Mad About Musicals: The Wizard of Oz


This marks the last week of my spotlight on musicals. The TCM Mad About Musicals course just wrapped up this week. I now have an even greater appreciation for the genre. For the final week of my look at musicals, I have chosen an all-time favorite: The Wizard of Oz. While it was robbed of Best Picture (Gone With the Wind, really?), the film has only continued to enchant generations of film lovers. It seems impossible to put the film’s greatness into words. But I will give it the old college try.

By now we all know the story of The Wizard of Oz. Based on the popular books by Frank L. Baum, it follows the adventures of Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) through the magical world of oz. She ends up there after a tornado blows through her Kansas farm. Once her house finally lands after being sucked up into the cyclone, she opens the door to the magical world full of witches, munchkins, and other fantastical creatures. The transition from the sepia tones of Kansas to the magnificent Technicolor world of Oz remains one of the most breathtaking things ever put on film. More on the technical merits of the film later.

Dorothy learns upon entering Oz that she has killed the Wicked Witch of the East (when Dorothy’s house landed it fell on her). Because of this, Dorothy sparks the ire of the witch’s sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). The Wicked Witch of the West wants her sister’s magical ruby slippers. But Glinda, the Good Witch of the North (Billie Burke), manages to put them on Dorothy’s feet first. The Wicked Witch of the West swears revenge on Dorothy. Glinda tells Dorothy her best chance of getting home is to travel to the Emerald City and enlist the help of the Wizard of Oz (Frank Morgan).

With that, Dorothy follows the Yellow Brick Road to begin her quest. Along the way, Dorothy and dog Toto meet the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), the Tin Man (Jack Haley), and the Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr). The Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the lion courage. All decide to team up with Dorothy and go to the Wizard to seek his help. Once the gang reaches the Emerald City and finally see the Wizard, he gives them a task before granting their wishes. They must bring back the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West (to do so they will have to kill her). They pull off the feat, and then find out that (spoiler alert!) the Wizard is a fraud. But Dorothy does get home. At the end of the excitement, Glinda informs her that all she has to do is click the heels of her shoes three times and repeat, “there’s no place like home.” It is in the denouement we discover the adventures in Oz were a dream brought about when Dorothy got knocked out during the tornado.

The Wizard of Oz has endured for nearly 80 years for a multitude of reasons. First, the songs are magical. There’s Garland’s rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow early in sepia toned Kansas that sets up her desire to go to a magical place away from her troubles. There’s also We’re Off To See The Wizard, If I Only Had a Brain, and The Merry Old Land of Oz. They all add to the timeless quality and charm of the film.

There’s also the fact that The Wizard of Oz introduced the world to Judy Garland. It’s remarkable that she was so great and such a young age. To this day, there are few, if any, modern artist with her versatility. It’s a rare person who can act, but also sing and dance. Garland proved over her long career to be able to do all three things at an incredibly high level. We will never see another like her.

Along with Garland, The Wizard of Oz has a rich and wonderful supporting cast. My favorite of the bunch is Margaret Hamilton. It’s thanks to Hamilton’s skill that the Wicked  Witch of the West remains the standard by which film villains are measured. I also love the underrated Frank Morgan as the Wizard and Billie Burke as Glinda.

Finally, the look of The Wizard of Oz is just incredible. There’s Technicolor and then there’s TECHNICOLOR. This film takes the technical process to an art form. The look of Oz is one of the most beautiful things ever committed to film. Credit the film’s cinematographer Harold Rosson. The look of the film has not aged a day since 1939. Not many films can make that claim.

The Wizard of Oz is a touchstone of American pop culture for good reason. It has a simple but fun story, colorful characters, adventure, timeless songs, and it take place mostly in a magical land that remains one of the great technical achievements in the history of cinema. It’s a film for kids age 8 to 80. It has endured for 79 years and will likely endure for 79 more.

Mad About Musicals: The Music Man


Greetings, readers! It’s time for another installment in my blog spotlight on movie musicals. This week’s selection is from 1962. It’s The Music Man. Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, the film boast a great cast and some of the catchiest songs ever written for a musical. Even if you haven’t seen the movie (*gasp*), I bet you know it’s most iconic song: 76 Trombones. So let’s break down the plot and what makes this one of the greatest movie musicals.

