Musical Monday: Favorite under-the-radar musicals

On April 1, 2009, I started Comet Over Hollywood — both as part of a college journalism assignment and a way to share my classic film thoughts without boring my friends on Facebook. The Musical Monday feature later started on June 3, 2013, with Rose of Washington Square (1939) as the first review.

To celebrate 12 years of Comet, this week’s Musical Monday is a bit different. I’m sharing my favorite off-the-beaten-path classic movie musicals by special request from Conrad Barrington on Twitter. Of course, I love the top-tier musicals like “West Side Story,” “Singin’ in the Rain” or “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” but you won’t find any of those mentioned here, nor will you see anything starring Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers or Judy Garland. These are strictly musicals that I feel are under-discussed; the hidden gems people may have missed and have little pomp and circumstance.

Reveille with Beverly (1943)

Andrew Tombes and Ann Miller in “Reveille with Beverly”

This is one of my favorite musicals. It’s only 80 minutes long and rather low budget, but it’s pure joy. Ann Miller plays a radio deejay who plays popular music for the armed forces. Her character and the radio show are based on a real program of the same name run by Jean Ruth Hay. If you love 1940s music, you will love this film. Each time Beverly puts on a record, we see the musician or singer perform — from Ella Mae Morse, Duke Ellington, Bob Crosby and the Mills Brother. Still early in Miller’s career before she became a success at MGM, we only see her dance once at the end, but it’s still so fun. Read more in my full 2016 review.

The Thrill of Romance (1945)

Esther Williams and Frances Gifford in “Thrill of Romance”

“The Thrill of Romance” is one of my all-time favorite movies and one I watch to lift my spirits. The film follows newly-married Esther Williams, who is left alone at a resort on her honeymoon, and war hero Van Johnson helps occupy her time. On the surface, this movie is beautiful with vibrant Technicolor and costume designs by Irene and Kay Dean. But on a deeper level, it’s a fascinating look at how Louis B. Mayer and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer included both popular and classical music in their films. Bandleader Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra perform in the film. Dorsey led one of the most popular big bands of the era, and an appearance in a musical from him can be compared to any popular singer of today appearing in a film. On the classical side, opera singer Lauritz Melchior also is in the film, which exhibits Mayer’s desire to include classical music and cultural experiences in his films. Read more in my full 2013 review.

Rosalie (1937)

In my opinion, Eleanor Powell is one of the best dancers to ever grace the silver screen, and I had to include one of her films. While it’s difficult for me to choose a just one favorite Powell musical, I have a special soft spot for “Rosalie.” Powell plays the title character, a princess attending college in America. She falls in love with an American student, played by Nelson Eddy, however, she’s betrothed to someone else. This film features one of Powell’s most lavish numbers where she is carried in on a giant drum, and then she dances down more giant drums that are sized like star steps. This was one of MGM’s largest musical numbers. We also get to see Ilona Massey and Ray Bolger in early roles. My full 2017 review.

Lillian Russell (1940)

Alice Faye as Lillian Russell performing “Blue Lovebird.”

This musical film was a major film of 1940 but is largely forgotten today. I’d also argue that the lady this biographical film is about, Lillian Russell, isn’t well remembered. Alice Faye plays the title character in this fictionalized biography in what is probably her greatest film role. Faye was one of 20th Century Fox’s top stars at the time, but I would argue that she is under-discussed now too. “Lillian Russell” is lavish and completely gorgeous as the story of a larger-than-life stars is told. The all-star cast includes Don Ameche, Lynn Bari, Henry Fonda and Edward Arnold. The black-and-white cinematography is striking, and my favorite moment is when a mournful Faye emerges to sing “Blue Lovebird.” She stands in a black dress against a black backdrop, leaving the effect that only her face, shoulders, jewels and canes are seen. My full 2021 review.

Romance on the High Seas (1948)

Jack Carson and Doris Day meet onboard the ship in “Romance on the High Seas.”

