Musicals at the Oscars (Part II)

During the first 24 years of the Academy Awards, four musicals won Best Picture (The Broadway MelodyThe Great ZiegfeldGoing my Way, and An American in Paris), and the nominees reflected the growth and development of the film musical. However, as with the musicals themselves, their performance at the Oscars peaked in the 1950s and the Academy has struggled with them ever since.

The main problem with the Oscars in general has always been that, since they only reward films of the preceding year, they often miss their chance to honor films that are, in retrospect, superior. Citizen Kane‘s loss to How Green was my Valley in 1941 is the classic example, as well as, say, High Noon losing to The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952, or Crash winning over any other film released in 2005. It seems that when they do get it right, it’s the exception rather than the rule, and even then they rarely know what they have until it’s too late.

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It’s worth pointing out that none of these films won more than three Oscars.

The musical is no exception, as we’ve seen. Two of the most important musicals ever made, The Love Parade and The Gay Divorcee, were nominated but failed to win (though, admittedly, they lost to great and timeless films), and 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s triumphant follow-up to An American in Paris, wasn’t even nominated. Musicals became less and less represented in the following years, with the exception of the nominations for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1954 and The King and I in 1956.

But just after the Golden Age of musicals ended in the mid-50s–not coincidentally, around the time when the Hays Code finally faded into deserved irrelevance–the Academy suddenly caught the fever. For a brief but very weird time, between 1958 and 1968, musicals were the most potent Oscar bait on the market.

Unknown-2.jpegSimilar to the brief and weird time we’re in now, when it’s Michael Keaton.

It was a time when American movies, and society, were changing fast, and the Academy held off acknowledging it for as long as they possibly could. Gigi kicked off the Musical Decade with a win in 1958, followed by West Side Story in 1961, My Fair Lady in 1964 (with 12 nominations, while another musical, Mary Poppins, received 13), The Sound of Music in 1965, and Oliver! in 1968.

With My Fair Lady, I get where they were coming from. They denied Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller back in 1938 when the story was called Pygmalion and saw a chance to make things right. It all makes sense, and damn it, I commend them for thinking of it.


He could break into song, if he wanted. He chooses not to.

But as I have often said, the road to hell is paved by George Cukor, and this otherwise noble gesture meant that the Academy had to ignore the likes of A Hard Day’s Night (the third Great Leap Forward in movie musicals, although this one didn’t have the lasting impact of the previous two) and Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

Even when they poked their heads out from under their comforters to look at the real world, it didn’t last long. Hell, 1967 scared them so bad–what with In the Heat of the NightThe GraduateBonnie and ClydeGuess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Cool Hand Luke, and many more iconoclastic films–that come 1968 they ignored 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Battle of Algiers in favor of lavishing 11 nominations and 5 Oscars on G-rated Oliver! 

To be fair, though, they did renew their hip cred in one regard, awarding Best Original Screenplay to a wonderful satirical film I’m going to go ahead and call a musical so I can show a clip of it:


A musical in the pre-Love Parade style, sure, but still…it’s got something.

But the tide turned the very next year. Instead of establishing a pattern of determining the winner by exclamation points and giving Best Picture to Gene Kelly’s feel-good Hello, Dolly!, 1969 saw the only X-rated winner, Midnight Cowboy (although it’s been downgraded to an R in the years since). This time, there was no rebound musical the following year…the New Hollywood had arrived, and the Oscars were finally onboard. And with that, the musical fell from grace with astonishing speed.

The last gasp of the genre came in 1972, when Bob Fosse’s masterful Cabaret swept up eight Oscars–including Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor–but was denied Best Picture by The Godfather. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and it manages to emotionally depict the slow and inexorable rise of Nazism while still entertaining with its beautiful choreography and catchy songs. Its eight awards without winning the top prize remains a record.


No film featuring a man making love to a gorilla has ever won, not counting that one deleted scene from 
The King’s Speech.

After that, musical nominees became few and far between. There was All That Jazz in 1979 (should have won), then nothing until Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (pretty sure Silence of the Lambs was the right call here), and Moulin Rouge! in 2001, desperately trying to recapture the exclamatory magic of Oliver! And finally, in 2002, the tenth and, to date, final musical film won Best Picture: Chicago.

Again, musicals dropped off the radar, with the exception of Les Misérables in 2012, which brings us to the 89th Awards on Sunday, where La La Land looks ready to become the eleventh musical to win Best Picture. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t comment too much on it, but unless it features a scene as awesome as this…

…I can’t imagine I’ll think it’s as amazing as everyone who has never seen Gene or Fred thinks it is.

Musicals are, in their best form, magical dreamscapes of pure, distilled joy, as the clips I’ve shared in this survey attest. I can’t watch Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling or Gene Kelly dancing on roller skates or Maurice Chevalier literally charming the pants off everyone he meets and feel anything but optimism and happiness that we’re all alive and able to experience such wonder. I wish someone would come along and revitalize the genre the way it deserves to be, even if we’ll never see the likes of the Golden Age again.

And that’s the musical at the Academy Awards! We’ll see if La La Land joins the pantheon of Best Picture winners on Sunday, and possibly even sets a new record for wins. Time, as it often does, will tell! Stay tuned as always for trivia on the night itself!

Musicals at the Oscars (Part I)

With La La Land leading the nominees this year by quite a wide margin, and having cleaned up at the Globes, it looks poised to become the first musical since Chicago (2002) and the eleventh musical overall to win Best Picture. This, combined with the fact that I am a late-blooming Hollywood musical enthusiast, made me think that I should take a look at the presence of musicals at the Oscars through the years.