Let’s cut straight to the chase and discuss the plot. In the summer of 1912, a traveling salesman named “Professor” Harold Hill (Robert Preston) takes his business to River City, Iowa. He intends to swindle the stubborn residents. He passes himself off as a traveling band instructor intent on starting a boys’ marching band, complete with instruments and uniforms. Hill’s con is to hop the next train once he collects his money and the instruments and uniforms have arrived.

River City residents will then have no money and no band. He drums up the need for the band with the help of associate Marcellus Washburn (Buddy Hackett). The two convince the local parents that children are being led into the world of sin and vice by the town’s new pool table. And the con is on. And nearly the whole town is fooled by Hill’s act. But the local librarian is not convinced. Marian (Shirley Jones) doesn’t buy the traveling salesman’s act for one minute. So Hill tries to romance/distract her. But, of course, the two end up falling for each other. It is a Hollywood musical after all. How all of this plays out I will leave you to discover.

The Music Man is a great musical largely due to its strong cast, lead by Preston and Jones. Preston was one of the musical’s original Broadway cast members to make it into the film adaptation. Without him the film simply doesn’t work. He’s believable as the huckster salesman and equally so as a romantic lead. Preston manages to bring all the nuances of the character perfectly from stage to screen. Shirley Jones is great as Marian the librarian. She has a great rapport with Preston that makes them a believable couple. Buddy Hackett gets some great scene stealing moments as Preston’s partner in crime. And last, but certainly not least, Ronnie Howard (yes, the man who would go by Ron Howard in future and become an Oscar-winning director) is adorable as little Winthrop. Normally I find kids in movies annoying. This is an exception.

Now, how about the songs and the overall production? The Music Man benefits from a few Broadway cast members making it to the film version. It also had the great fortune to be directed by Morton DaCosta, who directed the stage version. The whole film has a rich stagey feel to it. Great examples are the Marian the Librarian song (one of my favorites) and the opening Rock Island number. The people making the film knew they had great material and didn’t try to completely reinvent the wheel. Marian the Librarian is playful and has a lot of fun staging a musical number inside a library. The Rock Island number that is a prologue of sorts, could reasonably be seen as the first rap battle. It’s great how the actors set the story up using vocal inflections that mimic the sounds of the train they’re on. It’s inventive and playful. This sequence right away signals to the viewers that they’re in for a treat.

The Music Man was nominated for a number of Oscars, including Best Picture. It won just one for its score. It was released in 1962 and has barely aged a day. It’s lush in the way it’s photographed, has the charm of the stage version, and is as great to watch at age 8 as age 80. Even if you’re not huge on musicals, I would strongly encourage you to check out The Music Man. I’ve seen it convert many people to the genre. Oh, and it has some songs you’ll be singing for days.

Mad About Musicals: On The Town


Greetings, readers! I hope those of you also involved in TCM’s Mad About Musicals course are enjoying it as much as I am. This week, I’ll be covering one of the films shown for the course during the past week: On The Town. I must confess, my favorite hoofer is Gene Kelly. While another musical of his, Singin’ in the Rain, is my favorite movie musical, On The Town is a lot of fun and I think it deserves more recognition.

The plot of On The Town is pretty simple. Three Navy sailors: Gabey (Gene Kelly), Chip (Frank Sinatra), and Ozzie (Jules Munshin) are in leave in New York City. They have exactly 24 hours to see all the sites and meet some girls. The movie follows their madcap adventures in the city during the 24 hour period.

On The Town opens with the iconic New York, New York song (one of the few to make the cut from the stage version). This is one of the best opening numbers of any musical ever filmed. It was one of the first musicals to be shot on location. So we get to see the New York City skyline, Times Square, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Plaza, etc. This is genius, because it gives viewers an idea of the enormity of their task. How can they possibly see everything New York City has to offer in 24 hours? One of the film’s charms is that it’s a love letter to the city. It shows famous landmarks, but then everyday New York things, such as getting a hot dog and seeing a shipyard.

Like many movie musicals, On The Town is about finding romance. When the sailors are on the subway, Gabey sees a poster for Miss Turnstiles (Vera-Ellen) and is instantly smitten. He decides he has to find her. So they decide to split up for a wider search of the city.  Along the way, Chip and Ozzie find romance too. Chip couples up with an amorous cab driver named Hildy (Betty Garrett). Ozzie hooks up with Claire (Ann Miller) when the group stops at the Museum of Anthropological History. Claire thinks she’s found her Prehistoric Man in Ozzie. The Prehistoric Man number is one of the highlights of the film for me. The choreography has a lot of fun with the museum props and makes great use of Ann Miller’s incredible tap dancing skills.

