Entertainment

“The Lord of the Rings” in Disquieting Times

The Lord of the Rings in Disquiet Times

Fairy tales are more than true—not because they tell us dragons exist,
but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.  —Neil Gaiman

 

My wife and I have, for the better part of the past two decades, had one unwavering Christmas tradition. Once the stockings are emptied and the paper and bows either stashed away for reuse or thrown away if ripped beyond repair, we put on our pajamas and snuggle up on the couch to watch The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition trilogy. All 12 hours of it, although as our hairs get grayer and our bedtime creeps closer to dusk, we don’t always make it to The Return of the King, the third film in the trilogy, until Boxing Day. Some years we even dig through all 21 hours’ worth of the Appendices—six discs’ worth of bonus features that remain to this day the most thorough and engaging supplements ever included with a home video release.

This past Christmas, we broke that tradition. Not for lack of time or desire, mind you, but simply due to whispers and rumors of a pending 4K/HDR remaster (or, as some claim, a full-on restoration) of the films, slated for release sometime in 2020. The wait, we both agreed, would make our next viewing that much sweeter.

That was barely more than three months ago, but it seems like years. Which may be why my wife (who’s classified as an essential worker and as such has to venture out every day in the midst of this pandemic, at a time when the rest of us are being encouraged—or ordered—to stay at home) crumpled into bed in tears late last week and said to me in a hushed half-sob, “I need the trilogy right now.” 

 

I didn’t need to ask which trilogy.

 

What I didn’t realize when I patted her shoulder and whispered an affirmative, though, is that the films we would soon watch would end up being very different from the ones we’ve known and loved for so long.

 

“’I amar prestar aen’ . . . The world is changed.”   —Galadriel, Lady of Lórien

 

The Lord of the Rings has always been a work of fiction that looked different depending on the perspective of the reader (or, since 2001, the viewer). When it was first published in the mid-1950s, audiences saw this tale of goblins and elves, wizards and dwarves, dark lords and magical rings as something of an allegory for World War II, with the One Ring symbolizing the atomic bomb, Sauron representing Hitler, and the Men of the West standing in for  . . . well, I think you can figure that one out.

 

The flower children of the 1960s latched onto the book and its pro-nature/anti-industrialization elements and subsumed it into the counterculture, making “Frodo Lives” something of a shibboleth for the hippies and the disaffected Frisbee-throwers that 

succeed them. By the time I discovered the book as a lad in the 1980s, many of us Gen-Xers viewed it as a prescient rebuke of crony capitalism and free-market fundamentalism. And of course, in the era in which Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations were released, I don’t think any of us could help viewing the story through the filter of 9/11 (though they were filmed before that dark day).

 

J.R.R. Tolkien would have bristled at all of these interpretations, despite the fact that he was somewhat responsible for them. In his foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, the Professor (as we Tolkienites call him) famously wrote: “I cordially dislike 

allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history—true or feigned—with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of the reader. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.”

 

Given that, perhaps the highest praise I can heap upon Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptations is that his films lend themselves to exactly the same sort of reinterpretation, in exactly the same way, and for many of the same reasons. Especially in the dark days that are upon us.

 

“It is a strange fate that we should suffer so much fear and
doubt over so small a thing. Such a little thing.”   —Boromir

 

Professor Tolkien began writing The Lord of the Rings in 1937, not only as a sequel to The Hobbit, but also as a way of tying it into the larger legendarium that he first started to construct in the trenches during World War I. The book ended up being so much more than that: A vehicle for his love of language and linguistics, a delivery mechanism for his own philosophy and theology, a way of working out his frustrations with Shakespeare (especially Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream). But at the heart of The Lord of the Rings are Tolkien’s own experiences in World War I, where he lost most of his college friends (save one, Colin Cullis, who died in 1919, likely a victim of the H1N1 pandemic).

 

In part, one of the things he seemed most interested in conveying with the book is the horror of war, certainly, but also the cost of victory—the way in which a person is forever changed by such experiences. More so than that, though, the Professor seems intent upon conveying why some wars must be fought, despite the cost.

The Lord of the Rings in Disquieting Times

One criticism leveled against The Lord of the Rings (both the book and the films) is that the story just takes so damned long to get started. Granted, Jackson doesn’t take as long as Tolkien did to get to the point of it all, but he does spend a half hour or more piddling around in the pastoral lands of the Shire—homeplace to the humble and diminutive Hobbits—celebrating birthdays and quibbling over inheritances, before we ever get any sense of larger looming conflicts.

 

I’ve always appreciated the importance of this prelude, because in a sense Tolkien was trying to instill a sense of respect for this sort of cheerful normalcy. In his view, this is exactly why we must occasionally endure conflict: Not purely for ideological purposes or matters of principle, but rather to protect the simpler things in life—the brewing of ales and the smoking of pipeweed, but most of all an appreciation for peace and quiet and good tilled earth.

 

“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less
than half of you half as well as you deserve.”   —Bilbo Baggins

 

But I’ll admit, I’ve never seen this extended intro as much more than a prelude. Until, that is, my wife and I sat down to watch the films this past weekend, and I saw these sequences anew. “This is the entire point,” I jotted down in the dark on a notepad I kept on my lap for the entire 12 hours we spent watching the films.

Oddly, just as these opening sequences now hold a more special place in my heart, they also hammered home just how quickly my wife and I (and many of you, I’m sure) are adapting to the new normal we’re living in. Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday party isn’t so much a celebration to my eyes now as it is a collection of potential disease vectors.

How odd it is that in just a few short weeks, we’ve been psychologically conditioned to see other people—especially in large gatherings—as a threat, merely by virtue of their existence. It’s a point of view we’re all going to have to shake eventually if we’re to thrive as a society post-pandemic, and it’s stories like The Lord of the Rings—stories about fellowship, when that’s what we’re so desperately lacking right now—that I hope will, in some small way, help dispel that dark enchantment.

 

It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see
the end beyond all doubt. We do not.   —J.R.R. Tolkien

 

More than anything else, though, it’s the underlying message about hope in the face of darkness, of perseverance when things are bad and will certainly get way worse before they begin to get better, that means so much to me right now. What the Professor conveyed with his words and what Jackson translated so beautifully into film isn’t a sense of blind optimism, but rather a defiant endurance. And it’s a message I think many of us need at this moment in history.

