Must-See Musicals

50 Show-Stopping Movies We Can't Forget


By Richard Barrios

Foreword by Michael Feinstein

By Turner Classic Movies

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Spanning nine decades and showcasing the most memorable songs, dazzling dancing, and brightest stars ever to grace the silver screen, Must-See Musicals is the guide to the greatest musicals of all time from the most trusted authority on film: Turner Classic Movies.

Movie musicals have been a part of pop culture since films began to talk, over nine decades ago. From The Jazz Singer in 1927 all the way to La La Land in modern times, musicals have sung and danced over a vast amount of territory, thrilling audiences the entire time. More than any other type of entertainment, musicals transport us to marvelous places: a Technicolor land over the rainbow in The Wizard of Oz; a romantic ballroom where, in Top Hat, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance cheek to cheek; a London theater where the Beatles perform before hysterical crowds in A Hard Day’s Night; even to a seemingly alternate reality where eager throngs still throw rice as they watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These titles, and many more, show us that a great musical film is a timeless joy.

Covering fifty of the best spanning the dawn of sound to the high-def present, Turner Classic Movies: Must-See Musicals — written by renowned musical historian Richard Barrios-is filled with lush illustrations as well as enlightening commentary and entertaining “backstage” stories about every one of these unforgettable films.


Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “Cheek to Cheek,” Top Hat (1935)

by Michael Feinstein

It takes many things to make a movie musical. Money, of course, but also much that cannot carry a price tag: imagination, ingenuity, audacity, wisdom, experience, creativity, energy, courage. Most of all, it takes talent, which can manifest itself in all sorts of ways. There are the inherent and intuitive gifts of a great artist, the learned skills of a master technician, and everything in between. Without an abundance of talent in every department and category, a musical film will never fly, let alone become one that can carry the label “Must-See.” Yet, despite these staggering requirements and achievements, it must be noted that during the so-called Golden Age of the Movie Musical—roughly the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s—talent was often, if not usually, taken for granted. With a studio such as MGM, in its busiest years turning out one feature film per week, those in charge could rule over even the most exceptionally gifted employees with a “factory” mindset. Those who worked both before and behind the camera were contracted, salaried, and often unappreciated, producing work which far too often was accepted but not necessarily prized. Andre Previn, who began working at MGM while still in his teens, commented on this situation very pointedly. From the perspective of the studio bosses, he said, “the music department was no more or less important than the department of fake lawns.”

Fortunately, the artists themselves did not feel that way toward their work. They took pride in what they did, and the films they made gloriously demonstrate that this pride was very much justified. It’s only in retrospect, in fact, that we can now fully appreciate the magnitude of talent that went into creating the greatest musicals. It should be stressed, too, that this talent was not borne only by the biggest names in the movie credits, by the Astaires and Garlands and Kellys and Days. Other people working in musicals may have had far less name recognition, but possessed equal gifts. My particular heroes in musicals have names that are unknown to most viewers, since the results of their specific genius were heard, not seen. Composers, orchestrators, conductors, and arrangers such as Roger Edens, Conrad Salinger, Herbert Spencer, Skip Martin, Kay Thompson, David Raksin, Saul Chaplin, Lennie Hayton, and Edward Powell are, for me, the invisible giants who have informed the sensibility I have in approaching music. I will always be grateful to them, and for them.

Just about all of the best musical films have something in common: their greatness is more apparent now than was the case when they were new. As perspective makes clear, these movies are far from frivolous, and vastly more substantial than originally thought. Even now, they don’t always get the respect they deserve, yet nonetheless have an effect which can be profound. By using a sort of fantasy kaleidoscope, they reflect society’s dreams, ideals, and yearnings, capturing an honesty that is tremendously genuine. A film such as The Band Wagon uses a vast amount of artistry and spectacle, in both sight and sound, to say things which are, at the heart of the matter, personal and meaningful. The extraordinary quality of the work on display might make it easy to momentarily forget that we’re being told fundamental human truths, but they come through regardless.

