November 14, 2011

20 My Favorite Musicals

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.


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


  1. Great list. I saw some Youtube clips from The Band Wagon and A Star Is Born, and I'd like to watch them soon.

    One musical that isn't on your list that maybe should be is Mary Poppins. I saw it years ago, but still remember much of it and love it. Some of the best songs there (I Love to Laugh, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious (sp?), Step in Time, Feed the Birds...) and great characters.

  2. R.D., can't disagree with any of your choices. Any list that has the sublime "Love Me Tonight" in the top five is OK by me. I prefer "Footlight Parade" to "Gold Diggers of 1933" only by a hair, but I think they're both amazing films, with the non-musical moments as mamorable as the big production numbers.

    I've been watching some Roy Rogers and Gene Autry movies on the Westerns Channel and surprised how many of them, especially in the case of Rogers, are as much musicals with lavish production numbers, as they are westerns.

    I'v always loved musicals and never even minded musical numbers in Abbott and Costello or Marx Bros. movies. In fact, I really look forward to the Andrews Sisters doing one of their specialities in the early A&C movies.

    Still, why I love the genre, nothing is as painful to me as a bad musical. A bad horror movie can be laughed at as a piece of ripe cheese, but a bad musical is particularly hard to overcome. In bad musicals they're just trying so, so hard, usually to embarassing effect.

    If I had to list the worst movie expereinces of my life, two of the top five would be the loathsome "Moulin Rouge" (2001), and still the most awful time ever spent in a movie theater, and the cringe-worthy "Song of Norway" (1970.) I'm getting a headache just thinking of them.

    But instead let's celebrate the great musicals and anyone intersted in exploring the genre would do well to use your list as a guide.

  3. I noticed that your list did not include any Fox musicals. While I'm not claiming that they're major works of art, many of the Fox productions are fun, bouncy, colorful, with some great performers. My own favorite is THE GANG'S ALL HERE, which not only has some utterly amazing production numbers by Busby Berkeley (including 'The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,' a number that must be seen to be believed), but also has the blazing energy and star power of Carmen Miranda. Miranda is treated as a camp figure today, but she was a wonderfully talented singer and dancer who could deliver a musical number like few other performers.

    You had mentioned that you could not sit through a viewing of SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. This is one of those musicals that people love not for its songs but for its dance numbers, so that might account for its classic status today. My own feeling is that the dances leave me cold after a few viewings; they have an overproduced quality that makes them seem mechanical. But they are extraordinarily well danced by a fine cast of dancers (including Jacques D'Amboise, for many years a star of the New York City Ballet).

  4. Great list! I know your definition is more limiting than mine is and I admit my definition is rather broad. I posted my list here. You need to see The Sound of Music! It's my #1!

  5. I was off-line yesterday because of a power outage in my area, but I would like to thank everyone who has left a comment so far.

    HKatz, it's been awhile since I saw "Mary Poppins," and I did like it, though not quite enough for it to make the list here. As for many viewers, for me the miscasting of Dick Van Dyke is a problem that's difficult to get around. I suppose Disney felt they needed a known actor to offset the fact that Julie Andrews was at the time unknown to moviegoers. His persona was so well-established by his tremendously popular TV series (which I watched faithfully and loved) that it was hard to adjust to such a change in him and interfered with my accepting him in this part.

    Kevin, I'm not sure why I prefer the other two 1933 Warners musicals to "Footlight Parade," but I suspect it's because for me there is a greater disconnect between the big musical numbers at the end and the rest of the movie. But it does have my absolute favorite Busby Berkeley production number, the glorious "By a Waterfall," and of course Cagney and Blondell are always a treat. You make an interesting point about movies of the 30s and 40s casually including musical performances, whether by the stars or in the background. It seems like movies of the time no matter what the genre had an almost obligatory night club (or in Westerns, a saloon) sequence with somebody or the other performing. Maybe that's because sound with singing and music were still selling points; the music on the radio was to the 30s-40s what TV was to the 50s-60s and computers/computer games to present times.

