The rise and fall of Hollywood musicals
Film critic and historian John DiLeo dug deep into the history and evolution of the Hollywood musical in a return engagement to the Palace Theatre in Danbury.
DiLeo’s January appearance, which covered multiple movie genres, was so popular that the venue invited him back for an evening devoted to the movie musical. The Palace partnered with Hearst’s Movie & A Martini program for the event, which drew about 100 movie buffs.
The critic focused on the original musicals that flourished from the 1930s through the late 1950s.
“In the 1960s the original musical faded out and was replaced by big- budget versions of recent Broadway hits,” DiLeo said of the three best picture Oscar winners, “West Side Story” ( 1961), “My Fair Lady” ( 1964) and “The Sound of Music” ( 1965). The popularity of those three pictures led to a series of expensive duds — “Camelot” ( 1967) and “The Song of Norway” ( 1970), among them — that more or less finished off the genre, the critic pointed out.
“You’ve had an occasional hit since then — ‘ Grease’ ( 1978), ‘ Chicago’ ( 2002) — but there are few musicals being made today,” DiLeo said.
Original musicals took a big hit in the late 1950s and 1960s from the rise of variety TV programs that brought former musical film stars such as Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Bing Crosby into people’s homes for free, the critic said. Blockbuster Broadway adaptations like “West Side Story” gave audiences material they couldn’t see on TV.
DiLeo steered the audience in the direction of some less wellknown musicals in the clips he selected, including a tantalizing glimpse from the 1932 “Love Me Tonight” which he called “the first great musical.”
Directed by Rouben Mamou- lian, the film co- stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald ( the latter before she teamed up with Nelson Eddy for a series of sentimental musicals that were widely parodied even at the time of their release). As DiLeo pointed out, there is great charm in the long “Isn’t It Romantic?” number which is sung by a wide array of characters in the movie before MacDonald picks it up and finishes the song.
As musicals became more elaborate, the songs were generally pre- recorded so that many takes of a complicated number could be filmed without wearing out the performers’ voices. “Love Me Tonight” featured live recording of the singing as well as the dialogue, giving it a fresh feeling that has held up for more than 80 years.
DiLeo showed a clip from “The Pajama Game” ( 1957), featuring Doris Day, and talked about how the winding down of musicals in the late 1950s steered the star in the direction of “Pillow Talk” ( 1959) and the other romantic comedies she made in the 1960s.
The critic opened the Danbury program with a collection of bloopers that made it into the final prints of major films, including a boy in the background of a shot who puts his hands up to his ears before Eva Marie Saint shoots blanks at Cary Grant in “North by Northwest” ( 1959).
“Hitchcock must have done several takes before he got what he wanted. The boy must have been tired of hearing that gun go off,” DiLeo said.
The audience saw several examples of continuity errors in major musicals, including Cyd Charisse’s outfit changing from shot to shot in a clip from “Silk Stockings” — she goes from a skirt to culottes and then back again during the course of one dance sequence. Another musical number included a amusing glimpse of a crew member thinking he was passing unnoticed behind the singing and dancing chorus.
“It was another great program,” Palace Theatre manager Carol Spiegel said after the show. “We hope to bring John back again.”
The 1957 Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse movie “Silk Stockings” was one of the musicals examined by critic John DiLeo in his second Hollywood history program at the Palace Theatre in Danbury.