The BFI Southbank has a new season of film musicals running from October – January, which is accompanied by screenings across the country, at the Waterloo IMAX, and in the Mediatheque.
For several months I have been assembling a list of film musicals on my Letterboxd account, now numbering over 7,000 titles, of which I have seen approx 55%. I consider myself a huge fan of the genre, and have quite a wide definition of what a “musical” is.
This post will introduce you to fifty names you may wish to check out – I will not be talking about Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Doris Day or Barbra Streisand, but I will mention some names from the Golden Age of Cinema (1929-1969) from a range of studios, countries, and styles.
There are many more, and I wish you fun in your own voyage of discovery.
Shirley Temple. Perhaps the ultimate movie moppet, Temple was a triple threat from a tot, singing, acting, and dancing. Avoid the colourised versions of her classic films, but The Little Princess is a good starting point.
Deanna Durbin. With an operatic singing voice, an earnest manner, and a liking for wearing boleros, Durbin was a teenage sensation, usually causing bother in the nicest of ways. Try Three Smart Girls.
Jane Withers. Once the highest grossing star at Fox, Withers was a cute little imp with a winning personality and a lot of pluck, who could handle comedy as expertly as a song. Meet Withers in Paddy O’Day.
Bobby Breen. An acquired taste for sure, but Breen headed up a number of films for RKO as a boy soprano. By sixteen he had left the screen but catch him in Rainbow on the River.
Mitzi Green. Starting on stage and in films at a young age with an old head, she had a knowing style when singing her songs, and could do impersonations as well. Have a look at Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round.
Bing Crosby. You may well know Crosby from his many million-selling records, from his Christmas shows for TV, or that final duet with Bowie. But you can appreciate the king of the crooners in two goes at Anything Goes, for a start, first opposite the wonderful Ethel Merman, then the perky Mitzi Gaynor.
Rudy Vallee. The first modern “pop star” to gain a teen following, Vallee’s appeal may look quaint now, but he made an early impact in The Vagabond Lover, and held on in films for another forty years.
Dick Powell. Juvenile lead of numerous Busby Berkeley films of the 1930s, often opposite dancer Ruby Keeler, Powell can be best appreciated in Gold Diggers of 1933 (showing on 1, 4 and 9 November at BFI Southbank) and later in life became a good actor in more hard-boiled fare.
Richard Tauber. Austrian-born tenor and actor who worked extensively in Britain. Well known for his recordings of romantic songs from the operatic canon, you can get an idea of his appeal in Heart’s Desire.
Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy. Bracketed together due to their successful series of films at MGM, this pair were known as the “singing sweethearts” and hugely popular in the late 1930s. My favourite of their films is Sweethearts. Macdonald also worked well with Maurice Chevalier in the early 1930s: see Love Me Tonight, and Eddy had a hit opposite Rise Stevens in The Chocolate Soldier.
Lily Pons. Pons came from the Met Opera and although she appeared in just four films, displayed a winning personality and beautiful vocals. Try That Girl from Paris.
Grace Moore, the “Tennessee nightingale”, worked on Broadway and at the Met, and was the first opera diva to succeed on screen in the sound era. Have a look at When You’re in Love, where Moore also demonstrates a flair for comedy.
Helen Morgan. Although Morgan’s story was allegedly told on screen some years after her death, she is often unjustly passed over. A great actress as well as a singer, she can be seen at her best in Applause.
Ramon Navarro. Navarro had been a Latin lover in the silent era, but with a pleasant singing voice he transitioned well into the age of musicals. His films are rarely screened today, but still stand up well and retain their entertainment value. You can judge for yourself in Devil-May-Care.
John Boles. With a career of close to thirty years, Boles did well in early Hollywood musicals and transitioned into supporting roles. A veteran of stage and screen, he’s seen at his most effective in Rio Rita.