    GOM, my #26 and #27 are technically Fox productions, but I know what you mean--the Alice Faye-Betty Grable-Dom Ameche type of musical of the 30s and 40s. I noticed that none of these were on the WitD list either, which surprised me. But then the Warners musicals of the 30s have experienced a revival of interest recently, so maybe the classic Fox musicals are next. In recognition of their absence on either list, I did watch "Alexander's Ragtime Band" the other night. I hadn't seen it in many years and did enjoy it. I was especially impressed with Alice Faye, and it was interesting to see the young Ethel Merman, particularly singing "Heat Wave," and at her best, which is in small doses. (On the screen at any rate. I find her oversize presence strains the confines of the screen.) I did see "Springtime in the Rockies" a few years ago and liked it. It was on TCM and was shown (only the one time, as far as I'm aware) as part of their spotlight on Technicolor. I see this kind of movie mostly on TCM, and until recently they rarely showed any Fox movies. I have seen excerpts from "Gang" and it looks interesting. I'm putting it in my DVD queue along with "On the Avenue" and should be seeing them before long.

    Jon, I saw your list at WitD, and that was one of the reasons I felt I needed to explain the absence of "The Sound of Music"! It's an oversight I plan to address soon with a viewing of the movie. I think that when defining what is a musical, you have the perennial lumpers vs. splitters dichotomy. I'm a splitter in this area.

  6. I am thrilled that you have followed up what was surely one of the greatest single performances by anyone involved in the WitD countdown with a list of your own. You answered some questions there with THE SOUND OF MUSIC and OLIVER!, as I was curious as to what is actually thought of either. So the former you haven't seen and the latter is tough getting though. You surprise me with that admission on FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, since I can't fathom that reaction. But of course I speak as someone who has alway sbeen a huge fan of that score and its theatrical forerunner, so I must understand that we all don't have teh same taste. As far as your own, the list you present here confirms that yours is stellar and discerning. A ballot from you would have been a big asset as it turns out.

    But I will beg, urge, cajole, will do anything to get one from you for the April COMEDY POLL, which is another genre I know first hand that you are a specialist on. (Shorts are a vital part of the mix with that genre)

    As far as SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, I can more than sympathize with you, as it really requires the viewer to enter its world of barnstorming, which could well become tedious. And while I do feel the spirit of the movie is infectious, it has only a passable score and no more.

    I completely understand and respect your position on the exclusion of the opera film, and know quite well that a number of others would concur. As you stated with fairness earlier, you understood the necessity for each voter to set up their own voting parameters. It was a given with my own passion that I would go in this direction (as did one of the other voters, Dennis Polifroni) By sticking with the MGM masterpieces and other Golden Age and pre-code gems, you did offer up a discerning list with admirably stringent standards, and teh results are superlative. Looks like you are with the panel too on SINGIN IN THE RAIN's pre-eminence, a sentiment you have expressed in the past.

    Your love of Rodgers and Hammerstein shines through too, though you make no bones on SOUTH PACIFIC's difficulties as a film, even with that glorious score.

    The blogging community owes you a bundle for your ceaseless support, inspiring erudition and a true passion for the musical genre. The fact that you are now striving to widen your own experience with it speaks volumes. We can't thank you enough!

  7. Power outage R.D.?

    Boy I can sympathize with you there. I recently had to endure that horror. Ugh.

    Glad to hear you are back on track my friend.

  8. Sam, thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation. I knew I had to explain about "The Sound of Music" and the other three because they are generally a part of anyone's list of great musicals. I can't explain my feelings about those three I named beyond saying there are movies for every individual that just don't click. I don't often give up on movies after only 20 minutes or so, but I just can't seem to make it past that point with those. I have long recognized "The Sound of Music" as an oversight on my part and will take care of that before long. I've known the music since I was in junior high school and another student brought the original cast album to music class for us to listen to, and I've always liked the music, so that should be a good way in to the film. As for "Singin' in the Rain" at #1, it as well as #2 & #3 were givens for me before I even started putting numbers to the others.

    Never fear about the comedy poll, as I've already begun thinking seriously about it!

    My power went out the evening before, just as I was about 25 minutes into the new Criterion DVD of "Four Feathers." Fortunately the power was back on the next day, and I was able to finish it that night.