 

Perhaps the most striking thing about viewing the films through the lens of today, though, are the scenes that previously struck me as heartbreaking but which now seem oddly bittersweet. “The Funeral of Théodred” in particular—a scene that 

was wholly cut from the theatrical release of The Two Towers, and one of a million reasons to skip that hacked up pile of non sequiturs in favor of the amazing Extended Edition—has never failed to bring tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat. And yes, tears fell this time, too.

 

But the day before we watched The Two Towers, my wife told me about a 

work friend whose father is currently hospitalized and quarantined. She isn’t allowed to see him, and probably won’t be allowed to again before he dies. She may not even be able to give him a proper funeral. And she’s far from alone in that right now.

 

“How strange it is,” I wrote on my notepad, “that Théoden’s mourning now seems like a gift, that gathering to say farewell to a loved one seems like a luxury.”

 

Frodo Baggins: “I wish none of this had happened.” 

Gandalf the Grey: “So do all who live to see such times.
But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide
is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

 

Throughout the 12 hours of this monumental film trilogy, there’s one scene that wants or needs no reinterpretation, though it resonates now more strongly than ever. It’s also one of the few instances in which Peter Jackson and collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens actually managed to improve on Tolkien’s work. It’s the scene in which Samwise Gamgee delivers the most heartfelt of rallying monologues to Frodo Baggins in one of the duo’s bleakest moments to that point.

I’ve seen this clip shared on social media over the past few weeks almost as much as I’ve seen logarithmic graphs of exponential growth and tutorials for proper hand-washing, which speaks to the power of these films in times like these. Tolkienites like me can quibble all we want about the deviations from the source here, but this monologue cuts right to the heart of what the Professor himself valued the most in Fairy-Stories, as he called them.

 

Tolkien had no patience with those who looked down their noses at escapism, famously writing:

 

Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he
cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not
become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using Escape in this way the critics have chosen the
wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner
with the Flight of the Deserter . . . they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the ‘quisling’ to the resistance
of the patriot.

 

So, yes, The Lord of the Rings—in both print and onscreen—looks different from our current perspective, but it’s as meaningful now as it has ever been. At a time when the luckiest among us are captive in our homes—whether out of prudence or under threat of punishment—we need the escape these films provide. And we need its words of encouragement. We need to be reminded to look to the east at dawn, even if we can’t be certain our salvation lies there.

 

If we can’t safely walk through our front doors right now, at least there’s comfort in the fact that we can escape to the Shire or Lothlórien or the Plains of Rohan or Rivendell, the Last Homely House East of the Sea—places more real to many of us than the far-flung corners of earth in our own age—even if only for a few all-too-brief hours at a time.

Dennis Burger

THE BEST OPTIONS FOR WATCHING THE EXTENDED EDITIONS

While the inferior theatrical cuts of The Lord of the Rings trilogy do appear on subscription-based streaming services like Netflix and Starz from time to time, for now the only way to experience the proper Extended Editions is to buy them. With so many options available for home video purchases these days, though, you may feel a little overwhelmed by the choices, so here are my recommendations.

 

The best way to experience the trilogy, at least until the promised 4K/HDR remaster materializes, is either via Blu-ray Disc or Kaleidescape download (see below). Both feature the extensive Appendices, full of history about the book and its author, as well as how this beloved novel was translated for the screen. Both also feature the amazing DTS-HD Master Audio 6.1-channel sound mix.

 

Unfortunately, most à la carte digital streaming services just don’t do these films justice. You can generally find them sold individually or as a collection for a pretty decent price, but of these, only iTunes includes any bonus features at all, and only a few snippets from the Appendices, totaling no more than 90 minutes per film. (By contrast, the Blu-rays and Kaleidescape downloads deliver an average of seven hours of supplements per film, not including the four audio commentaries included with each.)

 

The trilogy does support Movies Anywhere, which means that if you buy it on Vudu, you’ll also be able to stream it on Amazon and iTunes and Google Play and all the rest. But no matter which digital streaming option you would usually favor—even given the Movies Anywhere option—you’re really better off going with discs or Kaleidescape download if you want the best experience, from the perspective of both presentation and bonus features.

—D.B.

To order the Extended Editions of The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, or The Return of the King
on Kaleidescape, click the images below:

"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times
"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times
"The Lord of the Rings" in Disquieting Times

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Why I Can Wait for “Lord of the Rings” in 4K

The “Last March of the Ents” scene from The Two Towers is one example of the subpar compositing
that could become even more obvious in a 4K version of The Lord of the Rings

Pretty early on in our most recent journey to Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth, it struck me how silly my wife and I were to hold off on watching The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King Extended Editions in anticipation of a 4K/HDR remaster (a professional upsampling of the 2K digital intermediate) or restoration (involving a new scan of the 35mm film elements), whichever we end up getting later this year or next year or whenever it comes. Truth be told, these films have always been a bit dodgy-looking in places even when they were first released, especially from a special-effects perspective.

 

True, the sprawling landscapes of New Zealand, cast in the role of Middle-earth, are a wonder to behold. And the costumes and prosthetics are among the best ever committed to film. But the handful of digital effects (aside from Gollum, one of the 

trilogy’s main characters) were never that great to begin with, and the compositing was pretty subpar across the board even for the day

 

Not that it really matters, since these films exist mostly in the viewer’s imagination, but their visual shortcomings can probably be blamed at least in part on the reported $250 million budget for the entire 12-hour trilogy—which, to put things in perspective, is less than twice what Sam Raimi was given to make the first Spider-man film, released around the same time (with roughly one-sixth the runtime and far fewer special effects); and it’s less than a quarter of of what Amazon is spending on its upcoming Middle-earth 

TV series (sadly now on indefinite hold). Jackson did what he could with his relatively meager budget, but if the seams showed in the early 2000s (and they did), you could forgive them for not having gotten any better in the nearly two decades since.

 

What has held up amazingly well is the film’s sound design and mixing. I’ve yet to discover any subsequent home video release that uses surround sound as effectively as the Blu-ray release (or Kaleidescape downloads) of the Extended Edition trilogy does, not only in creating such a compelling sense of space, but also in dropping the viewer right into the middle of a war.

