To celebrate their 90th anniversary, Warner Bros has released a series of box sets purporting their “best” films. This collection is composed of 20 musicals (from 1927-1988) chosen to represent the best of Warner Bros. There certainly are some great films in this set—from The Wizard of Oz to Singin’ in the Rain to Cabaret—but there are also some duds (like Camelot). Fortunately, most of the films are ones worth seeing—and owning (if you don’t already)—making this a great box set.
The collection begins at the beginning with The Jazz Singer (1927). This was the first feature-length film to use synchronized singing and some dialogue, revolutionizing the world of film. This is also the first of many films in the collection to focus on show business. The story follows a young man’s struggle to make it on Broadway, the true American dream.
The ascendancy of talkies is exemplified with 1929’s The Broadway Melody (the first sound film to win the Best Picture Oscar). It, too, tells the story of performers trying to make it on the Great White Way. And Broadway drama continues with 42nd Street (1933), which has Smash-like backstage drama during the rehearsals and premiere of a new show.
The last black and white films in the set are a pair of biopics about renowned showmen. The Great Ziegfeld (1936) follows the rise of the man responsible for the sensational Follies; and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) follows the career of George M. Cohan, aka “The Man Who Owns Broadway.” Ziegfeld is definitely one of the best films in this collection (it certainly deserved its Best Picture win). The pure spectacle of the recreated Follies scenes is astounding (even in without color); and the actors are superb in their roles (especially William Powell as the eponymous Ziegfeld). Dandy falls at the other end of the spectrum. Its zany tone is somewhat polarizing, and its excessive amounts of patriotism can try your patience. But the film definitely has its own place in history and has earned its spot in this collection.
The Wizard of Oz (1939) is most certainly the greatest musical—in this collection, possibly ever. Everything about this film is iconic and continues to influence films—both musical and not—to this day. It’s also the first musical in this set in which the music is integrated into the storytelling and not just incidental to the plot.
Conversely, the importance of An American in Paris (1951) is debatable. It serves as just a vehicle for Gene Kelly to dance around in, and, as beautiful as the final ballet sequence is, does the story really need a lavish 16-minute ballet to be complete? As far as dancing films are concerned, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) is all that is necessary to exemplify dancing in film. It also has a brilliant use of color in the costuming.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is another of the classic films that’s required in any discussion of musicals. It continues the box set’s trend of show business musicals, this one focused on the transition from silent films to talkies. (It also features enough classic Gene Kelly dancing to make American redundant.) The last of the show business musicals in this collection is A Star Is Born (1954). Featuring an older, yet still amazing, Judy Garland who plays the titular rising star. This is the last of the films in which the music is incidental to the story.
Show Boat (1951); The Music Man (1962); and Cabaret (1967) are more classic examples of traditional musicals, using songs to tell the story. Show Boat is hardly Hammerstein’s best musical, but, as it is based on a Broadway show originally produced by Ziegfeld, it adds a great layer of intertexuality to the box set. (There’s a deliciously abundant amount of intertexuality in this collection.) Cabaret is the darkest film in this collection, but such a great must-see film. It and Victor/Victoria (1982) tell stories of marginalized characters (like homosexuals and drag performers) that aren’t found in the other films in this collection (although Broadway Melody does have a funny gay costume designer). Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) and Little Shop of Horrors (1986) are both welcome, entertaining additions to this collection as well.
As great as most of these musicals are, the box set does make a few missteps. Viva Las Vegas (1964) seems like an odd choice, but as it’s Elvis’ best musical its inclusion is understandalbe. Plus, it’s a delightful romantic comedy. Camelot (1967), however, feels out of place. Its cinematic influence is negligible if it exists at all. And Hairspray’s (1988) inclusion is baffling as well, considering it’s not even a musical. Although it does have more influence on musicals than Camelot: it’s the basis for the stage musical Hairspray and subsequent film adaptation. But aside from the dancing, it bears no resemblance to a musical (not to say it isn’t a good film in its own right).
Lastly, a word about That’s Entertainment (1974): this documentary about MGM musicals helps place historical importance on many of the films in the set. It’s also cited with starting the “movement” of nostalgia (a trend that continues to this day). Composed mainly of clips from various musicals (many of which are in the set), it is best to watch this either first or last when marathoning this collection.
Overall, this is a solid collection of musicals. Although the term “musical” could be seen as a misnomer since the focus of most of these films is on dancing more than singing. But either way you look at it, these are films that fans of musicals and cinema in general should see. It’s a great way to review old favorites while discovering some new favorites as well.
(Due to the inevitably large amount of special features, I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the ones that should not be missed.)
The Jazz Singer: Commentary by Ron Hutchinson (Found of The Vitaphone Projects) and Vince Giordan (Nighthawks Bandleader). Al Jolson shorts: “A Plantation Act,” “Hollywood Handicap,” “ A Day at Santa Anita,” “An Intimate Dinner Celebration of Warner Bros. Silver Jubilee,” and trailers for other Jolson films. You can listen to the Lux Radio Theatre Broadcast of the play version of The Jazz Singer also starring Jolson. Also included is the Merrie Melodies cartoon “I Love to Singa” about jazz singer Owl Johnson.
The Broadway Melody: Various Metro Movietone Revues written by Van and Schenk including one of them performing their own songs. Trailers for the Broadway Melody sequels. The short film “The Dogway Melody” that recreates the film using dogs (it’s as adorable and hilarious as it sounds).