  9. Glad you have your power back now, and this is a great list, R.D., on the back of your fine review. On list-making, I must say I found it very difficult to make a list of favourites for the poll and often found I ended up disagreeing with myself later! For instance, I included Astaire and Rogers' film 'Shall We Dance', which I see you have also put in your list here, but didn't put in 'The Barkleys of Broadway', after watching both of them around the same time in the run-up to the poll - but 'Barkleys' is the one out of those two that has been running through my mind ever since. I like all their films anyway, especially 'Top Hat'. I see 'Gold Diggers of 1933' is your favourite out of the three great Busby Berkeley films from that year - for me it is '42nd Street', then 'Footlight Parade', but I'm clearly in a minority there. Anyway, I've really enjoyed reading all your thoughts during the musical countdown, which always give me food for thought.

  10. Judy, one of the funny things about these lists is that if we could forget the original rankings and do them all over again, who knows how they would turn out next week or next year? You mentioned another thing, which is that when we rank the films, we haven't seen some of them in years, and we all know that movies can rise or fall--maybe not a lot, but some--in our estimation on re-viewing. (I read this time and again in the comments left at the countdown.) And there always seems to be one we forgot or one we run across later and find good enough to include. Interesting that your favorite Warners musical is "42nd Street," Kevin's is "Footlight Parade," and mine is "Gold Diggers of 1933."

    Anyway, thanks for your as always thoughtful ideas, and also for all the great, incisive writing you did for the countdown. I always sensed a real connection with whatever film you were writing about.

  11. R.D.,
    I have been out of town for about a week so I am way behind on my blogging, however I just finished reading your wrap up on the musical countdown and you own terrific list. Musicals are not on the top of my favorite genres but I do enjoy certain segments of them. My own thoughts on what constitutes a musical may be a bit broader than yours but like you an Opera musical would never have crossed my mind, nor my screen for that matter. I too have my own gaps in musical viewing. For you it's THE SOUND OF MUSIC, a film, btw I find a bigger threat to diabetes than a large daily intake of chocolate. For me, it's MY FAIR LADY, a film I do have to catch on TCM one of these days. Every time it's on, I let it slide by. I actually surprised myself when I realized that I have seen most of the films on your list, with the exceptions being FRENCH CAN CAN, KISS ME KATE, THE MERRY WIDOW, GIGI, LOVE ME TONIGHT, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and A STAR IS BORN (another big gap!). Glad to see my top three musicals (West Side Story, Singin' in the Rain and Gold Diggers of 1933) made it into your top 10. I am looking forward to seeing the just released blu-ray of WEST SIDE STORY.


  12. "For you it's THE SOUND OF MUSIC, a film, btw I find a bigger threat to diabetes than a large daily intake of chocolate,"

    LOL John!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I am awaiting the delivery of that WSS blu-ray. I know that will really be something.

  13. John, good to hear from you on this subject. With a few exceptions ("WSS," "Cabaret," & in its way "Gold Diggers of 1933" for instance), the musical is a genre that does tend to appeal to those with a sweet tooth, as you so aptly suggested. Maybe that's why the peak of the genre was in more innocent times. At least then frivolousness and artistry could be found in the same movie, which is for me the biggest appeal of the musical. As for "My Fair Lady," the social satire of the original, which comes through much more clearly in "Pygmalion," the 1938 non-musical version, takes a back seat to the great music and elaborate production values. If it weren't for the impersonal directing style, technically adroit but reminiscent of the bland prestige productions of the 1930s, it would have placed higher on my list. Cukor did better with "A Star Is Born," but I think the individual viewer's response to this movie will be determined by the response to Judy Garland. Several of the films you named are shown regularly on TCM, so I hope you're able to catch some of them soon, and happy viewing! I should add what an enjoyable contribution the several excellent reviews you wrote made to the countdown.

  14. R.D., I am, by nature, a "list person" so I had a grand time with your fabulous list! I was delighted to see Renoir's FRENCH CANCAN on your list. Not only do I love its almost artificial look but Renoir's exploration of the "art of entertainment" is rich and enlightening (a great Gabin performance is a plus, too). My favorite among your faves is probably THE MUSIC MAN (the whole cast is fine, but I don't think the movie would be a fave for me without Robert Preston). AS for SEVEN BRIDES, well, I adore it. I didn't always feel that way, but--like many movies--my relationship with it has evolved over time. I enjoy the colorful big production numbers (I disagree with my blogging chum about being overproduced). The film's best numbers are the quiet ones, such as the wonderfully odd and woeful "Lonesome Polecat."