 

The sound goes through such radical shifts of amplitude—from the quietest whispers in the dankest caverns to the thunder of 45-foot-tall pachyderms stomping across the battlefield and clashing with hordes of horsemen—that it serves as a torture test for even the highest-performance home audio systems. In fact, to this day, the Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition is the first Blu-ray I grab to gauge the dialogue intelligibility of any new speaker system or surround processor that passes my threshold for review purposes.

It’s also the reason I called my friend Anthony Grimani, world-renowned acoustician and designer, many years ago for advice on how to dampen the sound of my HVAC system, because even the subtle whoosh of air rushing through intake vents is enough to disrupt the delicate balance of this immaculately crafted audio experience. So too are any egregious reflections or standing waves in the room itself. In truth, the mix is as much a torture test for room acoustics as it is for gear.

 

More than anything else, though, the thought of this meticulous mix being tinkered with and remixed in the era of Dolby Atmos frankly fills me with dread. Pull one thread the wrong way and the entire thing will simply unravel. Fortunately, the 6.1-channel DTS-HD Master Audio mix (on Blu-ray and Kaleidescape) up-mixes beautifully into Atmos via a good AV preamp or receiver, so those of you who demand some overhead sound effects have that solace.

 

(I’ve never tested the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital+ remix available on Vudu and Amazon and other such services, but those digital releases lack the Appendices found on the disc and Kaleidescape Extended Edition releases, so you should avoid them anyway.)

 

All of this is simply to say that this most recent viewing of the films in their HD form left me convinced they may not look substantially better in 4K/HDR, and there’s a good chance that if they do by some miracle end up looking better, they could end up sounding worse. But we’ll cross that Bridge of Khazad-dûm when we get to it, I suppose.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including high-
end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of 
Alabama with
his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound 
American Staffordshire
Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date

Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date

Those who listened carefully—and knew how to read the signs—heard the first domino fall a few weeks ago when MGM delayed the release of No Time to Die, the upcoming 25th James Bond film, from an original opening date of April 3 to November 12 in light of the recent virus outbreak. At the time, it seemed a pretty drastic decision to push the opening of such a tentpole film seven months, especially after so much had already been committed to and spent on advertising.

 

Following that, we saw other premieres cancelled, as studios delayed movies in the uncertain market. The next big domino to drop was announcements from major cinema chains saying they would be voluntarily cutting capacity in auditoriums and limiting ticket sales to 50% in an effort to encourage social distancing. But as the outbreak continued to spread, pretty much all of the commercial cinemas soon shut their doors.

 

Along the way, other studios followed MGM’s example of pushing back release dates of upcoming major titles. Things like Mulan, A Quiet Place Part II, Black Widow, and F9 have all been delayed; some by months, some with no new scheduled release. We also saw multiple studios halting production of major films currently in the works such as James Cameron’s

Avatar sequels, Matrix 4, The Batman, Jurassic World: Dominion, and many more.

 

The next domino to drop was by Disney last weekend when the company upped the digital release date of Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker a few days, followed almost immediately by the announcement it would be making Frozen II available on its Disney+ streaming service months earlier than planned.

 

Then the biggest domino of them all (so far . . .) dropped this past Monday, March 16 when Universal 

Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date
Hollywood Dives Deep Into Day & Date

Studios announced it would be making three films still early in their theatrical runs available for viewing at home in a premium-video-on-demand release: The Invisible Man (released theatrically on February 28), Emma (released theatrically on March 6), and The Hunt (which just opened at theaters on March 13). As of today, you can watch any of these movies in the comfort of your own home without any special hardware for just $19.99 on platforms like Vudu, Fandango Now, or iTunes.

 

Even more surprising, in that same announcement, Universal also said that its upcoming Trolls sequel, Trolls World Tour, would debut on April 10 at home, day-and-date with its originally scheduled theatrical release.

 

Having followed the day-and-date landscape for some time, these changes—and the speed with which studios made themare nothing short of jaw-dropping.

 

Outside of the elite Bel Air Circuit—where an invitation-only group of A-listers are allowed to watch cinema content in their personal screening rooms using the same digital files sent to commercial theaters—there has been no way for “normal” people to view content still playing in theaters at home, and studios have maintained a very clear firewall of release windows to ensure that theater owners are given exclusive access to this premium content.

 

Typically, movies play exclusively in the theater for a month or so before going to premium video-on-demand (PVOD) services such as pay-per-view or airlines, then to an online digital release such as via Kaleidescape, Vudu, or iTunes, then a disc release about 14 weeks after the theatrical run, then to home video services like HBO a couple of months later, and then finally to non-pay TV services. 

 

Universal’s recent moves have taken this model and blown it up.

 

And, here is a bit more perspective on how radical Universal’s decision is to make these films available at the 48-hour PPV viewing window of $19.99. Just a few years ago, Universal was one of the early investors in a high-end home theater startup 

company called Prima Cinema. Prima planned on bringing first-run, day-and-date theatrical content to the home market, but with a slew of restrictions that included an insane amount of anti-piracy measures, a limit on the number of seats in the theater, biometric sensors, and requiring a piece of proprietary hardware installed in a closed system that cost $35,000. Oh, and each viewing cost $500.

 

That is why letting anyone with a Roku, Firestick, or AppleTV watch Trolls day-and-date for $19.99 is utterly gamechanging. (Currently the quality of these titles appears to be limited to HD resolution, not 4K HDR, but this is a rapidly changing landscape and that is subject to change.)

 

After the big Universal domino fell, other studios started adopting a similar strategy.

 

Sony Pictures announced the latest Vin Diesel actioner, Bloodshot, which just hit theaters on March 13, would be available for purchase for $19.99 starting March 24. Warner Bros. is releasing the Ben Affleck sports drama, The Way 

Back, which hit theaters on March 8, for purchase on March 24 as well. And the faith-based music drama, I Still Believe, which Lionsgate released on March 13, will be available on March 27.

 

Then, on March 20th, the next domino dropped—the biggest one so far from Walt Disney Company, which announced that its latest Pixar release, Onward, which just hit theaters on March 8, would be available for purchase starting at 5 p.m. eastern and heading to Disney+ for streaming on April 3. This was a massive release from Pixar, with an estimated budget of $175-200 million, yanked from theaters after less than two weeks and put into the home market.

