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20 Essential Movie Musicals


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20 Essential Hollywood Musicals    

Selected by Roger Hall, film music historian and
Editor, Film Music Review


As expected, it was very difficult to select such a small number of Hollywood musicals from the vast number created, from 1929 onward.  

My choices were based on three main items in the films:  originality, film performances, and overall production quality.  

They include some Hollywood musicals that were originally Broadway shows.  

Here then are my choices for 20 essential Hollywood musicals in the order I have chosen to list them:  

1.   SHALL WE DANCE (1937) - RKO Radio 

Directed by Mark Sandrich.  Music by George Gershwin/ Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. 

Songs:  "(I've Got) Beginner's Luck"; "Slap That Bass"; "They All Laughed"; "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"; "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (Academy Award nomination); "Shall We Dance."

A musical treat that has everything - witty dialogue (Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore are a real hoot), classy sets (Art Deco reigns supreme), terrific dancing (by Astaire and Rogers of course) and to top it all off - some of the best songs ever written by the Gershwin brothers, including the only one of their songs to receive an Academy Award nomination.  This is the musical with Astaire and Rogers dancing on roller skates.  I believe this is the best of the Astaire-Rogers musicals. A superb musical which continues to shine in its black & white brilliance!

2.   SWING TIME (1936) - RKO Radio

Directed by George Stevens. Music by Jerome Kern/ Lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

Songs:  "Pick Yourself Up"; "The Way You Look Tonight" (Academy Award for Best Song); "A Fine Romance"; "Bojangles of Harlem"; "Never Gonna Dance."

Another great Astaire-Rogers pairing, with delightful comic exchanges by Victor Moore and Helen Broderick and wonderful songs by Kern and Fields.  At times, a bit overdone in its silliness, but still a great musical to watch, especially the glorious finale number: "Never Gonna Dance."

3.   TOP HAT (1935) - RKO Radio 

Directed by Mark Sandrich.  music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.  

Songs:  "No Strings"; "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)"; "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails"; "Cheek to Cheek" (Academy Award nomination); "The Piccolino."

This is the earliest released musical in this Astaire-Rogers trilogy of treats.  A wonderfully entertaining musical with three classic Irving Berlin songs: "Isn't This a Lovely Day?"; "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails"; and "Cheek to Cheek."  The other two songs are not as good, and "The Piccolino" is an obvious attempt to capitalize on the previous year's Oscar winning dance song, "The Continental" (not written by Berlin).  Full of laughs and marvelous dancing.

4.   SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) - M-G-M

Directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly. Music by Nacio Herb Brown/ Lyrics by Arthur Freed.   Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring:  Lennie Hayton.

Songs:  "Singin' in the Rain"; "Fit as a Fiddle" (music: Al Goodman, Al Goodhart); "All I Do is Dream of You"; "Make 'Em Laugh"; "I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin'"; "Should I?"; "Beautiful Girl"; "You Were Meant for Me"; "Good Morning"; "Would You?"

A musical that would probably be at the top of many film fan lists, it has a fun (though sometimes a bit too campy) story, terrific songs and singing by Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds, plus several classic dance routines by Gene Kelly ("Singin' in the Rain" was originally used in THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929) and Donald O'Connor ("Make 'Em Laugh").  Some of the songs are not as good ("Fit as a Fiddle" and "Would You?"), but this is still a delightful musical and fun to watch over and over again.  

5.   WEST SIDE STORY (1961) - United Artists

Directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins.  Music by Leonard Bernstein/ Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. 10 Academy Awards:  Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor (George Chakiris); Best Supporting Actress (Rita Moreno); Best Scoring (Saul Chaplin, Johnny Green, Sid Ramin, Irwin Kostal); and 6 other categories.  

Songs:  "Jet Song"; "Something's Coming"; "Maria"; "America"; "Tonight"; "Gee, Officer Krupke!"; "I Feel Pretty"; "One Hand, One Heart"; "Cool"; "A Boy Like That"; "I Have a Love"; "Somewhere." 

The best Broadway musical to be made into a film and the one which received the most Academy Awards.  The Hollywood musical features superbly energetic choreography by Jerome Robbins, a very good cast of actors (except for Richard Beymer), and truly classic songs by Leonard Bernstein and Stephan Sondheim.  All of these ingredients are expertly put together under the great direction of Robert Wise.  A classic film musical.    

6.   YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942) - Warner Brothers

Directed by Michael Curtiz. Music & lyrics by George M. Cohan.  Academy Awards for Best Actor (James Cagney); Best Scoring of Musical Picture (Ray Heindorf, Heinz Roemheld); and Sound Recording.  

