The Wizard of Oz Tag

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.

Demo Scenes: The Wizard of Oz

Demo Scenes: The Wizard of Oz
“Meeting Oz”
(Chapter 13, 1:08:44–1:12:42)

 

I keep making the claim in my reviews and elsewhere on Cineluxe that older movies shot on 35mm or larger film stock are the ones that stand to benefit most from the latest Ultra HD and HDR home video standards. And I’ve yet to see a better example of this than the new 4K/HDR release of The Wizard of Oz.

 

Granted, this 80-year-old classic isn’t perfectly consistent from beginning to end in its visual presentation. It’s a little soft in places and a little too grainy in others. But the new restoration simply reveals a level of depth and detail in the image that most people have never seen.

 

Check out the pivotal scene in which Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion meet the Wizard for the first time in his gloomy and imposing throne room. If you go back to the Blu-ray release (and indeed, many previous home video

efforts), the long hallway leading to this meeting looks obviously fake, hilariously flat, undeniably a matte painting. But given more dynamic range to work with, this new transfer doesn’t need to boost the brightness of the entire scene to illuminate our heroes. As such, the backgrounds have a much more natural depth and more convincing shadows, so that long hallway actually seems to recede into the distance.

 

Fast-forward to the face-to-face meeting, specifically when the Wizard says, “I am Oz, the great and powerful! Who are you?” In the very best Blu-ray release, Dorothy’s dress when those lines are uttered is an indistinctly textured wash 

of blue, not the gingham we all know her to be wearing. In the 4K/HDR release, the gingham is restored, and undeniably so. That’s not all, though. In previous home releases, the Tin Man simply lacks a little luster, despite the polish he just received a few scenes back. In the 4K/HDR, he positively glistens, as he should.

 

But it’s not merely little details such as this that make the new restoration work. This scene overall benefits from more nuanced dynamic range. Shadows aren’t a mass of crushed blacks; they contain detail and depth. Highlights don’t have to be overblown to be seen. The shift in brightness of the background as the Wizard’s showy flames rise from his throne are subtler, and indeed more effective for it. Overall, the atmosphere of the entire throne room and the occupants within simply seem more convincing. Less a stage and more of a genuine space.

 

The effect overall isn’t merely about eye candy. It’s not about more pixels or more colors or deeper shadows or what have you. It’s about the subliminal effects of all those little visual improvements, which combine to draw you deeper into the illusion of this magical film, in a way we’ve never quite been able to achieve at home before now.

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.

The Wonderful 4K “Wizard of Oz”

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

As much as we tend to discuss Ultra HD video and high dynamic range in relation to the latest that Hollywood and Netflix have to offer, it’s sometimes easy to forget something quite important: The films that stand to benefit most from current home-video standards aren’t the newest digital spectacles but rather classic works created entirely in the analog domain. Older films simply possess a level of detail and nuance no previous home-video format has been capable of replicating, and short of

cinema revivals, most of us have never seen them in all their splendor.

 

That said, I don’t know of any film as old as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz to make the leap into 4K/HDR before now. For that matter, I don’t know of any other movies filmed in three-strip Technicolor that have been remastered for 4K/HDR. That alone makes this new home-video release academically interesting, even if the Judy Garland classic holds no emotional sway over you.

 

Not that it matters, of course, but it does for me. Hold emotional sway, that is. I’ve owned Oz on every home-

video format available in the U.S., including every VHS release, every Laserdisc release, every DVD and Blu-ray. But my love affair goes further back than that. One of my earliest memories is of lying belly-flat on the rug in our den, watching Dorothy and friends traipse down the Gray Brick Road on our old black-and-white tube TV. Much to my dad’s chagrin, that was the start of a yearly tradition for me—one I uphold to this day, every Thanksgiving.

 

I can almost define each era of my life in relation to how I experienced that annual ritual. My first time viewing it on a color TV was, it should go without saying, a significant revelation. And although there have been upgrades down the road since (the 1989 restoration of the sepia tones in the opening and closing acts, the 2005 restoration and re-alignment of the original Technicolor film strips), rarely has any viewing of Oz blown my mind quite to the same degree as seeing it in color for the first time.

 

Until now, that is. This new 4K/HDR release of The Wizard of Oz is the first that actually manages to replicate the experience of viewing the movie by way of a pristine 35mm print. And this is evident as early as those early sepia-toned shots in Kansas, which you wouldn’t think would make for a great HDR demo. But it’s important to remember that, for all the talk about peak 

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

brightness and nits and whatnot, the most significant boost to dynamic range that HDR delivers is in the lower end of the value scale. There are simply more steps of near-black to work with here, and that’s put to good use in the opening scenes of Oz by dragging detail out of the shadows without brightening the overall image.

 

It should come as no surprise, though, that this new transfer doesn’t really come to life until Dorothy steps through the

monochromatic door of her wind-tossed home into the rainbow land of Oz. But again, the benefits here may not be what you’re expecting.

