Everything I know about musicals I more or less learned from my father. He was the one who brought this genre into my life and our home as I was growing up. It’s fair to say that I wasn’t all that thrilled about musicals when I was young, but I don’t think it was because I didn’t appreciate them. Instead, I just didn’t think they were horribly realistic. I’m of the Billy Crystal mindset, you might say, because as he stated during one of his many instances as Oscar night host, he didn’t see well-dressed guys walking around New York as a kid snapping their fingers and talking up the next rumble in the neighborhood.
My youthful bliss eventually dissipated, and my father hung in there with me over the years. Musicals were always around our house, and I think I grew to appreciate the meaning behind the films a bit more as I grew older. Every so often he’d pop one into our Betamax or VCR and watch it, reminding me that art exists in various forms and will always have a place on the silver screen. It’s clear Warner Bros. understands this, too, evidenced by their recent “Best of Warner Bros. 20 Film Collection: Musicals” DVD boxed set release.
Spread out over 21 DVDs are 20 memorable musicals that not only take audiences back to a proud genre but also back in cinematic history. Starting with 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” and ending with 1988’s “Hairspray,” one might argue this set is a journey back to the glory days filmmaking enjoyed not all that long ago. It also illustrates how the musical genre and classification have changed over time, which provides an interesting perspective for twenty-first century audiences looking to either examine the past or predict what lies ahead.
The set, neatly packaged in a substantial cardboard sleeve, has three individual seven-disc cases that hold some of the better known titles Warner Bros. has ever released. Many of the titles are name recognition films that are likely to induce memories (mostly positive, I imagine) to the mind and songs to the heart and soul. There are rich, deep characters throughout the films who snatch our emotions and only let them go after taking us on a journey through something as simple as the desire to sing and follow one’s heart to something as complicated as the legend of King Arthur. It’s a powerful set simply because it brings together different titles with widespread subject matter under one roof that centralizes the music above all else.
The first few discs, subtitled “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet, 1927-1951,” includes the following titles:
“The Jazz Singer” – from 1927, this is the film that essentially changed Hollywood’s future forever, as for the first time in a feature film, an actor spoke on-screen, surprising the audience and initiating a phase out process for the silent era. Al Jolson plays the son of a Jewish cantor who leaves home to pursue his show business dreams, only to be drawn back to his family during a crisis and loyalty-defining moment. Warner Bros. received a 1927-28 Academy Award ‘special award’ for producing “The Jazz Singer,” and given where the title is in cinematic lore, it seems they deserved it.
“The Broadway Melody” – from 1929, this title was billed as history’s first “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” movie. Did you know it raked in $4 million at the box office? Keep in mind that ticket prices were next to nothing back then, too. Winning the 1928-29 Oscar for Outstanding Picture, “The Broadway Melody” featured some addicting Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown songs that you might still catch today.
“42nd Street” – from 1933, director Lloyd Bacon puts on a ‘put-on-a-show’ plot right next to some fun songs from Harry Warren and Al Dubin. “42nd Street” can come off as one of those titles you either like or don’t, but with leading lady Ginger Rogers around, what’s not to like? You’ll need comfortable tap shoes for this one.
“The Great Ziegfeld” – from 1936, this title raked in a few trophies at the Academy Awards, including Outstanding Production, Actress (Luise Rainer) and Dance Direction. William Powell leads a cast that included real-life Ziegfeldians and Hollywood favorites combining something lavish with something magical. It’s an influential title, maybe just because of the way it was produced and executed.
“The Wizard of Oz” – from 1939, L. Frank Baum’s book series comes to the screen with Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow all following the Yellow Brick Road. It’s pretty difficult not to like “The Wizard of Oz,” especially given it won Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Song. I remember as a kid watching this film and not even considering it would be a “musical,” yet loving the colorful world and equally colorful performances. It holds its own, even today.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy” – from 1942, this musical snagged Academy Awards for Best Actor (James Cagney…who, by the way, is pretty sharp with all elements of his performance), Scoring of a Musical Picture and Sound Recording. Follow the Cohan family through little George’s boyhood days to his years as a Broadway star. It’s an extremely detailed film with more than its share of very carefully choreographed dance numbers. And the patriotism is surprisingly infectious.
“An American in Paris” – from 1951, we meet Gene Kelly playing a former GI who can’t stop loving Paris and a perfume-shop clerk (Leslie Caron) simultaneously. The high-energy title is nearly all encompassing, evidenced by the six Oscars “An American in Paris” took home for Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Musical Score and Writing (story and screenplay). Like most of Kelly’s roles, he takes on his character’s attributes through his feet.
The set’s middle discs span 1951-1946, and are subtitled “The Music Makers.”
“Showboat” – from 1951, a title that leaned on Technicolor like no other before or after it. I appreciate “Showboat” for its commentary on racism, but found the actual boat a little less authentic than the music it harbored. Still, it’s a big film, with big names like Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel and Ava Gardner singing and dancing their hearts and souls up river.
“Singin’ in the Rain” – from 1952, it’s the Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor show from start to finish. Set during the not too distant past (when silent movies are on their way out to make room for the talkies), audiences are treated to a little bit of everything, from drama to romance to comedy and some really catchy songs. My favorite scene, without a doubt, is Kelly literally playing in the rainy streets like a child going out of his way to disobey his mother. We’ve all been there, right?
“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” – from 1954, the title essentially says it all here. Composers Gene de Paul and Johnny Mercer took home an Oscar for Best Musical Score, which anyone who figures out a way to weave in songs regarding male siblings raiding a town to find themselves a spouse undoubtedly deserves. Pay close attention to the choreography, too. It’s good. Really good.
