The Magazine

Must the Show Go On?

A postscript to the golden age of movie musicals.

Apr 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 29 • By PETER TONGUETTE
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In fact, the question of these films’ correlation to real life is one that vexes Kennedy throughout. Camelot may have flaws, but is its “maintenance and glorification of monarchy” among them? In spite of his obvious knowledge of the genre, Kennedy continually asks musical films to do things they were never intended to do. He bemoans that Blake Edwards’s underappreciated Great War love story Darling Lili (1970) only hints at the realities of the conflict. The film failed with the public, but not because audiences walked in expecting another Paths of Glory from a frothy film starring Julie Andrews and Rock Hudson. 

Just as ill-considered are Kennedy’s attempts to juxtapose events from the late 1960s with the carefree goings-on in musical films of the time. This book contains possibly the only analysis of Paint Your Wagon that seems to pin its status as a flop not just on Clint Eastwood’s singing voice but the death of Judy Garland, the moon landing, and the war in Vietnam, among other things.

That is not to say that the makers of these films were unaware of the culture war in which they found themselves. One of the most instructive things about Roadshow! is the wealth of quotes Kennedy has unearthed revealing Hollywood’s agitation about the changes occurring within. “Easy Rider is a marvelous film, but you can’t make all films Easy Riders,” said producer Arthur P. Jacobs of his 1969 musical remix of Goodbye, Mr. Chips (which receives relatively kind treatment from Kennedy, and which is as ripe for rediscovery as The Happiest Millionaire). Others took bolder stands: “We’ve never written a line that we would be ashamed to have our parents or our children hear,” said Robert Sherman. “The smut being worked into the lyrics of many popular songs today is bad for the kids who listen to them, bad for the writers .  .  . [and] bad for the publishers except those out for an occasional quick dollar and nothing else.” 

Such utterances sound as anachronistic as the sentiment that movies, on some level, ought to reflect good morals—a common feature of the films described here. Kennedy uses the 1969 Academy Awards as an indicator of the growing disconnect between the old Hollywood and the new: Carol Reed’s Oliver! won Best Picture, but Kennedy observes that the more sophisticated Rosemary’s Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey “age better.” Few would argue with that judgment, but it is worth wondering whether we are the loser in trading the wholesome dullness of Oliver! for what followed. 

Peter Tonguette is at work on a book about Peter Bogdanovich.