Especially in these times of devalued appreciation for art in general, musicals will continue to be significant, to inspire wonder and devotion in each succeeding generation. Best of all, these generations will then be moved to create fresh and outstanding work. So it is that “Must-See Musicals,” old and new, will keep on going. They are, in a magnificent kind of way, eternal.


A man so elated that he sings and dances through a downpour. A girl with a dog, wondering about life beyond her Kansas farm. A painted master of ceremonies in a sinister cabaret. A young woman who isn’t cut out to be a nun. A pair of murderesses who wow the crowds as they strut while waving machine guns. A couple in Los Angeles who might fall in love while they dance. Chorus line formations, dancing gang members, and Americans in Paris.

These are all memorable images, and the sounds that accompany them are equally unforgettable. They are, of course, just a few moments from a fabulous and fascinating—if sometimes peculiar—body of work we call movie musicals. For the millions who care about them, musicals are like comfort food without the calories and intoxication without the hangover. They can turn depression into joy and burdens into blessings, and the pleasure they offer usually contains no guilt. They imply that dreams can come true or are at least reasonable, and hold the possibility that perhaps we too can express our feelings by dancing like Astaire or singing like Streisand.

Musicals are special, too, in that not everyone appreciates them, nor understands those who do. In fact, one reason they have gone in and out of fashion so often is because it takes a particular, and not always prevalent, mind-set to comprehend and embrace them. But don’t ever count them out; every single time people think they’re over, a new song-and-dance phoenix will rise to show just how resilient they can be, and how wonderful.

From the late 1920s to now and beyond, musical films have been extraordinarily adept at communicating with their audiences and connecting them with both current tastes and timeless aspirations. In their nine decades of existence, they have been indelible and necessary, and scores of them are classics—although perhaps that word scores needs examination. It may be that the musical “best of the best,” the collection of titles that are truly great, is not as large a group as one might imagine. Lots of them have one or two wonderful numbers or scenes but also a great deal of uninspired filler. There are many where the script is not nearly as compelling as the music, and some where good intentions were followed by dismaying results. It takes enormous effort to produce a musical that is genuinely good in its entirety, and, of course, there’s that built-in proviso under which every musical must operate: the harder it works, the easier it must make it all seem. They take an enormous amount of preparation and engineering, and for the most part must disguise all of it in a brightly colored haze of effortlessness. For one to sustain its quality all the way through to the end, in the manner of, say, a Singin’ in the Rain, is far more difficult than might be imagined.

How many musicals truly have the elusive mix of qualities that it takes to be considered a classic? In this book, fifty have been singled out. A roster of this sort, subjective as it is, must necessarily take some major factors into consideration. Some titles, like Meet Me in St. Louis or Top Hat, are an easy call, loved by nearly everyone. There are also those that have been so wildly successful and widely seen that for some people they symbolize all movie musicals; The Sound of Music and Grease are good examples. Others are historically significant, artistically enterprising, or profoundly influential, and there are a few that may be less familiar to many. There are no hard and fast guidelines governing these choices, and in one or two cases it was nearly heartbreaking to remove a contender. Every entry was considered and debated and weighed in the balance, and ultimately the judgments are based on a number of factors, tastes, and quirks. Just like the films themselves.