With a recent Blu-ray release, “Romance on the High Seas” may not be considered “overlooked” today. However, in the grand scheme of Doris Day’s romantic comedies of the late-1950s and 1960s, this early role could easily be forgotten, though I consider it one of her best. This film was Doris Day’s first film role, and it’s easily in my top three favorites of Day’s films. We see Day pre-fame cast a role a bit different from the rest of her characters. Originally set to star Betty Hutton, we can see traces of that character in Day’s performance. Day smokes, is a brash nightclub singer, and falls in love with a man she thinks is married. It’s a sassy character we never saw Day perform again. The story is told with vibrant Technicolor and magnificent songs, like “It’s Magic” and “Put it in a Box.” It’s a really a treat. More on Day’s first leading role here in a 2013 article.

Seven Sweethearts (1942)

seven sweethearts

Kathryn Grayson in “Seven Sweethearts.” Her sister Frances Raeburn is pictured as well.

There is so much to love about this musical, which was producer Joe Pasternak’s first film at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Van Heflin plays a reporter covering the tulip festival in a small Michigan town. He stays at an inn, run by S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, and his seven daughters. The spoiled, haughty daughter Regina, played by Marsha Hunt, tries to woo Heflin, but it’s Billie that he falls for, played by Kathryn Grayson. Though “Seven Sweethearts” may seem like an odd role for Heflin, this was still early in his career, and it was only Grayson’s fourth film. While this is an adorable film, it is also a fun family affair, as Grayson’s brother Michael Butler and sister Frances Raeburn also appear in the film. It really isn’t much, but I love this film. My 2013 review can be found here.


Hans Christian Andersen (1952)

Danny Kaye as Hans Christian Anderson tells stories to village children.

This fictionalized musical biopic on writer Hans Christian Andersen is a storybook dream. The film describes itself as “a fairytale about the great spinner of fairy tales.” “Hans Christian Andersen” is my favorite Danny Kaye film, with gorgeous, lilting music. There is something nostalgic about all the songs that remind you of childhood. Perhaps this is such a lovely story, because it omits the tongue-twister, fast comedic tunes that Kaye was famous for at this time. And the songs are by Frank Loesser, not Sylvia Fine, which I think this film greatly benefits. It also features ballet performances by French dancer Zizi Jeanmarie, who performs “The Little Mermaid” ballet in the film. Read more in my full 2013 review of this film.

Two Girls and a Sailor (1944)

Tom Drake, Gloria DeHaven, Van Johnson and June Allyson in “Two Girls in a Sailor”

“Two Girls and a Sailor” is one of my all-time favorite films. Starring June Allyson and Gloria DeHaven as sisters and Van Johnson and Tom Drake as their love interests, all of these actors were Hollywood newcomers at the time this film was produced. “Two Girls and a Sailor” follows sisters who want to open a canteen during World War II, and they can thanks to a mystery donor. Just in case the new contract players fell flat with audiences, MGM executives padded the film with musical performances, like Harry James, Lena Horne and Xavier Cugat. The result is a joyously fun film featuring toe-tapping tunes. It also made Allyson, DeHaven and Johnson stars. I know some readers hate June Allyson — I don’t care. She’s a favorite of mine, and save your hate for someone who wants to read it. This is a simple film but tons of fun. My full 2017 review.

Moon Over Miami (1941)

Betty Grable and Hermes Pan doing the “Kindergarten Conga” in “Moon Over Miami” (1941)

The idea of someone posing rich to catch a wealthy spouse isn’t a new film plot. But this well-used plot is told with such color and zest in “Moon Over Miami.” Betty Grable and Carole Landis are cast as sisters who travel to Florida with their aunt, played by Charlotte Greenwood. Don Ameche and Robert Cummings play their potential suitors. The songs and dances in this film are some of my all-time favorites, such as “You Started Something” and “Kindergarten Conga.” The dance number that accompanies “Kindergarten Conga” is especially fun, as Grable dances with Hermes Pan. I love how in the 1940s, popular big band and swing motifs were incorporated into 20th Century Fox film scores. The costumes designed by Travis Banton are also divine. Betty Grable was one of the top stars of her day, but I include this as an overlooked film, because many of Grable’s films aren’t easily accessible, as with most 20th Century Fox films. More in my full 2013 review.

