10 great American musicals of the 1950s

When it comes to film musicals, there was perhaps never a better time and place than Hollywood in the 1950s, with each year bringing new feasts of song, colour and dance. As Guys and Dolls returns to cinemas nationwide, here’s our guide to the 10 best places to start.

Chris Fennell
Updated:

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Ever since the coming of sound, the musical has been Hollywood’s most transporting vision of beauty, dream and delight. Its quick moves and broad gestures, played out in song and dance, are the movies at their purest, and pleasure at its most transcendent. The musical was the studio system on its grandest scale, where the exhilaration of spectacle took precedence over everything else on screen.

By the 1950s, the big studios of the era – led by MGM – were embracing Technicolor, the new widescreen formats and a heavily theatrical style of production design that offered factory-produced escapism in the anxious postwar period. The decade saw the American musical at both its nadir and its apogee: some of the genre’s biggest stars, like Gene Kelly, Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, were on their way out, but the decade also produced some of their best work. Meanwhile, with the excitement of a new age of pop music, the heartland of American virtue was growing weary of such flagrant displays of cheer, and would come to want something different.

In its casting and director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s preference for talk over song, 1955’s Guys and Dolls – now rereleased nationwide – exists within that uneasy transition from old to new. It features one of Hollywood’s new breed of youthful, energetic stars, Marlon Brando, alongside the more traditional showbiz coupling of Frank Sinatra and Vivian Blaine, in a story involving gambling, prostitution and big bad New York City. This is where the musical met the Method, with frenzied production numbers like ‘Luck Be a Lady’ imbued with new depths of realism and characterisation.

Guys and Dolls was one of many great American musicals in a period of profound societal, cultural and indeed cinematic upheaval. Here are 10 more to tap-dance their way into your heart.

An American in Paris (1951)

Director Vincente Minnelli

An American in Paris (1951)

An American in Paris (1951)

MGM delved into the past glories of the American songbook for this 1951 musical, based on George and Ira Gershwin’s 1928 symphonic jazz tone poem of the same name. There was no American more suited to director Vincente Minnelli’s lavishly synthetic notion of Paris than Gene Kelly, with his natural musical instinct and exuberant facial expressions. He plays a former GI now pursuing a quaint life as an artist in the French capital, and soon finds himself caught up between jealous sugar-mummy (Nina Foch) and a much younger gamine (Leslie Caron).

Although Kelly and Caron’s 20-year age gap is hard to swallow – and impossible to imagine with the genders reversed – the film’s joys come from moments: Kelly and Caron’s blissful ‘Our Love Is Here to Stay’ number on the bank of the Seine, and the climactic 18-minute avant-garde ballet sequence. Staged on sets in the style of French Impressionist paintings, the latter is the movie’s final, celebratory gift to dance, music and art.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Singin' in the Rain (1951)

Singin' in the Rain (1951)

There has been no purer happiness ever recorded in the movies than in Singin’ in the Rain. Originally considered to be the poorer cousin of An American in Paris, its magic shines through in its cornfed charm, delightfully limber set-piece numbers, and most of all, in its hearty, genuine love of its own craft. It is totally appropriate that the greatest musical ever made reflects passionately on the history of its own genre, specifically Hollywood’s troubled transition from silent to talking pictures at the end of the 1920s.

Gene Kelly (who co-directed with Stanley Donen) plays a celebrated silent film star beset by all kinds of new problems on the shoot of his latest swashbuckler, now a musical following the success of the first talkie, 1927’s The Jazz Singer. Kelly’s rain-soaked, swinging solo routine to the title song and Donald O’Connor’s screwball ‘Make Us Laugh’ number – two of the most thrilling dance sequences in musical history – are complemented by earworms like ‘Good Morning’, and the glaringly self-reflexive ‘You Were Meant for Me’, performed by Kelly and Debbie Reynolds on an empty sound stage.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

Director Howard Hawks

Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953)

Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1953)

Howard Hawks worked in almost every major genre, but he arrived at the musical later on in his career, in 1948 for Danny Kaye vehicle A Song Is Born. His second outing, the brassy, flirtatious Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, is a wondrous example of what his comic touch and wry understanding of the sex war could bring to a genre that was all about love and laughs.

