Mediocre musicals

Now, we all know that I love musicals. More particularly, I love the MGM musicals; we’re talking classics like Singin’ in the Rain, American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. As with any genre, though, the range of quality runs from excellent to poor, and usually the bulk of the examples falls somewhere in the middle. We’ve recently watched a couple of movie musicals that certainly fit into that mid-range category. As far as I can tell, both of these were moderately successful, and they’re not unenjoyable. They’re just lacking something indefinable that the really great musicals have. It’s hard to say exactly what that is – it’s not necessarily star power – but I think if you’ve seen them, you’ll probably agree.

Calamity Jane (1953)
On paper, this Wild West romp looks like a winner: it stars Doris Day and Howard Keel, and is the story of a rough-and-tumble frontierswoman who learns to embrace her feminine side and find love. It is certainly entertaining, but it’s weak in various areas. The songs, by Sammy Fain with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, are not very memorable, and lack a certain cohesion of style; the reason for which I’ll get to in a moment. The story is straightforward enough, but it could have been a little bit more developed, as could the characters. The biggest problem, for my money, is in the casting of the title role. Doris Day was in the midst of a very successful career when she made Calamity Jane, but I think the fit was all wrong. Day had a pop singer style which didn’t match well with the more operatic singing of her co-star, Howard Keel. Additionally, those songs obviously written to accommodate Day’s style don’t fit with the rest of the score. Mostly, though, she just doesn’t seem comfortable or natural in the role. Sure, it’s a musical, but there’s still a level at which over-the-top acting can go too far, particularly when compared with the rest of the cast. Howard Keel was a verified musical star whose machismo and brawn were well-suited to Wild Bill Hickock, while Allyn Ann McLerie and Philip Carey were spot-on, if a touch underutilized. I can appreciate that the character of “Calamity Jane” is naturally larger-than-life and must carry the show, in some ways, but I think Doris Day did so clumsily and with a lot of obvious hard work. I spent most of the movie wishing that either Lucille Ball or Ann Miller had been available to take on the part instead. Calamity Jane was created in answer to (better-known?) Annie Get Your Gun, which also starred Howard Keel, and one can’t help but assume that the latter is the superior movie. I’ll get around to watching it one of these days, and I’ll let you know.

How to Succeed in Business Without Even Trying (1967)

How to Succeed … is currently enjoying a revival on Broadway. Though the film version looks a little dated, the story is still relevant in today’s corporate culture. J. Pierpont Finch is a window washer with big dreams. Aided by a book (see musical’s title) that gives him step-by-step instructions, he makes his way through the ranks of the Worldwide Wicket Corporation in record time, but he has to stay one rung ahead of the game to come out on top. It’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the world of big business that also manages to have a heart. In the film version, our hero is played by Robert Morse (now of Mad Men fame), who embodies the role perfectly: he’s got a touch of innocence, a touch of earnestness, and a touch of mischief. He’s also a little twitchy and odd, which seems to fit, somehow. His supporting cast are all fine, most notably Anthony Teague as rival Bud Frump. The music itself is pretty forgettable, as there’s more emphasis on the lyrics and the story in this particular case. The choreography by Dale Moreda, which is “based on” that of Bob Fosse, is pretty good; Fosse’s crisp, sleek, and modern style lends itself to an office environment somehow. How to Succeed … suffers a little bit from the same problem as Calamity Jane in that the lead actor is just a little off-putting and over-the-top. Again, it’s necessary, but some people manage it better than others, as I’m sure we’re all aware. In this case, there’s not really a strong presence like Keel’s to balance out the main character, as this show is nearly all about Finch (F-I-N-C-H) with only the slightest development of any other characters, including love interest Rosemary Pilkington (Michele Lee). Overall, I think How to Succeed … is a little bit of an oddity. If you’re into musicals in general, you should probably check it out, but it’s not making any waves or “greatest musicals” lists. Again, entertaining, but just lacking that special something.

In watching these movies, the husband and I went to take a look at the AFI’s Great Movie Musicals list, and it’s a pretty excellent collection of movies. We’ve actually seen about three-quarters of them already, so maybe we’ll work on rounding the list out. New viewing project, just what we need!

Have you seen either of these musicals? What’s your opinion? Do you think they stack up with the greats?

7 responses to “Mediocre musicals

  1. I haven’t seen any of these but since you put ’em under mediocre list then I’d rather watch the ones on your great list 🙂

  2. Ha! Well, I’m flattered. The four mentioned in the intro paragraph are all very much worth your while!

  3. I’ve seen Calamity Jane, but not How to Succeed…

    I agree that Doris Day didn’t fit into the tomboy role very well. I can’t comment on the meshing of the musical styles because it’s been maybe 20 years since I saw it and the only song I can remember is “My Secret Love” and that may only be because it was listed as one of the hidden references to homosexuality in pre-1970s films that I read somewhere. (A mannish woman singing about a “secret love”.)

  4. How to Succeed is one of my favorites for sure. Robert Morse is pretty much a genius! I love him in Mad Men. We talked with him recently at the ACE Eddie Awards and found out he’s a huge Clint Eastwood fan! Watch our Robert Morse interview here! Thanks!

  5. I think the movie might seem like it’s taking too long to unfold, to get the final revelation. However, I enjoyed Rear Window and the slow-drip revelation that come with the protagonist spying his neighbor through a set of binoculars.

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