Cicely Courtneidge. Gangly and amusing, and quite the queen of British musical comedy in the 1930s, often playing opposite her husband Jack Hulbert. A hard working comedienne, she worked for years in both musical comedy and music hall before switching to non-muiscal roles later in life. There’s only one song in Me and Marlborough, but it’s delightful.
Wheeler and Woolsey. RKOs biggest money-spinners in the early talkies, musical comics Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey came from vaudeville into films when Rio Rita was brought to the screen, and were retained for a series of titles of variable quality, especially once their risque humour was curtailed after 1935. I would recommend starting with Diplomaniacs.
Marjorie White. A performer who shone brightly for a very short time, she gives a kick to any film she appears in, and was a vibrant screen personality. You may enjoy her in a supporting role in Sunny Side Up.
Judy Canova. Often seen as a country bumpkin character, she could sing, act, cavort and yodel. A major star for Poverty Row studio Republic, her films are always enjoyable and now and again she is allowed to showcase a song which isn’t purely there for comic effect. I liked her in Untamed Heiress.
The Lupino family. Whether Stanley, Barry, Wallace, Ida or Lupino Lane, this British family came from the stage to liven up early musical comedies, and Ida went on to star and direct in films in the US. Spot Lane in The Love Parade.
Marion Davies. Often derided theae days for her supposed inspiration for the terrible singer in Citizen Kane, she was not only a gifted comedian but also a fine singer who was often utilised badly in films which just didn’t suit her. I enjoyed her in The Floradora Girl.
Janet Gaynor. The sweetheart of the silent films moved seamlessly into talkies, despite having quite a thin voice. Personality won the day, and she also preceded Judy Garland as Esther/Vicki in the 1937 version of A Star is Born. Have a look at Adorable.
Alice Faye. One of Fox’s most glamorous blondes, she shone in biopics and early musicals in which she was very much the focus. Try an early title from her career, 365 Days in Hollywood.
Jessie Matthews. One of the greatest pre-war stars, she moved effortlessly from the stage to screen in a run of ingenue roles. Later she appeared on American screens as the mother of tom thumb, but catch her at her peak in First a Girl, showing at the BFI Southbank on 12 December.
Gracie Fields. Our Gracie was one of the biggest earners of the 1930s and a huge worldwide success. Usually portraying working-class women with hearts of gold, she was far from glamorous but remained the “poor girl made good”. You can see her gift for comedy and sense her appeal in Sally in Our Alley. You can also see Queen of Hearts on 9 Nov at the BFI Southbank.
George Formby. With his ukulele, toothy grin, and “little stick of Blackpool rock”, he entertained pre-war and wartime audiences with a solid run of musical comedies. Always the same character, with slightly bawdy songs, he proved a brilliant entertainer at the time when the nation needed a laugh. Try Keep Your Seats, Please.
Dancers and ice-skaters
Sonja Henie. From the Olympics to the silver screen, impish Henje shone in a series of ice ballets. Try her first one, One in a Million.
Joan Crawford. Before her emotional dramas and horror flicks, she’d been a talented flapper and chorus girl. Have a look at this aspect of her work in Dancing Lady where she is partnered by none other than Fred Astaire.
Vera Hruba Ralston. Republic’s skater queen, who endured a lot of jibes because she was married to the boss of the studio, Herbert Yates. A vivacious and talented figure skater, she was the big earner for the biggest name on Poverty Row. Take a look at Lake Placid Serenade.
Ann Miller. Hitting the screen at just thirteen years old, she was the definition of a trouper, all teeth and legs and a dazzling presence on the dance floor. Catch her in Kiss Me Kate (almost literally, if you are watching in 3D, as you can at the BFI on 9 December).
Cyd Charisse. Astaire called her “beautiful dynamite” and I can only agree. At her best in a primarily dance role, she is unforgettable in Singin’ in the Rain and does well in Garbo’s old role in Silk Stockings.
Marge and Gower Champion. Marge has just celebrated her centenary, and she made a winning pair with her then husband during the 1950s, even reaching above the title status on a couple of titles. Their best work for me, though, was in supporting roles in Show Boat.