  15. R.D., I shall do my best here, you know how I get along with musicals!

    I truly expected to read through your choices and not be able to relate to many. I'm pleasantly surprised. (making baby steps here) I LOVE all three versions of A Star Is Born. Although I cry every time I watch the Judy Garland version. I also enjoyed The Merry Widow but the original with Mae and John so that doesn't really count as a musical but I do like Jeannette.

    I tried to sit through Annie Get Your Gun the other night and I made it about 40 minutes in. I think it's the music during that period. I've seen the 2001 version of Moulin Rouge at least 40 times and I could watch it once a week because I love the songs!

    Thanks for including the voting process and how each film is considered a musical etc.
    I agree that certain films (musicals) are selected due to a certain significance to the viewer. I stay away from Oklahoma because I live in Oklahoma so that song has been run into the ground here! Ha Ha
    I'm glad I got past my fears and read your post and commented. I just checked for hives and nothing! : )
    Nicely Done!

    I sure am wordy for not liking musicals all that much.

  16. Rick, I saw "French Cancan" not long ago, the last of Renoir's "theater trilogy" of the early 50s for me. I'd seen "The Golden Coach" a couple of times and still think it's the best of the three, but I found "Elena and Her Men" (I don't think I've ever seen Ingrid Bergman give a more relaxed or charming performance) and "Cancan" pleasant surprises. The setbound approach surprised me, coming as it did from the master of plein-air filmmaking, but I also found it entirely appropriate to the subject and tone. I also saw "The Music Man" for the first time a few months ago. I had some trepidation about it--you've probably read my reservations about stage-to-film musicals--but really enjoyed it (after a rocky, very uncinematic first few minutes). It worked very well for me as a film.

    Page, I haven't seen the Streisand version of "A Star Is Born" (I confess to an aversion to her), but I have unreserved enthusiasm for the first two versions. "What Price Hollywood," which many think inspired the 1937 film, is also good, as is the 1947 Susan Hayward film "Smash-Up," (also co-written by Dorothy Parker), which switches the genders of the characters and deletes the tragic outcome.

  17. Thanks R.D.
    I'll have to give What Price Hollywood a look. I think I've seen Smash-Up.

    Oh, I actually watched The Women remake Opposite of Sex recently (a musical) With so many great actress's I expected a fun romp but boy was I disappointed. What a mess! Poor Claire Booth Luce. I can now add June Allyson singing on my list of 'never do that again'

  18. R.D. - I read your list with interest (as well as great respect for your opinions and taste - and honesty) and was inspired to cherry-pick from it to create a list of my own - in no particular order (except for "St. Louis," my #1), and incomplete):

    "Meet Me in St. Louis," "Top Hat," "Cabaret," "The Band Wagon," "A Star is Born," "Gigi," "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Funny Face," "The King and I," "South Pacific" (flaws & all), "The Gay Divorcee," "French Cancan" (which I saw for the first time recently and love).

    I can't personally recommend "The Sound of Music" - the first and last time I watched it from start to finish I also suffered the very first and one of just a few migraine headaches in my life...

  19. R.D.

    While I am smiling at Eve's response here, which does mirror some others, I can only say that it's apersonal thing. For me (for all sorts of reasons)it's an absolute joy and a towering musical film.

    I want to wish you and your wife and all the readers at THE MOVIE PROJECTOR a HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!

  20. Eve, just checked back in and saw your comment. A great list of favorites, as I would expect. I usually pick a classic musical or comedy to watch on each year-end holiday. For Thanksgiving I'll be watching "My Fair Lady." I've already chosen "Meet Me in St. Louis" for either Christmas or New Year's Day and am really looking forward to it, as I haven't seen it in several years.

    Sam, thank you, and the same to you and your family. I made cranberry sauce, cardamom apple cake for dessert, and cornbread for the turkey stuffing yesterday. Now I've got to started on that stuffing.

    Happy Thanksgiving to all!