In the United States during the 1930’s many Americans found it to be trying times. In fact, this era, the time of the Great Depression, trickled economically around the world. During such trying times people have looked to the entertainment industry for some solace or escape from their worries and financial problems.
It is with this thought that we list some great movie musicals of the 1930’s.
1. 42nd Street
This film, under the genre of Pre-Code Hollywood, which refers to the short time between 1929 and 1934 when pictures with sound started coming out but were not required to pass censorship parameters. Choreographed by the incomparable Busby Berkeley and directed by Lloyd Bacon. With music by Harry Warren and lyrics by Al Dubin the film script was written by Rian James and James Seymour. It was based on the 1932 novel by Bradford Ropes with the same title.
42nd Street is considered a “backstage musical”, which is a specific type of musical that has a storyline set around the production of a show, predominantly with the story about what is happening back stage.
Finding great success at the box office this movie musical from 1933 received a Best Picture nomination in the Academy Awards that year. Sixty-five years later it was chosen by the National Film Registry for preservation. It was also rated number thirteen by the American Film Institute on their list of best musicals.
Starring Ginger Rogers and Warner Baxter 42nd Street is centered around the Great Depression. The musical partnership of Jones and Barry are staging their latest show Pretty Lady. The star of the show is Dorothy Brock and she is also the girlfriend of Abner Dillon, who is a wealthy man. She is also seeing Pat Denning, an entertainer who is between jobs.
2. The Wizard of Oz
Of course, this film makes its way onto another list of greats. Considered a musical comedy-drama fantasy film this movie was adapted from the L. Frank Baum book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
This musical is mostly well-known for its use of Technicolor, it’s fantastical theme, and timeless score. This 1930’s musical is so adored all over the world there are very few films at the same level of icon. Release at the end of the decade in 1939 The Wizard of Oz was nominated for six Oscars winning Best Original Song for “Over the Rainbow” and Best Original Score.
Ironically enough, at the box office this 1930’s musical was a financial failure. The original investment made by MGM in The Wizard of Oz was not fully earned back to finally make a profit until they re-released it in the theaters in 1949, a full decade later.
Those of us who remember a time when there was only network television recall a time when this 1930’s musical would be on television only once a year. Families would plan their evenings around it, since there was no way to record the movie, and glue themselves to the television all night long. The first time The Wizard of Oz was aired on television was in 1956 on CBS.
It was this annual showing that would push The Wizard of Oz to its iconic status. The Library of Congress named this musical “the most-viewed motion picture on television syndication” and it is one of the rare movies to be on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Registry.
Premiering in Hollywood at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on August 15, 1939 and then in New York City at Loew’s Capitol Theatre two nights later. The latter was honored with an appearance and performance by Judy Garland and her frequent partner in film Mickey Rooney.
3. Gold Diggers of 1933
This musical from the third decade of the twentieth century is also a film made in the Pre-Code of Hollywood. Released by Warner Bros. this gem was directed by Mervyn LeRoy with music and lyrics by the same duo that wrote 42nd Street, Warren and Dubin. Another commonality this musical has with the first that we listed is that the staging and choreography were by Busby Berkeley.
Set in the Great Depression this musical revolves around four actresses, Polly, Carol, Trixie, and Fay. They are cast in a stage production by the it is closed down due to debt. Brad Roberts, a talented singer-songwriter and Polly’s boyfriend, comes to the rescue for the producers and not only writes music for the show but gets fifteen-thousand dollars to pay off the debt.
Although he is a talented singer as well as a composer Brad refuses to perform in the show. None of the others can figure out why and there is speculation that Brad is a thief due to how quickly he came up with the money and how secretive he is about his history. When the truth is revealed everyone finds out that Brad is the son of a very rich man and his family does not approve of theater life.
In a crazy plot twist the original male lead gets ill and Brad needs to step in on opening night and perform his part. The critics rave about his performance and his family finds out what he is doing. They send his brother and a lawyer to New York to bring Brad back home.
The brother and lawyer take the actresses to be gold-diggers, hence the title of the movie. They set out to expose the women but, in the world of “happily ever after” musicals in the 1930’s, the two men fall in love with Carol and Trixie and the six are set to marry. In the end, three of the four girls get their rich husband, which aren’t bad odds.
4. Top Hat
Released in 1935 this “screwball musical comedy” stars the dancing duo synonymous with the era, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Written by Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor this musical was directed by Mark Sandrich. More notable is the score, which was composed by the legendary Irving Berlin. Two tunes from the movie, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” and “Cheek to Cheek”, have become timeless tunes in American culture.
The scene in Top Hat where Astaire and Rogers perform “Cheek to Cheek” is so iconic that it has been referenced in other films including, The Purple Rose of Cairo and The Green Mile. In the realm of films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Top Hat is the most famous and the most recognized.
Astaire plays, Jerry Travers, a dancer from the States who is in London starring in a production by goof-ball producer Horace Harwick. Travers rehearses in his hotel room only to awaken his downstairs neighbor Dale Tremont, who is played by Rogers. When she goes to his room to complain Travers become enamored instantly.
From there Travers makes an effort to woo Tremont to the point where he follows her all over London. He even goes as far as traveling to Venice to find her. Little does he know that Dale has mistaken him for the producer Horace, who is married to her friend Madge. While in Venice Dale is modeling designs by Alberto Beddini.
Travers is not aware of the confusion with who he is. He asks Dale to marry him and she is appalled. Alberto also wants to marry Dale and she accepts his proposal. Still, this marriage does not happen and the truth is eventually revealed. Dale and Jerry marry and dance off into the sunset.
5. Love Me Tonight
Another Pre-Code musical on our list was release in 1932. Produced and directed by Rouben Mamoulian this next movie musical has a score written by Rodgers and Hart, another composition partnership of that time. Starring French actor Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald as the main characters other performers include Charles Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, and Myrna Loy.
This movie musical was based on the play by Paul Armont and Léopold Marchand. Some of the most popular songs in the film written by Rodgers and Hart are “Love Me Tonight”, “Isn’t it Romantc?”, “Mimi”, and “Lover.” The performance of “Isn’t it Romantic” is considered to be ground breaking for the time because it joined singing and film editing. The song was performed by many singers who all take their part, and at different locations on set.
Chevalier plays a tailor in Paris, Maurice Courtelin and the movie centers around him and a family of native aristocrats. The family includes Vicomte Gilbert, his uncle, the Duc d’Artelines, who is the head of the family, and his nieces Valentine and Jeanette. Gilbert owes Maurice money for work he has done; Valentine is on the prowl for men while Jeanette who was widowed three years earlier.
The money owed to the tailor by Gilbert has gotten out of control and Maurice goes to their castle to demand his money. While headed there he meets Jeanette. Maurice falls in love right away and tells her so but she arrogantly turns him down.
When he arrives at the castle Gilbert tries to deceive his family of Maurice’s true identity. Maurice is suspicious of this until he realizes Jeanette is one of his family. Valentine begins her attempt to woo Maurice, who becomes very popular with the rest of the family. That is everyone except Jeanette.
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