The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939). 101 minutes. Directed by Victor Fleming, King Vidor, and George Cukor. Starring Judy Garland (as Dorothy Gale), Frank Morgan (as Professor Marvel/the Wizard), Ray Bolger (as Hunk/Scarecrow), Jack Haley (as Hickory/Tin Man), Bert Lahr (as Zeke/Cowardly Lion), Billie Burke (as Glinda the Good Witch of the North), Margaret Hamilton (as Miss Almira Gulch/the Wicked Witch of the West), Clara Blandick (as Aunt Em), and Charley Grapewin (as Uncle Henry). Songs by Edgar “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen. Based on the novel by L. Frank Baum.

The Wizard of Oz has to be one of the most phenomenal movies ever made: one of the most quotable, one of the most thematically resonant, and one of the most visually memorable (virtually any scene from any part of the movie can be excerpted in still form and people will instantly recognize it). It was not a major success upon its initial release and only achieved its present status … Read the rest

The Broadway Melody (1929)

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The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929). 100 minutes. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Starring Anita Page (as Queenie Mahoney), Bessie Love (as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney), Charles King (as Eddie Kearns), Jed Prouty (as Uncle Jed), Kenneth Thomson (as Jacques Warriner), Edward Dillon (as stage manager), Marry Doran (as Flo), and Eddie Kane (as Zanfield). Music by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

The Broadway Melody is one of the first films in the sound era to use an almost completely synchronized soundtrack. The top-grossing picture in its year of release, it was widely praised by critics and was the first sound movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, the reviews of some in the industry, such as Charlie Chaplin, were not so favorable (he calls it “a cheap dull affair” in his memoir). Chaplin admittedly had much to fear with the arrival of The Broadway Melody, whose success helped to spell the end of the silent era … Read the rest

The Pirate (1948)

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The Pirate (1948)

The Pirate (1948). 102 minutes. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Starring Judy Garland (as Manuela Alva), Gene Kelly (as Serafin), Walter Slezak (as Don Pedro Vargas), Gladys Cooper (as Aunt Inez), George Zucco (as the Viceroy), and Lester Allen (as Uncle Capucho). Special dance sequence with the Nicholas Brothers. Music by Cole Porter.

The Pirate is famous today for its troubled production history. This is largely due to star Judy Garland’s emotional instability at the time of filming, which was related to her mood disorder and prescription pill addiction. She famously missed 99 of the 135 shooting days and had a contentious relationship on the set with director and then-husband Vincente Minnelli. The movie was also unfortunately not a financial success upon its release. But simply watching its colorful sets, beautiful costumes, and expert performances, you would probably never guess that anything was amiss. In addition to featuring the accomplished art direction that we would expect from Minnelli, The Pirate is … Read the rest

Fantasia (1940)

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Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (1940). 126 minutes. Starring Deems Taylor (as Master of Ceremonies). Music conducted by Leopold Stokowski and performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Story direction by Joe Grant and Dick Huemer. Produced by Walt Disney and Ben Sharpsteen.

Fantasia is almost a complete anomaly in the Disney film canon. The third feature-length animated movie to emerge from Disney’s studios, it does not tell one overarching story but rather is a collection of eight short films inspired by and set to classical music. The sequences range from an abstract depiction of sound (Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”) to a grim scientific odyssey (Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring”), from light comedies (Dukas’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours”) to somber material (Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria”). The movie is one of Disney’s finest achievements, and it elevates animation by pairing cartoons with some of the greatest instrumental music in history. But due to its considerable budget, the … Read the rest

Ziegfeld Girl (1941)

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Ziegfeld Girl (1941)

Ziegfeld Girl (1941). 132 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring James Stewart (as Gilbert Young), Judy Garland (as Susan Gallagher), Hedy Lamarr (as Sandra Kolter), Lana Turner (as Sheila Regan), Tony Martin (as Frank Merton), Jackie Cooper (as Jerry Regan), Eve Arden (as Patsy Dixon), Philip Dorn (as Franz Kolter), Charles Winniger (as “Pop” Gallagher), Ian Hunter (as Geoffrey Collis), and Edward Everett Horton (as Noble Sage). Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley.

Ziegfeld Girl is intended to be a follow-up to 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, but whereas The Great Ziegfeld focuses on Florenz Ziegfeld (founder of the Ziegfeld Follies) and his rise to fame, Ziegfeld Girl charts the careers of three fictitious Follies showgirls. The similarities between the two movies are numerous, and towards its end, Ziegfeld Girl even recycles some of the footage from the earlier film, including The Great Ziegfeld’s famous rotating wedding cake set. While Ziegfeld Girl has many failings—including the fact that it … Read the rest

San Francisco (1936)

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San Francisco (1936)

San Francisco (1936). 115 minutes. Directed by W. S. Van Dyke. Starring Clark Gable (as Blackie Norton), Jeanette MacDonald (as Mary Blake), Spencer Tracy (as Father Tim Mullin), Jack Holt (as Jack Burley), Jessie Ralph (as Mrs. Burley), Ted Healy (as Mat), Shirley Ross (as Trixie), Edgar Kennedy (as sheriff), Al Shean (as professor), and William Ricciardi (as Signor Baldini). Songs by Walter Jurmann, Bronislaw Kaper, and Edward Ward.