 

With commercial theaters forced to temporarily shutter their doors, the home market is the only outlet for studios to get these films out there and try to recoup some of the costs. Of course, I’m sure an argument was made for just “freezing” films in the theater as they were, and going back to business-as-usual once theaters reopen. But with film releases often scheduled months or years in advance—and films already stacked up in an uncertain pipeline—sometimes it is a now-or-never proposition to secure a film’s release date.

 

This offers Hollywood an almost guilt-free major-market test of bending or easing the early-release window. With commercial theater owners forced to close and unable to claim this is hurting their profits, the studios can experiment with the market demand and interest in early release and see if there is enough money to be made from going into homes early.

 

What we are seeing now could be an end to theatrical releases as we knew them, or it could just be a temporary anomaly forced by unprecedented events.

 

Either way, we’ll continue covering this news as it develops. Meanwhile, you now have the opportunity to enjoy some fantastic content in your own home far earlier than normal.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

In “The Lost Art of Souvenir Movie Programs,” Tony-winning director Gerard Alessandrini talked about his efforts to hunt down the promotional programs for classic movies spanning the entire history of film. Here, as promised, is an extensive dive into that unique and diverse collection of movie ephemera.

 

Click on any of the images to enlarge them.

SILENT FILMS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

MUSICALS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

EPICS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

SCI-FI / FANTASY

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

DRAMAS

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

1950s WIDESCREEN

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs
A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

click on any of the images to enlarge

. . . and lastly

A Gallery of Souvenir Movie Programs

As promised, Gerard’s copy of the movie program for Star!, signed by both Julie Andrews and director Robert Wise.

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.

The Lost Art of Souvenir Movie Programs

Collections of film memorabilia are always fun and interesting because posters and paraphernalia are essentially advertisements that are attractive and eye-catching, as well as informative. And because advertising styles change every year, a poster or press book from the 1940s is enormously different from one from the 1990s. But no matter the decade, the tie-in is often a fond reminder of the movie it promotes.

 

I’ve always appreciated movie posters, but there is another type of film memorabilia I’ve enjoyed even more—the souvenir movie program. This is definitely a long-lost art from the past. In fact, it’s not even well known that these even existed.

 

From 1915 to about 1995, many films wanted to be taken seriously as theatrical-type “events.” These films sold elaborate color programs, just 

like the ones sold at theatrical shows and concerts. In the 1960s when reserved-seat road-show engagements were popular, films were marketed like a Broadway show. (Indeed, many of these films were adaptations of Broadway hits.) The film companies would print up hundreds of booklets to be sold at the initial engagements.

 

In the 1960s, they sold for about a dollar each. Often, they were displayed and sold at the concession counter. You felt they were a very special souvenir because they could only be purchased at the movie palace where the film was playing. Nowhere else. When the film went into general distribution to “neighborhood theaters,” the programs could no longer be found.

 

What made these programs important to film lovers at the time was that they were a lovely reminder ergo “souvenir” of the film they just saw, as it might be a very long time before they viewed the film again.

 

In the first part of the 20th Century, there was no video you could buy a few months after the film’s release. It could be many years until a movie would be broadcast on TV. Or if it was a true blockbuster, like Gone with the Wind or The Ten Commandments, the studio would hold it from view or re-issue for seven years until a new generation was born.

 

Likewise, movie posters were never for sale or available to the public since distributors would save the used posters and store them for secondary distribution or future use. Even up to the 1970s, if you wanted a movie poster of a favorite film, you had to steal it. Remember Francois Truffaut’s childhood memory in Day for Night, where he steals the Citizen Kane lobby cards?

So, the only item a film fan might have to remind them of the film was a souvenir program.

 

I first started collecting them in the 1960s. I always brought an extra dollar along with me to a road-show film so I could buy the program to the likes of My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, or Oliver!. As my collection grew, I realized from research and sometimes inserts in the programs that they had been printing up souvenir programs for many years.

 

In thrift shops and out-of-print book stores, I found the likes of the hardcover Ben-Hur (1959) souvenir book. From the back page, I found the address of the original publishers. (Remember, there was no internet then.) I began writing directly to the 

publishers and found they were more than wiling to sell me older programs for a dollar. I was able to add How the West Was Won and many other of the 1960s epics.

 

As I collected what I could find from the past, I continued to collect newer ones from road-show movies I attended, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and The Godfather. As the road-show era subsided, so did the production and sale of souvenir programs. However, about that same time in the 1970s, I found out that in Britain the idea of the color program was still popular. The British have a love and knowledge of theatergoing, and understood and enjoyed their value. I was soon sending to London for programs like The Boy Friend and The Battle of Britain.

THERE’S LOTS MORE TO SEE!

Gerard’s collection of movie programs is so extensive that we didn’t even have enough room for all the highlights. So if you’d like to see some more rare treasures—like a look inside the original Singin’ in the Rain program, the industry-only booklet for the original Star Wars film, and even the program for the infamous mega-flop Star!, signed by Julie Andrews and director Robert Wise—check out our image gallery for “The Lost Art of the Souvenir Movie Program.”

Here in America, the rise of the science-fiction blockbuster helped keep the tradition of the souvenir program barely alive. Star Wars had a modest souvenir program for the general public to buy at the candy counter. For the audiences attending the premiere, however, a more spectacular program for the “upper class” movie industry was distributed. The Star Wars special edition was larger, more colorful, and glossier. To acquire a special-edition program like that you had to know somebody in the industry. As a young man that was a challenge!

 

But I think I enjoyed expanding my collection because movie souvenir programs were so hard to find.

 

When I grew up, I would take business trips to Hollywood, where I found various film bookstores like Larry Edmunds where they had large selections of classic Hollywood programs. I began to collect souvenir programs back to the 1920s, such as 

The Lost Art of the Souvenir Movie Program

Noah’s Ark, and even much earlier D.W. Griffith films like Intolerance and Birth of a Nation. Even these were elaborate booklets with many color pages.

 

After the LA earthquake of 1994, a big bookcase fell over at Larry Edmunds’ bookstore, and behind it lay a well-preserved collection of 1930s souvenir programs. They were kind enough to sell me this lost treasure trove, which included an elaborate die-cut program from the Grauman’s Chinese Theater premiere of Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

 

As I added to my collection, I found it easier to locate programs from the 1920s and ’30s than the 1940s and ’50s. But many of my favorite films are from that later era. I wondered, “Were there souvenir programs for The Best Years of Our Lives or An American in Paris?” Through private collectors, I found out. Indeed, there were! The reason for the scarcity of programs from that time was the paper shortage caused by World War II and the subsequent Korean War.