A few words need be said about some inclusions or omissions that can be considered arguable. Where, for instance, is Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927)? Apart from the fact that it’s not a very good movie, it’s less a musical than it is a mostly silent film with some songs. Speaking of popular stars, people like Alice Faye, Eleanor Powell, Nelson Eddy, and Betty Grable worked mainly in films that were essentially products of their time, entertaining then and now without being terribly exceptional or resonant. The Red Shoes (1948) and Lili (1953) are brilliant but not really musicals, and a film like Easter Parade (1948) is delightful without being very innovative—much of what it achieves overlaps works that are ultimately more significant. As for more recent hits like Mamma Mia! (2008) or Les Misérables (2012), they can be considered a matter of taste, essentially, as many musicals can be. The same with older films such as South Pacific (1958) and Camelot (1967) which, just like politics, elicit strong reactions on both sides of the aisle. And why not more foreign films? Well, some of them may be “interesting” as opposed to truly successful, and many that are more enterprising can be judged a genre apart from this mainstream, thus deserving of their own in-depth study. There may be a work or performer whose inclusion might raise an eyebrow or two: just remember, then, that what some musicals may lack in artistry, they make up for in influence, success, and relevance.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers “Goin’ Co’tin’”: Marc Platt, Jane Powell, Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Jacques D’Amboise, Tommy Rall, Matt Mattox

It must always be recalled that musicals, with their many repercussions, are about their audiences as much as their performers. That certainty guarantees that most readers will not likely be in complete agreement with this present list, nor mollified by the “More to See” supplementary titles in every listing. For those who feel compelled to make her or his own list of top titles: hallelujah, get busy, and go for it. Just remember, while doing so, that musicals are a big-tent kind of genre; as long as everyone keeps a civil disposition and a sense of humor, we can rejoice when we concur and agree to disagree when we don’t. Even about Moulin Rouge! (2001) or The Pirate (1948) or any other that might draw an especially passionate response, pro or con. After all, when a musical has done its job, an impassioned viewer may be quite a fitting result.

The Sound of Music “Edelweiss”: Christopher Plummer, Charmian Carr, Kym Karath, Julie Andrews, Angela Cartwright, Nicholas Hammond, Heather Menzies, Duane Chase, Eleanor Parker

Given that musical films are aural as well as visual, there may be only so much that a book can do to evoke and commemorate them. Still, it is hoped that between the text and the illustrations, Turner Classic Movies: Must-See Musicals can be seen as an appropriate salute to these glorious and engaging works. Each one has its own particular quality, its special backstory, its unique path to the summit. Most or all of them should be watched and rewatched, discussed and debated and, in many instances, truly loved. Musicals are made, first and foremost, to be enjoyed by their audiences. Those that succeed in this goal are touched by a very particular kind of magic. Thus, it is with gratitude and affection—and occasionally with a question or comment—that this book applauds the artists who created these musicals. Even more than that, it celebrates the pleasure and delight they will forever continue to bestow.




Both members of a small-time sister act find love and disappointment after making it into a Broadway show.

To quote a later musical (specifically, The Sound of Music), let’s start at the very beginning. Where song-and-dance films are concerned, Square One is occupied by The Broadway Melody. The screen’s first real musical, it is responsible for everything that would follow. Everything.

Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool were crucial in bringing sound to movies; The Broadway Melody showed the world that they could sing and dance. At a time when other studios and filmmakers were struggling to solve the mysteries of sound, MGM boldly harnessed the new medium to create its first “all-talking” film, an out-and-out original musical. Based loosely on the real-life Duncan Sisters, it was greeted as the finest sound film yet made, seen and loved by millions. Its impact was immediate, and its influence and repercussions were so vast that by April 1930, when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture (or, as the Academy then called it, Outstanding Picture), it was both legendary and on its way to being obsolete.

That Academy Award win has become both a reference point and a kiss of death. More often than not, The Broadway Melody appears near the top of “Worst Best Picture Winners” lists, a status that is both understandable and unjust. As with many Oscar recipients, it’s timely entertainment, not timeless art, and as a very early sound film, it now seems as primitive and remote as a relic from the Bronze Age. The dialogue sounds as though they were still trying to figure out exactly how movie talk should sound, the cinematography is static, the musical numbers gauche, if charming, and the dramatics pretty threadbare.

