By Jessica Pickens
After World War II, films went in two directions: message films with deeper meanings and lavish Technicolor extravaganzas.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cornered the market when it came to frothy musicals with showstopping numbers. While Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films always had their own special brand of sparkle, I would argue to say that in the 1950s, the studio was at the top of their game when it came to movie musicals.
Unfortunately, by the early 1960s, as the studio system declined and the world shifted, so did the success of musicals. Here are musicals you can rent that best exhibit MGM's golden age of musicals, featuring Technicolor cinematography, top MGM stars, best songs, and stunning choreography.
Join us on Twitter for a fun hour of chatting about your favorite musicals on May 16th at 3pm PDT/6pm EDT! Follow and tweet with #DVDchat to participate. There will be prizes. :)
Starring: Fred Astaire, Vera-Ellen, Red Skelton, Arlene Dahl
Set in the early 1920s, the movie is a biographical film about Tin Pan Alley songwriters Bert Kalmar (Astaire) and Harry Ruby (Skelton).
Biographical films were not unusual when it came to biopics. “Three Little Words” is one of many that MGM released. Since the film is about two songwriters, all of the music is amazing. If you aren’t a fan of Red Skelton humor, his character here is much more subdued. An added bonus is Gloria DeHaven in a cameo playing her mother.
Starring: Jane Powell, Fred Astaire, Peter Lawford, Sarah Churchill, Keenan Wynn
On the eve of Princess Elizabeth’s royal wedding to Prince Philip, an American brother and sister dance act starring Tom (Astaire) and Ellen (Powell) Bowers travel to London. While the two rehearse for a show, they each fall in love. Their new romances threaten their sibling act.
“Royal Wedding” is fun musical which features fantastic dance numbers, including the famous number with Fred Astaire dancing on the sides of walls and on the ceiling of a room. An interesting fact is that Winston Churchill’s daughter, Sarah Churchill, plays Fred Astaire’s love interest. The story is loosely based on Fred Astaire’s relationship with his sister and dance partner, Adele.
Starring: Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ava Gardner, Agnes Moorehead, Joe E. Brown, Robert Sterling, Marge Champion, Gower Champion
Set in the 1880s, the Cotton Blossom Show Boat is run by Capt. Andy Hawke (Brown) and his wife Parthy (Moorehead). When the boat arrives in a Mississippi town, there’s trouble for the show’s leading lady Julie Laverne (Gardner) and her husband, Steve Baker (Sterling). Julie is part black, and Steve is white, and the couple forced out of town by the law due to their interracial relationship. In a hurry to replace their leading lady and leading man, Capt. Andy recruits his daughter Magnolia (Grayson) and a gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Keel). Magnolia and Gaylord get married, though her parents object.
This is the third and last time “Show Boat” was told on the silver screen. MGM knew how to use Technicolor to its advantage, costuming the stars of “Show Boat” in vibrant greens, pinks and yellows. “Show Boat” is visually beautiful to look at and MGM pulled out all the stops to make this film, including building a working show boat to paddle down the MGM backlot lake.
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen
Set in the late-1920s, Hollywood is making its transition from silent films to sound. Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Hagen) are two of Hollywood’s top stars and the transition proves to be difficult, particularly because Lina’s voice is like nails on a chalkboard. Don discovers Kathy Seldon (Reynolds), who Lina is threatened by and wants Kathy to be her voice dubber.
You can’t mention top movie musicals without mentioning “Singin’ in the Rain.” It is one of those films that could be considered a perfect film, with excellent songs, dancing, and casting. One unique thing about the film is that it could stand alone as a hilarious comedy if you took away the music.
Starring Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant, Jack Buchanan
Tony Hunter (Astaire) is a has-been movie actor and is trying to revive his career on Broadway. He teams up with an artistic director, Jeffrey Cordova (Buchanan), who tries to make a musical out of “Faust.” The musical lays an egg and Hunter, Cordova, and the rest of the cast (Charisse, Fabray, Levant) revive the show as a splashy musical revue.
When mentioning MGM musicals, “The Band Wagon” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are often pitted against each other in a “which is better” discussion. In truth, they are equally good and fabulous in different ways. The songs are all fabulous and includes the exuberant “That’s Entertainment,” the hilarious “Triplets” number, and the mournful “I Guess I’ve Got to Change My Plans.” This was Jack Buchanan’s first film since 1944. This is a must-see musical if you haven’t caught it.
Starring: Esther Williams, Fernando Lamas, Jack Carson, William Demarest, Charlotte Greenwood, Denise Darcel, Donna Corcoran, Barbara Whiting
Katie Higgins (Williams) is the daughter of dairy farmer Pa Higgins (Demarest), who keeps his family the healthiest in the county. But his farm is failing financially. When the family meets traveling salesman Windy Weebe (Carson), he convinces them to swim 30 miles across the English Channel with his product, Liquapep, as their sponsor. Katie meets handsome Frenchman Andre Lanet (Lamas) in the process.
MGM had all the best musical performers, including the most unique ones. Esther Williams was a swimming champion and Olympic hopeful turned movie star. Her films were unique musicals which featured songs, but also synchronized swimming numbers. Many of her film plots weren’t connected to swimming, but this is one of the few that is. A highlight is that Esther Williams also swims with Tom and Jerry in a dream sequence.
Starring: Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Cyd Charisse
Americans Tommy Albright (Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Johnson) are lost in Scotland and come across the town of Brigadoon, which only awakens every 100 years and is stuck in the 1700s. Tommy falls in love with one of the girls, Fiona (Charisse), but the town will disappear if anyone leaves and anyone who wants to stay has to leave the world they know and stay forever.
“Brigadoon” is a wistful and dreamy story that takes a look at life’s discontentment, taking risks for what you want and that sometimes there are consequences to finding happiness. The film has rich and gorgeous color and beautiful dances performed by Cyd Charisse.
Starring: Jane Powell, Howard Keel, Russ Tamblyn, Jeff Richards, Tommy Rall, Julie Newmar, Ruta Lee, Ian Wolfe, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox, Jacques d’Amboise
Set in 1850 in the backwoods of Oregon, Adam Pontipee (Keel) heads to the city looking for a wife. He finds Milly (Powell), who agrees to marry him. Little does Milly know that Adam is one of seven brothers and she is more of a glorified housekeeper than a wife. She tries to refine the brothers-encouraging bathing and teaching them how to read and dance. They are all eager to find wives of their own and decide to use the story of Romans kidnapping the Sabine women as an example.
I grew up on “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and it is one of my favorites. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of the best musicals of all time, with breathtaking dance numbers, like the “Barn Raising." This was the pinnacle of actress Jane Powell’s career, but it’s also sad because it was one of the last major musicals. I would consider “Seven Brides” an “essential” musical to see.
Jessica Pickens is a North Carolina-based writer. She has a degree in print journalism and now works in public relations. Outside of work, she writes about pre-1968 films at CometOverHollywood.com with a special interest in musicals, films released in 1939, and World War II-era films. You can follow her Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.