs in the company of the ones I did include, please mention it in a comment.
You might also be interested in:
• Top Hat (1935)
• The Best Fred Astaire Musicals Without Ginger Rogers
• Love Me Tonight (1932)
• Brief Reviews: Gold Diggers of 1933