On The Town is less about the plot than it is about showing off New York City and enjoying the chemistry of its wonderful cast. The choreography of the musicals numbers is a lot of fun, especially New York,New York, Prehistoric Man, and On The Town. Kelly, Sinatra,Munshin, and Garrett also co-starred in the musical Take Me Out To The Ballgame. But On The Town just pops off the screen more for me. The film won an Oscar for best scoring of a musical picture. This is especially interesting when you know that much of Leonard Bernstein’s original stage music was cut from the film. In fact, he was so fed up that he boycotted the film. But the songs are catchy and fun and this is a great film to put on if you’re looking for something fun to enjoy on a Friday night.

A few final notes. On The Town was co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. They would team up again for Singin’ in the Rain. Finally, the male leads get most of the attention in this movie. But the women are equally compelling. Ann Miller and Betty Garrett in particular deserve more recognition for their work. Ann Miller was one of the finest dancers of the era, and Garrett has a sweet and natural chemistry with Sinatra. Their duet in the cab as they help Gabe look for Miss Turnstiles, Come Up To My Place, is charming as all get out. On The Town may not be the most important musical ever made. But it’s definitely one of the most enjoyable.

Mad About Musicals: Footlight Parade


It’s week two of my spotlight on musicals to coincide with the TCM Mad About Musicals course. Last week I took a look back at A Hard Day’s Night. Now I’m going from the 1960s all the way back to the 1930s. And this one is even more fun since it’s pre-code. My selection this week is 1933’s Footlight Parade. It features some of choreographer Busby Berkeley’s best numbers. And that is saying something.

Footlight Parade is centered around Chester Kent (James Cagney), a struggling Broadway director. Due to his struggles with stage productions, he decides to try something new, Kent starts putting together what he calls prologues. These are short live stage musical numbers presented in movie theaters before the main features are shown. He’s under constant pressure to make new ones so they can be in theaters across the country. To make matters worse, a rival keeps stealing his ideas. While Kent is wrapped up in his work, he’s oblivious to the fact that his secretary, Nan (Joan Blondell), has fallen in love with him. Later, things get even more complicated. Kent’s business partners put him on the verge of a big break. They strike a deal with the Apolinaris theater circuit. But, to get the contract, there’s a catch. He must impress Mr. Apolinaris (Pail Porcasi) by staging three prologues all in one night. Kent and his crew go all out. They lock themselves in their offices until the task is done. And the result is three great prologues: Honeymoon Hotel, By A Waterfall, and Shanghai Lil.

The real revelation for me in Footlight Parade is James Cagney. Before this movie, I had only known him from his gangster pictures. And he was great in those. Don’t get me wrong. But seeing this, a gained a whole new respect for Cagney. Unbeknownst to me, he had this whole other skill set as a song and dance man. That’s also on display in Yankee Doodle Dandy. I recommend that one as well. It’s great that Cagney got to show off his versatility in Footlight Parade, especially in the Shanghai Lil number. Another treasure in this film is Joan Blondell. She was a staple of the pre-code era. The relationship she has with Cagney is charming and they have a natural chemistry together. Blondell is one of those rare performers who steals every scene she is in, That’s certainly the case here. Also worthy of note is Dick Powell. He got he start in light musicals before switching to playing noir anti-heroes in  films such as Murder, My Sweet. It’s a credit to his range that he’s equal good in both types of characters. Finally, look for Ruby Keeler dancing with Cagney in Shanghai Lil. Don’t miss her in another favorite musical of mine, 42nd Street.

Footlight Parade is in the great tradition of backstage musicals. It’s fascinating to see all the work that goes into a stage production and get to know all the colorful characters involved. This film has a lot of wit in its screenplay and its delivered to perfection by its cast. It’s part backstage story and part screwball comedy. Both parts work well together.Credit director Lloyd Bacon, who also directed 42nd Street.

Along with the cast, the real reason to see Footlight Parade are choreographer Busby Berkeley’s musical numbers. The most iconic is probably in By A Waterfall, which features a human waterfall. The image of performers on what looks like a rotating layer cake, is one you won’t forget. Busby Berkeley was a visionary to be sure.