Songs:  "I Was Born in Virginia"; "Harrigan"; "The Yankee Doodle Boy"; "Give My Regards to Broadway"; "Oh, You Wonderful Girl"; "I'll Be True to You"; "Belle of the Barbers' Ball"; "Mary's a Grand Old Name"; "Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway"; "So Long, Mary"; "You're a Grand Old Flag"; "Over There."   

World War II patriotism made this musical one of the most popular during the 1940s.  Featuring a memorable, Oscar winning performance by James Cagney, this is a very entertaining musical about the life of the five Cohans.  A great flag-waving tribute to George M. Cohan.


Directed by Stanley Donen.  Music by Gene de Paul/ Lyrics by Johnny Mercer.   Academy Award for Best Scoring of Musical Picture (Adolphe Deutsch and Saul Chaplin).  

Songs:  "Bless Your Beautiful Hide"; "Wonderful, Wonderful Day"; "When You're in Love"; "Goin' Co'tin"; "Lonesome Polecat"; "Sobbin' Women"; "Spring, Spring, Spring."

Most film fans remember this lively musical for the incredibly athletic choreography by Michael Kidd.  But the songs and story are also enjoyable and fit the story snugly, like a warm winter overcoat. Among the best songs by de Paul and Mercer are: "Bless Your Beautiful Hide"; "When You're in Love"; and "Spring, Spring, Spring."   A dancing and singing delight!

8.   THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) - M-G-M

Directed by Victor Fleming (King Vidor, uncredited).  Music by Harold Arlen/ Lyrics by E.Y. Harburg.  Academy Awards for Best Song and Original Score - Herbert Stothart.

Songs:  "Over the Rainbow"; "Ding, Dong! The Witch is Dead"; "We're Off to See the Wizard"; "Follow the Yellow Brick Road"; "If I Only Had a Brain"; "The Merry Old Land of Oz"; "If I Were King of the Forest."

This is the best fantasy musical ever made.  Both the score by Stothart and songs by Arlen and Harburg won Oscars - the first time that both music awards were given for the same film.  For children of all ages, this musical is a delightful reminder of wonder and magic in the merry old land of Oz.

9.   1776 (1972) - Warner Brothers

Directed by Peter Hunt.  Music & lyrics by Sherman Edwards.

Songs:  "Sit Down, John"; "Fiddle, Twiddle and Resolve"; "Till Then"; "The Lees of Virginia"; "But, Mr. Adams"; "Yours, Yours, Yours"; "He Plays the Violin"; "Momma Look Sharp"; "The Egg"; "Molasses to Rum"; "Is Anybody There."

The best musical about American history, this underrated film has some of the sharpest dialogue (by Peter Stone) from any Broadway show of its era.  The songs by Sherman Edwards - a former public school history teacher - are historically accurate and fit the story perfectly.  Of special note is the terrific orchestrations by Eddie Sauter.  Historical humor and music mixed together with great performances by William Daniels (as John Adams), Howard da Silva (as Benjamin Franklin), Ken Howard (as Thomas Jefferson), and all the others.      

10.   THE BAND WAGON (1953) - M-G-M

Directed by Vincente Minelli.  Music by Arthur Schwartz/ Lyrics by Howard Dietz. Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring (Adolph Deutsch).  

Songs:  "By Myself";  "A Shine on Your Shoes"; "That's Entertainment"; "Dancing in the Dark"; "Something to Remember You By"; "High and Low"; "I Love Louisa"; "New Sun in the Sky"; "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan"; "Louisiana Hayride"; "Triplets"; "The Girl Hunt" (narration by Alan Jay Lerner).

Among the classiest musicals ever made at M-G-M, this one contains a superb collection of songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz.  Several classic dance routines by Fred Astaire ("A Shine on Your Shoes") and with Cyd Charise ("Dancing in the Dark" and "The Girl Hunt").  

11.   THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) - 20th Century-Fox

Directed by Robert Wise. music by Richard Rodgers/ lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.  Academy Awards for Best Picture; Director; Film Editing; Scoring of Musical Picture (Irwin Kostal).  

Songs:  "The Sound of Music"; "How Do Solve a Problem Like Maria"; "I Have Confidence in Me" (lyrics: Richard Rodgers); "Sixteen Going on Seventeen"; "My Favorite Things"; "Do Re Mi"; "Lonely Goatherd"; "Edelweiss"; "So Long, Farewell"; "How Can Love Survive?"; "Climb Ev'ry Mountain"; "Something Good" (lyrics: Richard Rodgers).

