Raising the Barn: 7 Great Musical Moments

musical moments gold diggers of 1933Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly tower over the American musical film. America barely produces musicals anymore – India now dominates that market – but the classic American product, from MGM or Fox, from Lerner and Loewe and Porter, is still what most people think of when they think of the musical.

Maybe more than any other genre, the musical is built upon the show-stopping sequence. A number that delivers some magical combination of music and motion, voice and camera, that sets your pulse on edge and momentarily robs you of your breath. I know very little about music, but I know when I have no breath. So, largely excluding Astaire and Kelly, and MGM and Fox, here are seven outstanding musical moments. Some of them were also revolutionary in the way they ushered in a new era of movie musical moments, but that isn’t a requirement to be on this list. Lack of breath is.

Remember My Forgotten Man from Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Busby Berekeley was the most important choreographer in the history of the musical because he understood almost immediately that no matter how many dancers you were working with, there was always one more: the camera. Berkeley dance numbers don’t feature dancing as much as design, with the camera movements over, around and through the dancers providing the dynamic element necessary to the dance. His early Warner Brother films feature an astonishing array of production concepts which burst from a nominal fixed stage. They are often robustly sexual, but this haunting number, with mostly spoken vocals by Joan Blondell and sung by the amazing contralto of Etta Moten Barnett, deals with post traumatic stress and abandonment, substance abuse and poverty – the aftermath of war. It was revolutionary in both style and substance.

The War Sequence from Music Land (1935)

I’m calling it the War Sequence but there is really no formal name. The entire movie, from Disney director Wilfred Jackson, runs a little under ten minutes. It is easy to overlook just how important cartoons – mainly the Disney Silly Symphonies – were in the evolution of the musical. With performers un-tethered from physical limitations, the Disney musical could go anywhere. In this short, it went to the competing kingdoms of Symphony and Jazz, where characters were musical instruments, and plot was music. When star-crossed lovers precipitate a war, pipe organs and saxophones begin firing blasts of artillery at each other and more musical boundaries are obliterated.

Jumpin’ Jive from Stormy Weather (1943)

Along with a few other pioneers, legendary producer Oscar Micheaux helped introduce the “race film” to America in the teens and 20s. These were movies made by African American filmmakers specifically for African American audiences. But the economics of synch sound drove all of these producers, apart from Micheaux, out of business. Seeing a niche market, mainstream studios stepped into the void, allocating tiny budgets to produce their own version of the race film. This very loose biography of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was produced by Fox and features Robinson along with Lena Horne, Dooley Wilson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway, and Katherine Dunham. And the Nicholas Brothers – Fayard and Harold. They were the most acrobatic of dancers, known for often leaping over each other in their routines. There is nothing special about the cinematic quality of the number, yet Fred Astaire considered it the greatest dance routine ever captured on film.

The Barn Raising from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

For those of you paying attention, you may notice that though I claimed I would largely ignore Fox and MGM, the previous selection was from Fox. The next two are from MGM. But this one, directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd, is the only one of these selections that is really from the mainstream of the major studios’ musical gems. Kidd had choreographed remarkable numbers for Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon the year before, and his robust, masculine choreography here is perfectly suited to CinemaScope. No less a film critic than President Dwight Eisenhower gave it a big thumbs up: “If you haven’t seen it, you should see it.”

Jailhouse Rock from Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Elvis Presley had already starred in two movies before coming to MGM for his real coming out party on film. Jailhouse Rock offered the real rock & roll Elvis in the person of Vince Everett, and he was fortunate enough to meet up with Alex Romero, a choreographer who had apprenticed with most of the greats, including Michael Kidd. The Jailhouse Rock number was among the first full scale rock & roll production numbers in a Hollywood film, and it has rarely been matched in energy and sexuality since.

A Pair of Twins from The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

This is the only non-American title on my list, and it poses an interesting dilemma for me. I cannot think of a more enjoyable musical ever put on film and yet the director, Jacques Demy, the composer, Michel Legrand, and the star, Catherine Deneuve, made arguably a better musical film just three years before, with the revolutionary The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1954). Both movies are about love, and Cherbourg presents a more mature, poignant vision, carried along by music and song. Rochefort, on the other hand, is exuberant and funny and sexy, and carried almost entirely by dance. It includes a marvellous Gene Kelly number, but as I have imposed a Kelly prohibition, I am choosing the early Twins number. The joy of seeing real life sisters Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac perform this breezy, jazzy Legrand composition in their matching mod outfits is a glorious set-up for what is to come. In truth, there are several better dance numbers in the movie, but this one has always been a favourite.

