When movies became “talkies” with the advent of sound, they also instantly became “singies.” Al Jolson starred in 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” starting a long line of unforgettable movie moments that made music a vital part of the show. The movies still occasionally break into song today, but the golden decades of the musical motion picture are not part of entertainment history. That rich heritage is reflected in vintage paper dolls of the stars who made musicals.
Deanna Durbin, Jeanette MacDonald, Judy Garland, Shirley Temple, Sonia Henie, Betty Grable, Alice Faye, Rita Hayworth, Carmen Miranda, Doris Day, Jane Powell, Esther Williams, Debbie Reynolds and even Pat Boone and Elvis Presley are some of the musical stars whose images became paper dolls.
The first really big movie musical was “42nd Street,” the 1933 backstage story with a plotline that has become a laughable cliché. A chorus girl goes on in place of the leading lady and a star is born. Ruby Keeler (Mrs. Al Jolson) played the heavy footed hoofer with a sweet demeanor. She went on to play virtually the same role in a string of musicals famed for the spectacular production numbers staged by Busby Berkeley. His kaleidoscopic visions of hundreds of hefty chorus girls are now iconic cinema images.
The 1930s was a difficult time for everybody. The Great Depression was certainly depressing and movies offered a brief respite from reality. Musical movies were the headiest form of escapism into a giddy world where all the girls were not only pretty, but they could sing and dance, too. Their leading men were suave and musically adept as well.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the great dancing duo. He was the epitome of elegance in his white tie and tails, a perfect foil to her wise-cracking, down-to-earth sex appeal. When they danced cheek-to-cheek in “Top Hat,” “Swing Time” and other cinematic confections, they were heavenly to watch. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy couldn’t dance, but they sure could sing. In a string of merry operettas like “Maytime” and “New Moon” they became known as the “Singing Sweethearts.” Their movies are now regarded as quaint Valentines, but Jeanette’s comedic talent and her ability to off Adrian’s extravagant costumes give these films lasting artistic integrity. Another star of the ‘30s needed no partner. Even thought just a child, her impact was gigantic. Shirley Temple...ringlets bobbing as she sang, tapped and pouted...stole the world’s heart. A little more grown-up were Deanna Durbin and Judy Garland, singing teen-agers. Judy and Mickey Rooney teamed up for several sprightly musicals such as “Strike Up the Band” and “Babes in Arms” in which they usually gave a show in a barn and saved the day somehow. Sonia Henie, a Scandinavian Olymppic gold medalist, skated to stardom in “Thin Ice” and “Sun Valley Serenade.
As the 1930s ended and war darkened the spirits, audiences gravitated to movie musicals as never before. Many of them, such as “San Francisco” or “The Dolly Sisters” evoked happier, bygone eras, especially the Gay Nineties. “Meet Me in St. Louis” is still a favorite with the public today.
The serviceman’s yearning for his girl back home is probably the reason the most important musical stars of the 1940s were glamour girls. Leggy Betty Grable was perfectly typecast as the “Pin-Up Girl.” Her rival was another curvaceous blonde, Alice Faye, whose deep, throaty singing voice belied her sugary persona. More sultry was fiery-haired Rita Hayworth...absolutely breathtaking in “Cover Girl” and “Tonight and Every Night.” One of the biggest musical stars was Esther Williams who, instead of dancing, turned swimming into a kind of underwater ballet in films like “Bathing Beauty” and “Million Dollar Mermaid.” Carmen Miranda, the lady in the tutti-fruitti hat, wasn’t a pin-up girl, but the Brazilian Bombshell’s high energy performances and fractured English made her a feel-good star.
Each of the major studios produced musicals in their own identifiable style. Warner Brothers, the leader in talkies, got a head start and made many of the early backstage musicals in black-and-white. 20th Century Fox musicals were cheerful, often nostalgic and smaller in scale than the lavish Technicolor triumphs of artistry created by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
After World War II ended, peace and prosperity began to erode the public’s desire for lighthearted, escapist movie musicals. A few singers and dancers made it into the 1950s and continued to be popular. Doris Day and Jane Powell were wholesome, cheery personalities who effervesced and vocalized their way through featherweight films like “Romance on the High Seas” and “A Date with Judy.” Debbie Reynolds started in musicals and then moved on to comedic roles, as did Doris Day whose comedies like “Pillow Talk” in which she only sang a title tune while the credits rolled by. “An American in Paris” won the Academy Award in 1951, one of the few original musicals to be so honored. “Singing in the Rain” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” were two other wonderful Hollywood originals. Not so wonderful, but hugely successful, were the string of bland musical vehicles for Elvis Presley.
Dancers who also occasionally sang starred in some of the great musicals. Gene Kelly, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Marge and Gower Champion, Mitzi Gaynor and the charisma-challenged Cyd Charisse all graced the screen during the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Very often, a not especially musical star would be featured in a production number that was an excuse to showcase a beautiful performer. Joan Crawford was the partner for Fred Astaire’s first movie dance. Mae West bumped and grinded her way through several songs and Marilyn Monroe’s breathy little girl voice belied her mega-watt sex appeal in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”
Broadway has always been an inspiration for movie musicals and the last five decades of the 20th century saw hit after hit show filmed. “Show Boat” was filmed for the second time in the ‘50s with Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson who costarred again in Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate.” “Oklahoma,” “The King and I,” “South Pacific,” “Carousel” and the biggest movie musical ever, “The Sound of Music” brought Rogers and Hammerstein’s great musical to the screen. “My Fair Lady” and “Gigi” were hits from Lerner and Lowe. Composer Jerry Herman’s biggest Broadway successes did not achieve movie greatness. “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame” suffered from miscasting of Babra Streisand and Lucille Ball, respectively. Of course Streisand had already scored big with “Funny Girl,” her Oscar winning debut movie version of her Broadway smash hit.
“Gypsy,” with Rosalind Russell in the Ethel Merman role was another of the genre in which the momentum of the stage success carries the movie. “West Side Story” and “Cabaret” are now considered movie classics although they were stage successes before they hit the screen. “Grease” gained in its translation to the movies because John, Travolta, fresh from his success in “Saturday Night Fever,” gave it star power. “Chicago,” a Broadway revival from the 1970s, was recently filmed and became such a bit hit with current audiences that Hollywood is buzzing as producers scramble to develop more musicals.
The popularity of movie musicals ebbs and flows with the changing times. Today’s audiences have trouble suspending disbelief when a character bursts into song or suddenly starts to dance. Luckily, almost all the great Hollywood musicals of the past are available on VHS or DVDs for fans to enjoy over and over again. “That’s Entertainment,” a series of three films that are compilations of MGM’s musicals numbers are a great way to see some of the greatest stars and the best numbers ever filmed. For the younger generation, MTV has replaced MGM as the place to see musical stars. But the joyfully innocent spirit that made movie musicals magical just isn’t there. Britney Spears is no Betty Grable. There aren’t many paper dolls celebrating today’s music makers.
The great musical stars live on in treasured vintage paper doll books and new paper dolls by contemporary paper doll artists who continue to glorify those all-talking, all dancing, all-singing movies.