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Movie Musicals: ‘More Stars Than There Are In Heaven’


The Golden Age of MGM musicals began about 1935 with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Top Hat” and ended around 1958 with Vincente Minnelli’s “Gigi.” Covering this cornucopia of treasures is beyond the scope of this column. Fortunately, MGM did it for me in this 1974 film celebrating its 50th
anniversary with highlights from its musicals: “That’s Entertainment.”

Your hosts are Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Liz Taylor, Jimmy Stewart, Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney and others, who stroll around MGM’s shabby backlot, where many of the movies were made.

Here is a brief sample of the more than 85 musical numbers they introduce:

• Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, “Indian Love Call”; Debbie Reynolds, “Aba Daba Honeymoon”; Esther Williams, “Million Dollar Mermaid” — couldn’t sing or dance but she was beautiful and could hold her breath for three minutes.

• Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Manshin, “New York, New York” from “On the Town”; Bing and Frank, “Well, Did You Evah” from “High Society”; Maurice Chevalier, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” from “Gigi.”

• William Warfield, “Ol’ Man River” from “Showboat”; Donald O’Connor, “Make ‘Em Laugh” from “Singin’ in the Rain”; Judy Garland, “Over the Rainbow” from the most popular movie in film history, the first in Technicolor, the enduring “The Wizard of Oz.”

• The incomparable Fred Astaire, dancing with Ginger, with Cyd Charisse, “Dancing in the Dark,” from “The Band Wagon,” with a hat rack in “Royal Wedding,” and with Eleanor Powell in an amazing tap dance from “Broadway Melody of 1940,” after which Sinatra remarks: “You can wait around and hope, but you’ll never see the likes of this again.”

The finale is the beautiful “An American in Paris Ballet” with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

“That’s Entertainment” can be seen on HBO Max. Two sequels are also available, from 1976 and 1994.

Hollywood musicals are still made of course, although they are quite different from the MGM movies, which projected pure happiness. These stories are more complicated, touching, even tragic.

Most folks loved “La La Land” (2016), including me. Some dissented, arguing that the stars weren’t big enough. Maybe, but Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are charming and graceful enough to pull off Damien Chazelle’s almost-Oscar-winning film.

It opens with a terrific MGM-style production: Young dreamers stuck in traffic jump out of their cars and dance on the freeway. Then it settles into a melancholy tale of an aspiring actress and a jazz pianist who fall in love. Justin Hurwitz’s score won many awards, as did his songs “City of Dreams” and “The Fools Who Dream.”

Stream “La La Land” on Hulu or rent it on Amazon.

Bradley Cooper’s 2018 remake of “A Star Is Born” is an even better musical, mainly due to Lady Gaga, a true star who can really sing. Cooper isn’t bad either.

This is the story of a doomed marriage between country singer Jackson Maine and his singer-songwriter wife, Ally. Ally is on her way up and Jackson on his way down. Is there a sadder scene in film than the one of Jackson’s dog, Charlie, lying in front of the garage door?

Stream “A Star Is Born” on HBO Max, rent it on Amazon.

Each of the above films cost about $40 million to produce. The budget for the 2007 film “Once” was about $150,000. It was later produced on Broadway, winning the 2012 Tony for Best Musical. It tells the story of two struggling musicians in Dublin, played by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.  They also wrote the music, and their song “Falling Slowly” won the 2008 Oscar for Best Original Song. Do not miss this small treasure.

“Once” can be seen on Amazon.

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