I’m delighted to be heading to the TCM Film Festival once again this year, marking my third official trip to the fest—and second year with all the access that a coveted Classic pass provides! This year’s theme is “History According to Hollywood,” which, at another festival, might mean a drab selection of biopics and well-regarded but tiresome dramas. Not TCM Film Festival, though! Sprinkled amongst the more traditional (but never boring) historical fare are a fun assortment of musicals, ranging from the 1930s through the ’70s and ’80s. History has proved a bountiful source of material in every genre, so let’s take a look at the musicals coming up.
The Sound of Music (1965) – 5pm / TCL Chinese Theatre Imax
The Sound of Music is one of the crown jewels of this year’s TCM Film Festival, serving as their opening gala screening and featuring stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in attendance. Free-spirited nun Maria takes a job as a governess for the seven children of an uptight, widowed naval officer shortly before the outbreak of World War 2 in Austria; movie magic ensues. This screening is limited to those with Essential and Spotlight passes—if you’re lucky enough to have one of those, you are pretty much obligated to attend this wonderful screening!
Grease (1978) – 7:30pm / Poolside at the Roosevelt
One more musical option on opening night is Grease, which is screening poolside on the roof of the historic Hotel Roosevelt. Sitting by the pool with a drink in hand seems like the perfect setting to watch this fluffy, nostalgic remembrance of 1950s teen culture. Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) and Danny (John Travolta) fall in love over the summer, but once school’s back in session they realize they may be more different than they’d imagined… but with the help of their ensemble of wacky friends, maybe they can make it work.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – 9:30am / Chinese Multiplex House 4
Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Miriam Hopkins star in this underrated and underseen pre-Code musical comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch. The problematically charming Chevalier causes an international incident through a single wink, and must marry Princess Anna of Flausentherm (Hopkins) to resolve it. But what will become of his love for orchestra conductor Franzi (Colbert)? If you saw Grease the previous night, make sure to catch this one if you can—the last scenes might seem a little familiar!
Pinocchio (1940) – 3:00pm / El Capitan
TCM Fest’s occupancy of the El Capitan (which is owned by Disney) during the festival always means we can expect a few good Disney selections. This year we get Pinocchio, the tale of an Italian woodcarver who wishes for a carved puppet to transform into a real son. In his first days as a real boy, Pinocchio gets a primer on middle-class morality and the values of honesty, thriftiness, and sobriety.
42nd Street (1933) – 11:30am / Chinese Multiplex House 1
The crème de la crème of backstage musicals, 42nd Street features some ultra familiar faces like Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Una Merkel, and Ginger Rogers. Co-director and choreographer Busby Berkeley is at his most Berkeley-esque—marvel at the precise kick lines, kaleidoscopic framing, and, of course, the smiling faces of lots and lots of pretty girls. Classic plot involving a doe-eyed newcomer and a last-minute opportunity just before opening night—now, who on earth could possibly be fit to replace the leading lady at this late hour?
So Dear to My Heart (1948) – 11:30am / Chinese Multiplex House 4
Another Disney, albeit one played a bit closer to Walt Disney’s personal history. A combination of live-action and animation—in the vein of Song of the South—So Dear to My Heart follows Jeremiah Kincaid (Bobby Driscoll), a young boy in 1903 Indiana raising a lamb rejected by its mother. He hopes to show the lamb at the big county fair, with the assistance of his uncle (Burl Ives) and various animated characters.
1776 (1972) – 1:45pm / TCL Chinese Theatre Imax
It doesn’t get much more “historical fiction” than a musical about John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson putting the United States together, but here you go. Based on the stage musical of the same name, some of the dialogue and song lyrics are actually taken directly from participants’ writings about the period… so it may be one of the most historically accurate entries on this list. William “Mr. Feeny” Daniels plays Adams. No spoilers, but the film ends on July 4, 1776.
History of the World Part 1 (1981) – 6:00pm / Chinese Multiplex House 1
This isn’t a full musical, but I believe any movie that includes an extensive, Esther Williams-style swim number deserves to be mentioned alongside the others. If you’ve never seen the movie, directed by Mel Brooks, the fact that this number is performed by a group of nuns during the segment about the Spanish Inquisition should tell you everything you need to know.
Calamity Jane (1953) – 10:00am / Chinese Multiplex House 1
Doris Day cracks the whip as Wild West heroine Calamity Jane in Warner Brothers’ “sky-highest, smile-widest, wild ‘n’ woodiest musical of ’em all.” Calamity cooks up a scheme to bring singer Adelaid Adams to town, but realizes too late that it’s actually Adelaid’s maid, Katie (Allyn McLerie) instead. The film also touches on Calamity’s alleged romance with Wild Bill Hickock, played here by Howard Keel. You knew Doris Day looked good in circle skirts and tailored blouses… here she proves she can rock pants and a fringed jacket too!
Kiss Me Kate in 3D (1953) – 7:30pm / Chinese Multiplex House 1
If you’ve perhaps tired of painstakingly accurate historical costumes over the last few days, head on down to the Technicolor sanctuary of Kiss Me Kate to cap off your festival experience! A theater company’s production of The Taming of the Shrew blurs into real life as a divorced couple attempts to maintain professionalism while starring in the play together. The oversaturated ’50s color palette belies a sophisticated songbook by Cole Porter, including “Too Darn Hot” and “Always True to You in My Fashion.”