Tuesday, November 23, 2004

That's Entertainment!

Over the last year or so, our girls have become captivated by a lot classic Hollywood musicals. They sing the tunes to each other as part of games, and sometimes just to themselves. (Recently, at a playgroup with some other kids, another woman from our church was taken aback to hear Caitlyn, our four-year-old, singing quietly to herself "If I Were a Rich Man," except she tends to change the lyrics around a little; more often than not, it becomes "If I Were a Rich Woman.") Some of their favorites include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Meet Me In St. Louis, The Sound of Music (of course), Singin' in the Rain, Mary Poppins, Annie, The Music Man, The Wizard of Oz and more. Granted, not all of these are what most people think of when you talk about old Hollywood musicals; interesting how Mary Poppins, for example, since it was produced by Disney and features animation, is left off most musical lists. But for the girls it's all the same; something about the way in which music mixes with story, becoming part of the story, has really grabbed them. I think in some very basic way it's teaching them about what art and entertainment really are. For one thing, it was exciting for them to discover on their own that "Esther" from Meet Me in St. Louis is also "Dorothy" from Wizard of Oz, and so forth. More fundamentally, I think it has helped them see that, as people in real life do not break out into song depending on their mood, these otherwise very realistic stories (all right, maybe Mary Poppins and Wizard of Oz don't qualify) must therefore be a peculiar kind of "comment" on real life, a way of throwing some aspect of it--its humor, pathos, pain, unpredictability, whatever--into sharp relief. Megan, our eight-year-old, in particular I think has been helped by these musicals. Since she was very young movies of all sort have just overwhelmed her imagination; the musical cues alone would, when it looked like there was going to be any conflict featured on screen (and we're talking about Cinderella-level conflict here; we police our children's viewing habits pretty closely), drive her out of the room, to hide in closets and under bed sheets. It's not that she doesn't have a strong and powerful imaginative sense, or an ability to focus on the story; she'd continue to peak out at the tv, or run back and forth asking us what she'd missed. It's just that, for whatever reason, she's particularly sensitive to intense imaginative presentations, and tends to so clearly identify her own thinking with what she's seeing that the merest sign of danger or embarrassment or confusion is often too much for her. (She's like this with books as well as visual entertainment, as I explained in my Harry Potter post.) But the confrontations and adventures she's seen in musicals have had a different effect on her; she can handle them, via the music, much, much better than I had thought she could. She's learning about being a viewer, about what it means to be entertained, in other words. Which, when it isn't constructed as a passive enterprise but a critical and engaged one, is a very good thing.

Their interest in musicals followed Melissa's and mine; at some point about a year or two ago we decided that we were really lacking in the classic Hollywood entertainment department; my mom loved all these old musicals, directed several for local casts in our church when I was growing up, and I felt particularly embarrassed by the fact that I'd forgotten so many plot points and songs. So we started building up a collection. We're getting most of them on DVD, which makes it easy for the girls to play their favorite scenes over and over again, and also makes it easier for us as parents: we can more easily show them great songs without them begging us to let them watch movies we don't think they're ready for yet. Fiddler on the Roof, despite its very accessible and engaging music, is clearly a little too heavy and mature for them at this point; ditto for My Fair Lady (possibly my favorite of them all) and West Side Story. (And they'll have to age about another ten years before we let them watch Chicago!) And the fact is, we've found that we don't really think all of these movies, even some of the most famous, are worth the time. Oklahoma? Great music, but the characters and story are terribly boring. Carousel alternated between creepy and dull. And Hello Dolly! was a horrible vanity project; An American in Paris, while not horrible, suffers similarly. So it's not like everything out there is gold.

Recommendations, for us or for the girls? What classic works of entertainment are we missing? We should probably rent The King and I, and see if it hold up to our memory. I've still never seen South Pacific, amazingly enough. How about Anchors Aweigh? That's where Gene Kelly dances with Tom the Mouse, right? Any others?


Anonymous said...

On the Town. Kids might find it slightly boring, except when the dinosaur collapses. Great tunes, though not as many as in the real Broadway show, and great dancing.

Cabaret. DEFINITELY not for young kids.

I adore the old Fred and Ginger movies (and some where another woman lead is featured): Top Hat, Damsels in Distress, The Gay Divorcee, Funny Girl, Easter Parade, and many more.

JudyJudyJudy: well, of course since I am from St. Louis, "Meet" is presented ad nauseum, but the tunes are very durable. The Broadway musical "Girl Crazy" was made into a movie (perhaps not of that name, though), with Judy as the cowgirl and Mickey Rooney as the profligate Easterner sent into exile at Judy's father's mining school. 

