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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If this absorbing, but imperfect, history of the waxing and waning of large-scale film musicals teaches us nothing else, it is that critical tastes from the 1960s bear a striking resemblance to those of today: The edgy is nearly always esteemed over the innocuous. 

Rock Hudson, Julie Andrews in ‘Darling Lili’ (1970)

Rock Hudson, Julie Andrews in ‘Darling Lili’ (1970)

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Consider the criticism dished out at two adaptations, made nearly 50 years apart, of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. When Twentieth Century Fox released their film version, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, in 1965, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther angrily excoriated the “romantic nonsense and sentiment” of the heroine, Maria, later claiming that the film musical had been set back 20 years. Crowther died over three decades ago, but NBC’s December 2013 broadcast of a live iteration of The Sound of Music proved that his spirit endures in the hearts of the many critics who caviled at the show’s “saccharine” and “corny” qualities.

But equally unchanged are the audiences who tune all of this out. Just as the live version of The Sound of Music was a sensation with viewers, movie-goers’ enthusiasm turned the film into one of the biggest grossers of all time. But Matthew Kennedy argues in Roadshow! The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s that the genre was dealt a death blow when studios, listening to their pocketbooks, all wanted their own Sound of Music. This brought about a series of underperforming, or outright disastrous, musical films, including Camelot (1967), The Happiest Millionaire (1967), Star! (1968), and Paint Your Wagon (1969).  

Kennedy suggests that the studios erred in following the earlier film’s example in terms of scale and grandeur, and Roadshow! chronicles production excesses with finger-wagging thoroughness. The filming of the “Before the Parade Passes By” number in Hello, Dolly! (1969) required the services of 4,000 extras, “and cost $200,000 a day for four days shooting”—arguably making it more, not less, stultifying. Here, Kennedy is at his most bitingly convincing: “Production documents for Camelot read like planning notes for an East Hampton lawn party,” he writes. This argument also rings true because The Sound of Music—while by no means a low-budget affair—was relatively unostentatious by comparison and almost completely devoid of stars. (Andrews’s Mary Poppins had not yet been released when she won the role of Maria in The Sound of Music.) 

Even more damning, as Kennedy sees it, the sons of The Sound of Music were set on imitating its pleasingly Pollyanna-ish disposition and celebration of old-fashioned notions: The lines Bachelor dandies / Drinkers of brandies— / What do I know of those? in “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” make it a tune a prohibitionist could love. 

Those involved in these films knew they were bucking a trend. Speaking approvingly of the 1910s setting of The Happiest Millionaire, costar Geraldine Page said, “World wars had not upset standards, people were polite, women were feminine, they moved with grace and talked softly. We have to re-examine elegance today.” That film, a Walt Disney gloss on the real-life exploits of Colonel Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, starred Fred MacMurray as a Philadelphia aristocrat who fills his day with Bible classes and mixes vigorous aerobics with equally hale and hearty singing from the hymnody. The sight of MacMurray proudly strutting around in a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with “Biddle Bible Class” is humorous but also genuinely vivifying. Biddle does not cower from religious faith, or love of country, as evidenced in a pep talk he gives to Tommy Steele’s Irish butler, John, extolling American citizenship: 

You’ll never regret it. Greatest country in the world. There are certain things I believe in, John. God and the United States of America are at the top of my list.

But scenes such as these must be what Kennedy has in mind when he damns The Happiest Millionaire for its “awkward points of ideology incongruent with the 21st century.” Also deplorable, from Kennedy’s perspective, is a subplot featuring Biddle’s daughter’s significant other, who has the temerity to aspire to enter Detroit’s automobile trade, the subject of a thoroughly hummable song by Richard and Robert Sherman. In fairness, its references to “the land where golden chariots are molded out of dreams” are dated, but so what? Like Mitt Romney’s much-derided praise of his birthplace’s trees, lakes, and cars—had he seen The Happiest Millionaire?—the song reflects a nostalgia that is appealing in itself, apart from its relation to reality.