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Notebook Primer: The Hollywood Musical

The Hollywood musical is an enrapturing cinematic experience, boasting some of America’s brightest stars and its most innovative directors.
Jeremy Carr
The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.
Above: 42nd Street
While other genres undoubtedly advanced with the dawning of sound technology, the musical is  likely the most indebted to the reverberations of this complementary process. More than that, though, the movie musical was fundamentally born with the surge of sound—it simply could not have existed otherwise. And since that time, the musical has indeed been a uniquely cinematic venture, less beholden to conventional narratives and often disposed to experimentations in color, location, camera mobility, production design, and special effects. Especially in its heyday, the so-called “Golden Age” lasting between the mid-1930s and late-‘50s, Hollywood musicals were an enrapturing experience, delighting audiences with spectacle, romance, athleticism, fine performances, and, of course, song and dance. Some of America’s brightest stars sparkled in the musical, while many of its most innovative directors flourished with the audiovisual opportunities afforded by the genre. Even if they sometimes strayed toward the formulaic, there was—and remains—something magical, spirited, and utterly seductive about a grand musical production. 
Musical shorts spotlighting vaudeville acts were among the earliest subjects of sound film exploration, years before any feature-length breakthrough. And from there, it was a swift yet intermittent development. The Jazz Singer (1927), widely considered an early musical staple, had synchronized sound for Al Jolson’s amiable singing sequences but was otherwise in the mold of silent cinema; Warner Bros.’ 1928 follow-up, the successful The Singing Fool, was also just a “part-talkie.” More significant were Lights of New York (1928), the first all-talking feature, with a relatively staid nightclub number, and The Broadway Melody (1929), an Oscar-winning film firmly ensconced in a musical milieu. Recognizing the kind of escapist entertainment desired by Depression-era spectators, Hollywood studios scrambled to capitalize on the emerging genre, producing other musical features like the Broadway adaptation Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), the song-and-dance showcase The Hollywood Revue of 1929, The Love Parade (1929), a lavish operetta directed with trademark wit and sophistication by Ernst Lubitsch, starring the recurrent tandem of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, and Rouben Mamoulian’s stylish and comparably more realistic Applause (1929), which included location shooting in Manhattan, a rarity for a musical.
Above: The Love Parade
By 1930, more than 100 movie musicals were being produced, a number that dropped significantly the following year, but soon after, in 1933,  musicals hit their stride with 42nd Street. Directed by Lloyd Bacon, a former vaudeville actor, and featuring stunningly imaginative choreography by Busby Berkeley, a Broadway dance director, this film expanded the canvas of the musical film with its elaborate dance numbers and spawned a series of laudable successors, including Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade (both 1933). Further installments of the Broadway Melody series were also produced (in 1936, 1938, and 1940), and while only connected by their “big break”-seeking protagonists, these features were prime vehicles for entertainers like Eleanor Powell, who appeared in all three later iterations. Although it was the last major studio to adopt sound technology, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) was particularly competitive in the musical market, spearheaded by studio boss Louis B. Mayer and producer Irving Thalberg. There was the extravagant musical biopic The Great Ziegfeld (1936), with William Powell as the famed Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., and the beloved, still-wondrous The Wizard of Oz (1939), with Judy Garland, who was even more astonishing a few years later in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the many renowned and routinely elegant musicals generated by an MGM production unit supervised by Arthur Freed (Easter Parade [1948], Singin’ In The Rain [1952], and Gigi [1958] among them). 
Other studios also excelled with the musical. Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox banked on the box office draw of child prodigy Shirley Temple, who charmed audiences with her singing talents and her tap-dancing scenes with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, while RKO, which had entered the musical game in 1929 with Rio Rita, soon had the benefit of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, a dynamic duo that went on to make a total of 10 films together including the pleasantly refined Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936). Paramount had charismatic crooner Bing Crosby, making wholesome, regularly venerable musicals, and films like Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), with songs by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers and a dazzling “city symphony” preamble. Universal Studios enlisted James Whale, primarily known as a horror director, to helm the 1936 adaptation of the stage hit Show Boat, with new songs by Oscar Hammerstein II and Jerome Kern and original Broadway stars Helen Morgan and Charles Winninger reprising their roles, and Disney launched an enduring and endearing run of animated musicals with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and the audacious Fantasia (1940).
