The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2–1939 to 1959
Compiling a list of 40 top film musicals was quite difficult because there are so many sub genres. My personal favorites tend to be the movies where the story is more three-dimensional. Many musical movies are fun but often silly. I prefer the ones that have a strong story line and are perhaps even dramatic. Think of Fiddler on the Roof or Dreamgirls. The Rodgers and
Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe musicals always have mostly three-dimensional characters and true-to-life situations at hand. Of course, these types of musicals originated on Broadway, where the play is the thing. My other favorite type of musical is the kind created and written expressly for the screen and is therefore much more cinematic. Think of Mary Poppins and La La Land.
Also, in selecting my favorites, I always defer to talent, especially when it’s singing or dancing that you can’t see anywhere else. When an audience paid money to see Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, or Ann Miller, it was worth it because nobody else in the world could do what they did.
My list of favorites may seem to have a lot obvious choices, but when you are discussing the greatest of all time you’re bound to come up with the well-known, well appreciated, and well loved!
I haven’t included any animated film musicals because there are so many beloved Disney films and they are very varied as to how “musical” they are. Some have a complete score, some have just a song or two. The discussion of what the best animated film musicals are should be on an entirely different list. I love them but I consider them a different genre than live-action movie musicals.
Here is my list of 40 of the best film musicals of all time, in chronological order. Because there are so many of them,
and so much to say about them, the list is divided into two installments: From 1939 to 1959 here and, in Part 3, from 1960 to the present.
For those interested in digging a little deeper and discovering something new but classic to watch, I will be following my “best of” list with a selection of terrific but antique musicals from the 1920s and 1930s.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
I start my list with this obvious classic because technically and dramatically it’s perhaps the first truly excellent example of an integrated musical with a strong story line. The decades of success for generation after generation prove how perfect this film is. It’s also a technological masterpiece for its time, and edited within an inch of its life. (Although kudos to Arthur Freed for convincing his MGM bosses not to cut “Over the Rainbow.”)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
The last great black-and-white musical. James Cagney’s performance and George M. Cohan’s rousing songs make this the most exhilarating movie musical ever. Cagney rightfully won a Best Actor Academy Award for his spirited performance.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
This period masterpiece just gets better and better with time. Color, music, and performance (thank you, Judy) make this film timeless. It’s Vincente Minnelli’s first masterpiece musical and another triumph for Judy Garland, solidifying her place as one of the most talented and biggest stars in Hollywood.
The Pirate (1948)
Not wildly successful in its day, nonetheless, today Vincente Minnelli’s petite pirate-movie masterpiece looks mind blowingly weird and wonderful. Judy and Gene look like they are having the time of their lives, and they certainly tear up the screen in this one! Wow!
Easter Parade (1948)
What a great assemblage of once-in-a-century talent: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, and Irving Berlin. Once again proof of Judy Garland’s magical movie-star powers. Fred has never looked more at ease than in this film—and that’s saying a lot!
An American in Paris (1951)
It’s the MGM Musical factory in full force! Gene Kelly, George Gershwin, and Vincente Minnelli, with oodles of money to spend. An American in Paris is even a better star vehicle for Gene Kelly than his Singin’ in the Rain. And the more realistic love story propels the high-art ballet finale into the emotionally heartwarming.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
What can you say? It’s the best movie musical ever—plain and simple! And don’t forget it’s also one of the funniest movies ever made, thanks to Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s flamboyant screenplay and a genius comic performance by Jean Hagen.
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)
This one holds up better than its leading ladies’ undergarment foundation! It certainly has stood the test of time for fun and wit. Not only Marilyn Monroe but every cast member—most notably Jane Russell, who nearly steals the picture—is superb. And who would have thought the great adventure director Howard Hawks knew as much about movie musicals as Vincente Minnelli?
The Band Wagon (1953)
A very special Minnelli, Comden, and Green backstage classic. This film is visually stunning and superbly elegant. The songs are sophisticated and the dances are the crown jewels of movie musicals. The film is also high comedy, and is often
“Dancing in the Dark” from The Band Wagon
dry and ironic. It’s 1950s ultra-stylish MGM and it’s musical-comedy caviar—not to everyone’s taste but still the best.
Kiss Me Kate (1953)
This freewheeling adaptation of the perennial Broadway smash has the freshness and vigor of an original MGM musical. George Sidney could not have done a better job transferring the all-time great Cole Porter score to the screen, Add Ann Miller and Bob Fosse, and the joie de vivre leaps off the screen—literally! It’s in 3D!
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Stanley Donen’s second solo sojourn into directing, and it is an all-time joyous romp. So fresh and robust, your heart will leap and your jaw will drop at the lusty choreography. Howard Keel and Jane Powell are at their best.
