Classic Film Catch-Up: Seven Hidden-Gem Classic Musicals

There's no better time to catch up on cinema's seminal works, and we're diving into some should-be-classic musicals to put on your queue, from The Unsinkable Molly Brown to Cover Girl.

by | June 29, 2020 | Comments

(Photo by Everett Collection)

Our new Classic Film Catch-Up feature connects you with classic films to put on your watchlist – beloved favorites and hidden gems alike. With more time at home, there’s no better opportunity to finally watch these titles that helped define cinema as we know it.

The current situation of social distancing has many of us thinking of ways to maximize the time we spend at home. We’re also eating several times a day and annoying our pets, but being productive does cross our minds from time to time. Puzzles, long-abandoned books, craft projects, and New Year’s resolutions have suddenly jumped to the top of our to-do lists. In the RT comments, many of you have shared how you’re catching up on classic films, and we happen to agree that now is the perfect time to increase your classic film viewing.

Concentrating on films released before 1980 (both well-known titles and hidden gems), we’re producing new guides to essential classic films curated by theme, filmmaker, actor, genre, or style – all for your classic catch-up needs. Want to see our picks for the best French farces? How about a curated list of Fresh picks from Alfred Hitchcock, Peter Sellers, or Billy Wilder? As well as curating watch lists, we’re breaking down the films, telling you where you can watch them, and giving you some more recent and/or well-known films the classics might remind you of so you can gauge which movies are right for you.

This week in the Classic Film Catch-Up, we’re ready to dance and sing about lesser-known or forgotten musicals – some classics, and some should-be-classics. The ’50s and ’60s were truly the golden ages of movie musicals; Best Picture winners like The Sound of Music, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and An American in Paris made stars out of Natalie Wood, Leslie Caron, and Rita Moreno, while established stars like Julie Andrews, Gene Kelly, and Audrey Hepburn catapulted to icon status on the backs of musical roles during this period. Later years saw rock musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease, and Tommy break into the mainstream – however, countless gems have been largely forgotten by modern audiences. And we’re here to fix that.

Some titles on this list found cult-like followings in later years while others were unfortunate victims of too-close comparisons with their Broadway inspiration – either way, we think the films make up an eclectic roster of must-watch musicals. Read below for our list of hidden gem classic musicals you need to see or revisit.

Got another favorite hidden gem classic musical you’d add to our list? Have a suggestion for a future theme or classic film to feature in the column? Let us know in the comments. 

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) 78% 

What is it? A “rags to riches” musical about a famed socialite who survived the sinking of the Titanic.

Why you need to see it: Debbie Reynolds is widely known for her role in Singin’ in the Rain – and for being Carrie Fisher‘s mother. However, if you want to see the triple-threat performer at her peak you must watch The Unsinkable Molly BrownReynolds plays the famed Denver socialite from humble beginnings who survived a flood as an infant and then the Titanic disaster as an adult. The film follows a fictional Molly from her years as a saloon girl to her eventual fame as one of the richest women in the country. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the film was a hit for MGM, but is not as familiar to modern audiences as some of its glossy contemporaries. Filled with humor and show-stopping numbers, the movie will have you humming ditties like “I’ll Never Say No” and “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” as soon as the credits roll.

Watch it if you like: Singin’ in the Rain, Princess Diaries, The Great Gadsby, Lawless, Funny Girl, My Fair Lady

Where to watch: Stream on TCMWatch app. Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

Man of La Mancha (1972) 47% 

What is it? A musical biopic about Don Quixote author Miguel de Cervantes, using his most famed literary creation as a plot device.

Why you need to see it: It’s hard to understand why the film adaptation of The Man from La Mancha starring Peter O’Toole and Sophia Loren was not a critical and commercial hit. The original stage production was a smash on Broadway and took home five Tonys, but audiences were none-too-impressed with the film version: It failed to earn back its production budget and Time thought so little of it that the magazine didn’t even publish a full review. Most of the problems with the adaptation are a result of its troubled production; a revolving door of directors and a heated debate over whether to make the film a musical at all crippled any effort to do justice to the source material. The dreary costumes, laughable sets, and indifferent cinematography may mar the overall product, but the music remains incredible, and Toole and Loren give it their all despite the challenges. So it’s still worth a watch.

Watch it if you like: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Don Juan Demarco, Monty Python, and the Holy Grail, The Mask of ZorroThe Three Musketeers

Where to watch: Stream now on HooplaDigital. Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Amazon, and iTunes.

Carmen Jones (1954) 77% 

(Photo by Courtesy of 2Oth Century Fox)

What is it? George Bizet’s Carmen is re-imagined with an all-Black cast.