All That Jazz from Chicago (2002)

The American musical, which had claimed four Best Picture Oscars in the 1960s, was all but dead by the turn of the century. It had been largely restricted to animated features (some of which are outstanding) and vestiges could be found in music videos. But live action feature musicals from Hollywood had become museum pieces. Then, for a brief time, it seemed to peek up over the horizon again. The Coen Brothers stirred things up a bit with what you might call a partial musical, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). Then Baz Luhrmann offered his take on Moulin Rouge! (2001) and won an Oscar nom. But the crowning achievement came from a man who had never directed a feature film. Rob Marshall announced immediately that he knew how to translate the Bob Fosse stage musical onto the screen with the remarkable opening number. Working with a great John Kander/Fred Ebb song, Marshall’s camera moves from stage to audience, establishing exposition, introducing character, and getting your pulse racing in a mélange of colour and movement that recalls the best of the classic musicals. Fans hoped at the time that this was not merely an anomaly, but perhaps signalled a rebirth. Some of us are still hoping today.

 

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

16 thoughts on “Raising the Barn: 7 Great Musical Moments

  1. I’ve seen about half of these movies, I keep wishing that I’d get to see more.
    One musical that I don’t think gets enough respect is Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney, released in 1942, it’s a whole different take on musicals.

    • Thanks Colin. Cagney certainly gives one of the iconic performances in the history of the musical and I thought about including several of his numbers in this list. It was very highly regarded in 1942, making a ton of money and getting 8 Oscar noms, including Best Picture and a win for Cagney. But I sense you may be right about its rep today. A lot of people love it but I don’t think it is commonly thought of with the Freed MGM product or the later big budget Foxes.

  2. Thanks Pete. You may be interested to know that my short list had at least four selections from the movies you write about in your piece on musicals: the opening number and America fromWest Side Story, and Mein Herr and Tomorrow Belongs to Me from Cabaret. Springtime for Hitler was probably on my long list. As for Deneuve, if one of her is sensational, then I figure two of her are out of this world.

  3. Interesting piece, Jon. I have to admit, I’ve never been as much of a fan of Kander and Ebb as some, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers isn’t my favorite musical, but I do agree with your choice of Gold Diggers of 1933, whose ending number was extraordinary. And I’m intrigued by your choice of The Young Girls of Rochefort; I do like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Legrand very much. A solid list.

    • Thanks Simon. My brother got ahold of me at 5:30 this morning to argue the relative merits of Cherbourg and Rochefort. I reminded him that I went so far as to say that Cherbourg is a better movie, but I don’t think that placated him.

      • i recall the music being better in rochefort, and then there is the undeniable attraction of seeing the sisters side by side. for me the question of choice is not between cherbourg and rochefort, but between catherine and francoise.

  4. Some fantastic selections here, Jon. My favorite song in a non-musical will probably always be Mick Jagger singing Memo From Turner in performance. as for dance numbers in non-musicals, who can forget Bardot in and God Created Woman, Ann-Margaret in The Swinger, or Rita Hayworth in Gilda?

    • Thanks Bill. Someone reminded me that in non-musicals, it doesn’t get much better, or more emotional, than the Marseillaise from Casablanca

  5. Great selection Jon, especially ‘Gold Diggers’ and ‘Silly Symphony’. I still have most of Cab Calloway’s records (on vinyl), so that was nice to see too. Anything including Catherine Deneuve can do no wrong in my book, so I was extra happy for that inclusion. I did a short appraisal of Astaire and Rogers on my blog, that might be of interest. Here’s a link. http://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/astaire-and-rogers/
    And another short article about some musicals that I enjoyed here. http://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/03/05/some-musical-films/
    Thanks for some really good choices, a most enjoyable article.
    Regards from England, Pete.

    • Wikipedia reminded me that “Pettin’ in the Park,” a pretty spectacular extravagance in its own right, was supposed to end the movie, but when Zanuck saw “Forgotten Man” he told Mervyn Leroy to move it to the end. I’ve read that other places, so I believe it is true.

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