So how, with all these distancing factors, can modern viewers confront such a museum piece? One way comes with perspective. Difficult as it may be, try to imagine how all this looked and sounded to an audience who had never before seen a musical. Next, recall that Singin’ in the Rain, a musical that truly is timeless, is in some ways a tribute to The Broadway Melody, using its songs and even some of its technical personnel; think of Broadway Melody as sort of a real-life Dancing Cavalier, with nobody getting dubbed. Another way comes with a performance that genuinely works. As Hank, Bessie Love is tough, vulnerable, subtle, and touching in a way no one had yet been in sound movies. (Watch Al Jolson in The Singing Fool [1928], then look at the scene where Hank breaks down. Case closed.) And, always, there is the history. This is where and how musicals got their start. Without it, there would be no 42nd Street (1933), no On the Town (1949), no Cabaret (1972) or Chicago (2002) or La La Land (2016). And, emphatically, no Singin’ in the Rain.

“The Wedding of the Painted Doll”

Anita Page, Charles King, Bessie Love

Harry Beaumont directs Charles King (center), with Nacio Herb Brown at the piano

Quaint, halting and, for some, impossible, The Broadway Melody needs a willing viewer with an open mind. Put those considerations into play, and it can be seen for what it is: an intrepid, endearing, and necessary cinematic milestone.

Bessie Love, Charles King, Anita Page


In casting the three leads, MGM astutely covered all the bases. Love was a seasoned movie pro, Anita Page a gorgeous newbie, and Charles King a longtime Broadway veteran. King returned to the stage after a few films, while Love would work steadily over seven decades, from Intolerance (1916) to The Hunger (1983). Page retired in her midtwenties then, in her eighties and nineties, made what can only be called a startling comeback in such epics as, no kidding, The Crawling Brain (2002).

The technical challenges portrayed in Singin’ in the Rain really did happen here. (Lina Lamont’s noisy pearls were actually beads on Page’s gown.) Normally, the camera was imprisoned in an immobile booth, and in one scene they tried for more mobility with a smaller coffin-like box on wheels. It was moved around by stagehands in stocking feet, and one of them stepped on an exposed carpet tack, screamed, and ruined a take. The tension on the set was never-ending, so much so that one day poor Page became hysterical and had to be sent home.


Among many other firsts, this marked the beginning of Arthur Freed’s movie career. Years later, still occasionally writing lyrics, he would produce the finest musicals made at MGM, or anywhere else. “The Wedding of the Painted Doll,” one of the songs he wrote with Nacio Herb Brown, was shot in early two-color Technicolor. Originally done with live singing and music, it played so inertly on the screen that production head Irving Thalberg ordered a retake. Instead of rehiring the musicians, they used the recording from the first try and thus originated the use of music playback, which is still in use today—although Les Misérables (2012) made an awfully big deal of not employing it. “Painted Doll” was long believed to survive only in black and white, but in 2012 a few seconds of its original color were rediscovered—just enough to show why, like the entire film, its initial impact was so huge.

“The Broadway Melody”: Anita Page, Charles King, and Bessie Love front the chorus line.




The government of a mythical kingdom orders a roguish count to woo the country’s unmarried queen.

Naughty yet nice, this game changer among early musicals still retains a great deal of its original champagne sparkle. In mid-1929, during the movie musical’s chaotic childhood, Ernst Lubitsch decided that there should be a different path. Instead of all the Broadway Melody and Jazz Singer clones then being made, the master of sophisticated silent comedy created a lavish, stylish operetta filled with witty and clever touches and graced with two brilliant stars. Maurice Chevalier had made a sensational U.S. film debut several months earlier in Innocents of Paris, which was good only because of him. Here, with worthy material, he triumphed. So did his costar. Jeanette MacDonald had appeared in a number of Broadway shows, and this would be her spectacular entrance into movies. With the stars’ singing and personalities, an elaborate production, a fine score, and ceaseless wit and innuendo, this was one of the year’s major successes.

The Love Parade is the first sound film to approximate the elegance and grace of the silent comedies made by Lubitsch and his many imitators. It also demonstrates the huge strides made by filmmakers in the eight busy months since The Broadway Melody. The camera moves fluidly, the actors are at ease with the dialogue, the background scoring is sparkling, and the director is fully in control of the situation from the chic opening credits onward.