San Francisco has the potential to be a good movie. It has great music, including the song “San Francisco,” which was composed especially for it; features Jeanette MacDonald, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy; makes use of contributions from directors D. W. Griffith and Erich von Stroheim; and is set in one of the greatest cities in the world in the days before its most impressive catastrophe, the 1906 earthquake. Yet San Francisco’s story is both fairly conventional and a strange compilation of genres, with the plot beginning as a familiar story … Read the rest

King of Jazz (1930)

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The King of Jazz (1930)

King of Jazz (1930). 105 minutes. Directed by Paul Fejos and John Murray Anderson. Starring Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra, The Rhythm Boys (Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, Harry Barris), Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Willie Hall, Jeanie Lang, George Chiles, John Boles, Wilbur Hall, Al Norman, Jeanette Loff, Stanley Smith, The Russell Markert Girls, The Sisters G, Glenn Tryon, Laura LaPlante, and The Brox Sisters. Art direction by Herman Rosse. Animation by Walter Lantz and William Nolan.

The American King of Jazz, like the British Elstree Calling (1930), is a surviving musical revue from the early days of sound. Filmed in two-strip Technicolor, which emphasizes shades of turquoise and rose, it, unlike Elstree Calling, is a lavish production with impressive sets and gorgeous costumes. Herman Rosse, who created King of Jazz’s often remarkable visual style, won an Academy Award for Best Art Direction for his work on the film. King of Jazz was not successful upon its initial … Read the rest

Top Hat (1935)

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Top Hat (1935)

Top Hat (1935). 101 minutes. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Starring Fred Astaire (as Jerry Travers), Ginger Rogers (as Dale Tremont), Edward Everett Horton (as Horace Hardwick), Erik Rhodes (as Alberto Beddini), Helen Broderick (as Madge Hardwick), and Eric Blore (as Bates). Music by Irving Berlin.

Top Hat remains the most commercially successful musical made by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers during their film partnership in the 1930s. In it, Astaire plays dancer Jerry Travers, who is headlining a revue on the London stage. While noisily tap-dancing in his producer and friend Horace Hardwick’s hotel room, Jerry encounters the woman in the room downstairs, Dale Tremont (played by Ginger Rogers), who complains about Jerry’s impromptu performance to the hotel. He falls  in love instantly. She, however, cannot stand him, his noisy tap-dancing, or his efforts to woo her. Through a series of misunderstandings, she also comes to confuse him with his producer Hardwick, whose wife Madge she happens to be friends … Read the rest

The Jazz Singer (1927)

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The Jazz Singer (1927)

The Jazz Singer (1927). 96 minutes. Directed by Alan Crosland. Starring Al Jolson (as Jakie Rabinowitz/Jack Robin), Warner Oland (as Cantor Rabinowitz), Eugenie Besserer (as Sara Rabinowitz), May McAvoy (as Mary Dale), Otto Lederer (as Moisha Yudelson), Richard Tucker (as Harry Lee), Bobby Gordon (as Jakie Rabinowitz at age 13), and Yossele Rosenblatt (as himself).

It occurred to me recently as I was watching The Jazz Singer that I had seen two of its musical sequences before: the famous “My Mammy” number that Al Jolson sings in blackface, of course, but also the “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye)” performance. The latter is shown playing on a television in the movie Goodfellas (1990) when federal agents arrive to search the home of Karen Hill (played by Lorraine Bracco). Karen’s husband Henry is a gangster, and the family home is frequently raided, but Karen has become inured to the presence of the agents. When they show up on this particular occasion, she … Read the rest

Dumbo (1941)

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Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo (1941). 64 minutes. Directed by Ben Sharpsteen (supervising director). Starring Edward Brophy (as Timothy Q. Mouse), Verna Felton (as Elephant Matriarch), Cliff Edwards (as Jim Crow), Herman Bing (as the Ringmaster), Margaret Wright (as Casey Junior), and Sterling Holloway (as Mr. Stork). With the Hall Johnson Choir (as Crow Chorus) and the King’s Men (as Roustabout Chorus). Music by Frank Churchill and Oliver Wallace. Produced by Walt Disney.

I first saw Dumbo when I was very young, along with a slew of other Disney movies, but it was Michael Wilmington’s article on it in The American Animated Cartoon: A Critical Anthology that really made me think of it as a work of art. Wilmington argues that Dumbo is Disney’s finest achievement, both in terms of its visual artistry and its storytelling, and when I viewed it recently, I had to admit that I was astonished by both its innovative style and its maturity. Given that its protagonist Dumbo never … Read the rest