Mention musicals to today’s kids and they’ll probably launch into a discussion of High School Musical, Disney’s wildly popular series and film. But long before that glossy extravaganza showed kids that characters could break into song and dance, filmmakers were creating some stunning musical films, especially during the period from the 1930s through the 1950s.
As a long-time fan of such musicals, I always knew I would want to introduce them to my daughter. At the age of 2, Vivienne cut her teeth on Gene Kelly’s dancing and singing. Watching these old musicals together has become a family tradition.
Here are a few titles that have been endorsed whole-heartedly by my now 7-year-old and me. You can find some of these at your local video store (look for a “Classics” section) or order them from online retailers like Amazon.
The Busby Berkeley Collection
(Footlight Parade / Gold Diggers of 1933 / Dames / Gold Diggers of 1935 / 42nd Street)
In these days of global economic hardship, families can take a look back at another time of financial difficulty — the Great Depression — and see how Hollywood studios responded to those tumultuous times.
These movies, directed by Busby Berkeley, feature a delightful mix of escapist glamour combined with a good dose of grit. Viewers will see actress Joan Blondell singing her heart out about the soup kitchen lines in “My Forgotten Man” and Ginger Rogers exploring dreams of wealth in “We’re in the Money.” Meanwhile, in the film 42nd Street, about the making of a Broadway show, everyone is worried about money but that doesn’t stop them from singing and tapping their hearts out.
Kids will appreciate Berkeley’s signature kaleidoscope shots (overhead views of dancing gals and guys) and may even sing along to the musical numbers.
The Harvey Girls
(found in The Judy Garland Signature Collection)
Meet Me in St. Louis
(found on the set Essential Classics – American Musicals)
Most kids will see The Wizard of Oz at some point, but what about all the other amazing MGM musicals Judy Garland churned out with unstoppable charm and talent?
Most families probably won’t have seen The Harvey Girls, which boasts not just Garland but also her Oz co-star Ray Bolger, who played that crazy-legged scarecrow. Here, viewers get to see him sing and dance with enormous charm. This film features great shots of the American West along with some of the catchiest songs ever written for a musical.
Meet Me in St. Louis is a true family classic in which Garland (directed by her future husband Vincent Minnelli), sings about first love in “Trolley Song.” Younger viewers will enjoy the antics of little Margaret O’Brien, the actress who plays the younger sister, 5-year-old Tootie. She manages to steal nearly every scene she is in, including those with Garland.
America’s Sweetheart Collection, Vol. 1 (Heidi / Curly Top / Little Miss Broadway) or any of the other collections in the five-volume set.
For people of a certain age, Shirley Temple is one of the best-known and loved child stars. Unlike some of her peers, Temple grew up without the disasters we associate with today’s child stars. She had precocious talent — Temple started her career at age 4 — but what comes through in the movies is her charm, warmth and lack of pretension.
Picking a favourite Temple film of my daughter’s is very difficult — they all delight her. Still, one thing to remember about these films (especially the earliest of them) is that they are set during the Depression and therefore portray hard-luck circumstances such as losing a parent and being sent away to an unfamiliar place. But ultimately what comes through is Temple’s optimism as she sings and dances her way to a happier life.
The Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland Collection
(Babes in Arms / Babes on Broadway / Girl Crazy / Strike Up the Band)
Obviously, Shirley Temple films and some other song and dance movies appeal to little girls, but the golden era of movie musicals didn’t leave the guys out at all. Stars like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly made dancing and singing respectable enough for men — at least at the box office. Their films were enormous hits and creative highpoints in cinema.
But for little boys in particular, nothing beats Mickey Rooney in the series of “backyard musicals” he made with Judy Garland and with Busby Berkeley at the helm. The theme of these films (Babes in Arms, Strike Up The Band, Babes on Broadway and Girl Crazy) was always the same: the family/school/ community is in crisis. Mickey, with help from his buddy Judy, comes up with a plan to save things. Someone gets to say the line, “Hey, kids let’s put on a show.” And they do, thus giving viewers a chance to watch everyone sing and dance.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
(found on the Essential Classics — American Musicals)
Looking for some boyish high spirits and he-man athletic dancing? Check out the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The barn-raising dance scene, choreographed by one of the great American choreographers, Michael Kidd, features seven versatile guys doing their lumberjack best by throwing axes and doing flips over logs to impress the ladies. There’s no doubt about the athletic abilities of these male dancers!
Politically correct? Not so much
These movies are rated G, meaning they are appropriate for kids of all ages. Nonetheless, these films were made in less politically correct times. In Babes on Broadway (starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) for instance, a blackface number is featured — the sort of thing that today would never be considered, much less made. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is built around the idea of abducting women and holding them against their will (but all in a spirit of fun). Every family will need to decide for themselves how to handle such issues, depending on the age and maturity of their children.