 

If you go in anticipating tons of intense specular highlights, you’re going to be left wanting. Some vibrant peak brightness is used to bring out the sparkle of Glinda’s jewels and of course the gleaming glimmer of Dorothy’s ruby slippers. But in all cases, this higher-intensity brightness is organic and tastefully done. So much so that it may only affect you subliminally.

 

There’s simply no mistaking the color palette of this new transfer for that of any previous home-video release. Early video offerings of Oz did what they could with their limited color gamut. Around the time of the aforementioned remaster in the mid-2000s, though, Warner saw fit to actually boost the color saturation of the movie in order to approximate the Crayola hues Technicolor was capable of delivering.

 

The problem with this is that the entire color palette of Oz was dragged along for the ride. So, although the Wicked Witch’s verdant skin tones may have looked close enough, subtler colors like the pastel tones of the Lullaby League were overly boosted, overly intense—just plain wrong, when you get right down to it.

 

When viewed via Kaleidescape, the 10-bit palette of this new release (which was taken from an 8K, 16-bit scan of the original film elements) puts all of the colors in their proper proportions. So, for example, in certain scenes in Munchkinland, subdued pastels share the screen with luscious primary hues—something most of us have never seen outside of the film’s more recent theatrical revivals.

 

The detail and definition of this new transfer will also henceforth be my response to those who say we don’t need 4K resolution at home. Subtle details that were obscured by previous 1080p and lower-resolution releases are restored for all the world to see—even down to the individual hairs on Dorothy’s head.

 

Granted, there is, of course, a hefty helping of softness to the image in places, especially in closeup shots of Billie Burke (Glinda). My point is, it’s taken us until this point to finally bring all of the detail in the image—softened, filtered, gauzed though it may be in some scenes—to home displays. I’m struggling to see where even an 8K release could improve on what I’m seeing here in terms of detail and definition, much less color and contrast.

 

If I have a nit to pick, it’s that this new color grade still gets the opening and closing sepia-toned scenes a little wrong. It’s important to remember that this footage was shot in black-and-white and hand-tinted sepia—and then hand-tinted sepia again in the ‘80s. And, as with every release of the past couple decades, this version takes that sepia tinting just a touch too far, with slightly too much warmth. But that’s really only a concern if you get overly fussy about “filmmaker’s intent.” (Incidentally, 

if you’re curious about how I can speak to “filmmaker’s intent” in this case, given that there were so many chefs stirring this pot, we can look to a scene later in the movie in which Dorothy peers into the Wicked Witch’s crystal ball and sees her Aunt Em in Kansas, in all her sepia-tinted glory. That’s what Kansas is supposed to look like.)

 

And . . . [checks notes] Yep. That’s it. That’s literally the only pedantic niggle I can come up with. 

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

Some viewers may take issue with the fact that those sepia scenes don’t quite hold up to the clarity and definition of the film’s colorful middle. That’s largely due to the fact that the original film negatives for the first and last act were lost in a fire in the 1970s, and have since been sourced from an optical intermediate struck in the 1960s. The only original negatives we have at this point are for the color parts of the film. So this is the best Kansas is ever going to look.

 

The purist in me also wants to half-heartedly complain about the lack of the the original mono soundtrack with this new release, but I just can’t bring myself to grump about that, given how great the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 remix sounds. And this is a new remix, by the way—not the same lossless 5.1 mix that was included with the 70th- and 75th-anniversary Blu-rays.

 

The surround channels are employed a little more frequently this time around, and there’s an appreciable boost to dialogue intelligibility and vocal clarity across the board, along with some enhanced bass, especially during the tornado sequence. But 

all in all, this surround sound mix is true to the sprit and overall aesthetic of the film. It’s certainly not as egregious or aggressive as some recent remixes for classic films. So even if the original mono were present, I can’t imagine I would ever listen to it.

 

As for the Kaleidescape presentation of this new release, my only beef is that, in addition to the 4K/HDR version, you’ll also need to download the Blu-ray-quality version if you want access to all of the bonus goodies—including the audio commentary with historian and author John Fricke, which carries over from every home-video release since 2005. There’s also the excellent The Wonderful Wizard of Oz: The Making of a Movie Classic from 1990, hosted by Angela Lansbury, which for some reason was dropped from the 75th-anniversary home video releases but makes a welcome reappearance here.

 

Oodles of other bonus features are certainly worth your time if you’re a dedicated fan, but these two are essential viewing/listening for everyone, so go ahead and download both versions of the film from the giddy-up. Why you can’t simply download the bonus features without double-dipping on the film itself is beyond me.

The Wonderful 4K "Wizard of Oz"

But what else is there to be said, really? If you’re reading this, you already know what the film means to you—you’re simply deciding whether or not it’s worth the 4K/HDR upgrade for an 80-year-old film. The answer to that is a resounding, enthusiastic, unapologetic “Yes!” Few films have benefited from the increased resolution, enhanced dynamic range, and most importantly the wider color gamut of our current home video standards nearly so much as this one. My biggest regret is that I can’t put 4K/HDR screen grabs in front of you and let you see the improvements with your own eyes. Unfortunately, the limitations of the web make that impossible. 

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.