Holiday in Mexico (1946)

Jose Iturbi with his grandchildren in “Holiday in Mexico.”

It’s difficult to pick just one favorite Jane Powell film, but my favorite is probably “Holiday in Mexico.” Powell lives in Mexico with her father, played by Walter Pidgeon, who is the United States Ambassador to Mexico. With no mother, Powell fancies herself as the lady of the house, and she starts to feel replaced when her father rekindles with an old flame, played by Ilona Massey. This is another Technicolor extravaganza that is a feast to the eyes. MGM again mixes classical music with popular performers. Jane Powell, known for her soprano voice, performs opera and classical piano player José Iturbi performs with his sister Amparo. On the popular music side, bandleader Xavier Cugat performs with his band. An added bonus is that Iturbi’s real-life grandchildren appear in the film. My full 2016 review.

Panama Hattie (1942)

Ben Blue, Red Skelton, Ann Sothern and Rags Ragland in “Panama Hattie”

“Panama Hattie” is a MGM musical that is often forgotten, an adaptation of a Broadway play that is no longer mentioned, and is a great example of casting with MGM’s second-string of stars. It’s an all-star cast with the B-level actors: Ann Sothern, Dan Dailey, Red Skelton, Marsha Hunt, Rags Ragland and Virginia O’Brien. Sothern plays Hattie, a woman who runs a saloon and is in love with Dick Bulliard (Dailey). Hattie has to compete with the admiral’s daughter, played by Marsha Hunt, and there is a subplot of Nazi spies to tie the film into the start of World War II. I think it’s a shame that Sothern wasn’t cast in larger musicals. My full 2017 review.

Honorable Mentions to add to your list:
St. Louis Blues (1958) – because of W.C. Handy’s music and a lead role by Nat King Cole.
Can’t Help Singing (1944) – Deanna Durbin’s only Technicolor film
Ziegfeld Girl (1941) – I don’t actually think this one is underrated, but it’s also not “top tier.” I love it so you should see it.

Addendum: I realize that the majority of these were produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Sadly, I have huge blind spots in musicals released by Paramount and 20th Century Fox due to accessibility. For example, all of Betty Grable and Alice Faye’s films aren’t available on DVD.

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2 thoughts on “Musical Monday: Favorite under-the-radar musicals

  1. I loved your write-up, Jessica, even though I’m not a big fan of musicals, as a rule. Still, you’ve managed to make me want to see several of these, and you made me smile with my memories of seeing (and loving) Hans Christian Andersen as a child.


  2. Dear Jessica–As a life-long lover of movie musicals, many of my favorites are also ‘under-appreciated’ so I’m especially grateful for your calling attention to “Thrill of a Romance” and “Hans Christian Andersen”. I often shock my friends by claiming my favorite MGM musical is “It Happened in Brooklyn” but I find its modest black-and-white production and the genuine warmth provided by its four lovable leads (Sinatra, Grayson, Durante & Lawford) a far more appropriate showcase (than Technicolor razzle-dazzle) for one of Jule Styne’s most inspired scores (Frank & Kathryn’s peerless renditions of “Time After Time” make that haunting ballad the equal of two other wistful classics “Make Someone Happy” (also by Styne) and Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight”). Nor do I feel I must apologize for finding the 76-minute “I Love Melvin” a far more exuberant showcase for the dazzling talents of Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds than that acclaimed classic where the co-director permitted the other song-and-dance man to have twice as many opportunities to strut his stuff, thereby relegating Donald & Debbie to co-star status. I won’t name names but should add that coincidentally (?) the co-director and other song-and-dance man happened to be the same person!


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