Marilyn Monroe plays slinky peroxide blonde Lorelei, the ‘Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend’-singing heartbreaker aboard the Atlantic ferry with Jane Russell’s man-hungry Dorothy. Together they embody the film’s merry contradictions, the mix of far-away dreams with pointed irony, and glamorous magic with an acknowledgment of the push and pull of materialism. Kicking off with glitzy opening number ‘Two Girls from Little Rock’, when Monroe and Russell emerge in bombshell red dresses, parading against a sparkling black backdrop, the musical numbers are pure one-offs, bulging with excess and ribaldry. The choreography is by the legendary Jack Cole.

Carmen Jones (1954)

Director Otto Preminger

Carmen Jones (1954)

Carmen Jones (1954)

Otto Preminger directed two musicals in the 1950s that focused on African-American characters, who were underrepresented in Hollywood at the time. There is more rhythm and fire in his first, Carmen Jones – an all-black production of George Bizet’s 19th-century opera – than 1959’s Porgy and Bess, which is also more problematic in terms of its racial politics.

Dorothy Dandridge (who also starred in Porgy and Bess) became the first African-American woman to be nominated for best actress for her performance as the sultry and sensual Carmen, prowling with a feline’s predatory grace around lovestruck fly-boy Harry Belafonte.

Dandridge is at her devastating best in the classic ‘Dat’s Love’ number – filmed in a single take by Preminger – as she winds her powerfully expressive upper body around her jaw-dropped male co-workers. Other hits include Joe Adams’ ‘Stand Up and Fight’ and Pearl Bailey’s ‘Beat Out Dat Rhythm on a Drum’, which both fizz and whirl with gaudy passion and infectious rhythmic intensity.

A Star Is Born (1954)

Director George Cukor

A Star Is Born (1954)

A Star Is Born (1954)

Warner Bros’s sombre, heartbreaking 1954 musical version of A Star Is Born saw one of the great ‘women’s directors’, George Cukor, reunited with a star he helped to make, Judy Garland. After working closely with her in production on The Wizard of Oz, Cukor could bring personal resonance to Garland’s giant performance as a young actor on the way up. Opposite her, James Mason, as the fading star now paying the price for fame, depicted the same self-medicating habits and crippling insecurities that would afflict Garland in later life.

It’s a very different sort of musical to every other on this list: the tone is grave, less energised, and it also broke new ground in the musical genre by privileging a dramatic narrative over songs. Predictably, at 181 minutes, it was cut after its first release, and further disfigured by the insertion of jarring production number ‘Born in a Trunk’. The original version is now never seen in its entirety but the 1983 restoration we have left is a bold, assured tragedy, not without moments of wit and levity, and propelled by captivating performances.

The King and I (1956)

Director Walter Lang

The King and I (1956)

The King and I (1956)

The best of four Rodgers & Hammerstein classics from the 1950s (see also: Oklahoma!, 1955; Carousel, 1956; South Pacific, 1958), Walter Lang’s 1956 adaptation of Anna and the King of Siam is the American musical at its most opulent and pictorially magnificent. It demonstrates an extravagance in decoration and costuming that is rare even for this most abundant of genres, and produced a score that remains stage gold (it is earmarked for a Broadway revival in 2015).

Yul Brynner stars as the autocratic monarch (a part he would reprise on stage for the next 25 years) who employs prim English teacher Deborah Kerr (dubbed for singing by Marni Nixon) to westernise his mass of children. Although a tad impolitic in its depiction of cross-cultural exchange, this is another example of the musical’s surface pleasures and fast-tracked delight. Highlights include the beautifully poised introduction of the king’s children, and Brynner and Kerr’s glorious ‘Shall We Dance’ routine.

High Society (1956)

Director Charles Walters

High Society (1956)

High Society (1956)

Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong sing some of Cole Porter’s most memorable show tunes in this frothy and delightful musical take on The Philadelphia Story. MGM stalwart Charles Walters was the man handed the unenviable task of injecting some swing into George Cukor’s near-perfect 1940 romantic comedy, and while any comparison is facile, this has a similar lightness of touch and champagne glint, this time in Technicolor and VistaVision.