42nd Street: A “Trip Through a Hollywood Studio” explores all facets of a movie studio. “Hollywood Newsreel” provides “intimate glimpses” of movie stars of the time. “Harry Warren: America’s Foremost Composer” playing his music at a dinner party with singers. Also, info on the cast & crew and a theatrical trailer.
The Great Ziegfeld: “Ziegfeld on Film” features interviews with those close to Ziegfeld (either by relation or academic study) examining his life and influence and how much the film got right. “New York Hails the Great Ziegfeld” includes interviews with various filmgoers at the movie’s NYC premiere.
The Wizard of Oz: Commentary by Oz historian John Fricke with archival interviews by various cast & crew members. “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz Storybook” is an abridged reading of L. Frank Baum’s novel highlighting the illustrations from the book. “Prettier Than Ever: The Restoration of Oz” goes into the processes used to restore the original film negatives for this digitized update. “We Haven’t Really Met Properly...” gives background information on the actors of the film. Other track options for viewing the film include the “Music and Effects Track” which strips out the dialogue to emphasize the sounds and songs in the film; the “Original Mono Track” which uses not enhanced sound; and various sing-along options.
Yankee Doodle Dandy: Commentary by film historian Rudy Behlmer. “Warner Night at the Movies” is introduced by Leonard Maltin and features trailers, cartoon shorts, and newsreels that would have appeared before the film when it played in theaters. Information on cast & crew and awards, along with trailers.
An American in Paris: Commentary hosted by Patricia Ward Kelly (Gene Kelly’s wife) featuring interviews with various cast & crew members. “Paris on Parade” is a documentary short about the 1937 Paris Exposition. “Symphony in Slang” is an animated short about slang terms of the time. Also, a theatrical trailer.
Show Boat: A theatrical trailer.
Singin’ in the Rain: Commentary by Debbie Reynolds and other cast & crew members. A “Singin’ Inpiration” option which provides pop-up factoids about inspired moments in the film as it plays. Information on the transition to talkies in film, the movie’s awards, and the cast & crew. Also, a theatrical trailer.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers: Commentary by director Stanley Donen. Also, trailers.
A Star is Born: None.
The Music Man: Information on cast & crew, awards, behind the scenes factoids, and a profile of Ron Howard. Behind-the-scenes featurette “Right Here in River City” hosted by Shirley Jones. Also, various trailers.
Viva Las Vegas: Commentary by Steve Pond (author of Elvis in Hollywood). “Kingdom: Elvis in Vegas” features interviews with various Elvis “experts” who chronicle his rise to fame and information about the making of the film. Also, a theatrical trailer.
Camelot: “The Story of Camelot” is a making-of featurette. “The World Premiere of Camelot” is the red carpet (with interviews) for the film’s premiere. Also, various trailers.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: Commentary by the Wonka kids (30 years after the movie came out.) Two behind-the-scenes featurettes: the original 1971 featurette and the more contemporary “Pure Imagination” documentary. Also, information on cast & crew, a photo gallery, theatrical trailer, and Sing-Along options.
Cabaret: “The Recreation of an Era” is a making-of featurette focused on the world of the film. “Cabaret: A Legend in the Making” is a behind-the-scenes featurette focused on the film and musical’s significance. “The Kit Kat Klub Memory Gallery” has the actors introducing some of their favorite clips from the film. Information on the cast & crew, the story, the location, Kander & Ebb, and the awards. Also, a theatrical trailer.
That’s Entertainment: An introduction to the film by Robert Osborne explaining the film’s significance. Also, a theatrical trailer.
Victor/Victoria: Commentary by Julie Andrews and writer/director Blake Edwards.
Information on the cast & crew and awards. Also, a theatrical trailer.
Little Shop of Horrors: Commentary by director Frank Oz. Information on the cast & crew, the story’s adaptations, the original ending, the location, creating Audrey II, and the use of a Greek Chorus. Various videos include theatrical trailers, TV spots, outtakes, deleted scenes, and a behind-the-scenes documentary. You can also watch a “music-only” version of the film.
Hairspray: Commentary by director John Waters and Ricki Lake. Also, a theatrical trailer.
"Best of Warner Bros. 20 Films Collection: Musicals" is on sale February 12, 2013 and is not rated. Musical. Directed by Alan Crosland, Blake Edwards, Bob Fosse, Frank Oz, Gene Kelly, George Cukor, George Sidney, Harry Beaumont, Jack Haley Jr, John Waters, Joshua Logan, Lloyd Bacon, Mel Stuart, Michael Curtiz, Morton DaCosta, Robert Z Leonard, Stanley Donen, Victor Fleming, Vincente Minnelli. Written by Alfred A. Cohn, Edmund Goulding, Rian James, James Seymour, William Anthony McGuire, Noel Langley, Robert Buckner, Alan Jay Lerner, John Lee Mahin, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Albert Mackett, Moss Hart, Sally Benson, Roald Dahl, Jay Presson Allen, Jack Haley Jr. Blake Edwards, Howard Ashmore, John Waters. Starring Al Jolson, Anita Page, Debbie Reynolds, Elvis Presley, Frank Morgan, Gene Kelly, Gene Wilder, Howard Keel, James Cagney, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Kathryn Grayson, Liza Minnelli, Richard Harris, Rick Moranis, Ricki Lake, Robert Preston, Warner Baxter, William Powell.