Above: Swing Time
In the 1940s, Crosby teamed with Astaire on Holiday Inn (1942), featuring several Irving Berlin songs including the bestselling “White Christmas,” and again on the similarly plotted Blue Skies (1946), while in 1942, Gene Kelly made his film debut in For Me and My Gal, directed by Berkeley. Kelly would distinguish himself as an extraordinarily energetic and innovatory dancer, frequently working with Vincente Minnelli and director/co-director Stanley Donen. As British Film Institute critic Pamela Hutchinson writes, “Kelly created film dance sequences that were shot seamlessly on location (On the Town, 1949) or incorporated animation and superimposition, allowing him to jig with Jerry Mouse in 1945’s Anchors Aweigh (an idea expanded on in 1964’s Mary Poppins) or tap-dance with himself in Cover Girl (1944).” Another notable star made his musical mark in 1942, when James Cagney, a highly skilled vaudeville dancer most famous for his gangster films, appeared in Yankee Doodle Dandy, earning his only Academy Award for his performance as the legendary George M. Cohan. Lena Horne, in her second credited feature, also proved exceptional in Cabin in the Sky (1943), Minnelli’s captivating directorial debut and one of the only studio films of the era to feature an all-Black cast.
Above: Yankee Doodle Dandy
The 1950s comprised some of the greatest musical films ever made, but was also a decade that signaled the waning years of the genre’s classical prime. Astaire continued to delight, seemingly dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951) and starring alongside Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953) and Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957), while big-band singer Doris Day entered the picture with several Warner Bros. films that developed her guileless exuberance, a standout example being Calamity Jane (1953). Somewhat more scandalous, but every bit as enjoyable, was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), a musical comedy directed by Howard Hawks and starring showgirl sex symbols Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, the latter performing her iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number. From Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) to the run of Rodgers and Hammerstein hits at 20th Century Fox (Oklahoma [1955], Carousel [1956], The King and I [1956], South Pacific [1958]), musicals grew more exorbitant in cost and bigger in scope, utilizing various widescreen formats to capture the multiple extras, expansive settings, and intricate compositions that became genre hallmarks.
Above: Calamity Jane
Although subsequent decades saw a considerable dwindling in musical productivity, those years still managed to include such esteemed titles as West Side Story (1961), The Music Man (1962), My Fair Lady (1964), and the immensely popular—and profitable—The Sound of Music (1965). The 1970s, which contained some of the more eclectic titles in the musical canon, started with the traditional Fiddler on the Roof (1971) but soon embraced more unconventional fare, combining historical throwbacks like Cabaret (1972) and New York, New York (1977) with counterculture variations like Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) and Hair (1979). Still, few of these films, and fewer that followed, were ever quite able to summon the glitz and glamour and, many would argue, the sheer unaffected joy of the genre’s earlier incarnations.
Above: Meet Me in St. Louis
  • 42nd Street (1933): This quintessential backstage musical is as much about the desperate quest for success as it is about the starry-eyed dreams that do come true. Featuring massive sets, the effortlessly likable Ruby Keeler in her film debut, and possessing some of Busby Berkeley’s most eye-popping routines, the Oscar-nominated 42nd Street was loosely based on a Bradford Ropes novel and was deemed an “unofficial” remake of On With the Show (1929), but its briskness, kaleidoscopic imagery, and lively eroticism make the film wholly its own, and its sociopolitical implications make it one of the musical’s more prescient early efforts.
  • Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942): The story goes that Budapest-born director Michael Curtiz, known for his wobbly grasp of the English language, once referred to Yankee Doodle Dandy as the “the pinochle” of his career. That’s debatable (given what he meant), but Curtiz, who was no stranger to the musical, certainly crafts one of the most rousing ever made, a good-humored tribute to political idealism and the art of musical entertainment itself. Yankee Doodle Dandy was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Director for Curtiz, who granted Cagney extensive freedom on the picture, the crowning example of which is when the actor spontaneously tap-dances down a flight of White House stairs.
  • Meet Me in St. Louis (1944): Meet Me in St. Louis, the first of five films director Vincente Minnelli made with Judy Garland, is an exemplary Christmas classic, but it’s also tinged with more perceptive and sorrowful connotations. Beginning as a series of autobiographical short stories by Sally Benson, the film’s depiction of (then) small-town domestic drama is rife with bucolic charm. Yet behind its cheery musical numbers and enchanting vignettes is a story about loss and transience. In this, while a stellar cast including Garland, Mary Astor, and Leon Ames all do extraordinary work, it’s perhaps young Margaret O’Brien as the troublemaking youngest child who taps into the grief and morose nostalgia for a bygone era never to be seen again.
