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They Might Be Giants … Movie Review

musicals musical kelly minute

When Al Jolson started talking to the audience in The Jazz Singer (1927)—"Wait a minute, wait a minute! You ain't heard nothin' yet"—he assured that musical's place in cinema history, although it was the musicals throughout the long career of Busby Berkeley that brought a showman's love of epic theatricalism to the screen. Berkeley's fondness for overhead shots, rigidly geometrical patterns, and latent sexuality (in one water number, a swimmer navigates through a line of girls that slowly parts like the teeth of an opening zipper) gives a sense of kaleidoscopic fun to classics like 42nd Street (1933), the prototypical backstage musical, and Gold Diggers of 1933. The RKO musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, especially Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936), are more cinematic than theatrical, and thanks to the talents of the stars and the films' many gifted composers (George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern) their classics continue to live on. (These two films also sport two of the nicest “meet cutes” of romantic comedy. The first culminates in Astaire's sand dance in a hotel room, the second in the song and dance “Pick Yourself Up.”)

Later musicals that could claim at least partial epic status include Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), where the family's love for their midwestern city on the eve of the 1903 World's Fair is rendered in mythic terms. Arthur Freed, who produced this film for MGM, also set the musical free from the sound stage with On the Town (1949), in which the location scenes, the dances by Jerome Robbins, and the athleticism of Gene Kelly, give the film great life. An American in Paris (1951) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), two other Freed MGM musicals with Kelly, also show great imagination and visual flair. The widescreen musicals from 1955–1967 that coincided with the road-show exhibition format relied often on length and scale to achieve spectacle; their decline around 1968 has been followed by other isolated successes like Grease (1978), probably the most successful musical of the 1970s.

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