The glittering star cast is paired up and shared around plentifully; the film combines the melodic talents of Crosby and Grace Kelly’s inimitable screen presence in ‘True Love’, puts Celeste Holm arm-in-arm with Sinatra on ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’, and has Louis Armstrong to act as a singing Greek chorus on the title song, a fabulous opening scene which keeps the toes tapping for the rest. An absolute hoot. 

Jailhouse Rock (1957)

Director Richard Thorpe

High Society (1956)

High Society (1956)

Of all Elvis’s 31 movie appearances, it’s his third, in 1957’s Jailhouse Rock, which is arguably his best (with close competition from 1958’s King Creole). The King plays a fascinatingly prophetic adumbration of his future self as Vince, a louche upstart who brings a planet to its knees yet spends the later stages of his career drifting from half-hearted singles to tame, formulaic films.
    
Elvis was never the most gifted actor, but he supplied a raw, nimble vigour here; his Vince was a version of Marlon Brando’s Wild One or James Dean’s Rebel without a Cause, because he wore his youth as inviolably as they did. He also danced with it; forgetting everything else, the best moment in the film is the sequence accompanying the title song, in which Presley does his gratifyingly senseless, hip-jerking routine that is still, nearly 60 years later, fantastically exciting.

Funny Face (1957)

Director Stanley Donen

Funny Face (1956)

Funny Face (1956)

Paramount’s 1957 musical took its title, four of its songs and Fred Astaire from George Gershwin’s 1927 Broadway hoofer. Astaire, now pushing 60, still had it; his voice was fading but he was feather-heeled as ever alongside Audrey Hepburn, stunningly outfitted by Oscar-winner Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy (the custom designer of all Hepburn’s future costumes, at her request).

Like many of the films on this list, its looks dazzles as much as its sounds, but Funny Face even more so, being the rare studio musical shot on location (in Paris no less). The beauty is everywhere, in Hepburn’s face and dresses, and of course the irresistible musical numbers, which collectively form the most complete and warming love story in any musical. Director Stanley Donen understood the musical’s visual style like no other, and here he had the songs and a flair for expression that made it his finest solo outing.

Silk Stockings (1957)

Director Rouben Mamoulian

Silk Stockings (1957)

Silk Stockings (1957)

Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse – reprising their partnership from 1953’s The Band Wagon – saved their last dance for the masterful Silk Stockings, the final credited work of one of the cinema’s original sound stylists, Rouben Mamoulian. Like High Society, it’s a dainty musical version of a classic – in this case Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), with Charisse stepping into Greta Garbo’s shoes as the Soviet commissar and Astaire as the decadent American who reconciles her to capitalism.

Although Charisse had by now developed a fluid chemistry with Astaire to compare with Ginger Rogers, the finest moment in the film has her partnered with the garment of the title. It’s a brazenly erotic number cloaked in the wholesome form of the musical, and a striking indicator of how audience attitudes and expectations were changing. Silk Stockings was one of the last of the old-style Hollywood musicals, but what a legacy it left behind.

Your suggestions

We asked you on Facebook and Twitter what we’d missed from the list. Here’s how you voted … 

The Band Wagon (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953)

  1. The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953)
  2. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954)
  3. Calamity Jane (David Butler, 1953)
  4. Show Boat (George Sidney, 1951)
  5. Kiss Me Kate (George Sidney, 1953)
  6. Kismet (Vincente Minnelli, 1955)
  7. Gigi (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)
  8. South Pacific (Joshua Logan, 1958)
  9. The Pajama Game (George Abbott and Stanley Donen, 1957)
  10. Oklahoma (Fred Zinnemann, 1955)

Loads of different suggestions came in, a sure testament to how rich the 1950s were for the Hollywood musical. But one title towered above them all: Vincente Minnelli’s dazzling backstage musical The Band Wagon, starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse. On Facebook, Ken Colwes suggested that leaving this classic off invalidated the entire list, while Peter A. Wilcox wrote that the duet between Astaire and Jack Buchanan “alone sums up all that the film musical should be!”

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