By Alan Hurst
The idea to compile a list of some of the great production numbers from the last 90 or so years (basically since the advent of sound) came to me while watching – yet again – That’s Entertainment! (1974). The success of this documentary took a lot of people by surprise 44 years ago. It received terrific reviews and ended up being one of the top money makers of the year, proving that the public’s appetite for musicals wasn’t dead, just waiting for the right one to come along. The documentary highlighted MGM’s musical contributions during its heyday as Hollywood’s premier producer of film musicals (1929 to 1958). It’s a pure exercise in nostalgia and an easy one to slip into the DVD player to spend a couple of hours watching people like Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, James Stewart, Liza Minnelli, Mickey Rooney and Debbie Reynolds introduce the best of the best.
As a kid That’s Entertainment! introduced me to a lot of films and musical numbers I hadn’t known or heard of and a lot of them have stayed with me, some making this list. Now this isn’t a list of the “best” production numbers. That’s a list that would include classic numbers like the climactic ballet from An American in Paris (1951), the title tune from Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and the barn raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), numbers that have been written about and analyzed for years. For me the production numbers highlighted here are essential because they have a wonderful sense of fun, they’re technically excellent, and they feature some remarkable performers at the peak of their talents.
Top Hat (1935) – “Cheek to Cheek”
I think this is the quintessential Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers number. It’s a beautiful and classic Irving Berlin tune that carries both an aura of romance and melancholy no matter who’s singing it. Augment that with perfect choreography courtesy of Astaire and Hermes Pan, truly stunning Art Deco sets, glittering costumes, perfect black and white cinematography and you get one of the great musical numbers of the thirties. The camera almost dances with them and the number builds to a perfect conclusion. At its core, this really is a simple number – two people dancing to a lovely song – and that’s probably why it works as perfectly as it does. Just put these two in front of the camera and let them dance.
Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) – “Begin the Beguine”
I think Broadway Melody of 1940 contains the most perfect combination of dancers, choreography, design and camerawork in film history. It’s Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell dancing to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”. The film is last in a series of four Broadway Melody films released in 1929, 1936 and 1938 and it’s probably the weakest of the four. The plot centres on a pair of dancers (Astaire and George Murphy) trying to make it big and then there’s some boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and then boy dances with girl in the finale. But it’s that finale that makes everything worth it. The number starts out in an oddly dramatic way with mezzo-soprano Lois Hodnott singing and Astaire and Powell channelling their inner flamenco. It then segues to a more contemporary, jazzy style with a group known as The Music Maids taking the vocals before Astaire and Powell are back to make magic. In that final three minutes they execute – with long takes and little editing – a spectacular tap dance on a mirrored floor, surrounded by mirrors and supported with fluid camera work and a beautifully orchestrated version of one of Porter’s best songs. Everything about it just feels so right.
The Gang’s All Here (1943) – “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat”
A lot of the Alice Faye/Betty Grable films of the early forties (this one stars Faye) kind of morph together in your memory after you watch them. They’re all similarly structured along the typical “girl meets boy, girl gets annoyed with boy, girl ends up with boy” plot. A lot of the same character actors of the day – Charlotte Greenwood, Edward Everett Horton, and S.Z. Sakall – were in many of the films. And Carmen Miranda usually popped up at some point. Carmen Miranda was a 1940s treat – a colorful, comical and infectious presence – who usually played feisty with the guys and befriended the girls. Thanks to director Busby Berkley’s eye for complicated geometric staging and choreography, he found his ideal muse in Miranda and her crazy hats. Although set in a night club, “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” has hundreds of performers, a set that goes on for miles and some of the most over-sized props (bananas, strawberries) ever worked into a production number. It’s insanely over-the-top, but also completely entertaining with Carmen Miranda front and center.
Summer Stock (1950) – “Barn Dance”
Summer Stock will never be on the list of MGM’s best musicals, but it’s undeniably fun. Judy Garland stars as the owner of a farm where a group of Broadway performers – lead by Gene Kelly – set-up shop to rehearse a new Broadway show. It’s the quintessential “let’s put a show on in the barn” musical.
Garland is funny, relaxed and totally winning and she has a spectacular solo turn towards the end of the film with “Get Happy”. But it’s another number earlier in the film that really kicks the action into high gear and shows the developing affection between Garland and Kelly’s characters. The number “Barn Dance” brings together two worlds – members of the rural community who are quite set in their ways and the more suspect “show people”. What starts as a low key square dance in Garland’s barn ends up as a wildly energetic dance number led by Garland and Kelly, who are clearly having a great time.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – “Good Morning”
This movie is at or near the top of everyone’s list of favorite musicals and there isn’t a bad number in the film. “Good Morning” is probably my favorite precisely because it brings together all three of the leads – Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor – in one number. Kelly and O’Connor have some great duets, Reynolds and Kelly have a nice number on an empty sound stage, but this allows all of them to shine. The three have just figured out how to save the film within the film that Kelly’s character is starring in by turning it into a musical. Their moods lighten and they then segue into the song. It’s a major dance number with a camera that follows them from one end of the house to the other, and they’re moving constantly. We have since read how much this took out of them, particularly Reynolds, and what a task master Kelly was. But what we see on screen are three professionals having a wonderful time and it’s infectious.
