Classic Movie Musical Biographies

Musical biographies were a popular theme in Hollywood during the Golden Age. Most of these are (apparently) factually inaccurate, but they generally feature a wonderful anthology of a musician’s work. Critics are quick to cast aside many of these films for their historical inaccuracies. But if you’re like me, that’s of secondary importance. If I want to learn facts about a musician’s life and career, I’ll read a book. If I want to see and hear his/her music in song and dance, I’ll watch a musical. Besides, in most cases, I’m more interested in the fruits of their labors than the cold hard facts of their lives. So, just take the story at face value and enjoy some outstanding musical entertainment!

Note that a few of the biographies listed here are about colorful historical characters who were not musicians. Here’s at least a partial list of musical biographies:

Bayes, Nora

Famed vaudeville singer, Nora Bayes, and partner Jack Norworth are portrayed by Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan in a story loosely based on their rise to stardom, Shine On Harvest Moon (1944).

Brice, Fannie

Broadway legend Fannie Brice was first portrayed by Alice Faye in a story loosely based on her rise to stardom, Rose of Washington Square (1939). She was portrayed again in 1968 by Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl and the sequel, Funny Lady.

Brown, Molly

This colorful, rags-to-riches wife of a Colorado gold miner and survivor of the Titanic disaster (hence “unsinkable”) is portrayed by Debbie Reynolds in the rousing 1964 film, The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Though the film brought home no Oscars, it did get six Academy Award nominations. Debbie tears into the role and walks off with the whole movie. Her “Belly Up to the Bar, Boys” has to be just about the most energetic and colorful song and dance scene ever put on film!

Cantor, Eddie

Legendary vaudevillian and star of radio and film, Eddie Cantor’s life story was first portrayed by Eddie Cantor, himself in the 1944 film, Show Business. He was later portrayed by Keefe Brasselle in the 1953 film, The Eddie Cantor Story. Cantor is perhaps best remembered for his onstage skipping, hand-clapping, eye-rolling persona and his rendition of many memorable songs like, “If You Knew Susie,” “Ma, He’s Makin’ Eyes at Me,” “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,” “Makin’ Whoopee,” and many, many more. Shirley Temple takes a whack at a Cantor impression in Stowaway.

Caruso, Enrico

Legendary opera tenor, Enrico Caruso, was portrayed by Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso, 1951. The story spans the entire lifetime of the great Caruso.

Castle, Vernon, and Irene

Perhaps the most popular husband and wife dance team of all time, Vernon and Irene Castle are portrayed by none other than Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, 1939.

Cohan, George M.

Legendary and prolific Broadway producer and composer, George M. Cohan, is energetically portrayed by the great James Cagney in the rousing Yankee Doodle Dandy, 1942. Cagney deservedly won the Best Actor Oscar for this film. With eight Academy Award nominations and three Oscars, this just may be the best of the musical biographies!

Froman, Jane

In the film, With a Song in My Heart (1952), Susan Hayward turned in an outstanding portrayal (and earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination in the process) of this beloved singing star of the 1940s, who was seriously injured in an airplane crash at the height of her career. Miss Froman, herself, coached Miss Hayward for the part and dubbed her on the soundtrack. The film won five Academy Award Nominations and brought home the Oscar for Best Score, Musical. This one is a definite “must-see!”

Gershwin, George

America’s great classical and pop composer, George Gershwin, is portrayed by Robert Alda in the film, Rhapsody in Blue (1945).

Goodman, Benny

One of the most popular big band leaders of all time is portrayed by Steve Allen in the film, The Benny Goodman Story (1956).

Holiday, Billie

Though apparently quite inaccurate, the life of the legendary blues singer, Billie Holiday, is played by Diana Ross (original member of the rock group, The Supremes) in the film Lady Sings the Blues. Miss Ross turns in some fine acting and wonderful singing. She was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award for 1972.

Jolson, Al

Legendary singing star of stage, film, and records, Al Jolson is portrayed by Larry Parks in The Jolson Story (1946). The film was received so well that a sequel, Jolson Sings Again was released in 1949, again starring Larry Parks as Al Jolson.

