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.

Wednesday, January 5, 2005


Have I ever mentioned that there are times I really hate the month of January? As I see it, January is essentially the Monday of the year, and I am not just saying that because January is the first month of the year and Monday the first day of the work week. Let's face it, one works all week and then Friday comes and one is off for the weekend. One can do what he or she pleases. With regards to the year, one works all year and then come the holidays. Now most of us have to work at least part of the holidays, but at least it is a time of celebration and fun. Then comes January, the start of the year, and it's back to business as usual. No more Yuletide carols. No more decorations. No more evergreens. No more mistletoe. Just work and the bleak January landscape.

And speaking of the bleak January landscape, that is another reason I hate January. Now I don't mind snow. In fact, snow is very lovely to look at and very fun to play in. Like many I've enjoyed my share of snowball fights. The problem is that in Missouri we are more likely to have ice storms, which is what we have had today. I was all set to go to Texas to visit relatives and other loved ones when this thing came in. Now there is no way I can make it down there. The fact is, right now I would have trouble making it downtown...

Worse yet, beyond New Year's Day and Martin Luther King Day, January boasts no holidays. This makes the month rather dull. I am not surprised that January is the month of white sales, as the month is a lot like the colour white--dull and boring. Nothing is going on except the occasional ice storm.

Oh well, I suppose I have ranted enough. It is probably just the ice storm and the prospect of not getting to Texas that has me in a foul mood. I mean, things could be worse. It could be July...

Sunday, January 2, 2005

The Doris Day Show

One of the shows I remember as a child is The Doris Day Show. I think there are only three reasons I remember the series. The first is that it starred Doris Day, an actress well known for her motion picture career. I am not sure that I saw any of her movies before The Doris Day Show, but I rather think I did while it was still on the air. The second is that it was on Monday night, when my family's TV set was tuned to CBS. After all, this was the night of Here's Lucy, Mayberry R.F.D., and The Carol Burnett Show. Finally, I remember the show because it seemed as if it changed format with every season!Indeed, The Doris Day Show demonstrates in miniature the changes that were overtaking television in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

The origin of The Doris Day Show are interesting in and of itself. In April 1968, Day's husband Marty Melcher died. Melcher's death brought to light the fact that he had been using Day's fortune to make various investments. Quite simply, Day was effectively bankrupt. His death also brought to light a deal Melcher had made with CBS in the spring of 1967 to star Day in a TV series. Day had no knowledge whatsoever of the deal. Although Day didn't particularly care for television, she needed the income from the series to win back the money she'd lost in court, not to mention to place her more solid financial ground.

The original incarnation of The Doris Day Show cast Day as Doris Martin, a widow and mother of two sons (Billy and Toby) who moves back to the ranch of her father Buck (Denver Pyle). The Doris Day Show was then effectively both a family comedy and a rural comedy, focusing on Doris's efforts to raise her childen and to readjust to life in the country. The second season brought a bit of a change to the series. Doris became the excecutive secretary to Mr. Nicholson (McLean Stevenson), editor of Today's World magazine.

It was the third season that brought a major change to the series. Doris and her two sons moved to San Francisco in order to be closer to her work. They lived in an apartment over a restaurant owned by Louie Pallucci (Bernie Kopell) and Angie Pallucci (Kaye Ballard). Doris still worked at Today's World, even acting as a reporter from time to time.

The fourth season still saw Doris Martin working at Today's World, but mysteriously she had become single with no kids in sight. Her new boss was Sy Bennett (John Dehner). I remember being somewhat puzzled at this change as a child. I wondered what happened to her children. After all, the series in its fourth season made no reference to them whatsoever. It is as if they not only ceased to exist, but ceased to have ever existed!

The Doris Day Show was very successful from the beginning. In its second season it ranked #10 in the top 25 shows for the season. In its third season it ranked #20. In its fourth season, even after the radical changes to the show, it ranked #23. The only reason the show ended was that Doris Day decided she could go nowhere else with the character of Doris Martin.

As I said, earlier, the changes in the format of The Doris Day Show reflected the changes that faced television in the late Sixties and the early Seventies. When The Doris Day Show debuted it was a family comedy, one of a number that would debut in the late Sixties (The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family were two others). It was also one in a long run of rural comedies (The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies being the most popular). Unfortunately, for rural comedies, the networks had discovered demographics in the Sixites. It was not enough to know how many people were watching a TV series, now the networks wanted to know who was watching it. The Madison Avenue advertisers wanted shows that appealed to young urban professionals (what would come to be called "Yuppies" in the Eighties). Because of this, the networks started purging their schedules of any shows that appealed to rural or older audiences. ABC cancelled The Lawrence Welk Show. CBS went even further, cancelling nearly all of their rural comedies, some which were still getting very good ratings (Mabyerry R.F.D. was still in the top twenty). It was then wise for Doris Day to move her character and her sons to San Francisco with the third season. To have done otherwise may have well killed the show. By the 1972-1973 season, the family comedies that had debuted in the late Sixties were on their way out. Both The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch would leave the air in 1974. Among the hit series of the early Seventies was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, so it made sense to turn Doris Martin into a single career woman. The Doris Day Show then reflects the changes that occurred in American television from 1968 to 1973 quite well. It went from a rural, family comedy to an urban, family comedy to a comedy about a single career woman.

I rather suspect that the The Doris Day Show is rather unique in televison history. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any shows that changed their formats nearly as often. In fact, I have to wonder if the final incarnation of The Doris Day Show should not be treated as a different show, but with the same title and the same name for the lead character! At any rate, the changes in format didn't seemed to hurt the series in the ratings, even if it confused me as a child...