Top 10 Movie Musicals

I just love making lists.  No matter how silly it is to narrow down favorite things in some arbitrary way or how changeable my opinions might be, it’s still a fun way to pass the time.

Here are my top 10 favorite movie musicals – at least as of today.  Tomorrow I may remember another one I love and wish I’d put it on the list!

 10.  Funny Face

Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, Kay Thompson, beautiful tunes by Gershwin, gorgeous ‘50s Paris, and super chic fashion by Givenchy.  What’s not to love?  Think Pink!

Favorite number:  “Clap Yo Hands”

9.  The Sound of Music

I almost can’t believe this movie is so far down on my list, considering that I’ve loved it since before I was even born!  It’s my mom’s favorite musical, so I think I listened to “Do Re Mi” and “My Favorite Things” in utero.  This is the warmest, most loveable story, and yet in spite of singing nuns, adorable children, and breathtaking mountain vistas it’s never too cute or precious.  The melancholy of impending war hangs like a cloud over everything.  I never fail to weep when Captain Von Trapp sings “Edelweiss” at the festival and can’t make it through the song, so heartsick is he about leaving his beloved Austria.

Favorite number:  “Something Good.”  What can I say?  I’m a romantic. 

 8.  Singin’ in the Rain

Pure joy.  This is a movie that always cheers me up whenever I’m feeling blue.  Gene Kelly dancing with an umbrella, Donald O’Connor bouncing off the walls, Debbie Reynolds popping out of cakes – this movie has everything.  I don’t know what else to say except that it’s hilarious, romantic, and contains some of the happiest song and dance numbers ever filmed.

Favorite number:  “Moses Supposes”

7.  Calamity Jane

I love, worship and adore Doris Day (making it all the more shocking that I haven’t talked about her here before this), and this is my favorite of her musicals.  Calamity Jane was Warner’s answer to MGM’s Annie Get Your Gun, and as much as I like Annie, I enjoy Calamity Jane even more.  It may not have as many instantly recognizable songs (although “Secret Love” and “Black Hills of Dakota” are classics), but I like the story more and I think Doris Day gives one of her best performances as the rough and tumble tomboy Calamity Jane.  She’s a hoot to watch sparring with Wild Bill Hickok, played the handsome Howard Keel.  (He was also in Annie Get Your Gun, because you can’t have a western musical without Howard Keel!)

Favorite number: “Black Hills of Dakota”

 6.  My Fair Lady

One of the wittiest, most erudite musicals ever, and one of the most deliciously snarky.  Rex Harrison simply is Henry Higgins.  I’ve seen quite a few stage productions of My Fair Lady, and while there’ve been some very passable Eliza Doolittles, I’ve yet to see a Professor Higgins who can remotely touch Harrison’s performance.  He’s marvelous as the arrogant, misanthropic, sexist bachelor who finds he can’t quite live without the squashed cabbage leaf he found in Covent Garden.  Audrey Hepburn makes a lovely, touching Eliza.  Nobody played ugly duckling (ugly, ha!) to swan stories quite like her.

Favorite number: “Just You Wait”

 5.  Easter Parade

It seems wrong that only one Judy Garland musical made it onto this list, because I completely adore her and think she was the greatest woman in movie musicals ever.  (See, these lists are such baloney!)  Still, she’s here in Easter Parade, beautiful, vulnerable, spunky, and with more talent than pretty much anyone.  Anyone other than Fred Astaire, that is.  I love how much fun they seem to have together in numbers like “We’re a Couple of Swells.”  Ann Miller is fabulous in this movie, and while Peter Lawford might not have much in the way of musical talent, he’s very pretty to look at.

Favorite number:  “Drum Crazy”

 4.  An American in Paris

For a movie filmed entirely on the MGM lot, An American in Paris certainly influenced what everyone imagines Paris to be like!  Gene Kelly took his dancing to another level with this movie, particularly in the “American in Paris Ballet.”  It’s so innovative and beautiful, with its painting-come-to-life feel.  Leslie Caron is adorable in her screen debut and Oscar Levant is too funny as Kelly’s grouchy concert pianist friend.  Plus – can I say this without sounding like a weirdo? – Gene Kelly has an ass that just won’t quit.  (Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks so.  This blog post is hilarious!)

Favorite number:  “Tra-La-La”

3.  The Band Wagon

For many years I couldn’t stand MGM musicals like The Band Wagon.  They hardly had a plot!  The songs were just thrown in there!  I liked the more story-driven musicals like those by Rogers and Hammerstein.  Gradually I came to appreciate the “let’s put on a show” musicals, however, and this one is a great example of that.  I love the colorfulness, the costumes, the amazing performances by uber-talented stars.  There’s a story here, but it’s not the main thing.  Mostly it’s about song and dance numbers that transport you, take you out of yourself and your humdrum life, and fill you will joy.  Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse make sublime dance partners.  Also, this movie makes me wish Nanette Fabray had been in more musicals.  She’s so endearing dancing with Fred to “I Love Louisa” and singing “Louisiana Hayride.”

Favorite number:  “Dancing in the Dark”

 2.  Swing Time

One of the quintessential Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, and the one I can never see too many times.  It was hard to choose between this and Top Hat, but since Swing Time features my all-time favorite Astaire/Rogers dance number, “Pick Yourself Up,” it’s the one that made the cut.

Favorite number: “Pick Yourself Up”

 1.  Gigi

I love every moment, every song, every little thing about this movie.  It’s absolutely perfectly cast, starting with Leslie Caron’s charming turn as Gigi.  Her transformation from gangly schoolgirl to elegant young woman is completely believable.  Louis Jourdan is a dreamy French dreamboat as  world-weary Gaston, and Maurice Chevalier steals the show every time he’s on screen.  No one could have played Gaston’s elderly playboy uncle like Chevalier.  Hermione Gingold and Isabel Jeans are fantastic, too.  The lush, painterly sets and costumes, memorable music, and a story in which love wins out over cynicism all come together to make this my favorite musical.