White Christmas (1954)
It’s no question this film was designed to be pure entertainment, and with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, and Vera Ellen on hand, it’s musical comedy perfection any time of the year. It’s all splendidly directed by Michael (Casablanca) Curtiz. Who would have thought the great dramatic director Curtiz knew as much about movie musicals as Howard Hawks— sorry, I meant Vincente Minelli!
Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
This is a truly excellent dramatic musical. The songs are all performed in realistic situations so the dark story can be faithfully told. It’s the true story of Ruth Etting, a 1920s and ‘30s singing star, and her gangster boyfriend who pushes her to the top until their relationship explodes. Doris Day and James Cagney couldn’t have dreamed of having better or more appropriate roles to play, and they go above and beyond expectations. It’s an expensive and stylish Joe Pasternak* musical and still very powerful today. (* Up to this point, Pasternak ran one of the three musical movie units at MGM, producing more saccharine and operetta-like films for the likes of Mario Lanza, Katheryn Grayson, and Jane Powell. Love Me or Leave Me was quite a change of pace for him!)
Repeated viewings of this Rodgers and Hammerstein Broadway classic will reveal it might just be one of the best movie musicals ever made. Technically perfect in every way, the cast and the singing are exactly right. Fred Zinnemann’s (High Noon, A Man for All Seasons) masterful direction leads the superb cast. Who would have thought Gloria Grahame (as Ado Annie) was a genius comedienne? Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones are arguably the best natural singers ever cast in a musical film. Their voices extended so effortlessly from their speaking voices, they were perfect for book musicals like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s. (Carousel was their next lovely film musical.)
This widescreen film version of Oklahoma! looks magnificent on a big TV screen, but it still can’t compare to seeing it on a big screen in a theatre, as it was designed to be enjoyed in 30 frames per second Todd-AO 70mm with nine-track stereo! What is especially powerful on the big screen, and what you can’t really experience at home, is the magnificent Agnes DeMille choreography.
The King and I (1956)
Simply one of the most beautiful and dramatically powerful films ever made. At the center are the fascinating performances of Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner. Again, the story, music, and lyrics by Rodgers and Hammerstein propel the film to a different and higher level above most 1950s film musicals.
High Society (1956)
Over the years, I have become more enamored with this somewhat static but very entertaining musicalization of The Philadelphia Story. And a fine musical it is, with classy songs by the perfect man to do it—Cole Porter. With eight new songs directly for the screen, Cole solidified his position as the unofficial in-house song writer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This film is much better on the big VistaVision screen, where you can see the subtlety of Grace Kelly’s wicked “stuck-up heiress” performance. But any film that also stars Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong is an instant classic.
Funny Face (1957)
It’s the ultimate mid-century high-fashion celebration. Today it can be enjoyed for being the stylish time capsule it is. Perhaps it’s even Audrey Hepburn’s best movie. It’s certainly her best light-hearted movie. And that’s saying a lot. The combination of her gamine perfection and Fred Astaire’s and Kay Thompson’s “Pizzazz!” are “S’Wonderful!”
South Pacific (1958)
With an unforgettable song score by Richard Rodgers (music) and Oscar Hammerstein (lyrics and book), this expansive film version was destined to be a box-office blockbuster. It was the third highest-grossing film of the 1950s (after The Ten Commandments and Around the World in 80 Days). It also remained enormously popular on subsequent re-releases, and on TV and then video. This is due to the fine and still timely racial story, sensitively told by director and co-book writer Joshua Logan.
Maybe the best example of the vigorous use of color filters in South Pacific
But this movie is also infamous for the color filters cinematographer Leon Shamroy employed—perhaps too vigorously. However, I recently attended a Fathom Events presentation where I got to see the film on a big, wide screen. The clarity and the perfect balances of the color in that showing made the filters much more tolerable and dramatically interesting. Along with the gorgeous musical adaptation (by Alfred Newman) in multi stereophonic sound, South Pacific seemed better than ever.
This original screen musical written by Lerner and Loewe is one of my personal favorites. First of all, Loewe’s score is some of the best film music written in the 20th Century. When the main title music starts playing the gorgeous melody of “Gigi,” I think it had the Academy Award for Best Picture all wrapped up then and
there. Add to that a realistic French cast, actual Parisian locations, and a rather adult feminist story. Collette’s Gigi is the hero here, and she is smarter, cleverer, and saner than all the men and adults in 1900 Paris. The result is a very thought-provoking yet visually gorgeous film. Released in May 1958, it’s a prime example of how sophisticated film musicals had become within a few short years.
Black Orpheus (1959)
A daring and beautiful Technicolor musical retelling of the Greek myth, Orpheus in the Underworld, this film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 1959. It pulsates with tension and exciting Brazilian rhythms. The music score is by the great Antônio Carlos Jobim and includes several songs that became quite popular here in the U.S. with English lyrics. Remember “A Day In the Life of a Fool?” (PS—the new Broadway hit musical Hades Town is based on the same story.)
In Part 3, I will be offering up my choices for the best movie musicals from 1960 to the present.
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.