“A Star is Born” – from 1954, Judy Garland is Esther Blodgett, a young talent on her way up. James Mason is Norman Maine, a drunk actor on his way down. I learned this title was “shortened” after its initial premiere, only to be reconstructed to its original length in 1983. I also learned that Judy Garland could sing at rates most other actresses would probably kill for. While not as flashy as other titles in this set, this one can carry its own weight, no problem.
“The Music Man” – from 1962, it’s a joyful perspective on Americana and a solid reimagining of a Broadway title most theatre fans know all too well. Robert Preston takes up the Harold Hill burden from Broadway in this context, too, and shows up in Iowa so he can, well, form a band. A few names are worth mentioning, including a 7-year-old Ron Howard and Buddy Hackett. “The Music Man” won an Oscar for Musical Score Adaptation (and it deserved it).
“Viva Las Vegas” – from 1964, it’s Elvis on-screen playing an unlucky race-car driver named Lucky who has a chip on his shoulder and some bad luck in tow. Look for Ann-Margret playing an awfully distracting pool instructor. And look for Elvis executing veteran director George Sidney’s vision with near flawless ease.
The final DVDs reach from 1967-1988. They’re subtitled “Now, That’s Entertainment.”
“Camelot” – from 1967, King Arthur and his legend come with a solid, Oscar winning score. It took “Camelot” seven years to transition from Broadway to the big screen, but given this musical’s vivid attention to detail and ability to balance romance with tragedy, it was a worthwhile wait. “Camelot” also landed an Academy Award for Costume Design.
“Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” – from 1971, I will probably always carry somewhat vivid memories of this bright, festive and sweet title about a candy maker who emerges from isolation to open his factory for young boys and girls to check out themselves. You can’t help but wonder how much of that candy was really real, of course, but there’s no denying that Gene Wilder was in the zone as he took on Willy Wonka with zeal and passion. It’s surprisingly heartwarming at the end, and perhaps that’s the sweetest treat of all.
“Cabaret” – from 1972, this is the set’s gem, complete with eight Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor, Best Actress, Art Direction, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing, Musical Score (Adaption and Original Song Score) and Sound. Step back in time to 1931 Berlin, where a sultry club singer intrigues a new roommate against a colorful and controversial backdrop that Master of Ceremonies Joel Grey was essentially born to portray. There’s little to dislike, especially if even the orchestra is beautiful.
“That’s Entertainment!” – from 1974, it’s more or less the best compilation movie ever made. MGM musicals are highlighted here, with somewhere around 125 famous names appearing in memorable scenes from nearly 100 different titles. Think of the editing effort alone that needed to go into a project of this scale, let alone the skills each film’s directors, choreographers and actors put forth. Good stuff, from top to bottom.
“Victor/Victoria” – from 1982, Julie Andrews plays a woman whose livelihood depends on pretending to be a man who pretends to be a woman. Got that? Good. James Garner shows up to join in on the farce, and an Oscar winning musical score rounds out a decently fun adventure.
“Little Shop of Horrors” – from 1986, this second attempt at a film version is adapted from a 1982 off-Broadway musical, which was adapted from a 1960 low-budget film. Someone finally got something right, however, and this tale of an exotic potted plant named Audrey showing up and wreaking havoc is entertaining to endure, if only for a short while.
“Hairspray” – from 1982, we step back to 1962 for a feel-good story. It’s an off-beat comedy more so than anything else, but there’s a story in place involving talented young woman (Ricki Lake) who aspires to make it to stardom on a Baltimore dance show. Not without an awkward moment or two, “Hairspray” isn’t always polished, but it’s entertaining and appealing to a slightly younger demographic, despite a few throwback references here and there.
Simply said, this is an excellent DVD set for any musical fan. It reaches to various corners of the genre and pulls back some low hanging fruit, most of which is worth watching or rewatching. I enjoyed most of the titles more than I had when I’d seen them previously, and I credit them with strengthening my appreciation for filmmaking and genre development across the board over time.
Unsurprisingly, the earlier titles have poorer video quality. Specifics range quite a bit as it relates to aspect ratios, but the transfers are better to DVD as the production year gets closer to the present. Some of the earlier titles are surprisingly sharp in black and white, while Technicolor holds its own for a couple discs, too. All in all, I was slightly let down with the image quality, but not to the point where I felt it to be detrimental to the viewing experience.
Musicals should be golden here, right? Most of them are. Warner Bros. offers primarily Dolby Digital 5.1 surround audio tracks for its titles. Some of the earlier titles, however, are less crisp, which is a shame given their historical significance. If nothing else, the music for each film is easy to hear, and most of the titles are able to utilize surround sound glory with the greatest of ease. Again, the transfers are good, but not great, which makes me wonder why you wouldn’t finish the job after having put together so many powerful, name recognition films. Subtitles are primarily in English, Spanish and French across the set.
Most of the films come with at least one special feature, be it a commentary, trailer or documentary. A couple, like “Showboat,” are bare bones, however. It’s really nifty to look at anything having to do with the musical composition or choreography, and there are a few opportunities to do that. Part history lesson and part filmmaking lesson, these special features will only add to the experience for musical buffs.
A Final Word:
I was more pleased than I expected to be with the sheer variety here, but came up wanting more as it relates to presentation. This said, Warner Bros. has put together a deep, solid offering that has ever so much to offer. If you own some of these titles individually, you’ll need to consider whether or not to invest again, but if you consider the simple economic value you’ll get with the purchase, the bang for the buck is pretty good. And so are the films.