Favorite numbers:  “The Night They Invented Champagne”, “I Remember it Well”, “She Is Not Thinking of Me”, “Gigi”

The movie star I’d most like to have dinner with

You might think I’d say Cary Grant would be my dream dinner companion, right?  And I certainly would’ve loved to be anywhere in his vicinity at any time in his life, don’t get me wrong.

I don’t think I’d have been able to do anything but silently gape in wonder and awe if seated next to Cary, however, and it just would have been humiliating.  Worse even than when dear Audrey Hepburn had dinner with him before filming Charade and spilled red wine on his light colored suit!

No, these days I think my ideal classic movie star dinner companion would be the dapper David Niven.  I started reading his autobiography The Moon’s a Balloon this weekend, and oh my gosh is it ever hilarious!  Truly laugh out loud funny.

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David Niven and Jacqueline Kennedy partying with great chicness at the Waldorf Astoria in 1956

In the book Niven comes across as witty, bawdy, charming, wicked, intelligent and so much fun.  And I haven’t even gotten to the Hollywood bits yet.  Yes, a seat next to a tuxedo-clad Mr. Niven would be perfect.  He could tell risqué, gossipy stories all night while we laughed, sipped champagne, and shared a dance or two.

So which classic star would you most like to chat with at a dinner party?

The eyes have it

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I am neither a young rebel nor an old rebel nor a tired rebel, but quite simply an actor who tries to do his job with the maximum of conviction and sincerity.”

–Montgomery Clift

I’ve neglected this blog for so many months that I can’t imagine there’s anyone around to read it, but nonetheless I’m back!  My interest in things tends to come in big, sweeping waves, and lately that’s meant reading everything I could get my hands on about FDR and obsessively watching Mad Men and Glee.

The classic movie wave is back again, though.  That one always comes back.  Right now my movie love is all for the actor who never fails to move me with the intelligence, sensitivity and realism of his performances, Montgomery Clift.

There are many actors I think are wonderful.  Cary Grant tops the list, of course, and Gregory Peck and Jack Lemmon are way up there, too.  None has ever affected me quite as deeply as Clift, however.  Both in his performances and in who he was as a person, with his pain and his demons, he just breaks my heart.  Those eyes!  It’s so corny and cliche to say they’re the windows to his soul, but watch his films and you see it’s really true.

The Search (1948)

The Search was released by the Warner Archive recently and I’m so happy about that.  It would’ve been nice to have it available some other way, where more people would have a chance to see it (I wish Netflix would stock movies from the Warner Archive), but at least it’s on DVD at all.

The film is set in post-WWII Germany and was directed by Fred Zinneman, who gave it an almost documentary style. You really see the terrible wartime destruction of lives and families in this story of a little boy who is thought to be orphaned, his mother who is desperately searching for him after her time in a concentration camp, and the G.I. (Clift) who takes the boy under his wing and grows to love him.  If you can make it through this movie without weeping, you’re much tougher than I am!

Clift is so good in this, giving a wonderfully real, warm, understated performance.  He was such a modern actor. Brando seems to get all the credit for bringing that kind of realism to movies but it was really Clift who did it first.

 

The Heiress (1949)

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Clift’s role as fortune hunting Morris Townsend in The Heiress could have been a straightforward villain, but as with everything else in this great film directed by William Wyler, things are more complex and indecipherable than that.  Clift gives Townsend charm, vulnerability, and maybe even an appreciation of the sweetness of his shy, mousy bride-to-be (Olivia de Havilland), who has been dominated by her father all her life.

If things had gone differently and they’d married, perhaps he’d have learned to really love her, and maybe they’d both have blossomed into better people – she more sure of herself, he less shallow.  Who knows?  In the end Catherine gains strength and self-possession, but at the expense of her trust in everyone around her, and Morris seems to gain nothing at all.  Neither wealth nor wisdom.  Such a sad and completely enthralling movie.

A Place in the Sun (1951)

Every time I see Montgomery Clift as George Eastman in George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, I can’t help thinking how amazing it would have been if he could’ve portrayed Jay Gatsby at some point in his career.  He would have been brilliant in that role.

I love this scene.  Both Clift and Elizabeth Taylor are so physically beautiful you can’t even believe they’re real, and they have such chemistry together.  “Tell Mama.  Tell Mama all…”  Wow.  Paging Dr. Freud.  (Whom Clift portrayed in a 1962 film, by the way!)

I Confess (1951)

I have a confession of my own to make.  I had never seen I Confess until this week!  And I call myself a Montgomery Clift fan, not to mention an Alfred Hitchcock fan.  It’s quite a dark, serious film, and one that reminded me much more of a film noir than a typical Hitchcock thriller.  I enjoyed it a lot.

Clift’s Father Logan doesn’t say much in the movie, but  you never feel you don’t know exactly what he’s going through.  The emotions and thoughts play across his face and show in those expressive eyes from the moment we see him hear a murderer’s confession until the end, when the killer dies in his arms.  The struggle between Father Logan’s duty to God and his fear of being unjustly accused is all there on that beautiful face.

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Wonderful Monty (3)

Wonderful Monty (2)

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Oh Monty, Monty.  I love him so.  If you ever get a chance to read Patricia Bosworth’s biography of Clift, I highly recommend it.  It’s one of the best actor bios I’ve ever read.  He was a fascinating, tormented, and incredibly gifted man.  He didn’t make that many movies, but I’m so glad to have the ones he did.