The Golden Age of Musicals (Film Chest, NR)

Not every film in this collection is an all-time classic, but most have at least something interesting to offer.


One of the salient characteristics of golden ages—theatre in the Elizabethan period, Dutch seventeenth century painting, American comic books from 1938 to the late 1950s—is that there’s a lot of production in a particular art form, using a set of conventions that allow even creators of modest talent to produce effective works. The movie musical in Hollywood enjoyed such a golden age from the mid 1930s through the mid-1950s, a period celebrated in the DVD box set The Golden Age of Musicals. Not every film in this collection is an all-time classic, but most have at least something interesting to offer, and as a group they display the variety of movie musicals produced between 1937 and 1957.

Cover Girl (1944, 67 min.) features radio star Frances Langford as Joan Terry, who (shades of Stage Door!) moves to a women’s boarding house in New York City to try her luck on Broadway. There’s actually not a lot of music in this one, and even less dancing, probably because the lead actress was not used to moving while she sang.

The Duke is Tops (1938, 75 min.), the film debut of Lena Horne, was produced by Million Dollar Productions, a company which made “race films” for African American audiences. There’s lots of song and dance in this one, and although the production quality is not always high, it captures performances by many contemporary acts including Cats and the Fiddle and the Basin Street Boys.

Royal Wedding (1951, 92 min.) stars Fred Astaire and Jane Powell, supporting performances by Peter Lawford and Sarah Churchill (Sir Winston’s daughter) and was directed by Stanley Donen. This is the film where Fred dances on the walls and ceiling, thanks to a rotating stage (you can see how it was done here); in another number, he dances with a hat rack in a room full of gym equipment.

Something to Sing About (1937, 87 min.) stars James Cagney as a bandleader, singer, and hoofer, and William Frawley as a studio publicist. It’s one of the stranger films in the collection (everything seems misjudged—even the sets are too large for the settings portrayed), but if you’re an aficionado of Cagney’s unusual, straight-legged style of dancing, this is the film for you.

An American Co-Ed (1941, 49 min.) opens with a performance by an odd-looking chorus line, soon revealed to be frat boys decked out in drag. There’s more cross-dressing to come, including a prank in which Bob Sheppard (Johnny Downs) tries to get revenge on the all-female school Mar Brynn (get it?), which previously insulted his college, by passing himself off as “Bobbie DeWolfe” and infiltrating Mar Brynn campus.

The Inspector General (1949, 102 min.) is a Danny Kaye Technicolor vehicle loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s play (an uncredited Ben Hecht worked on the adaptation) about a nobody who gets mistaken for a somebody. Sylvia Fine and Johnny Green wrote the lyrics and music, and Green won a Golden Globe for best musical score for this film.

People Are Funny (1946, 87 min.) is based on a radio show of the same name that was popular at the time. The cast includes a number of well-known contemporary entertainers including Jack Haley (yes, the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz), Helen Walker, Rudy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, and the vocal group The Vagabonds, who do a performance in blackface.

Second Chorus (1940, 84 min.) stars Fred Astaire and Burgess Meredith as college students and musicians in a band called “O’Neill’s Perennials.” The choreography is by Hermes Pan and Astaire, and bandleader Artie Shaw and trumpeter Billy Butterfield both appear as themselves.

The Fabulous Dorseys (1947, 88 min.), one of the many heavily fictionalized biopics of big-band musicians popular at the time, was directed by Alfred E. Green, whose career in Hollywood began in 1912. The Dorsey Brothers star as themselves, with cameos by, among others, Paul Whiteman, Art Tatum, Charlie Barnet, and Helen O’Connell.

The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1957, 87 min.) was originally a television movie, airing on NBC on the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week in 1957. It stars Van Johnson as the Pied Piper and Claude Rains as the mayor who tries to cheat him (always a bad idea when dealing with someone who has magical powers), and draws heavily on the poem by the same name by Robert Barrett Browning and music by Edvard Grieg.

Till the Clouds Roll By (1946, 136 min.) stars Robert Walker as composer Jerome Kern, plus a star-studded cast including June Allyson, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Dinah Shore, and Frank Sinatra. It was produced by the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, and while Richard Whorf is credited as the director, Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli, George Sidney and Henry Koster also lent a hand.

Pot o’ Gold (1941, 86 min.) takes its name from a popular contemporary radio program that offered a $1000 prize to listeners who answered the phone when host Horace Heidt called. Jimmy Stewart plays a harmonica-playing music storeowner who falls in love with an Irish singer played by Paulette Goddard; the two must overcome a history of bad blood between their families before reaching the obligatory happy ending.

Road to Bali (1953, 91 min.) came next to last in the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road to” movies, and was only one in the series to be filmed in Technicolor. Bob and Bing play entertainers on the run from shotgun weddings, only to both fall for a “Balinese princess” played by Dorothy Lamour, who decides she will marry them both.

Stage Door Canteen (1943, 131 min.) mixes patriotism with a variety show, using the setting of a club (which really existed) where the stars not only perform for the entertainment of servicemen, but also serve them coffee and donuts. Performers include Ray Bolger, Katharine Cornell (in her only film appearance), Gypsy Rose Lee, Gracie Fields, Ed Wynn, Ethel Merman, and Edgar Bergen.

Private Buckaroo (1942, 69 min.) is a service comedy about a guy (Dick Foran) who enlists in the army but doesn’t believe in following regulations. It’s not really about the story, however, but about appearances by, among others, the Andrew Sisters, Joe E. Louis, Donald O’Connor, Harry James, Shemp Howard, and St. Louis’ own Mary Wickes.

This is the Army (1943, 114 min.), adapted from a contemporary stage musical, includes 19 songs by Irving Berlin, one of which he sings himself. The cast is made up of both professional actors (Ronald Reagan, Joan Leslie, and Alan Hale, Sr.) and members of the U.S. Army, and this film won one Oscar (Best Score) and was nominated for two more (Best Art Direction and Best Sound Recording).

At War with the Army (1950, 92 min.) is a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis vehicle starring the comedians as servicemen who manage to get into a lot of trouble. Lewis appears in drag (he has to fight off the attentions of a drunken sergeant) and Martin and Lewis do an imitation of Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald for the camp talent show.

All the musicals in this set are in the public domain, so the main things you get with this set are decent prints and the convenience of the DVD format (no small thing if you live somewhere where fast, reliable internet service remains a distant dream). Besides, having the box on your shelf is likely to get you exploring what’s there in a way that knowing in the abstract that there are public domain movies available for streaming might not. You could think of it as your own private, musical-themed TCM, available without having to actually get a cable connection, and if you’re a fan of movie musicals this set definitely offers value for money.

The Golden Age of Musicals, distributed on DVD by Film Chest Media Group, includes seventeen musicals on five discs (almost 26 hours of running time), with the only extra being rudimentary notes about each film. The picture and sound quality vary, but most films both are at least reasonable, and some are actually pretty good. | Sarah Boslaugh

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