Nine Not-So-Classic Classic Musicals

South Pacific

Ah, the movie musical. From The Jazz Singer to Les Misérables, the genre has seen a lot of changes over the years. But for this list, I'm focusing on the "Golden Age" of the Technicolor musical, from the 1940s through the 1960s. For a long time, I was rather uneducated about these films, so recently I took it upon myself to catch up on some of the classics. I found most of them pretty good; a handful were genuinely great. The standouts: Annie Get Your Gun, Fiddler on the Roof, Meet Me in St. Louis, and of course Singin' in the Rain - with a special nod to the spectacularly weird 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. But here are nine classics which, for me anyway, failed to withstand the test of time.

  1. Gigi (Vincente Minnelli, 1958). Why not start out controversially? I mean, everybody loves Gigi, right? It even won the Oscar for Best Picture. There must be something wrong with me. But while Leslie Caron is adorable, the film itself is remarkably flat, and Louis Jourdan's priggish, relentlessly angry character is a real turn-off.
  2. On the Town (Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1949). Although Kelly and Donen would go on to make the sublime Singin' in the Rain, their sailor musical, loosely adapted from the stage, is enervating. The leggy Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen are welcome additions, but the songs are forgettable (with the exception of the famous "New York, New York"), the comic relief is dreadful, and worst of all, the film spends a great deal of time mocking the "ugly" looks of the talented Alice Pearce. On the Town is chauvinistic and obnoxious.
  3. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954). I have nothing against Stanley Donen - who, rather surprisingly, is still under 90 years of age as of this writing. (The guy was a real squirt when he started directing pictures.) He helmed a few really good musicals, including Funny Face, Royal Wedding, and The Pajama Game. And his Hitchcockian Charade is good fun. But he laid a few eggs too, among them the painfully dull Seven Brides, which has one solid dance sequence featuring a back-flipping Russ Tamblyn but is otherwise a miss.
  4. Bye Bye Birdie (George Sidney, 1963). Ann-Margret at her peak was ravishing, and Bye Bye Birdie certainly shows her at her peak. But the movie just doesn't work. There are some cute moments, and the songs themselves are pretty good, but this was a clumsy adaptation of a Broadway gem. Janet Leigh is woefully miscast (as a singing Latina!) and the third act eschews the music in favor of a plodding race to get on The Ed Sullivan Show. You're better off waiting around for a really good touring version of the stage musical than spending time with this misfire.
  5. Holiday Inn (Mark Sandrich, 1942). This Irving Berlin showcase may have Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire, but its gimmicky concept of holiday-related tunes yields mixed results. Yes, the movie gave us "White Christmas", but it also gave us the unforgivable "Abraham" (honoring Lincoln's birthday), featuring Der Bingle in blackface, mimicking Negro spirituals. It's stunningly awful. "Abraham" is almost worth seeing just as evidence of how the white mainstream was so casual and unapologetic about racism back in the '40s, but Holiday Inn itself is trite, and Berlin's other seasonal numbers aren't nearly as catchy as "White Christmas".
  6. South Pacific (Joshua Logan, 1958). This film comes so close to being perfect. The songs are wonderful, the cast is fine, the locations are right on the money. Rodgers and Hammerstein's plot bogs down in their typical fun-times-leading-to-intolerance-and-tragedy plot device, but you expect that with R&H. So what sinks the film? Director Logan's boneheaded decision to put ugly color filters over entire sequences of the picture, presumably for "artistic" effect. Thus lush green palms, deep azure seas, and healthy bronzed skin all become a jaundiced yellow or a sickening puce - for five-minute long stretches. I would love to see South Pacific without the filters, letting the natural Technicolor beauty of the islands speak for itself.
  7. Guys and Dolls (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1955). Maybe it's because I couldn't buy Marlon Brando as a song and dance man. (By the looks of it, neither could Brando.) Or maybe it's because I just don't like the work of Joseph L. Mankiewicz: I give a big thumbs down to his beloved All About Eve and his slightly less beloved The Barefoot Contessa and Suddenly Last Summer, all of which I found to be stiff, pretentious, and boring. (I do like The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.) I must have found Guys and Dolls boring too, because I barely remember any of it.
  8. Damn Yankees (Joseph Abbott and Stanley Donen, 1958). Sigh, Donen again. Actually, what's notable is that three musicals from 1958 are on this list. All of them were big hits in a year otherwise bereft of musicals. What's wrong with Damn Yankees, exactly? Well, Tab Hunter makes a charmless lead, Gwen Verdon is a great dancer but too long in the tooth for her vampish role, and the film as a whole lacks energy - even with the Bob Fosse-choreographed numbers. There are a couple of touching moments ("Goodbye Old Girl"), but Damn Yankees is otherwise another disappointing adaptation of a deathless stage musical.
  9. Neptune's Daughter (Edward Buzzell, 1949). Few would consider Neptune's Daughter a "classic". It's just another vehicle for the "swimming movie star" Esther Williams (still with us as of this writing). She headlines a bizarre cast including Ricardo Montalban, Red Skelton, Mel Blanc, and Betty Garrett (playing a character named "Betty Barrett"). Garrett's career was a sad one; after starring in this and in On the Town, this charming girl next door's leftist politics led to her being blacklisted at the start of a promising career. She didn't really turn up again until the 1970s, when she played the landlady on Laverne and Shirley. Anyway, you can thank Neptune's Daughter for introducing the standard "Baby It's Cold Outside". But the movie itself serves as a reminder that Hollywood comedy usually ages badly: Skelton, the Jim Carrey of his day, mugs without shame, wit, or mercy. He turns an innocuous little comedy into an endurance test.