Friday, January 7, 2005

The Decline of the Movie Musical

On Christmas night NBC aired It's a Wonderful Life and ABC aired The Sound of Music. Much to my shock, The Sound of Music soundly beat It's a Wonderful Life in the ratings. I still cannot believe it. To me It's a Wonderful Life is the greatest Yuletide movie of all time. As to The Sound of Music, well, I view it as a symptom in the decline of the movie musical.

With the advent of talkies came the movie musical. Throughout the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, musicals filled theatres across the country. While MGM and RKO are the two studios best known for producing musicals, nearly every studio made them. And musicals did big business. It was in the early to mid Fifties that the movie musical reached its artistic peak. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and An American in Paris were all released between 1951 and 1954. In other words, the four greatest musical movies (at least in my opinion) were released in a space of three years. Unfortunately, as the Fifties wore on, musicals did worse and worse at the box office. By the late Fifties, it seems as if Hollywood stopped producing original musicals (such as Singin' in the Rain), their musical output consisting solely of stage adaptions (Mary Poppins was a rare exception). Many of these adaptations also number among the greatest musicals of all time: Gigi, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and Oliver! among them. At the same time, however, there were a number of musicals produced that were, in my opinion, artistically (and sometimes financially as well) flops.

For me The Sound of Music falls in the category of an artistic flop. Oh, I love its score. The Sound of Music features some truly great songs. And Julie Andrews is charming. Unfortunately, the movie itself is one, huge bore. If the stage version was as dull as the movie is, it is a wonder it was a success at all. As to the movie, I cannot believe that it was a smash hit or that it has somehow become one of the most beloved movies of all time. Indeed, I don't know of anyone who likes the movie. In fact, those who hate the movie the most seem to be the ones who love musicals the most!

In the wake of The Sound of Music came a number of poorly produced, very bad musicals. As dull as The Sound of Music was, Dr. Doolittle surpassed it, draining all the charm out of Hugh Lofting's novel. Worse yet, with the possible exception of "Talk to the Animals," the entire score was forgettable.

As bad as Dr. Doolittle was, the 1969 musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips was even worse. The 1939 classic film was a charming tale of a teacher and his life. The 1969 musical is the same story with any life whatsoever drained from it. The score is not only forgettable, but borders on amateurish in my opinion. It is quite possibly one of the worst musicals on film.

Star!, based on the life of actress Getrude Lawrence (with Julie Andrews in the title role), was not nearly as bad as Dr. Doolittle or Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The songs and musical numbers are impressive. Unfortunately, Star! drags when there isn't a musical number. In fact, its worst fault may be that it runs much too long.

Even when it seemed that there was no way a musical could go wrong in the late Sixties, somehow it did. Hello, Dolly! was based on the excellent stage musical. The film's director was The Man himself, Gene Kelly, the master of the Hollywood Musical. The sets and costumes are great. The film cannot be faulted for its production values. Unfortuately, what could have been a great film is undone by the casting of Dolly Levi. Barbara Streisand?! I can only wonder what they were thinking...

OF course, Hello, Dolly! only had Barbara Streisand really going against it. Man of La Mancha had much, much more. On paper, adapting the great stage musical seems like an excellent idea. This was a successful musical version of the tale of Don Quixote, with a score that had done well on the charts. The film that emerged, however, was wretched. The movie moves slower than a snail. No one can sing. Even the sets look terrible.

This is not to say that there weren't truly great musicals still being produced in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Oliver! was a truly well done version of the stage musical. And Fiddler on the Roof is, quite simply, one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. Unfortunately, these would not be enough to save the musical movie. In the Seventies only a few musicals would be produced and only one, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was any good. Grease and Annie are both so terrible that they leave me longing for Dr. Doolittle. Or even Goodbye, Mr. Chips!

In recent years it seems as if the movie musical might be making a comeback. Moulin Rouge was a hit (although I have to fault it for their choice of music--only "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend" are good songs). Chicago did even better at the box office and picked up an Oscar in the process. What is more, it is a truly fine musical. I can only hope that more musicals like Chicago come out and such films as The Sound of Music, Dr. Doolittle, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Grease, and Annie will be forgotten.

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