Musicals started popping up in the Best Picture nominees, and winning Best Picture, as soon as sound was a thing. The second winner ever was The Broadway Melody, even if it only won that one award and was the best of a pretty weak year even by the standards of 1928/29. The nominees even included a silent film, The Patriot, Frank Lloyd won Best Director for the silent The Divine Lady, which gives an idea of just how little forethought was put into the whole thing back then. I suppose it could have something to do with one of the Academy’s more prominent members, Irving Thalberg, confidently predicting that “talking pictures are just a fad” (he also passed on the chance to produce Gone with the Wind because “Civil War movies never make money”).

Unknown.jpegIf he’d been head of Decca Records when the Beatles auditioned, he’d have signed the rejection slip without a second thought.

The Broadway Melody is a good film but not a great one, and if I weren’t writing this specifically about Academy Award winners, I wouldn’t even mention it in a history of the musical. I’d skip right over to next year’s The Love Parade, Maurice Chevalier’s entrance onto the Hollywood scene and the first “true” movie musical. I talk about it extensively in my entry about the third Academy Awards, about how it pretty much invented the genre as we know it today. Its most important innovation was that its songs were not stage performances within the story…they were fantasy sequences of characters breaking into song to sing about what was happening in the story. We take this breakthrough for granted today, because it has been copied in about 99.9% of all musicals made since.


No joke caption here. Without hyperbole, this scene changed movies forever and captures, in its simplicity, everything we love about films.

Like movies in general, musicals kept getting better and better for the next twenty years or so, and a few of them won or were nominated for Best Picture. Maurice Chevalier surfaced again with two films nominated at the 5th Awards, One Hour with You and The Smiling Lieutenant, and the next year, 42nd Street followed the old Broadway Melody approach but showed some inventiveness with a highly entertaining turn to fantasy in its closing number.

The next big leap forward was in 1934 with The Gay Divorcee, which finally struck the right balance between catchy songs, witty dialogue, and outstanding dancing courtesy of the great Fred Astaire. Writers and directors found that the screwball comedy template established by The Thin Man and It Happened One Night worked perfectly with the musical, and thus, in 1934, the last piece of the musical puzzle that everyone is still using today fell into place.

Even so, the next musical to win Best Picture was The Great Ziegfeld in 1936, which returned to The Broadway Melody‘s “let’s make audiences watch stage performers sing songs to an audience that is in the movie itself” approach. It wasn’t until 1944’s Going my Way that a film with “meta,” fantasy musical numbers took the top prize. In between, only two musicals were even nominated: The Wizard of Oz in 1939 and Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942.

And the next one to win, in 1951, starred a man very dear to my heart, someone who left the world an immeasurably better place just by having the decency to exist in it. As amazing as Fred Astaire was…and he was amazing, just take a look at this clip:


He did this when he was 52 goddamn years old, and I get winded opening a can of pickles.

Anyway, like I said, as amazing as he was, he wasn’t–


Pssh, look at that decrepit 71-year-old. (Start at 2:30)

Ahem. What I’m trying to say here is–


Drums arrange themselves in a semi-circle at his approach. Science has yet to explain it.

OKAY. I get it, Fred Astaire was beyond incredible. The man breathed the same air as the rest of us, yet exhaled pure grace, dexterity, and charm. And yet, he received only one Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actor in The Towering Inferno (1974), but in one of Oscar’s greatest upsets, lost to Robert de Niro for The Godfather Part II.

And speaking of great film and Broadway dancers who received only one acting nomination but starred in two films nominated for Best Picture…

tumblr_lbzhxxUiP51qe5vzdo1_1280.pngAnd at the end of the day, is there anything else really worth talking about?

…Gene Kelly brought the musical to new heights in the 1940s, after being brought to Hollywood by Judy Garland for Me and My Gal. He had all the grace of Astaire, all the genius for choreography and snappy dialogue and roguish charm, and he took dancing and musicals to the next level by taking them out of the ballrooms and into the navy yards, into the ballparks, and into the rain. He once remarked that “if Fred Astaire is the Cary Grant of dance, I’m the Marlon Brando.”

The Academy took notice of Gene Kelly early on with Anchors Aweigh (1945), his first of three films with Frank Sinatra (who also acted alongside the Marlon Brando of movies in general, Marlon Brando, in the musical Guys and Dolls [1955]). It was nominated for Best Picture that year, and Kelly received a nod for Best Actor (both nominations lost to The Lost Weekend, because obviously they did).

But in 1951, the Academy decided that they’d had enough of the gritty realism they had embraced following World War II, and were ready for bit of good, old-fashioned escapism. To that end, Kelly’s An American in Paris scored a major upset by winning Best Picture over the likes of A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. The highlight of this undeniably great film is undoubtedly the 20-minute ballet fantasy towards the end, choreographed by Kelly at the height of his imaginative powers:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/60145841″>&quot;An American In Paris&quot; Ballet with George Gershwin’s Original Music</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user16602560″>Movie Musicals</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

This also led to a similar ballet sequence gracing Singin’ in the Rain the following year, which failed to garner any serious Oscar nominations. The next time Gene Kelly would turn up at the Awards would be 1969’s Hello Dolly!, which he directed but did not star in.

That takes us to 1951, and the first four musicals to win Best Picture at the Oscars. There have been six more, mostly in the late ’50s and ’60s when the Academy went a bit crazy with the musicals to try to stem the tide of all those newfangled, Code-violating films that kept threatening to change the way Hollywood made motion pictures. They did not succeed, making the 1960s one of the most aggravating decades in Oscar history…but that story will be told in Part II!