The musical is responsible for the transition from silent film to sound film in the development of the motion picture. The popularity of movies grew rapidly during the golden days of the silent film era, but the concept of "talking pictures" was considered a risky investment by the major Hollywood studios, until the Warner Bros. studio took the leap and produced The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. Jolson's song "Mammy" in the picture forever changed the medium of film, and it jolted Hollywood into the era of sound.
As Hollywood adapted to sound films, musicals were an important part of Hollywood's movie output, ranking alongside action movies (Westerns), dramas, and comedies. Musical stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were among the most popular and highly respected personalities in Hollywood, and many regular actors gladly participated in musicals as a way to break away from their typical typecast roles. For instance, James Cagney had originally risen to fame on the stage as a singer and dancer, and he was highly talented; but his repeated casting in "tough guy" roles and gangster movies gave him few chances to display these talents. Cagney's Oscar-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy allowed him to sing and dance, and he considered it to be one of his finest moments.
Many comedies (and a few dramas) included their own musical numbers. The Marx Brothers' movies included a musical number in nearly every film, allowing the Marx Brothers themselves to highlight their own musical talents.
The musical in film was a natural development from the stage musical. Typically the biggest difference between the movie musical and the musical theater is the use of lavish background scenery which would be impractical in a theater. Many musical films, e.g. Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music, are straightforward adaptations or restagings of successful stage productions. Others, e.g. Moulin Rouge!, were specifically written for the screen, and some, such as Singin' in the Rain, have made a reverse transition from their original screen version to a successful stage format at a much later date. The trend in modern film-making is not to make a "musical" as such, but to use a lot of background music by popular rock or pop bands in the hopes of selling the soundtrack album to fans. There are exceptions to this rule, and films about actors, dancers or singers have been made as successful modern-style musicals, with the music as an intrinsic part of the storyline. The other exception to the rule is children's animated movies. These almost always include traditional musical numbers, and some of them (eg Beauty and the Beast) have later become full live stage productions.
- 1920s: The Jazz Singer, The King of Jazz, Sunny Side Up
- 1930s: Broadway Melody of 1933, The Great Ziegfeld, The Firefly, Footlight Parade, On the Avenue, One Hour With You, Rose Marie, Sing as We Go, Swing Time, Top Hat, The Wizard of Oz
- 1940s: Cover Girl, Holiday Inn, Yankee Doodle Dandy
- 1950s: An American in Paris, Be My Love, Carousel, Guys and Dolls, High Society, Kiss Me Kate, Oklahoma!, Peter Pan, Showboat, Singin' in the Rain, South Pacific, The King and I
- 1960s: Camelot, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Dr Dolittle, Gigi, Hello, Dolly!, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, The Sound of Music, West Side Story
- 1970s: Annie, Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rocky Horror Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, The Slipper and the Rose
- 1980s: The Blues Brothers, Fame, Flashdance, Purple Rain, Victor/Victoria, Xanadu
- 1990s: Everyone Says I Love You, Sister Act
- 2000s: Dancer in the Dark, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Moulin Rouge!, Chicago