Why you need to see it: Carmen Jones is another Broadway hit to get the Hollywood treatment. Dorothy DandridgeDiahann CarrollPearl Bailey, and Harry Belafonte are mesmerizing in this story of the misadventures of a troublesome seductress living in America during World War II. Playing Carmen, Dandridge made her mark on history, becoming the first African American woman to be nominated for Best Actress in a Motion Picture. Nominated for two Oscars, the film is well-known but not frequently watched. The performances, costumes, and rich Technicolor landscapes make watching the film a truly transformative experience that is almost enough to forgive the choice to dub the voices of famed singers in the production.

Watch it if you like: Porgy & BessIntroducing Dorthy Dandridge, Carmen: A Hip-Hopera, RentLes Miserables

Where to watch: Rent or buy on FandangoNOW, VuduAmazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

The Wiz (1978) 41% 

What is it? The Wizard of OZ is remade with a contemporary story, new music, and an all-Black cast.

Why you need to see it: As many Twitter users pointed out during NBC’s The Wiz Live! in 2015, many movie fans have not seen The Wiz. Beloved in the Black community, the film was a commercial disaster despite starring icons Diana Ross, Richard PryorMichael Jackson, and Lena Horne. A modern imagining of Dorothy’s trek along the yellow brick road – with music from Quincy Jones and Luther Vandross, direction by Sidney Lumet, and words by Joel Schumacher – the film was one of the most expensive musical productions ever made, and lost $10 million at the box office. The film’s popularity never matched its ambition outside of the Black community, where it’s still lauded as a cult classic. And it’s easy to see why when you watch it today. With some of the most gifted musicians of our time in front of and behind the camera, The Wiz is a soulful crowd pleaser that showcases these artists at the height of their popularity and powers.

Watch it if you like: The Wizard of OZ, Oz, The Great and Powerful, Return to Oz, Moonwalker, Idlewild, Labyrinth

Where to watch: Stream now on Starz app. Rent or buy on FandangoNOW,  Vudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

There's No Business Like Show Business (1954) 67%

(Photo by Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

What is it? Chronicles the lives and loves of The Donahues, a family vaudeville act.

Why you need to see it: In a way, this is the original “jukebox movie musical” – all of the songs from There’s No Business Like Show Business were previously penned by Irving Berlin for other works. Stacked with stage powerhouses like Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey, as well as film stars like Mitzi Gaynor and Donald O’Connor, the film was primarily a vehicle to showcase Marilyn Monroe, who had just married Joe DiMaggio and was one of the biggest names and box office draws in Hollywood. However, with a near two-hour runtime (a rare feat for musicals of that era), audiences found the film to be a little “too Broadway” and lacking in story. Monroe, who famously only took the role to ensure her casting in The Seven Year Itchdidn’t shine in any of her musical numbers and was lambasted by critics. Despite all this, however, There’s No Business like Show Business does have some of the most incredible and lavish musical numbers ever committed to screen, and further highlights Berlin’s incomparable musical catalog.

Watch it if you like: A Chorus Line, GypsyFunny Girl, Some Like it Hot, The Greatest Showman

Where to watch: Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

Cover Girl (1944) 95% 

(Photo by Courtesy of Sony Home Entertainment)

What is it? A young chorus girl wins a cover girl contest, is thrust into stardom, and must choose between her career or love.

Why you need to see it: Rita Hayworth became one of only a handful of women who had the enviable honor of dancing with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astair on screen with her role in Cover Girl. Dancing alongside Kelly in her first role with top billing, Cover Girl was one of Hayworth’s final films before Gilda solidified her as a film icon. Shown briefly in The Shawshank Redemption, Hayworth’s iconic entrance and overall performance here was also the inspiration for Jessica Rabbit in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. A massive hit at the time, this story of a showgirl-turned-star has been sadly dwarfed in later years by Kelly’s and Hayworth’s more memorable roles like Singin’ in the Rain and The Lady From Shanghai, respectively.

Watch it if you like: Gilda, Showboat, A Chorus Line, Almost Famous, A Star is Born, Rockstar

Where to watch: Rent or buy on FandangoNOWVudu, Amazon, Google Play, and iTunes.

Hair (1979) 82% 

What is it? An anti-war rock musical set within the hippie counter culture.

Why you need to see it: Though many will know Hair‘s catchy opening number “Aquarius,” the musical itself is a bit of a lesser-known treasure outside of musical theater obsessives. The first film directed by Milos Forman after his critical and commercial smash One Flew over the Cuckoo’s NestHair had critics raving about his skill in adapting the controversial and stylized musical. Roger Ebert said of Forman: “He brings life to the musical form in the same way that West Side Story did.” Still, some contemporaries – including the musical’s creators – argued it diluted the musical’s anti-war message was diluted on the journey from stage to screen.

Watch it if you like: Jesus Christ Superstar, Across the Universe, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas

Where to watch: Stream now on Hoopla and PrimeVideo. Rent or buy on FandangoNOW,  Vudu, Google Play, and iTunes.

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