Rex Harrison. Known for his patter-singing, has to be on the list for his starring role as Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, a role he created on the stage. You can see this film at BFI Imax on 11 November. He was also seen in the leading role in Doctor Dolittle.
Anthony Newley. A talented composer, performer and actor, he was even a formative influence on the young David Bowie. Also featured in Doctor Dolittle, he is showcased particularly well in Idol on Parade, and was fun in a Dickens musical on the screen, Mr Quilp.
Sandra Dee. Perhaps remembered now for the 50s prototype made fun of in Grease, she was a teen sensation as Tammy and Gidget, but her career declined in the 60s. I recommend I’d Rather Be Rich.
Connie Francis. Pop star of the 50s with a golden voice, she first made films as a vocal dubber for the likes of Tuesday Weld, but appeared on screen herself in a handful of films starting with Follow The Boys.
Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. This pair livened up a run of “beach movies” of variable quality during the 1950s. Always firmly tongue in cheek, and always fun, they can be enjoyed in any of their collaborations, although I quite like Beach Blanket Bingo.
Carmen Miranda. The sparkling “lady with the tutti-frutti” hat could hardly be contained on the screen, with a sunny and snappy personality. I enjoy watching her in The Gang’s All Here.
Carlos Gardel. The hero of the tango and a legend in Argentina, a singer of sentimental songs. A run of early talkies came to an end with his death in 1935, but the films are very entertaining and his voice is easy and charming. You might take a look at The Lights of Buenos Aires.
Marika Rokk. A Hungarian singer who gained huge prominence in Nazi Germany (and was likely to be a secret spy for the KGB), but continued to work in films into the early 1960s. A pretty and alluring coquette, she can be seen at her best in Hello, Janine!
Marlene Dietrich. A German in Hollywood, she came to fame in the iconic The Blue Angel then lit up many dramatic 1930s films with her exotic allure and deep-voiced vocals. My favourite remains Morocco.
Maurice Chevalier. Quite different to the traditional American musical leads, he brought Gallic charm and a cheeky wink to a range of early talkies, returning to US screens again in later life in Gigi. Catch him in style in The Merry Widow.
Sophie Tucker. The last “Red Hot Mama” worked steadily for years on stage but made rare screen appearances. This powerful singer’s early work is lost but she is in Broadway Melody of 1938, and with a new film just released about her, attention may start to be paid to her again.
Fanny Brice. You may know here from Barbra Streisand’s portrayal in Funny Girl, but the real Brice was a true vaudevillian, starting in the Ziegfeld Follies. To see her at her best on screen is difficult, but I like her work in Be Yourself.
Al Jolson. Forever immortalised for being the first performer to sing in a feature film, “Jolie”s style is almost too big to be contained on screen but he is undoubtedly up there with the greats. You have to start with The Jazz Singer.
Esther Williams. Hollywood’s “Princess Mermaid”. In a series of high-budget MGM pictures, Williams swam in proposterous water ballets which have to be seen to be believed. Her personality was sunny and her films were a perfect form of post-war escapism. Perhaps at her best in Bathing Beauty.
Mae West. Renowed for her quips, sexual confidence, and earthy writing, West is best appreciated in the pre-Code era before her wings were clipped and her films made more palatable to family audiences. Check her out in I’m No Angel.
Marilyn Monroe. A breathy blonde who needs little introduction, she starred in a range of films where she often sneaked in a song, as well as more traditional musicals like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
Jayne Mansfield. Often derided for her large bosoms and cartoon personality, Mansfield was in fact a clever manipulator of her short-lived fame. She is well known for some films around the birth of the rock ‘n roll era, but you can also catch her comic charm in The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw.
Mamie van Doren. Often found in college and teen exploitation films, van Doren was a straight-talking sexpot who livens up even the most low-budget material. She is the last surviving blonde bombshell from the 1950s. Try Untamed Youth.