Kalmar and Ruby

The enormously popular and successful early 20th-century songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby are portrayed by Fred Astaire and Red Skelton in Three Little Words (1950). A very young Debbie Reynolds nearly steals the show in her portrayal of Helen King, the Boop Girl, singing “I Want to Be Loved By You.”

Kellerman, Annette

Esther Williams (who else?) portrays Annette Kellerman, champion swimmer turned professional, in the film Million Dollar Mermaid (1952).

Kern, Jerome

Robert Walker portrays Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), the story of the composer’s rise to fame. Kern was an advisor on the set, but died before the film was completed. Though the story may be largely fictional, it is nonetheless entertaining and is a wonderful anthology of the works of one of America’s greatest composers. Judy Garland costars, giving us a glimpse into the life of the legendary Marilyn Miller.

Krupa, Gene

Legendary drummer and orchestra leader, Gene Krupa, is portrayed by Sal Mineo in The Gene Krupa Story (aka Drum Crazy), 1959.

Lee, “Gypsy” Rose

Legendary fan dancer and actress, Gypsy Rose Lee (Louise Hovick), is portrayed by Natalie Wood in Gypsy.

Miller, Glenn

Jimmy Stewart plays the part of Glenn Miller and June Allyson plays his wife in The Glenn Miller Story, 1954. A real tear-jerker, with fine performances from two of the screen’s greatest personalities, and plenty of well-known Miller hits.

Miller, Marilyn

June Haver plays Marilyn Miller in Look for the Silver Lining (1949), which is the story of Marilyn’s rise to fame. A glimpse into the life of Marilyn Miller is also provided by Judy Garland in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)

Moore, Grace

Kathryn Grayson turned in an outstanding performance in the role of Grace Moore in the film, So This Is Love (1953). In the film, Grace Moore aspires to become a singing star, and after a long, hard struggle, finally reaches stardom as a musical comedy star on Broadway. But her life ambition was to become an opera star, so at her peak, she jeopardizes her entire career to realize that ambition.

Norworth, Jack

Famed vaudeville singer, Nora Bayes, and partner Jack Norworth are portrayed by Ann Sheridan and Dennis Morgan in a story loosely based on their rise to stardom, Shine On Harvest Moon (1944).

O’Leary, Molly

Molly O’Leary, whose cow is generally accepted as responsible for the great Chicago fire of 1871, and her family are portrayed in the film In Old Chicago, starring Alice Faye and Ty Power (1938).

Porter, Cole

The great Cole Porter is portrayed by Cary Grant in Night and Day (1946), the story of his ups and downs in a long and turbulent career as one of America’s greatest composers. Monty Wooley, a life-time friend of Cole Porter portrays himself in the film.

Rodgers and Hart

Before there was Rodgers and Hammerstein, there was Rodgers and Hart. Tom Drake and Mickey Rooney play Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, respectively, in Words and Music (1948), a dark and dismal look into the lives of the two great musicians as they rise to fame. Though apparently completely inaccurate, the film provides a wonderful anthology of the great music produced by this young team. Though Lorenz Hart died at an early age, Richard Rodgers went on to even greater heights collaborating with Oscar Hammerstein, II in a long-running string of musical hits including such classics as Oklahoma, South Pacific and the beloved The Sound of Music.

Romberg, Sigmund

Sigmund Romberg was one of the most prolific and successful of all American composers, with over 2000 songs and 80 musicals to his credit, including Maytime and The Desert Song. Jose Ferrer plays the part of Romberg in Deep in My Heart (1954), which traces Romberg’s rise to fame and follows the composer through most of his career. Ferrer plays the part with gusto and stops the show with a most incredible one-man performance of one of Romberg’s plays. This is a definite “must-see!”

The Singing Nun

Soeur Sourire (commonly known as the Singing Nun), who had several major charts hits with recordings (best remembered is “Dominque” – No. 1 on the charts for 12 weeks in 1963), is portrayed by Debbie Reynolds in the film The Singing Nun (1966).

Ziegfeld, Florenz

The incomparable William Powell portrays the legendary showman/producer Florenz Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), and reprises his role in MGM’s Ziegfeld Follies of 1946, a movie version of a Ziegfeld stage production.

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