We gave it a B
Why we do still respond to the great Hollywood musicals? There they are, wedged between the kidvids and workout tapes in the video best-seller lists every week. Is it because they give grace to our clumsy lives, letting us briefly believe in a world where spontaneous song and dance is natural? Or is it something more mundane, like the simple brand name recognition of musicals like Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music?
The release this week of FoxVideo’s Great American Musical Collection (including four new-to-video releases: Sun Valley Serenade, Orchestra Wives, Stars and Stripes Forever, and Daddy Long Legs) raises these and a few other questions. Marketed specifically to encourage video collecting, this gaggle of 19 musicals, 15 of them previously available on tape, delivers the legacy of 20th Century Fox more squarely than it might care to admit. Every subtype of the genre is here — and precious few of the best.
At its most sublime — Busby Berkeley at Warner Brothers and Astaire and Rogers at RKO in the ’30s, the Arthur Freed unit at MGM that crested with 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain — the American movie musical was a homegrown art form as original and potent as jazz. Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox never scaled such artistic heights, though; the studio preferred to crank out pleasantly mediocre variations on the song-and-dance backstager, with Alice Faye or Betty Grable being wooed by Tyrone Power or Don Ameche. Fox’s musicals weren’t as chic as RKO’s, as innovative as MGM’s, nor as energetic as Warner Brothers’. More often, there were wholesome, tuneful, and mile-high in the type of corn that paid the bills back then but that plays poorly to cynical modern audiences.
The better of the already released titles in the Great American Musical Collection only confirm that Fox was rarely able to get it right. Some were produced by independents or other studios, with Fox later picking up the video rights: Guys and Dolls, with its great Frank Loesser songs, was made by Samuel Goldwyn Productions, while My Fair Lady was from Warner Brothers. Others were made when the Fox studio’s power was on the wane: Rodgers and Hammerstein exerted total control over the films of Oklahoma!, The King and I, Carousel, and South Pacific, while Hello Dolly! owes its bullying charisma to Barbra Streisand.
The best of the studio’s own fare, on the other hand, shows a fundamental lack of imagination that’s truly odd in such a fantastic genre. Dull logic rules: No one impulsively bursts into song in a Fox musical, because every production number is placed in the context of a show-within-the-film. There’s No Business Like Show Business is the Fox backstager par excellence, with what seems like the entire Irving Berlin catalog shoehorned into silly hokum about a vaudeville family. Even the occasional attempt to do something different is halfhearted: The all-black Stormy Weather rounds up many notable entertainers of the day — Lena Horne, Bill ”Bojangles” Robinson, Fats Waller, Cab Calloway — only to stick them with an insultingly patchy plot.
The four new-to-tape musicals are typical of Fox’s cheery blandness. Sun Valley Serenade has impressive skiing footage, the incredible proto-break-dancing of the Nicholas Brothers, a Dorothy Dandridge cameo, and the Glen Miller band introducing ”Chatanooga Choo-Choo.” Unfortunately, it also has Sonja Henie, former Olympic skater and one of the studio’s biggest money-makers at the time. Popular as this tiny dynamo on blades was, she’s impossible to take now — a grinning dimpled horror you’ll want to boot into the nearest snow bank. By asking us to swallow the idea that twinkly Sonja could lure John Payne away from lovely Lynn Bari, the story practically invites snorts of disbelief. Orchestra Wives repeats the formula with more Glenn Miller and no Henie: It’s a big improvement. In fact, Wives is best when it ignores the nominal romantic plot and just lets Miller’s band bear down on hard-driving tunes like ”I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.”
Stars and Stripes Forever represents a different musical subgenre favored by Fox: the fluffy biopic, in which a performer’s life story is the peg for a group of barely related production numbers. Stars gives us the smoothed-over saga of ”March King” john Philip Sousa, played with crisp bemusement by Clifton Webb. Even if you’re not a brass-band fanatic, the movie is pleasant, and wittier that it has a right to be. But Stars suffers greatly, devoting half its running time to a romance between Robert Wagner and Debra Paget.
By the mid-’50s, the only original film musicals with any box office oomph left were the MGM/Freed extravaganzas, and Daddy Long Legs is a pale, dutiful imitation thereof — down to borrowing MGM stars Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. An oft-filmed story (there were three earlier versions if you count Shirley Temple’s Curly Top) about a rich playboy who falls for the girl who anonymously sends to college, Daddy gets the full treatment: wide-screen (cropped for this tape release), Technicolor, even a dream ballet Xeroxed from An American in Paris.
All of it goes for naught. Astaire and Caron click playfully in their dances together, but the rest is a listless parade of plot twists that have worked better elsewhere. One moment stands out: when Astaire slides into Johnny Mercer’s wonderful, Oscar-nominated ”Something’s Gotta Give.” Here at last you glimpse the beautiful, easy elation of mood — the world made perfect — that other studios put into their musicals as a matter of course. Somehow, in 25 years of trying, 20th Century Fox never figures out how to sustain that moment for an entire film.