10 great American musicals of the 1930s

With Top Hat back in cinemas, we twirl back to the decade when song and dance were Hollywood’s most extravagant escapism.

6 April 2023

By Chloe Walker

Top Hat (1935)

The 1930s, America. The land is awash with breadlines and Hoovervilles; a populace buckling under the stifling, hopeless weight of a Great Depression that would not fully lift until the US entered the Second World War. Fear, exhaustion and desperation abound. If you could scrape up a quarter for a movie ticket, however, a sweet-sounding reprieve from bitter reality was at hand.

Although the first movie musical, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, had been released just three years prior to the start of the decade, productions of the 1930s quickly became so astounding in their spectacle, it’s often hard to remember when watching today that this was a genre still very much in its infancy. Many of the era’s grandest extravaganzas were produced by choreographer-director Busby Berkeley, whose staggeringly synchronised vast-scaled numbers could be as bizarre as they were impressive.

The period’s other tuneful titans were of course Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose nine films together between 1933 and 1939 – Top Hat (1935), which audiences can see in cinemas again this April, remains the most widely beloved – established the two as the ultimate in silver-screen dancing duos. And there were plenty of other melodious options for grabbing a temporary escape from the miseries of the 1930, such as the early all-singing, all-dancing revues; the Marx brothers’ dazzlingly silly musical comedies; Gallic crooner Maurice Chevalier’s collaborations with Ernst Lubitsch; and the operettas of Jeanette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy.

Here are 10 of the best American musicals the decade had to offer.

King of Jazz (1930)

Director: John Murray Anderson

King of Jazz (1930)

The earliest days of the movie musical were dominated by revues, which featured a wealth of songs, dances and skits, without a narrative to hold them together. Among many other attributes, King of Jazz – ‘hosted’ by then-popular bandleader, Paul Whiteman – boasts a strikingly beautiful two-strip Technicolor palette, which bathes the action in shades of dusky pink and turquoise; frequent enormous song-and-dance numbers; the first Technicolor cartoon short; and the movie debut of Bing Crosby (singing as one third of ‘The Rhythm Boys’).

Although the frequent comic interludes have not aged well, and the complete absence of African-American performers during the culminating ‘Melting Pot of Music’ is… conspicuous, the film’s dazzling production design and snapshot into contemporaneous pop-cultural tastes make it fascinating viewing. King of Jazz proved to be an enormous financial failure at the time, but as a historical document, it remains invaluable.

Madam Satan (1930)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Madam Satan (1930)

Cecil B. DeMille is best known as the classic era’s foremost purveyor of biblical epics, but for his first film of the 1930s, he tried his hand at a different type of spectacle. It opens as a fairly traditional screwball comedy, before transitioning into a giddily debauched costume party on a zeppelin, which soon results in another pivot into a bonafide disaster movie. But Madame Satan is also quite possibly the oddest musical of the entire decade – because, yes, on top of all the genre shifting, scattered throughout are an eclectic selection of song and dance numbers.

While the central story, of a woman (Kay Johnson) determined to hold on to her philandering man (Reginald Denny) despite his clear irredeemability, could be a little frustrating to modern eyes, the film’s extravagant, delirious trappings are so plentiful and mesmerisingly strange that the moralising is easy enough to overlook. Like King of Jazz, Madam Satan bombed at the box office, but you can still see every cent spent on it right up there on the screen.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Love Me Tonight (1932)

The third of four musical collaborations between Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald, Love Me Tonight sees the former play a penniless tailor who, through a series of light-hearted contrivances, finds himself staying at the castle of Macdonald’s princess in the guise of a wealthy Baron. Mayhem – and of course, romance – ensues.

Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight opens with the sounds of day breaking in Paris – snoring, sweeping, a baby crying – turned into a veritable city symphony, and that sets the tone for all that is to come; even in the scenes with no singing, the film’s innate lyricism is ever-present, giving its world a dreamy, fairytale quality. The movie remains best remembered for the captivating sequence that transports the iconic Rodgers and Hart song ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ across Paris from Chevalier to Macdonald, via the hums and whistles of myriad passing strangers.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Director: Mervyn Le Roy

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

When Ginger Rogers has sung in Pig Latin not even five minutes into a movie musical, you know you’re in for quite a ride. Gold Diggers of 1933 was the second of three Busby Berkeley productions released in 1933, just a few months after 42nd Street (which was so successful it was widely credited with saving Warner Bros.)

While the majority of 1930s musicals focused their copious energies on distracting their audience from the horrors of the Great Depression, much like its predecessor, Gold Diggers of 1933 made the country’s ongoing despair pivotal to the plot. The adventures of the three showgirls played by Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon are comic in tone, but the threat of financial disaster licking at their (and everybody else’s) heels is vivid and tangible. As such, the climactic ‘Remember My Forgotten Man‘ stands as the most powerful performance in any of Berkeley’s films.

