Musicals are my greatest, most reliable cinematic refuge, a warm blanket and hot toddy combined. Even on a bad day – and we’ve all had plenty of those lately – a musical can lift my spirits if only for a moment. Their otherworldliness is crucial because while all fiction depends on some kind of contract between creators and audiences, musicals also rely on us agreeing to voyage beyond consensus reality. No matter how far-fetched the premise or gossamer-thin the story, the musical invites (compels) us to go along with its essential surrealism, to travel to that dream space where everyday life suddenly moves and sounds deliriously out of this world.
Here are some 1940s musicals that send me, to borrow a phrase, over the rainbow.
Down Argentine Way
“Down Argentine Way” was part of a wave of Latin American-themed movies that Hollywood produced in the wake of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, which was instituted in the 1930s to strengthen ties between the United States and Latin American countries. Called the “Brazilian Bombshell,” Miranda doesn’t have much to do in “Down Argentine Way” except jolt it awake, which she and the Nicholas Brothers do while the appealing, reassuringly bland romantic leads – Betty Grable and her ersatz Latin lover, Don Ameche, aka Dominic Felix Amici from Kenosha, Wisconsin – practice more restrained Pan-American diplomacy.
You’ll Never Get Rich
In old Hollywood, makeovers sometimes included new names, changing Archibald Leach into Gary Grant. Any suggestion of putative foreignness was expunged, which is how Brooklyn, New York’s own Margarita Carmen Cansino became the goddess Rita Hayworth, with help from a red dye job and an electrolysis-created hairline. By the time she made “You’ll Never Get Rich,” Cansino had been put through the glamour grinder, de-Latinized and transformed into Hayworth. She was screen-ready to dance with Fred Astaire, who after hitting big with Ginger Rogers needed a fresh partner.
“You’ll Never Get Rich” made Hayworth a star, and it’s easy to see why from the moment she appears tap-dancing in leg-baring shorts. She just pops, and you don’t want to look anywhere else. The story is thin yet fussy, and involves the usual nice dancer guy and lovely dancer gal who were made for each other but need the entire film to figure it out. It’s a breezy delight and especially fun to see Astaire sync with Hayworth, who’d danced professionally since childhood. Her early life was a horror and her incandescent dreaminess could sometimes seem like a shield. But she seems in her element here – unforced, natural, genuinely happy.
The Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation thoroughly shaped Hollywood, and for decades African American performers appeared in marginal, often servile roles or not at all. It’s always bizarre watching a Southern film with happy enslaved people or a New York drama populated only with white faces. But given how profoundly the musical draws from African American cultural and artistic traditions, nothing matches the craziness of how this genre navigated, with tap shoes and smiles, the color line.
Hollywood also made all-black musicals like Fox’s “Stormy Weather,” an indifferently directed wonder. The negligible story involves Bill Robinson’s veteran showman recounting his life and love for a singer played by a glorious Lena Horne. Each performs beautifully, as do Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and Katherine Dunham. In time, Fayard and Harold Nicholas pop up in white tie and tails and bring the house down, dancing, vaulting and landing in ouch-inspiring splits. The brothers created the dance with choreographer Nick Castle, but, remarkably, didn’t rehearse their soaring leaps over each other’s heads, which they executed in one perfect, astonishing take.
Meet Me in St. Louis
Judy Garland didn’t want to make “Meet Me in St. Louis.” After years of on-screen juvenilia, often opposite professional scene-grabber Mickey Rooney, she yearned to graduate to adult parts. And the role of the teenage Esther Smith, the second daughter of a family facing an uncertain future in 1903, didn’t seem promising. Garland changed her mind over the course of a characteristically troubled shoot marred by her habitual tardiness, absences and drama. She recognized that her new director, Vincente Minnelli, made her look beautiful, creating an ideal setting for her maturing talents.
Released the year before the end of World War II, “Meet Me in St. Louis” is a lushly nostalgic, classic Hollywood tribute – dreamy, gauzy, white – to an America that never existed. Produced at MGM by Arthur Freed, the film is often viewed as a leap forward for the formally integrated musical, where numbers overtly help advance the story, unlike the ostensibly stand-alone numbers in backstage tales. And, to an extent, “Meet Me in St. Louis” plays less like a musical than a film with music. One minute, Esther is spying on her cute neighbor; the next, she’s flawlessly framed and lighted and singing “The Boy Next Door,” in a performance that feels as effortless as breath.
‘On the Town’
It isn’t great – it’s irresistible. First, there’s song, witty, catchy, impossible to forget, easy to sing: “New York, New York/a wonderful town/the Bronx is up and the Battery’s down/the people ride in a hole in the ground.” In the original Broadway musical by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the city had been a “helluva” town. But Hollywood censors forced the change, one of a number made for the screen version, which also jettisoned much of Bernstein’s music. It was an artistic affront, but the film soars nonetheless – it’s an instant high.
Comden and Green tweaked the book – the story still turns on three sailors on leave who meet three gals – and wrote new (great) songs with Roger Edens. Its star, Gene Kelly, who directed with Stanley Donen, wanted to shoot the whole thing on location in New York, which MGM nixed, not grasping the revolution the filmmakers were trying to ignite. They nevertheless managed to shoot in the city for five days, at times filming guerrilla-style with hidden cameras and, to avoid Frank Sinatra’s rabid fans, stashing the singer in cabs, with Kelly and co-star Jules Munshin lying on top of him. Here, the city isn’t a backdrop, but the world’s greatest, gloriously cacophonous backup band.