 

After years of searching, I eventually found very rare souvenir programs to Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, and even All About Eve.

 

Since the country was still recuperating from the paper shortage, these are mostly in two-color monotone, but in this way, they match the films. Only the American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain seem to want for more, although they have a certain two-color charm of their own. What they lack in Technicolor punch they make up with in stylish collage design.

 

As the movies became more spectacular in the 1950s, so did the programs. Hardcover editions for Around the World in 80 Days, Spartacus, and El Cid were created. They are loaded not only with color stills but profuse information about the making of the epics and “backstage” behind-the-scenes pictures.

 

For that reason, they are still helpful and very fun to thumb through today. Sometimes they are even fun to pull out when you’re watching a classic David Lean film like Dr. Zhivago in your high-end home theater.

 

Today you can’t buy a program at a theater’s concession counter. Instead, blockbuster and fantasy films have complete film books that are sold to the public in stores such as Barnes & Noble. They are spectacular and often of the coffee-table variety. But that’s a different kind of film-book collecting.

 

One of the last programs sold in a movie was Dreamgirls (2006). I remember buying a gorgeous oversized program 

for the movie at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York. Even then, I suspected it was not a return to the golden age of souvenir programs but part of the marketing choices to give a 1960s retro feel to the film.

 

Gone is the era of seeing a film and leaving with a little piece of a movie by taking home a souvenir program. But if you search the internet enough you can still find a few. They are a vivid reminder of the golden age of Hollywood hype!

 

Gerard Alessandrini

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.

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.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3–1960 to 2019

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019

In Part 1, I offered my definition of a movie musical and in Part 2 presented my choices for the best musicals from the height of the Hollywood Studio Era (1939 to 1959). Here, I will talk about my favorites from 1960 on—a period that includes the decline of the studio system, when movies in general, and musicals in particular, were going through tremendous change.

The 1960s

West Side Story (1961)

Dazzling on every level. The music is well beyond musical comedy into the realm of semi-classical. The photography, editing, and sound are perfection. It set the bar very high for all future Broadway-to-Hollywood transfers. On a large screen, Natalie Wood’s performance is particularly fine and subtly beautiful. And of course, the Jerome Robbins choreography is unsurpassed on film.

 

The Music Man (1962)

This may be the most faithful and successful transfer of a Broadway musical to the screen. It’s so close to the stage version in every way, it makes you feel like you are watching a stage show—front and center! Yet it never feels static and has a distinct cinematic feel all its own. And It’s so fun and spinetingling right to the last frame. Robert Preston is superb as the phony Professor Harold Hill.

Viva Las Vegas (1964)

It might seem strange to see this Elvis vehicle on the same list as West Side Story, but great talent is great talent, and Elvis Presley together with the one star who matched his charisma— Ann-Margret—is quite an atomic blast. Over the years, the film seems less trendy (or silly) than it used to. It’s all done with great fun and excellent production values, and the energy of the film and its eclectic score make it a wonderfully campy and a very enjoyable 85 minutes.

 

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Director Richard Lester completely threw out all musical movie conventions to totally re-invent the form. It’s a perfect vehicle for The Beatles and spoke to a whole new generation. The free-for-all style of the film laid the ground for many rock and edgy film musicals of the ‘60s and ‘70s including Help and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (both helmed by Lester), Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter, and of course the whole MTV network.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Mary Poppins (1964)

Don’t forget this is an original film musical! Yet Mary Poppins is written (songs by the Sherman Brothers) with the sophistication of a Broadway show. It’s as if Walt Disney said to the boys, “I want my own My Fair Lady!” And in many ways, it is! Especially since it also stars Julie Andrews, Broadway’s original Fair Lady. But the magnificent addition to its Broadway musical-like structure is all the fantasy photography. Technology might be even better today, but without great writing and good plot structure, musicals like Mary Poppins Returns and Cats, just don’t come anywhere near the high bar of “Walt Disney’s masterpiece” Mary Poppins.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
My Fair Lady (1964)

This is one of the most elegant yet entertaining movies ever made. Absolutely perfectly done on every level. And made all the more powerful by the masterful 1956 stage musical on which it was  based. Warner Bros. knew they had a good one and they were determined to do it right. And director George Cukor did just that. Rex Harrison is magnificent, of course, but Audrey Hepburn adds that sparkling drop of cinematic magic to make this a true film, and not just an excellent stage-to-screen transfer.

 

The Sound of Music (1965)

If Singin’ in the Rain isn’t the greatest film musical of all time, then this is. Sound of Music is certainly the world’s favorite film musical, and deservedly so. Based on a true story, it has a humanness to it that makes the softer elements of the story moving. It’s directed with great restraint and taste by Robert Wise, and Julie Andrews’ performance as Maria is perhaps the best-loved female screen-musical performance ever. Sorry Judy, Liza, Emma, Rene, and Barbra . . .

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1965)

Michel Legrand’s unique jazz and romantic score is the principle reason this incredibly original film works. The jazz riffs are easily acceptable as a substitute for dialogue. It never slows the story or feels static. The wistful romantic music embraces the heartbreaking story. The color cinematography

is breathtaking. Catherine Deneuve and Nino Castelnuovo are perfectly cast as the young lovers. It’s all brilliantly written and directed by Jacques Demy. This film is a worldwide treasure.

 

Funny Girl (1968)

Barbra Streisand’s first song in the film is “I’m the Greatest Star,” and by all accounts that she is! In this William Wyler film, she has never been better. The film looks, sounds, and plays perfectly to showcase Streisand’s enormous talents. Under Wyler’s direction, Funny Girl was realistic and dark enough to ride the cultural revolutionary wave of the late 1960s. At that time, audiences took this dramatic Fanny Brice bio-pic very seriously. And since Wyler and Streisand did such a good job, you can take Funny Girl as seriously today as you could in 1968.

