15 Great “Antique” Movie Musicals

15 Great "Antique" Musicals

Although there are very many interesting and even mind-blowing movie musicals from 1927 through the 1930s (think of Busby Berkley), most are quite antique now and the stories often unbelievable and silly. But they are fascinating from an historic point of view, and the ones I’ve listed here are hugely entertaining and well worth seeking out.

Sunny Side Up (1929)

This is the first original musical written directly for the screen. The terrific songs are by DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson, the great songwriting team of the 1920s. In fact, they had so many hits (like “The Best Things in Life are Free” and “Birth of the Blues”), they were the envy of the Gershwins. They left Broadway and relocated to Hollywood, where they wrote a string of hits for this movie and its lovely star, Janet Gaynor. Included in that score was a tribute to the new medium entitled “If I Had a Talking Picture of You.” It should be noted that the Fox company wanted a new full-length musical to show off its sound process, which was different from VitaPhone, used over at Warner Brothers and MGM, which used large, cumbersome records. Fox had a different idea—they put their sound right on the film in a track! That way it never went out of sync. Eventually, of course, Fox sound became the standard—and it was this funny and delightful musical that proved it was the way to go.
available on DVD-R

15 Great "Antique" Musicals
The Show of Shows (1929)

This is Warner’s big, big, BIG answer to MGM’s smash Hollywood Revue. And what was Warner Brothers’ answer to MGM’s new hit song “Singin’ in the Rain?” What else? “Singin’ in the Bathtub”! But my favorite segment is Rin-Tin-Tin and Myrna Loy (in Asian face) being serenaded by a very Jewish-looking Nick Luas dressed as a Chinese chef singing “Li-Po-Li . . . I’ve stolen all your rice cakes,” And all in early Technicolor yet!
available from the Warner Archive Collection

 

Whoopee! (1930)

This was Eddie Cantor’s biggest Broadway smash, and in 1929, Florenz Ziegfeld, its producer, brought the entire stage production to Hollywood to be filmed in (two-strip) Technicolor. It’s a wonderful record of how and what Broadway musicals were in the 1920s. Eddie Cantor and, more importantly, Busby Berkeley stayed in Hollywood, where their careers flourished. Lucky for us!
available from the Warner Archive Collection

The King of Jazz (1930)

This is a two-color Technicolor super spectacle from Universal Pictures in 1930. They pulled out all the stops trying to catch up with MGM and Warner Bros. in the musical-revue genre. Unfortunately, the movie took so long to finish, it came out a few months after the stock market crashed and it never achieved the popularity of other Roaring Twenties movie-musical extravaganzas. But it is 

Rhapsody in Blue, with a section of the Technicolor footage restored

absolutely a must-see for its innovative cinematography, musical staging, and George Gershwin himself performing Rhapsody in Blue—albeit in two-tone Technicolor teal.
available from The Criterion Collection

 

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Jeanette MacDonald and the young Maurice Chevalier made several very sophisticated musicals together, and they are all quite charming and clever. Love Me Tonight is one of the very best because its rather progressive cinematic techniques broke new ground for the musical movie. The opening number, “Isn’t It Romantic?” goes from location to location as the tune travels in the air. It starts with Chevalier as the leading man and ends up with Jeanette as the leading lady. It’s a wonderful setup for the upcoming romantic story. The concept and editing paved the way for many more cinematic screen musicals. The original score is by the great Richard Rodgers (music) and Lorenz Hart (lyrics). It has the wit and infectiousness of the best of Broadway, yet it’s all Hollywood.
available from Kino Video

 

42nd Street (1933)

This is the  original backstage Broadway musical, which spawned a whole generation of imitators. Wildly campy but wildly fun thanks to Busby Berkeley. But wait! There’s a pretty good dramatic story at its core: Warner Baxter (at his best) plays the nerve-frayed and dying stage director of the show. The film was a phenomenon in its day and brought back the movie musical as a popular genre. Staging director Busby continued his show-biz fantasy spectacles in Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, ’35, and ’37, and many other Warner Brothers musicals, The numbers are all worth seeing, at least in part.
available on Blu-ray, for streaming on Amazon Prime, and for download on Kaleidescape

Evergreen (1934)

This film is rarely shown now but, in its day, it was very popular, especially in the U.K. It’s still critically popular due to its strong plot, engaging performances, and catchy Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart song score. (“Dancing on the Ceiling” included.) It’s the British equivalent of an Astaire/Rogers or Busby Berkeley film. Director Victor Saville did a classy and brisk job here. Everyone is at their 1934 best.
available on DVD and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Naughty Marietta (1935)

It’s amazing how fresh & funny this Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy operetta feels tday, especially considering it’s adapted from Victor Herbert’s great Broadway blockbuster of . . .1905! Frank Morgan and Elsa Lancaster help keep it fresh and witty.
available from the Warner Archive Collection

 

Born to Dance (1936)

It’s tapper Eleanor Powell’s best. It also has a great score by Cole Porter written especially for Eleanor and . . . Jimmy Stewart! It’s all “Easy to Love”! Also, note: It’s a little-known fact that Eleanor Powell conceived and choreographed all her own dance numbers!
available on DVD and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

Swing Time (1936)

Directed by George Stevens (Shane, A Place in the Sun, Giant), Swing Time is certainly one of the best Astaire/Rogers musicals. Fred and Ginger are at their most magical, and the score by the great Jerome Kern (lyrics by Dorothy Fields) has a touch of gravitas some of their other vehicles don’t have. The songs start out light and buoyant, like the fabulous number “Pick Yourself Up,” but as the somewhat cohesive plot 

continues, it becomes lovely and heartfelt with “A Fine Romance” and the Academy Award-winning “The Way You Look Tonight.”
available from The Criterion Collection and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Shall We Dance (1937)

I believe Shall We Dance, one of the best Astaire/Rogers classics, to be the earliest film where story and music combine effectively. A great Gershwin score, good story, and Fred and Ginger at their classiest.
available on DVD and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Maytime (1937)

It may be hard for serious film lovers to admit, but many of the films of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy are great pieces of cinema. MGM put all their glamor and “A-film” know-how and money into the MacDonald/Eddy pictures. Of course, the singing and musical aspects of these films seem like they are from another planet, let alone another century, today, but in Maytime the drama is on equal footing with the music. It’s believable and interesting thanks to the careful direction by Robert Z. Leonard and the dramatic performance of John Barrymore. Rose-Marie and Naughty Marietta may be the singing couple’s most famous films, but Maytime is the best one
available from the Warner Archive Collection and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

The Great Waltz (1938)

Now this one is from another century—the 19th Century, that is! But Johann Strauss Jr. wrote the most infectious and popular music of the 1880s. This film serves his music well, with thrilling arrangements by Dimitri Tiomkin. The magnificent Academy Award-winning black-and-white photography alone makes this definitely worth seeing.
available from the Warner Archive Collection and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

And, finally, two of the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies:
Strike Up the Band (1940)

The youthful high-school band story is believable even today. Great songs, wonderful production numbers, and Mickey and Judy at their most lovable!
available from the Warner Archive Collection and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Babes on Broadway (1941)

But this is my favorite Mickey & Judy movie. It’s 

got the song “I like New York in June / How About You?” And a spectacular (if hysterically offensive) finale to end all finales.
available on DVD and for streaming or purchase on Amazon Prime

 

Anyone looking to dive deeper into the history of these early gems will find a wealth of anecdote and information in Richard Barrios’ superb A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. I can’t recommend it enough.

 

Gerard Alessandrini

RELATED POSTS

Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X,The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.

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