Footlight Parade is a film I use to introduce people to pre-code movies. It has a strong cast, led by James Cagney showing himself to be a first-rate hoofer. The film has s sharp screenplay and musical numbers that even today you have to marvel at the imagination of. It’s a gem worth discovering.

Mad About Musicals: A Hard Day’s Night


Greetings, readers! It’s a new month. That means it’s time for a new spotlight on this film blog. This month I have chosen musicals. Why? For starters, I love musicals. But, this month I am enrolled in the TCM free online course, Mad About Musicals. All this month I’ll be highlighting my favorite musicals. I will be started with one that doesn’t have tap dancing and isn’t a traditional musical by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s one of the most fun films I have ever seen. It’s 1964’s A Hard Day’s Night.

I have a confession to make. I’m a millenial. And, despite growing up int the era of *NSYNC and the Backstreet Boys, I never was much for boy bands. Even as a kid, I was all about oldies and classic rock. And my favorite band from an early age was The Beatles. The first CD I bought was A Hard Day’s Night, the soundtrack to the movie I am discussing this week. For my money, no band has a better catalogue of music than The Beatles. So it’s no surprise that one of their movies made it into this spotlight. I love the others too, especially Yellow Submarine. But A Hard Day’s Night is bu far the best.

There isn’t a whole lot of plot to explain in A Hard Day’s Night. Basically it’s a semi-documentary about what it’s like to be The Beatles on a daily basis. As the movie opens, the Fab Four are running from rabid fans to catch a train they are taking to perform a concert on television. We see their adventures on the train, including meeting Paul’s grandfather (a great supporting performance by Wilfrid Brambell) and getting busted by the band’s put upon manager (Norman Rossington) for various shenanigans. Once the band makes it to London, we see them answering letters and fan mail in their hotel room. But they feel trapped in the hotel.

After rehearsal for the concert, they escape via a fire escape to play in a nearby field. This is my favorite part of the movie, choreographed to Can’t Buy Me Love. Later, Ringo is tasked with watching Paul’s grandfather while the band waits to perform. But Paul’s grandfather convinces Ringo to stop just reading books and to go out and experience life. It’s here we get a great sequence with Ringo having adventures doing everyday things: getting a drink in a pub, taking photographs, riding a bicycle, and taking a walk by a canal. Ringo gets arrested for exhibiting suspicious behavior. And, Paul’s grandfather gets arrested for selling photos where he forged signatures of The Beatles. The rest of the band goes out frantically searching for Ringo as the televised concert time looms. They end up at the police station, where they all eventually make a run for it, and the concert goes on as scheduled.

The joy of A Hard Day’s Night comes from a few things. One, of course, is the soundtrack. It features some of the most iconic Beatles songs: the title track, Can’t Buy Me Love, If I Feel, She Loves You, If I Fell, Tell Me Why, All My Loving, etc. This is a great movie to introduce people to the music of The Beatles.

Another reason this film is such a pleasure to watch is because it really lets all the band members shine. John, Paul, George, and Ringo all had their own distinct personalities. These aren’t just cardboard cutout characters or caricatures of famous people. And we get to see that onscreen. A Hard Day’s Night was filmed at the height of Beatlemania. And it’s a blast to not only see this talented group having fun with each other, but each getting their own little vignette where we get to know them and appreciate their personality quirks. My favorite is the one involving Ringo. I think part of the appeal is that he strikes me as a bit of an introvert, something I can relate too.

Finally, the energy in this movie is just contagious. From that iconic opening guitar riff in the title song and its crazy opening sequence, to the end concert where the band plays to a packed house of screaming fans, there’s not a moment that isn’t filled with great music and a great time with the greatest band of all time. A Hard Day’s Night a great time capsule of classic music and of 1960s pop culture. It makes The Beatles themselves, and not just their music, accessible.Director Richard Lester made one of the best and most influential musicals in cinema history. He does a solid job of incorporating enough great Beatles music while letting us get to know their personalities. And the musical numbers crackle with energy, especially the opening and the Can’t Buy Me Love scene in the field where The Beatles dance and goof around to one of their biggest hits. A Hard Day’s Night has been often imitated, but rarely equaled.

I’ll end with this fun fact. The title track came about when Ringo coined the phrase during production. That same night, John Lennon wrote the song. Now that is talent!