 

Oliver! (1968)

At the exact time as Funny Girl was released, the stage hit Oliver! arrived on screens. And it easily won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1968. This may come as a surprise to some because there still is a lot of prejudice against a film whose title sounds like a kiddie flick. But they should remember this is based on Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and the film was directed by the great Sir Carol Reed (The Third Man, The Fallen Idol) and photographed by the great Oswald Morris. This musical of Oliver Twist, with book, music, and lyrics by Lionel Bart, has all the elements and dark characters of the novel and yet so much more. It’s witty, even outright funny at times, and yet it can turn scary and disturbing on a dime. The big musical numbers are spectacular and soaring (Academy Award-winning choreography by Onna White) yet they fit right into the storyline so you never feel like the action stops. It’s amazing on how many levels this film works.

The 1970s

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Cabaret (1972)

Bob Fosse’s adaptation of the 1967 Broadway smash is superb but hardly an adaptation at all. It’s very altered from the stage version and hardly feels like it was ever on the stage. Ergo, this film runs like an original film musical. This very adult and realistic version hit the mark in the 1970s when films looked more realistic than ever. It did include most of the songs from the Kander and Ebb Broadway score, but several important new songs by the same writers were added. Liza Minelli’s star performance sends the film into the stratosphere of entertainment perfection. Viewing this film today, it looks like it was made last week! Bravo, Bob!

 

Fiddler on the Roof (1973)

This is a very realistic film version of the 1964 stage smash hit. Rather than cast comedian Zero Mostel as Tevye, the lead, or some of the other famous actors who played supporting roles on Broadway (Bette Midler, Julia Migenes Johnson, and Christopher Walken), director Norman Jewison chose to cast all unknowns so that the characters appear very real. The Israeli actor Topol heads the movie, and it’s a loving but dramatic telling of the Sholom Aleichem stories. Fine musical adaptation by John Williams of the Bock and Harnick score elevates the movie yet matches the earthy Oswald Morris cinematography. It’s a great story about family, tradition, and persecution, and a moving experience in any decade.

 

Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

In a way, this film follows the Richard Lester style of freewheeling camera work used in Hard Day’s Night, yet Rocky Horror Picture Show is as unique and wonderful as it can be. Based on the moderately successful West End and Broadway stage favorite, it works so much better as a film where it can be cinematically outrageous. Susan Sarandon, Barry Bostwick, Tim Curry, and Meat Loaf are all hysterically excellent and play the “horror-comedy” tone just right. It’s easy to see why this is the most famous cult film of all time, and stayed in release longer than any other musical film!

The 1980s

Victor/Victoria (1982)

This film has grown to enormous stature today! Blake Edwards’ intelligently adapted screenplay explores the fine line between masculine and feminine posturing. Julie Andrews and indeed all the performances seem three-dimensional, yet incredibly entertaining. The gorgeous Henry Mancini (music)/ Leslie Bricusse (lyrics)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019

score has just enough songs to qualify it as a musical, but they always support the characters and story. The production is also visually classy with a beautiful Art Deco look. By today’s standards, it’s hard to believe it didn’t win an Academy Award for Best Picture.

The 2000s

Chicago (2002)

This film was a terrific surprise in its day, when it seemed musical films were a thing of the past. But it’s so well done and entertaining, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Its success may have a lot to do with the excellence of the original stage show by John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse, which is still running on Broadway today!

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
Dreamgirls (2006)

This is a very ambitious and thoroughly successful film adaptation of the legendary Broadway show. Not since Cabaret 30 years earlier had a film been transferred with such freshness and cinematic energy. Dreamgirls feels like an original for the screen. Each member of the cast is superb, especially Jennifer Hudson, who won an Academy Award, and Eddie Murphy in a stellar supporting performance. On top of all this, the music and singing are superb.

 

La La Land (2016)

Just when we thought it couldn’t be done ever again, along came this original film musical. It has an all-new song score with pulsating and exciting music by Justin Hurwitz. It’s all very stylishly directed by Damien Chazelle and attractively performed by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. It’s also a great tribute to movie musicals of the past like An American in Paris and The Band Wagon yet it feels modern and fresh and youthful.

and let’s not forget . . .

Well, that’s 37 of the best. But for those who enjoy neat and nice round numbers, as do I, here are three more “best” movie musicals that co-incidentally all have the same name.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 3--1960 to 2019
A Star is Born (1954)

This is Judy Garland’s ultimate showcase. Judy shows off all her triple-threat talents (acting, singing, dancing) to the “nth” degree. Unfortunately, she has so much talent and so much to give, it took three full hours to fit it all in. Ergo, the film has suffered from destructive editing over the years. In 1983, an effort to restore the original version required inserting black-and-white stills. Today, the creaky technology from 1983 destroys the pace and believability of the story. It’s time for a proper restoration. But what is always superb about this version is that it’s a realistic portrait of Hollywood in the 1950s, thanks to screenwriter Moss Hart and director George Cukor, both of whom knew how it really was.

 

A Star is Born (1976)

This is Barbra Streisand’s ultimate showcase. Barbra shows off all her triple talents (acting, singing, writing) to the “nth” degree. It’s a solid retelling of the story, this time set in the world of rock. Kris Krisofferson is also quite good in his bathtub scenes. Nowadays, this is a terrific time capsule of the 1970s but it’s also “Evergreen.”

 

A Star is Born (2018)

This is Lady Ga Ga’s ultimate showcase (so far). Lady Ga Ga shows off all her triple threat talents (acting, singing, song writing) to the “nth” degree. But Bradley Cooper also wants his share of showoff time, and as producing-director, he makes sure he gets it. Set in the modern-day pop world once again, the love story pays off, being the core of another very good film musical.

 

To round things out, in Part 4, I’ll take you on a tour of some classic “antique”—but still hugely enjoyable—movie musicals from the 1920s and ’30s.

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.

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2–1939 to 1959

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.”)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939-1959

The 1940s

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!

The 1950s

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!)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959
Oklahoma! (1955)

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.)

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959

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. 

Gigi (1958)

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 

The Best Movie Musicals, Pt. 2--1939 to 1959

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

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.

Checking Out Disney’s New Star Wars Land

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

Since the release of the first Star Wars film in 1977, fans of all ages have imagined themselves being part of the action in some way. Whether it was piloting an X-wing fighter, wielding a lightsaber, or just hanging out with the scum and villainy in a space cantina, Star Wars created a galaxy fans wished they could inhabit. And while there have been a host of video games to help bridge this gap, there hasn’t really been a living, breathing world fans could truly immerse themselves in.

