Unsung Musicals


‘My Sister Eileen:’ Of all the film and stage versions of this tale of two girls from Ohio trying to make it in the Big City, this Richard Quine 1955 version is the brightest.

With Les Miz about to be unleashed upon the world in cinematic form one’s thoughts naturally drift to great movie musicals of the past: Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St. Louis, West Side Story, Love Me Tonight, and the 1954 version of A Star Is Born (the less said about the Streisand rendition the better.) But as anyone who loves the genre knows there are any number of marvelous movie musicals that aren’t as well-known but should be. And thus my Top Ten.

1. Une chambre en ville (1982) Arguably Jacques Demy’s greatest achievement, this musical tragedy starring Dominique Sanda, Richard Berry, Michel Piccoli and Danielle Darrieux was his only effort in which Michel Legrand did not supply the score. That was done by the highly underrated Michel Columbier who gets right to the heart the matter in this opening sequence.

Une chambre en ville opening scène:

Comparisons to Les Miz, which was first performed around the same time, are most a propos. Who influenced whom? Good question.

2. It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) While the directing team of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen made modern movie history with On the Town (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952) this third effort was sadly neglected from the start. MGM management had changed and they weren’t as interested in musical as they were in the past. Consequently rather than the usual Radio City Music Hall grand premiere, It’s Always Fair Weather opened citywide. Behind the camera things were troubled as Kelly and Donen, who used to be close professional and personal friends, were barely speaking by the time shooting was over. This is directly echoed the film itself which tells of a trio of G.I.’s (Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd) who plan to reunite ten years later. But time, age, success—or in the case of the Kelley character, lack of same, has changed them. Screenwriters Comden and Green were inspired by Alexadre Dumas’ Vingt ans apres, which dealt with a disillusioned Three Musketeers. The songs by Andre Previn and Comden & Green reflect this in ways that clearly influenced Sondheim whose Merrily We Roll Along is equally sadder-but-wiser. There is however one big brassy bright spot amidst the gloom involving Dolores Gray as a TV host who invites the boys on her show to tell their story. But first she has to tell her own.

Dolores Gray “Thanks A Lot But No Thanks:”

3. My Sister Eileen (1955) Of all the film and stage versions of this tale of two girls from Ohio trying to make it in the Big City, this Richard Quine version is the brightest. And among its brightest spots is this “challenge dance” between Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall. No fair guessing who did the choreography. The hats are a dead giveaway.

Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall in My Sister Eileen:

4. The Girl Most Likely (1958) The very last RKO movie and the very last film directed by Mitchell Leisen—with both the studio and the director going out on a high note. In its last years RKO was given to remaking its early hits—in this case Tom Dick and Harry, a 1941 Ginger Rogers vehicle about a girl trying to make up her mind between three suitors. Here the girl is Jane Powel. And here is the film’s big number, “Balboa.” The actor/dancer who plays “Sam Kelsey” in it is Kelly Brown. He and his dancer bride retired from show business to a degree for they set up a dancing school. Their effort inspired the character Tom Skerrit played in The Turning Point (1977) written by Arthur Laurents and directed by Herbert Ross. Gower Champion choreographed this number and it inspired Tommy Tune to create a similar water dance for himself and Twiggy in My One and Only.

“Balboa,” The Girl Most Likely:

5.Give A Girl A Break (1953) Director Stanley Done isn’t crazy about this one. After having just done Singin’ in the Rain he felt it was a comedown to helm a small-scale “pocket musical” of the sort the studio was turning out at the time. But as this number shows it’s a superior example of the form. Jacques Rivette is a major fan and screened it to the cast of his Haut/Bas/Fragile before shooting began.

Give a Girl A Break:

6. Lovely to Look At (1952)  Mervyn LeRoy was the traffic manager in charge of this remake of Roberta starring Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Red Skelton and Ann Miller—with a spectacular finale directed by Vincente Minnelli. But what I love best is this pas de deux in which Marge and Gower Champion scale heights reached before only by Fred and Ginger.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” Marge and Gower:

7. Pas sur la bouche (2003) While a major musical comedy fan (and humungous Sondheim aficionado) Alain Resnais’ sole venture into the form to date is this version of a French “operetta”-style musical of the 1920s by Maurice Yvain and Andre Barde, starring Lambert Wilson, Audrey Tatou, Sabine Azema, Pierre Ardit and Isabelle Nanty. Here, armed with an alarming American accent, Lambert Wilson dos the title tune accompanied by Les Girls.

Pas sur la bouche:

8. Jeanne and the Perfect Guy (1998) The team of Olivier Ducastel and Jacques Martineau wrote and directed this Jacques Demy-inspired AIDS musical, with songs by Philippe Miller. Virginie Ledoyen plays Jeanne, a bright young Ms. And Mathieu Demy the object of her affection—who discovers he has become seropositive because of drug use. He dedicated this performance to his father, who died of the disease.

Jeanne and the Perfect Guy:

9. I Love Melvin (1953)  A favorite of the “Mac-Mahonist” (the most fearsome tribe of French film esthetes) this Don Weis musical is a sterling example of the “pocket” form as can be seen in this great number with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor.

I Love Melvin:

Last but far from least:

10. Good News (1947) My favorite musical, for the sheer infectiousness of its energy and the perfect line-reading Peter Lawford gives to “They sure are blue” in the finale. Charles Walters began his career as a chorus boy on Broadway, coming to MGM both a performer and dance director, as can be seen in this great clip from Girl Crazy in which he partners Judy Garland.

“Embraceable You” Judy Garland and Charles Walters:

Then in 1947 Metro “gave him the store” with Good News—the start of a lengthy and successful directorial career. The first major screenwriting assignment for Comden and Green it taught them the difference between theater and cinema, in a way they greatly appreciated. “We always say,” they later quipped, “the three greatest pictures are The Birth of a Nation, Battleship Potemkin, and Good News.” That may sound like a tad much, but when you see its finale you may well agree.

“The Varsity Drag,” Good News:

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