White Christmas (1954) – “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”
White Christmas is an all-time favorite and a staple on TV during the holiday season but it’s a hodge podge of a film despite the best efforts of director Michael Curtiz. The only reason this film exists is to highlight the 15+ Irving Berlin songs the story is built around. The staging of these songs is also a mixed bag, with some being head scratchers (Danny Kaye’s version of “Choreography”) and others being absolute perfection (“Snow”, “Sisters” and the title tune). But I think the best number in the film – the one that really brings all the elements together – is “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing”. Set in an outdoor night club in Florida (yep, never rains there) it takes the action from a dance floor to a patio, dock and the bottom of a boat in a lyrically choreographed and performed sequence by Kaye and Vera Ellen. Although illogical, the set is beautifully designed and Edith Head’s costumes accent all the dance moves. Kaye and Vera-Ellen are perfect together. This is some very intricate dancing and notice how few edits there actually are.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964) – “A Hard Day’s Night”
With the opening guitar riff of “A Hard Day’s Night” on the soundtrack and the image of the Beatles being chased down a Liverpool street by screaming fans, director Richard Lester brought musicals into the sixties within a matter of seconds. It’s a funny and fictional (at least somewhat fictional) day in the life of the Beatles as they travel from Liverpool to London for a TV show appearance. The freewheeling structure of the film and the overall spirit of craziness are reminiscent of the Marx Brothers at their best. And it’s that first number that sets the tone for all that follows – the fun, the energy, the tongue-in-cheek “sneak peek” at what it was like to be John, Paul, George and Ringo in early 1964. Trying to assess the seismic impact it had that year is hard but watch those first few minutes again you can still sense the thrill and excitement and how “new” this all must have felt.
Funny Girl (1968) – “Don’t Rain on My Parade”
This is the number that closed Act I of Funny Girl on Broadway and by the time the curtain came down Barbra Streisand was a Broadway star. Thankfully Streisand was able to recreate the role of Fanny Brice in the film version and by the time the lights went up at the intermission during the original theatrical release, Streisand was a movie star. This is a song (by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill) that defines show stopper and it can still make a crowd go nuts, as evidenced during Streisand’s 2016 concert tour. The audience just has to hear a few notes and they’re on their feet. I think the reason for that is the residual and powerful impact of the number from the film. Director William Wyler “opened up” the song in a way that made it iconic. He moves Streisand/Fanny from a train station to a train to a dock and ultimately to the bow of a tugboat as she desperately tries to take control of her love life and get to Omar Sharif before he sails to Europe. Wyler’s skill as a director builds the tension as to whether she’ll make it – and Streisand is delivering a knockout vocal performance that’s killing the audience. Wyler’s final shot – where he pulls away from a close-up of Streisand to give us a view of New York harbor as she’s on the tugboat heading for Sharif’s ship – is pure cinema. And just listen to Streisand hold that final note. Perfection.
Cabaret (1972) – “Mein Heir”
This one is another star making turn. People knew who Liza Minnelli was before Cabaret opened in early 1972 (she was already an Oscar nominee for 1969’s The Sterile Cuckoo) but most moviegoers didn’t really know what she was fully capable of. At exactly the 11-minute mark into the film, that changed. Minnelli donned what would become her signature look of tight boots, black stockings, garter, vest, and bowler hat and proceeded to wow everyone with a powerful and energetic performance of one of the score’s signature Kander and Ebb tunes, “Mein Heir”. She’s matched move for move by the blasé cabaret chorus and visually supported with Geoffrey Unsworth’s stunning cinematography. And, of course, it’s director-choreographer Bob Fosse who provides Minnelli with the framework and structure to hit the home run. Fosse stylized direction and sexually charged choreography gave audiences a jolt that helped carry the film to eight Oscars.
Victor/Victoria (1982) – “Le Jazz Hot”
Victor/Victoria was the peak of the second phase of Julie Andrews’ Hollywood career. After some big screen failures in the early seventies she retreated from films to the concert stage, television and to raising her kids. She was lured back with a role in husband Blake Edwards’ 10 (1979), delivering a smart performance in one of the decades best comedies. She followed that with an OK remake of Little Miss Marker (1980) with Walter Matthau and then SOB (1981), an incisive comedy directed by Edwards that skewered the Hollywood of that era. Victor/Victoria followed and provided Andrews with one of the best roles of her career, allowing her to combine her skills as a vocalist with her cool, sexy, comedic side. As a woman pretending to be a man so she/he can pretend to be a woman to get a job, Andrews is a delight. Her official debut in a Parisian night club as that gender bending triangle all hinges on whether Andrews can make her audience believe it. And she does. She pitches her vocals lower to sound both husky and mysterious, her wide and heavily made up face is just androgynous enough, and she’s wearing a perfect drag costume. But it’s the performance that matters and this is the number that puts this near perfect comedy into high gear – it’s sexy, rousing, jazzy, and builds to a terrific climax where Andrews can show her still perfect voice.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.