“Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley/Ding, ding, ding, went the bell/Zing, zing, zing, went my heartstrings/As we started for Huntington Dell.”
No, the MBTA didn’t give the E-line a theme song. That’s the opening verse to “The Trolley Song” from “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the faithful holiday stalwart showing on the big screen later this month at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. So many of the titles of the MFA’s Technicolor Musicals repertory series have permeated American culture and are sometimes our first childhood introduction to motion pictures. From the catchy tune of “Singin’ in the Rain” to the game-changing choreography of “West Side Story,” these brightly-colored staples of the American songbook return to Huntington Ave. from May 14 to June 1.
What the MFA selected to represent the Golden Age of the Hollywood Musical spans several studios, stars, choreographers and directors. The oldest musical of the batch is the 1939 “Wizard of Oz” from MGM studios from director Victor Fleming while the youngest in the series is that other childhood classic, Disney’s “Mary Poppins.” Musical impresario Vincente Minnelli has three of his best-beloved musicals picked for the series: “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the offbeat “The Band Wagon” and the balletic “An American in Paris.” Judy Garland makes two appearances in the series in the aforementioned “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “A Star is Born.” Another actor with two entries in the series is the wise-cracking Oscar Levant, seen in both “An American in Paris” and “The Band Wagon.”
Although the series does not run in chronological order, you can trace a decent amount of the history of American dance. The finger-snapping, Romeo and Juliet-based ditty “West Side Story” kicks off the series on May 14. Set to Leonard Bernstein tunes, with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and choreographed by the perfectionist Jerome Robbins, “West Side Story” is the sharpest departure from much of the earlier musicals in style and subject. Based on the race and class issues in New York City, the songs are punctuated by sharp, stop-and-start choreography that’s immaculately timed. Details lost on smaller screens or blurry digital downloads are blown up for the theater screen to better appreciate one of the best works in dance movie history.
Dance aficionados will also have the chance to see legends Fred Astaire ("The Band Wagon") go toe-to-toe with Gene Kelly (“Singin’ in the Rain” and “An American in Paris”). Each style of movement so different, each dance number so memorable, it’s hard to choose a favorite sequence. Compare the light-footed grace of Astaire against the grounded approach Kelly preferred. Not to be outdone, ballet dancer Cyd Charisse stars opposite both Astaire and Kelly in “The Band Wagon” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” respectively, and is just as talented as her dance partners.
And as they say in “Silk Stockings,” “You gotta have glorious Technicolor!”
I’ve detailed my previous Technicolor revelation before. It's a real treat on the big screen, and sadly something that will become rarer to enjoy as time marches on in the digital era. Two titles in the series, “West Side Story” and “Mary Poppins,” will be played off digital formats, but the rest of the series are 35mm Technicolor prints, just the way they were shown back in their day.
The MFA series is by no means a complete listing of all the golden oldies of the musical era, but it’s a perfect intro for new cinephiles or a chance to see them bigger and brighter onscreen than any cable showing. There are many folks who can sing “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” verbatim without ever watched the movie outside their living room on anything other than off a VHS tape. Whatever the experience is you’re looking for, dance, stroll or take the trolley to the MFA’s Technicolor musicals series.
For a full listing of the MFA’s series, check out their website. As part of the MFA’s Memorial Day Open House, you can catch free screenings of “Mary Poppins” and “The Wizard of Oz.”
Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic and writer. You can usually find her outside a movie theater excitedly talking about the film she just saw or on Twitter @mcastimovies.