12.   EASTER PARADE (1948) - M-G-M

Directed by Charles Walter. Music & lyrics by Irving Berlin.  Academy Award for Best Scoring of Musical Picture (Johnny Green and Roger Edens).  

Songs:  "Happy Easter"; "Drum Crazy";   "It Only Happens When I Dance With You"; "Everybody's Doin' It"; "I Want to Go Back to Michigan"; "Beautiful Faces Need Beautiful Clothes"; "A Fella With an Umbrella"; "I Love a Piano"; "Snookey Ookums";  "Ragtime Violin"; "When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam'"; "Shaking the Blues Away"; "Steppin' Out With My Baby"; "A Couple of Swells"; "The Girl on the Magazine Cover"; "Better Luck Next Time"; "Easter Parade."

13.   MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) - M-G-M

Directed by Vincente Minelli. Music by Ralph Blane/ Lyrics by Hugh Martin.  Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring (Georgie Stoll).  

Songs:  "Meet Me in St. Louis" (Kerry Mills-Andrew Sterling); "The Boy Next Door"; "Under the Bamboo Tree" (J. Rosamond Johnson-Bob Cole); "The Trolley Song" (Academy Award nomination); "You and I" (Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed); "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

14. HIGH SOCIETY (1956) -  M-G-M

Directed by Charles Walters. Music and Lyrics by Cole Porter.

Songs: "High Society Calypso" (Louis Armstrong); "Tue Love" (Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly); "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" (Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm); "I Love You, Samantha" (Bing Crosby); "You're Sensational" (Frank Sinatra); "Well Did You, Evah!" (Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra); "Little One" (Bing Crosby); "Now You Has Jazz" (Bing Crosby and Louis Armstrong and His Combo); "Mind if I Make Love to You?" (Frank Sinatra).  

15.   AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) - M-G-M

Directed by Vincente Minelli. Music by George Gershwin/ Lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Story and Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Art & Set Direction (Color), and Scoring (Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin).  

Songs:  "Embraceable You"; "By Strauss"; "I Got Rhythm"; "Tra-La-La"; "Love is Here to Stay"; "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" (lyrics by B.G. DeSylva); "'S Wonderful."

16.   THE MUSIC MAN (1962) - Warner Brothers

Directed by Morton DaCosta.  Music & lyrics by Meredith Willson.  Academy Award for Best Scoring (Ray Heindorf).  

Songs:  "Trouble"; "Goodnight, My Someone"; "Seventy-Six Trombones"; "Sincere"; "The Sadder-but-Wiser Girl"; "Pick-a-Little, Talk-a-Little";  "Marian the Librarian"; "Being in Love"; "Gary, Indiana"; "Wells Fargo Wagon";  "Lida Rose"; "Shipoopi"; "Till There Was You."

17.   OKLAHOMA (1955) - 20th Century-Fox

Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Music by Richard Rodgers/ Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.  Academy Award for Best Scoring (Robert Russell Bennett, Jay Blackton, and Adolphe Deutsch).  

Songs:  "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin'"; "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top"; "Kansas City"; "I Cain't Say No"; "Many a New Day";  "People Will Say We're in Love"; "Pore Jud"; Out of My Dreams"; "The Farmer and the Cowman"; "All er Nothin'"; "Oklahoma."

18.   PINOCCHIO (1940) - Walt Disney

Music by Leigh Harline/ Lyrics by Ned Washington.  

Songs:  Academy Awards for Best Original Score (Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith and Ned Washington) and Best Original Song: "When You Wish Upon a Star." (FIRST Animated Feature to receive Academy Awards for both score and song).  

Other songs: "Give a Little Whistle"; "Turn on the Old Music Box"; "Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee"; "I've Got No Strings."   

19. FORTY-SECOND STREET (1933) - Warner Brothers

Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Music by Harry Warren/ Lyrics by Al Dubin.  

Songs: "You're Getting to be a Habit With Me"; "Shuffle Off to Buffalo"; "Young and Healthy"; " Forty-Second Street." 

20.   A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) - United Artists

Directed by Richard Lester. Music & lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.   Academy Award nomination for Best Scoring (George Martin).  

Songs:  "A Hard Day's Night"; "I Should Have Known Better"; "All My Loving"; "If I Fell"; "Can't Buy Me Love"; "And I Love Her"; "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You"; "Tell Me Why"; "She Loves You."


For other lists,
click on these links:

Essential American Recordings Survey

100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century

Top 10 Movie Song Favorites


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