  • An American in Paris (1951): Inspired by George Gershwin’s 1928 composition of the same name, and likely prompted by filmic precursors Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), An American in Paris is most celebrated, rightly so, for its extended and awesome climactic ballet sequence. Lasting 17 minutes, the magnificent number has Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron performing a variety of dances stimulated by French painters like Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Rousseau, and Vincent van Gogh, and it alone would make the film worthy of praise. But with romantic allure to spare, fantastic music, and the glories of Minnelli’s fluid direction, this Best Picture winner manages to achieve heights beyond this often-cited showstopper.
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1952): Humorously incisive and epitomizing what Turner Classic Movies’ Scott McGee writes is “everything that made the musical genre such an exciting form of entertainment during the heyday of the studio era,” Singin’ in the Rain may be the greatest of them all. Satirizing the film industry’s shaky transition from silent to sound, the film uses recycled songs and contain dozens of allusions to prior Hollywood films (in and out of the musical genre), and this self-referentiality is among its many, many pleasures. Bursting with energy, color, and infectious songs, Singin’ in the Rain was also a casting coup, with 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds at her most congenial, circus-trained Donald O’Connor at his most athletic, former ballet student Cyd Charisse at her most tantalizing, and Gene Kelly (who actually considered On the Town his best work) at his most buoyant.
Above: An American in Paris
  • The History of the Hollywood Musical,” by John P. Hess: In what is essentially a do-it-yourself film course, Hess provides the questions and lessons associated with such a structure, but even more valuable for those getting acquainted with the genre are the numerous clips from some of the genre’s most representative moments. As noted on the site, this illustrated record covers the “beginnings in vaudeville to the Golden Era of Studio Musicals followed by the transformation into the modern story driven Book Musical [finally looking] at the fall of the musical genre’s stature from tent-pole money maker to family friendly fare and the potential future of one of film’s oldest genres.”
  • History of Film Musicals,” by John Kenrick: Another excellent historical overview, this detailed, multipart study examines the musical from a number of different fronts, chronicling its assorted developments and setbacks. The summary includes chapters broken down into such points of focus as “Sound = Panic!”, “MGM Reigns Supreme,” “OK Efforts and Lesser Gems,” “A Spoonful of Sugar,” and entries about more recent musical productions titled “A Whole New World” and “Film's Second Century.”
  • The 50 Best Movie Musicals of All Time,” by Jessica Kiang and Oliver Lyttelton: Compiled in 2017 after the release of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, which the writers say “felt like a reinvigoration of the musical form,” this list of essential musical films spans the genre’s many forms. Typically accompanied by illuminating clips, the list includes many of the staples noted above, but also testifies to the musical’s flexibility (A Hard Day’s Night [1964], Phantom Of The Paradise [1974]), its international reach (Dancer In The Dark [2000], The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg [1964]), and its diverse modern exemplars (Chicago [2002], South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut [1999]).
  • “Hollywood Musicals Film Reader,” ed. Steven Cohan, and “The Movie Musical!,” by Jeanine Basinger: Two of the more insightful academic texts on the musical, these books not only chart the course of the genre’s history, but also offer up unique perspectives on what defines and distinguishes the genre’s multiplicity of forms. Articles in the former, which are written by several prominent film scholars, look at “the musical in relation to its generic form and conventions, the relationship between narrative and spectacle, gender and feminist analysis, camp production and reception, stardom, and the representation of race and ethnicity.” In the latter, Basinger examines a “dazzling array of stars, strategies, talents, and innovations in the history of musical cinema,” with “extensive portraits” of Jolson, Day, and Deanna Durbin and films like Top Hat, The Sound of Music, and “unduly obscure gems” like Whoopee! and Sun Valley Serenade.
  • “Must-See Musicals: 50 Show-Stopping Movies We Can’t Forget,” by Richard Barrios: “For the millions who care about them,” Barrios writes, “musicals are like comfort food without the calories and intoxication without the hangover.” With the acuity and passion one would expect from a book published by Turner Classic Movies, this comprehensive text enjoyably and judiciously makes a case for such a pronounced impression. It’s a lavishly illustrated genre survey with behind-the-scenes anecdotes, highlighted sections concerning a respective film’s musical components, and all manner of enlightening historical information. 


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