Footlight Parade (1933)

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Footlight Parade (1933)

James Cagney had already made 13 features since his movie debut in 1930, but Footlight Parade reintroduced him to audiences as a song-and-dance man; a far cry from the gangster films, such as The Public Enemy (1931), that had made him famous. In Footlight Parade, the former vaudevillian plays a dance director with three days to whip three enormous production numbers into shape from scratch.

The phenomenal Busby Berkeley numbers are unsurprisingly a big draw here (‘By a Waterfall’, in particular, needs to be seen to be believed), yet more than anything else it’s the ferociously charismatic Cagney, and his delightful chemistry with frequent screen-partner Joan Blondell, that makes Footlight Parade the vibrant, energetic marvel it is. Despite his stellar performance in this one, Cagney would not lead another movie musical until 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, for which he’d win the only Oscar of his entire career.

The Merry Widow (1934)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

The Merry Widow (1934)

The third and final venture for director/star team Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette Macdonald and Ernst Lubitsch sees Macdonald as the titular widow, whose enormous fortune has made her world famous. When her country’s government gets word she may be marrying a foreigner, Chevalier’s playboy army captain is charged with romancing her and thus keeping her wealth from leaving their shores. Unsurprisingly, genuine love soon blooms.

As well as being his final outing with Chevalier and Macdonald, The Merry Widow was also the last musical of Lubitsch’s career, and it certainly saw him exit the genre he’d helped shape in spectacular style; the adaptation of the classic Franz Lehár operetta is sweepingly, swooningly lavish (the art direction from Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope would win the film its only Oscar). And while 1934 marked the first proper year of the Hays Code’s stricter implementation, you’d never know it from the gleefully innuendo-ridden screenplay.

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Director: Sam Wood

A Night at the Opera (1935)

A Night at the Opera is regularly cited as Groucho Marx’s favourite of the 13 feature films he and his brothers made together, and it’s easy to understand why. Groucho, Chico and Harpo (this was their first outing without youngest sibling Zeppo) play three lovable rascals who help further the romance and careers of golden-hearted opera singers played by Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle; and as usual, wherever the brothers go – be it a restaurant, cruise ship or opera house – chaos follows.

The movie is probably best known for the ‘stateroom scene’ – which sees 15 people crammed into Groucho’s closet-sized cabin – but the musical scenes are also among the best of the brothers’ oeuvre; ‘Alone’ (performed by Carlisle and Jones) would go on to become a big popular hit in its own right. Most enchanting of all, however, is the lovely sequence where Harpo and Chico entertain a group of enraptured kids with their virtuosity on the harp and piano.

Born to Dance (1936)

Director: Roy Del Ruth

Born to Dance (1936)

Although her name hasn’t enjoyed the long-lasting legendary status of his, at her best, fleet-footed genius Eleanor Powell could give Fred Astaire a run for his money (they’d soon be joining forces in Broadway Melody of 1940). Born to Dance paired Powell with James Stewart – it was the only musical of his career –  and saw the two of them, along with a sparkling supporting cast headlined by Una Merkel, Buddy Ebsen and Sid Silvers, embark on a series of tuneful misadventures on their path to finding true love.

This was the first feature screen credit for legendary composer Cole Porter, and introduced his soon-to-be classics like ‘Easy to Love’ and ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ to the cinemagoing public. Though the narrative is sometimes laughably convoluted, the combination of Porter’s songs, Powell’s dancing, and the rest of the movie’s abundant charm makes Born to Dance one of the decade’s shiniest musical gems.

Shall We Dance (1937)

Director: Mark Sandrich

Shall We Dance (1937)

In their seventh film together, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were still finding new ways to impress. The chief showstopper of Shall We Dance involved the two of them tap-dancing to Gershwin soon-to-be standard ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ while on roller skates (beating Gene Kelly’s routine in 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather to the punch by almost 20 years). It reportedly took 150 takes to get just right, and it’s not hard to see why.

There’s plenty more to enjoy besides, including Astaire’s interesting attempt at a Russian accent, regular Astaire/Rogers co-stars Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore on typically amusing form, and a mind-bending number that has the female chorus all donning masks of Rogers’ face. Though the disappointing box office performance was an early indicator of the waning contemporaneous popularity of screen dance’s most enduring duo, watching today, Shall We Dance shows why they reigned as long as they did.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz (1939)
© Turner Entertainment Co., A Time Warner Company. All Rights Reserved.

The last major motion picture musical of the 1930s remains one of the most cherished of all time, replete with unforgettable songs, classic dialogue and legendary iconography, all of which would be spoofed and paid homage to endlessly in the decades that followed.

As the decades have passed, however, the tales of the darker side of The Wizard of Oz have also become part of the movie’s lore: misbehaving munchkins, near-fatal on-set accidents, and – most searingly – the drugs foisted on the then 16-year-old Judy Garland to get her through the punishingly long work days, which would have such a devastating effect on the rest of her tragically short life. Although America had almost climbed its way out of the Great Depression by the time of its release, The Wizard of Oz serves as an evergreen reminder of the shadows beneath the sunniest of movie genres.

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