Posted by NancyP

Anonymous said...

Professor, The Sound of Music has to be tops. I can't count the times I was singing "I am sixteen going on seventeen waiting for life to start.." in my living room, which in my mind was transformed into a gazebo.

I can't believe you haven't seen South Pacific! That's a must. Your girls need to know how to sing "I'm gonna wash that man right outa my hair..and send him on his way".

How about The Music Man? I can't remember the story but the song "76 Trombones" sure comes back to mind. And I can't drive near Chicago without singing "Gary Indiana.." until I have given myself a migraine.

Anyone remember the one about the wagons going west and the gold mining camp? With the song "They Call the Wind Mariah"? I can picture specific scenes but can't recall the name or the actor's names.

I'll be thinking of show tunes all night now.


Posted by julieann

Anonymous said...

For you and the girls--Yankee Doodle Dandy, with James Cagney as George Cohan. Over There is a great song.

For you and (repeating the comment above) DEFINITELY NOT the girls--Cabaret. It captures Berlin in the '30's quite well; I found it scary the first time I saw it, and still do. 

Posted by SamChevre

Anonymous said...

"The Band Wagon." Worth it just for the "Triplets" number alone.

And "Kiss Me Kate," depending on your tolerance for mild double entendres. Pity there's no 3D home version.


Posted by AlanC9

Anonymous said...

(Slightly off topic) Your story about your bigger girl running out of the room during conflict reminds me of my boys' first go at Finding Nemo. During Bruce the Shark, my older boy was in my lap while the younger one was gripping my arm. But, after several viewings, that's their favorite part!  

Posted by gaw3

Anonymous said...

There's a filmed version of the play "Into the Woods."
My 7 and 10 year olds love this story of several combined fairy tales (Cinderella, Jack, Rapunzel, others), although the second act is somewhat, umm, dark. Some say Sondheim's music isn't singable, but our family would disagree.

Oklahoma isn't that bad if you skip the ballet segment . . .


Posted by cc

Anonymous said...

To answer a previous query, the musical about the west and mining camp is Paint Your Wagon, starring Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin. NOT a musical for young kids; but I highly recommended it for adults with a slightly twisted sense of humor. (the song No-Name City is a prime example.)

I've never found Sondheim's music to be "singable" so not sure I'd recommend Into the Woods either. That also has some adult themes.

Oliver! is a tad scary for very young children but I saw it when I was 7 and loved it. Just make sure to cover their eyes when mean ol' Bill Sykes gets it.

Little Shop of Horrors isn't old, but a good fun one.

In terms of MGM musicals, you might want to get That's Entertainment parts I-III and then figure out which ones you'd be interested in. I personally loved the Harvey Girls (starring Judy Garland) but that's cause I loved the wooden Hedy Lamarr.

Oooooh, here's a thought: Try out the good ol' Road movies starring Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. A tad sexist (okay more than a tad) but still good ol clean fun with the crooner and ol' ski nose.

That's all I can think of right now but I'll be back with more if I can think of it. 

Posted by SC

Anonymous said...

When I was your daughter's age, I love The King and I...perhaps the exoticism? And we all LOVED "Singin' in the Rain" when we were kids. We'd beg mom to let us don raincoats and boots so we could go sing in the rain. :)

I think I'm like your daughter Megan. I'm in my late 20s now and I STILL can't watch things that are too suspenseful. I lack the ability to detach. (For instance, I just HAD to go wash the dishes during certain parts of Indiana Jones the other day...and it's just IJ, for cryin' out loud!) Perhaps an overactive imagination? I've been working on it, but there are some movies that I've just decided aren't worth it. 

Posted by Jeannette

Anonymous said...

My son has loved Oklahoma from 2 years old to now (3 1/2). It will be interesting to see how he responds next time, since his ability to identify plot and morals has developed a bit. But I predict the same principle will work as last time: you've got trains and horses to get you from one song and dance number to the next.


Posted by Tom

Anonymous said...

How about Chitty Chitty Bang Bang? I was always slightly terrified when the Child Catcher showed up, but my kids don't seem to be. Or Rex Harrison's Doctor Dolittle? Seems way too long to me, but they enjoy it. 

Posted by Lynne

Anonymous said...

Holiday Inn. It's a little (okay a lot) corny, but we loved it as kids. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Fred steals Bing's girl friend. Bing retires to the country breaking up their Broadway routine. He buys an old Inn and fixes it up. The Inn is only open on holidays, and every holiday has its own song and dance routine. Memorable song/dance by Fred Astaire on the Fourth of July. Bing sings I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas.

Bells of Saint Mary's. Another Bing favorite.


Posted by laura