“Dream Lover”: Jeanette MacDonald with ladies-in-waiting (Virginia Bruce, second from left)

Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier

How much assurance does Lubitsch have? After Chevalier sings “Paris, Stay the Same,” his valet (Lupino Lane) gets a chorus, and another goes to his dog, who barks through the song. This, at a time when many actors were having trouble locating the microphones and speaking their lines. Then there’s the way the director is constantly teasing the spectator with all manner of racy possibilities. At one point, as Chevalier begins to tell a risqué anecdote, Lubitsch moves the camera to outside a closed window so he can be seen and not heard, then goes back indoors for a punch line that leaves a viewer to guess how spicy it got in between. Later, Chevalier looks directly out at the audience to sing “Nobody’s Using It Now,” making it elegantly obvious that he’s bemoaning his sexual frustration. It’s clear, too, why MacDonald was considered the “lingerie queen” of early talkies—she sings “Dream Lover” in scanty nightclothes while getting out of bed as a flock of handmaidens provide backup. The other songs are equally adept in connecting the characters and the plot and also the sexual politics—which, it should be remembered, are more of their time than of a later age, and definitely all in fun. Some more prudish viewers, obviously not amused by Lubitsch’s approach, wrote to Paramount to complain about it. As it turned out, this was exactly the kind of protest that would lead to the powerful and censorious Motion Picture Production Code.

Paramount Pictures founder and president Adolph Zukor, with director Ernst Lubitsch on the set

A few viewers not accustomed to early talkies might find The Love Parade a bit stodgy in a few places. More, however, will see exactly why this film was so popular and influential, how advanced it was for its time, and why after many years it continues to be a major treat. Chevalier and MacDonald both went on to more triumphs, as did Lubitsch, yet their work here remains vital, accomplished, and in major ways as fresh as ever.


The Love Parade was as much a revelation to people in the movie industry as to the general public. After seeing it, Greta Garbo was so overcome that she walked out of the theater and sat on a curb, silently marveling that, as she put it, “such a film could be made.” Then she drove to Lubitsch’s house and flung roses at him in ecstatic gratitude. A decade later, director and star teamed to make Ninotchka, one of the best films of either’s career.

Maurice Chevalier is perhaps most familiar to audiences for films, like Gigi (1958), that he made as a senior citizen. Jeanette MacDonald, for her part, is known far better for her later films with Nelson Eddy, not as a sexy star who runs around in her underwear. Thus, along with its many other virtues, The Love Parade is valuable for presenting both stars as audiences first knew them: he as a devastating lady-killer, she as the complete opposite of a buttoned-up prima donna.

Edgar Norton and Maurice Chevalier

Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier


Victor Schertzinger, who wrote the music, was a composer only some of the time. More often, he was recognized as a major-league film director, with successes like Redskin (1929), One Night of Love (1934), and Road to Singapore (1940). Most of his Love Parade songs were too tied to the action to work as stand-alone hits, but the gorgeous “Dream Lover” is an exception. With Schertzinger’s sinuous melody and some perilous high notes, it’s a fairly difficult song to perform, let alone as well as Jeanette MacDonald did here, live on the set.





  • "This is a delight for anyone who loves musicals."—-Manhattan Book Review

On Sale
Oct 10, 2017
Page Count
264 pages
Running Press

Richard Barrios

About the Author

Richard Barrios is the author of the award-winning A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, Screened Out: Playing Gay in Hollywood from Edison to Stonewall, and Turner Classic Movies: Must-See Musicals. He has presented films at the Smithsonian Institute and the Film Forum; appeared in documentary films; and contributed audio commentaries to numerous DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Barrios lives in Beverly, New Jersey.Turner Classic Movies is the definitive resource for the greatest movies of all time. We entertain and enlighten to show how the entire spectrum of classic movies, movie history, and movie-making touches us all and influences how we think and live today.

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