 

When Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, there was a lot of speculation over how they might incorporate Star Wars into the Disney theme parks. While the parks already had a Star Wars attraction in the form of the Star Tours

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

CLICK THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE

simulator ride, this offered the chance for something even bigger; and in 2015, Disney announced it would open Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland in California and Disney World in Orlando.

 

This entirely new land is set in the Black Spire Outpost on the fictional planet of Batuu. It encompasses 14 acres

at both parks and features shops, dining, and attractions, delivering an experience of the Star Wars universe unlike anything fans have ever experienced before.

 

I had the opportunity to visit Galaxy’s Edge in Orlando this past week, and thought I’d share my thoughts on the new land, and specifically the Rise of the Resistance attraction, which is perhaps the most complex ride system ever created, thrusting fans right into the middle of a scene from a Star Wars film.

 

Galaxy’s Edge is part of the Disney Hollywood Studios section of Disney World, but is cleverly set off from it so you are never pulled out of the feeling that you’re in a different world. You enter through a cavernous tunnel area that transports you from 

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

the main section of the park. Once inside, tall mountain spires, fabricated canyons, and well-placed trees cleverly conceal other areas of the park so you are never reminded you’re in Hollywood Studios.

 

There is a variety of appropriate artifacts all around the land, including a full-scale TIE Echelon sitting on a stage where Kylo Ren occasionally appears. You’ll also find a full-sized Wampa and other Easter eggs and artifacts while browsing inside stores. The Galaxy’s Edge cast members also wear costumes appropriate to their jobs; whether it’s ride attendants in Resistance garb, First Order soldiers, or store clerks, everyone looks the part. Stormtroopers patrol 

the area looking for Resistance members, regularly stopping and “harassing” guests. (They walked by my youngest daughter, pointed at her and said, “We have our eyes on you!”)

 

One of the land’s most iconic features is a full-scale Millennium Falcon that sits outside the Smuggler’s Run attraction. You can walk right up to and almost all around the Falcon and see the careful attention to detail in every aspect of the ship. The

Smuggler’s ride queue lets you feel like you’re walking inside the actual Falcon, including being able to sit at the Dejarik holographic chess board where Chewie and R2 played.

 

The actual ride takes place inside the cockpit, where guests can be either pilots, gunners, or engineers on a mission to recover Coaxium shipments to help Resistance fighters. Advanced 4K video at 120 frames per second in a variety of video panels 

combined with motion and interactive controls provides a convincing illusion that you’re actually aboard the famed Corellian freighter; and the ride’s length and outcome is determined by how well the crew does their jobs.

 

Galaxy’s Edge takes on a completely different look at night, as the Disney Imagineers use a variety of concealed lights to light up the mountains, canyons, and attractions.

 

The land’s biggest attraction is the brand-new Rise of the Resistance, an 18-minute ride containing 65 Audio-Animatronic figures and requiring the largest concrete pour in the history of Disney Parks and more than five million lines of code to

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

control aspects of the ride. This is a multi-part experience that uses an amazing combination of video projection and screens, visual effects, synchronized lighting, animatronics, trackless vehicle, and amazing size and scale to place you aboard a First Order Star Destroyer in a way fans never thought possible.

 

You enter the ride near a large turret/cannon, and then the queue is hidden from First Order eyes as you wind around inside a mountain. There are loads of cool set dressing throughout the queue, including 

discarded tools, cages of weapons and uniforms, and ventilation pipes. (NOTE: Ride spoilers follow. If you’re planning to visit Galaxy’s Edge and don’t want to have the ride experience spoiled, stop here . . .)

In the first section of the attraction, you see BB-8 and a hologram transmission from Rey telling you that the Resistance is moving to another base and it is imperative we don’t reveal its location to the First Order. From here, you transition to a transporter to head off to the new base.

 

On the way to the transport, you pass a replica of Poe’s X-Wing fighter, set back in a cavern that can only be seen from the Rise ride.

 

On the transport you stand just feet away from Lieutenant Bek, a Mon Calamari animatronic pilot that talks and moves convincingly. The front of the ship is a cockpit filled with video screens showing your space flight, and if you look out the back of the transport, you can watch your ship taking off from Black Spire Outpost, including leaving the Falcon behind. The transport soon comes under attack, rumbling and quaking appropriately as it’s hit by TIE fighters and then ultimately grabbed by a First Order Star Destroyer’s tractor beam, which pulls in and captures the ship.

When the transport door opens, you’re greeted by First Order officers who command the group to get out of the transport (our first group was lingering for a bit, causing one of the officers to shout, “I said ‘get out!’”) and lead you into the largest-scale scene from any attraction: Dozens of stormtroopers standing at attention on the deck of a Star Destroyer with a huge screen staring out into space.

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

It is massive set dressing, and both times I went through the ride this moment literally brought a hush over the riders as they stared gob smacked at the sheer size and scope of this scene. Everything about the area is designed to make you feel like you are literally stepping right on onto the set of a Star Wars film, and it succeeds in every way. This holding area is packed with detail, but unfortunately you aren’t given as long to linger here as you’d hope . . . and the ride part hasn’t even actually

begun yet!

 

You then walk down detailed hallways and corridors of the Destroyer, harassed by First Order guards speaking in clipped accents who play their parts wonderfully. One guard singled out a guest wearing a T-shirt that said, “I’m with the Resistance” saying, “Why are you wearing that shirt? Do you think it is going to help you? Do you think that shirt will save you from the blasters of these highly trained stormtroopers?!” You can tell they are enjoying their rolls and are leaning into creating a fantastic experience.

 

From here, you are led into a holding cell where you’re going to be 

interrogated, with General Hux and Kylo coming out to threaten you. But the Resistance comes to your rescue, cutting a large hole through a steel door that glows a convincing red, and you are quickly moved into a trackless vehicle helmed by an R5 droid to make your escape.

 

The car races around the inside of the Destroyer, where you come under fire from a variety of stormtroopers, their blasters leaving sparks and scorch marks on different parts of the ride. At one point, your vehicle drives into a huge room where you’re confronted with two full-sized AT-AT walkers, again placing you in the immense scale of the attraction, with a lift taking you right up to face the walkers.

