History of Musical Film

1960's - Part II: Broadway's Leftovers

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 2002; revised 2014)

From the 1930s onwards, the major studio's had relied on production teams to develop original movie musicals. Those talented teams were disbanded in the 1950's, so Hollywood now had to rely on Broadway to provide it with musical projects. Not only were the major studios willing to pay unprecedented amounts to buy screen rights to hit stage musicals (Warner Brothers reportedly paid $5 million for the rights to My Fair Lady), they would even invest in new shows to get first refusal on their film rights. However, studio executives were so incapable of judging worthy material that millions were wasted – not a single one of the Broadway musicals that studios invested in ever made it successfully to the big screen.

Comme Si, Comme Sa

To avoid having big screen adaptations look like filmed stage performances, producers often went overboard. Several stage musicals survived the 1960's Hollywood treatment with varying degrees of fun intact –

Bells Are Ringing (1960 - MGM) muffled Judy Holliday’s stellar performance with a poorly focused production. Luckily, the score by composer Jule Styne with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green gave Holliday and co-stars Dean Martin and Eddie Foy Jr. plenty to work with. The last screen musical produced by Arthur Freed, it was well received despite its shortcomings.

The Music Man (1962 - Warner) was over twenty minutes longer than the stage version, but Robert Preston’s charismatic performance made most of the time fly. Shirley Jones gave the best (and final) musical performance of her screen career. With Meredith Willson's much-loved score beautifully performed, this film raked in solid profits at the box office, and remains a perennial favorite on television and home video.

My Fair Lady (1964 - Warner) retained Broadway star Rex Harrison and costume designer Cecil Beaton, and added stylish direction George Cukor. It also added Audrey Hepburn, who is so luminous that few have ever minded that her singing voice was dubbed by soprano Marni Nixon. The result is a delightful (if slightly overlong) film that  garnered eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. The film does reasonable justice Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe's masterpiece. At $17 million, it was the costliest film made in the US up to that time, but it grossed over $60 million in its initial release.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964 - MGM) turned out well thanks to  solid direction by MGM veteran Charles Walters (his final musical) and a career-best performance by Debbie Reynolds. The only follow-up vehicle Hollywood could come up with for this talented star was the entertaining but saccharine semi-musical The Singing Nun (1966).

Sweet Charity (1969 - Universal) marked Bob Fosse's first directorial assignment on the big screen, adapting his hit stage musical about a dance hall girl looking for love in Manhattan. The result is a gem of a film that is often inexplicably overlooked by scholars and film buffs. Shirley MacLaine dazzled in the title role, with delicious supporting performances by musical stage veterans Chita Rivera and Stubby Kaye.

The Best of the Cinematic Bunch

Four stage musicals were adapted with such imagination that many viewers felt they actually improved on the originals:

1. West Side Story (1961 - United Artists) allowed Jerome Robbins to adapt his unforgettable stage choreography for the camera -- until his costly demands for retakes forced the producers to let him go. Producer and co-director Robert Wise did the rest. Rita Moreno received an Academy Award for her knockout performance as Anita, and the film received Best Picture.

2. The Sound of Music (1965 - Fox) kept people coming back time and again, becoming the most profitable film of the 1960's. Like West Side Story this film was produced and directed by Robert Wise, and received the Academy Award for Best Picture. (This musical is covered in detail on previous 1960's page.)

3. Acclaimed director William Wyler used Barbra Streisand's screen debut as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl (1968 - Columbia) to reshape this stage hit in vibrant cinematic terms. The popular star gave a luminous performance, earning an Academy Award for Best Actress. The "Don't Rain On My Parade" sequence, beginning in a Baltimore train station and ending with Streisand belting her way across New York Harbor on a tugboat, was particularly magical.

4. The British film version of Oliver! (1969 - Columbia) was superb in every department, but Ron Moody (Fagin) and Jack Wild (The Artful Dodger) were standouts.. Choreographer Onna White staged some of the most believable ensemble dances ever filmed. What was enjoyable on stage became dazzling on screen, and Oliver! richly deserved its Academy Award for Best Picture.

Sickly Transplants

The smashing success of these films brought a parade of lavish big screen musicals in the late 1960's. But a sudden proliferation of overblown productions soon made it clear that no amount of money could replace cinematic know-how –

Half a Sixpence (1967 - British) kept original stage star Tommy Steele as the Edwardian shop assistant who inherits a fortune, but jettisoned almost all of the show's appeal. Oversized orchestrations made the soundtrack painful to listen to.

Camelot (1967 - Warner) and Paint Your Wagon (1969 - Paramount) were both destroyed by director Joshua Logan, who inexplicably put two melodic scores by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe in the hands of actors who couldn't sing their way out of a shower stall. Lerner provided both films with bungled screenplays, so he shares the blame. Although grimy and grungy, Paint Your Wagon inexplicably cost over $20 million to produce -- more than the lavish My Fair Lady had cost just five years earlier.

Hello Dolly (1969 - Fox) received such a massive production that much of the show’s charm was compromised. Director Gene Kelly and choreographer Michael Kidd managed some good moments, but Barbara Streisand was far too young to play the title role, and occasionally reverted to an uneasy Mae West impersonation. While there is much to enjoy -- most notably Streisand's brief but iconic duet with Louis Armstrong -- this film all too often wastes material that deserved far better treatment.

Tens of millions were lost on each of these projects. They were expensive – and scary – harbingers of what lay ahead in the 1970's.

Next: Film 1970's