WALLY'S WORLD: Taking a look back on the history of movies

By Wally DuChateau

With the Academy Awards and all their shallow Tinseltown glamour taking place in a month or so, this is probably a good time to make a few rather lengthy comments on American cinema. Bearing in mind the astute observation of Pigpen (of Grateful Dead fame) – “It takes longer to read some movie reviews than it does to see the movie” – I’ll try to keep things light and concise, while bearing in

mind my own observation: “Reading about movies can be more entertaining than seeing some of them.”

I hope it’s a subject you’ll find somewhat interesting because I intend to devote three entire columns to it. This column and the next will explore the past and current state of one particular type of Hollywood classic; namely, the Hollywood musical. According to Google, MGM was the first studio, as you would probably guess, to release a fully-costumed, song-and-dance extravaganza. It was called “Broadway Melody” and the year was 1929.

In retrospect, it’s pretty hokey stuff. Today, even the more serious scenes are laughable.

Alas, the same can be said for 70 percent of the musicals produced during the next 80 years. All the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland “Let’s-put-on-a-show” routines are pretty lame. Those Busby Berkeley musicals that are characterized by the kaleidoscopic movements of a bevy of scantly-clad ladies don’t do a thing for me, except raise questions about the mental health of the director. I even get bored with most of the celebrated Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pairings. And the Elvis flicks, of which there were at least one or two every year for longer than anyone should care to recall, are nearly as memorable as Paris Hilton’s last appearance on Letterman.

Of course, amid all this embarrassing nonsense, there are many worthwhile films; i.e., “Meet Me In St. Louis,” “Singing In the Rain,” “West Side Story,” “South Pacific” and “The Sound of Music” to name only a few. However, when I look back upon older musicals, I find that often specific scenes within them standout in my mind rather than the entire movies. For example, “The Band Wagon” is more or less forgettable except for a Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse routine in Central Park, which might be the most lovely and beautiful dance I’ve seen in a film. Similarly memorable, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby singing “Did Ya Evah?” in a rather mediocre movie called “High Society.” William Warfield’s version of “Ol’ Man River” in “Showboat” still brings a tear to my eyes whenever I see it. And how about that incredible “tramp” dance and duet between Astaire and Judy Garland in “Easter Parade”? They don’t make ‘em like that anymore!

Speaking of Judy Garland, the 1962 production of “A Star Is Born” is a pretty good movie and her interpretation of “The Man That Got Away” is quite possibly the finest, single musical moment ever captured in a motion picture.

The 1969 documentary “Woodstock” has always been one of my favorite films. In many ways, that year was a watershed year for musicals because, in 1969, Hollywood finally enticed Bob Fosse, arguably the most innovative director and choreographer in the history of Broadway, to try his skills in cinema. And what a revolution and revelation that was! The Hollywood musical would never be the same.

More next week.

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