The vehicle drives on, taking you through various parts of the ship, including another massive room where you have to slide past three giant turbo lasers blasting at X-Wing fighters that are visible attacking outside of massive video-screen windows. The lighting, sound, and visual effects all do a fantastic job of creating an incredibly believable scene.

Checking Out Disney's New Star Wars Land

You soon find yourself aboard the bridge of the ship, where full-sized animatronics of Kylo and Hux are watching the battle unfold out of the windows. Kylo spots you, and your vehicle drives away, but he then attacks, jumping towards you with his fiery red saber piercing the ceiling overhead and cutting out a large hole in an incredible effect.

 

With Galaxy’s Edge, the Disney Imagineers have raised the bar on what an immersive experience can be. The entire Rise of the Resistance ride is an overwhelming feast for the senses, delivering an experience unlike any other Star Wars medium to date. The ride has so much going on at any second, I dare say you could go through it ten times back-to-back and still not see every detail. I can’t recommend it enough.

John Sciacca

Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is
co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing
for such publications as
 Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at

@SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.

The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1

If the recent movie version of Cats proved one thing, it’s that it’s very difficult to create a musical for the screen that audiences can take seriously. The media of film is essentially at its best when it is realistic. Even a science-fiction or fantasy film is most successful when it helps us suspend disbelief and convinces its viewers that it’s all really happening before their eyes.

 

A movie musical has a doubly difficult problem because characters must sing and dance. How do you tell the story effectively and seriously and yet watch actors burst into song? When this works, through the artistry of the creative team, it can be amazingly uplifting and even masterfully dramatic. In the case of master musical film directors such as Vincente Minelli or

Robert Wise it can even be seamless. But if it’s even slightly off, the result will be ridiculous and insufferable. For this reason, the film of the long-running show Cats became a world-famous joke.

 

If you look at the best and most successful film musicals, technology has more than quite a bit to do with the success of the musicalization. For example, do you ever think for one second that Julie Andrews isn’t singing on location in The Sound of Music? The skill of the sound and editing department make it look and sound like it’s really happening then and there in Salzburg. Of course, The Sound of Music was all pre-recorded and looped in, as was most every other film musical ever made. (A famous exception is Rex Harrison’s songs in My Fair Lady, which were all filmed live—even that is a technologically fantastic feat.)

 

Many contemporary musicals are not as artfully sound-mixed as the film classics of the 1950s and 60s. Often too much reverb is added, and intercutting destroys the believability. This is probably a sloppy leftover from the MTV music video generation. The best musical films from the MGM musical era have actually only three editorial cuts per song. Yet films like Singin’ In the Rain never feel static in any way. Careful pre-production planning and smooth camera work serve the movement of the performing actor, and if the actor and the song are superb (as they always were at MGM), we are swept away with movement and momentum.

 

The technical fine art of the musical movie reached its zenith in the 1960s. Because many of these films were shot in 70mm, the screens were bigger and the pictures clearer and the sound more stereophonic than ever.

 

With all the money film musicals cost in the 1960s, all 

The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1
It’s a fine line from the ridiculous . . . 
The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1
. . . to the sublime 

technicians had to do their job to perfection. The 1961 film version of West Side Story set the bar. Interestingly enough, it was co-directed by Robert Wise who was, at one point, Hollywood’s best film editor (Citizen Kane). He was determined and skilled enough to make sure it was all in the realm of dramatic realism (or one might say heightened realism) and exciting to watch.

 

Marni Nixon, the great singer and voice-double expert, told me that the most difficult work she ever did in film was the post-dubbing of Natalie Wood’s singing voice in West Side Story. Huge and ultra-clear closeups of Natalie made it nearly impossible to match her lips to the semi-classical Leonard Bernstein music. Of course, the precise technological aspects of West Side Story paid off handsomely at the box office and at the Academy Awards.

 

Other film musicals from the 1960s like Camelot and Oliver! got it precisely and beautifully right, too. The industry men at the time knew the value of precision, and those films were sprinkled with multiple Oscars as well. Of course, the financial demise of the movie musical in the second half of the 20th century also meant a loss of technological skill. There have been only a handful of successful movie musicals since 1968. The few that have done it right, like Chicago and La La Land, are well-loved for pulling it off.

 

Editing, pre-recording, and sound mixing are so important to musicals that there are many film musicals that might have been included among the very best, had they been assembled with more care. When I was researching a book I recently wrote on the making of one of Hollywood’s finest original film musicals, Gigi, it became clear to me that a film’s excellence was all about the final cut.

The Best Movie Musicals of All Time, Pt. 1

Gigi is a musical expressly written for the screen and therefore without a pre-assembled Broadway musical structure to guide the creators. Early previews showed that the movie wasn’t hitting the bullseye in terms of the audience’s response. MGM, 

Arthur Freed (producer), Vincente Minnelli (director), Fredrick Loewe (composer), and Alan Jay Lerner (lyricist) had a lot at stake financially and artistically. After all, Gigi was Lerner and Loewe’s followup to their enormous stage hit My Fair Lady. They all desperately wanted to get it exactly right. They fine-tuned the editing and sound, trimming over 20 minutes, and shot retakes with better camera angles and more closeups. They even re-filmed a whole song, simply to adjust the tempo. The result was technological perfection for 1958.

 

Comparing Gigi to other film musicals, I began to realize that movies like Kismet, Carousel, Gypsy, Dr. Dolittle, and Star! suffer from poor or troublesome assemblage. Each of them had an excellent cast and thrilling musical moments, but in-between there is dead weight, poor editing choices, or poor soundstage sets. And, as in the case of South Pacific, misguided color cinematography.

 

The best film musicals, no matter what style or which decade, have state-of-the-art technology of the time. It’s their technologically superior aspects that make them work as live-action film musicals. Of course that cost extra money from the movie studios, and for many of these special properties, the studios were willing to put up the cash.

 

It’s difficult to come up with a list of “Best Movie Musicals” since the genre subdivides into “Original Musicals Created for the Screen,” “Broadway Stage Hits Adapted for the 

Screen,” and “Fantasy Film Musicals for Family Audiences.” I didn’t include animated film musicals because of the number of beloved ones that exist. And how do you compare Coco to Cabaret? You don’t, so I won’t.

 

In Part 2 and Part 3, I’ll go decade by decade to show the progress and decline of the live-action movie musical, and present you with my picks for the very best.

Gerard Alessandrini

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.