During the month of June, Turner Classic Movies is celebrating being “Mad About Musicals.” From June 3 to 30, they will be partnering with Ball State University to offer a free course about the history of the movie musical and showcasing iconic musicals of all decades on Tuesdays and Thursdays throughout the month. As a one-time theatre major, I loved the stage growing up and musicals were always my favorite, whether it watch performing or enjoying it from the audience.
I took a look at the TCM schedule, and here are my top “Mad About Musicals” choices for each night. You can find the full schedule here for times. And if you’d like to participate in their TCM and Ball State University’s free online Mad About Musicals course, you can enroll here – just make sure you do it by June 17th!
42nd Street (1933)
As with many of the early movie musicals, the basis of 42nd Street is – you guessed it – about putting on a musical. The film follows the stories of two of the cast: Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), the lead of the musical who is stuck trying to balance her stage career with her love life, and Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keller), a charming newcomer trying to navigate theatre life. However, it’s Ginger Rogers who absolutely steals the show – not with her dancing, which you don’t get to see much of in this movie, but with her comedic timing along with cohort Una Merkel. Most of the film is relatively light on songs; the majority of the true song and dance numbers don’t occur until the last 20 minutes of the film when you watch the production they’ve been putting together. The choreography and cinematography of the title track is worth the wait though.
Top Hat (1936)
Okay, NOW it’s time to see Ginger Rogers dance! The mid-30s was the height of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ film collaborations. If you’ve never seen a Rogers and Astaire film, this is a great one to start with. It was the first screenplay written specifically for the duo, and the comedy is almost as amazing as the dancing. Astaire is Jerry Travers, a dancer who has traveled to London to perform in a show, and Rogers is Dale Tremont, the hotel guest whose stay is being disrupted from hearing his tap dancing directly above her room. Astaire falls for Rogers’ character quickly, but a hilarious case of mistaken identity gets in the way of their burgeoning romance. And with Irving Berlin provided the music, you’re bound to hear at least one familiar tune.
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Taking place at the turn of the century, Meet Me in St. Louis gives a glimpse at the life of the Smith family, sharing moments of their lives over the course of four seasons. Judy Garland absolutely shines as Esther, with some biting one-liners, a hopeful look in her eye, an impulsive spirit and that voice. Her relationship with her sister Rose, portrayed by Lucille Bremer, is the absolute highlight of the film for me. As is their 5-year-old sister Tootie (Margaret O’Brien) singing a song about being drunk. The winter sequence is by far my favorite, and you have this film to thank for turning”Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” into a holiday staple. And got to love a movie that gives a shoutout to the Baltimore Orioles! If you’ve only seen Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, this is a fantastic choice to follow it up.
Show Boat (1951)
A lot of critics prefer the 1936 version of Show Boat, which included some of the original Broadway cast, but I have a soft spot for this one. The premise is simple: the life and relationships of a family who owns a show boat in the late 1800s. The casting is magnificent: Howard Keel is the quintessential rugged, leading man that he portrayed in a number of musicals around this time. Ava Gardner is absolutely stunning, even as she’s breaking your heart, and Joe E. Brown delivers another fantastic comedic performance that can be expected of him. I have a number of the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein songs on my phone that I sing along with regularly in the car, and the dance routines by real-life couple Marge and Gower Champion are simply fun to watch. Now, who wants to commandeer the Lilly Belle at Walt Disney World with me so we can put on a live performance?
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
I intended to only pick one film per night, but no list of movie musical suggestions is complete without Singin’ in the Rain. There’s a reason this film makes my top 5 movies of all time, and that’s because every moment is absolute perfection. Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor have absolutely unbeatable chemistry and a trio of actors trying to find a way to rescue Kelly’s latest movie – a silent film that now has to be converted for sound to compete with the newest marvel, talking pictures. Be prepared for every song to get stuck in your head and to have a perma-grin watching Gene Kelly dancing and splashing around while he’s vocalizing in some precipitation.
Guys and Dolls (1955)
I feel like simply saying “this is a musical starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando” should be enough to intrigue anyone to want to check this out. Sinatra is Nathan Detroit, a gambler who needs $1000 to pay a venue to host his (illegal) craps game, and he comes across Brando’s Sky Masterson, who rarely turns down a bet. While their relationships are quite different, the women in their lives, Sarah (Jean Simmons) and Adelaide (Vivian Blaine, who originated the role on Broadway), both would prefer for Sky and Nathan to get on the straight and narrow. This is a film where even the minor characters add so much to the depth of the film and it’s music. And I will fight anyone who tries to argue with me over “Adelaide’s Lament” being one of the absolute most entertaining songs by a supporting character in the history of musical theatre.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
If you’re even a casual fan of the Beatles and you haven’t seen this film, I have just one question for you: What are you even doing with your life? It’s not a musical in the traditional sense, where most of the fab four’s songs appear as the backdrop to their antics. But it’s a great opportunity to appreciate just how entertaining John, Paul, George and Ringo are outside of their music. Scenes involving crazed fans are based on real experiences, giving you a sense of how wild Beatlemania really was. I might have to revisit this movie for a longer post later, because there are so many fun behind-the-scenes stories that I don’t have room to share here, but add to the viewing experience. (Okay, here’s one: a 13-year old Phil Collins can be caught on screen as an extra!)
We are clearly in the 70s with this movie, y’all. Growing up, my dad, sister and I would always sing “All for the Best,” and “Turn Back, O Man” was the song where I realized just how deep my vocal range could go. Basically what I’m getting at here is that I know that my love for this film probably has more to do with its strong ties to my childhood, but don’t take that to mean it isn’t worth seeing on it’s own merits. Victor Garber, in his very first film role, portrays Jesus sharing vivid retellings of various parables from the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John with disciples who have gathered from all walks of life. And if you’ve started watching this and were wondering, YES, one of those disciples is The Chief from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (Lynne Thigpen – and girl has some PIPES). Stephen Schwartz’s music is so passionate and catchy that even if you aren’t a religious person, you’ll still likely find yourself singing these songs long after you’ve finished watching.
What did you wind up watching?
I’d love to hear back from you what movies you checked out during TCM’s “Mad About Musicals!” Did any of them come from this list? Which other films are you excited to check out or revisit during the month of June? Leave a comment here or come talk to me on any of my socials. Happy Watching!