Fred 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.