For the next few weeks, I would like to discuss movie musicals because I love them so. We have not talked about musicals much here at F This Movie!, so I see these next few columns as my humble attempt at remedy.
Get your tap shoes on, and spray your throat with that... throat spray stuff. We're going to dance, dance, DANCE and sing, sing, SING!
I have been teaching a unit on the Hollywood Musical in my film course for the past thirty years, and while I would be loathe to over-generalize about the experience, I can say one thing without fear of contradiction or correction: young people hate musicals.
Rather, they HATE musicals. A lot. It is a hot, hot, molten hate that will not subside and will not abate.
Musicals hold up a serious middle finger to these notions of "story" and "realism." They are largely unconcerned with plot. Musicals make no secret of the fact that plot is mere contrivance, a laundry line on which to hang musical numbers. Also, if viewers are simply at the movies to enjoy the narrative, then musicals must be a frustrating experience because during the average musical, the narrative stops dead every ten minutes so that people might sing and dance.
Glorious if you like that sort of thing! Frustrating if you don't.
The most brilliant essay on the Hollywood Musical I have come across is "Entertainment and Utopia" by Richard Dyer. I have been assigning it in class for decades; many college professors consider it essential reading as well. You can find badly Xeroxed pdf's of the essay both here and here.
Read it. You will be glad you did.
Dyer suggests that the musical numbers themselves (those little slices of heaven) will be examples of those qualities one would expect to find in a utopia. He has identified five categories, and every musical number in every movie musical ever made fits into one of these categories (occasionally, there are grey areas and a number will fit into more than one.) The categories are: Energy, Abundance, Community, Intensity, and Transparency. Here is how it works.
"Energy" numbers delight in showing us the human body in motion; we see strength, agility, and grace. Many of these numbers revel in showing us characters dancing simply for the sheer love of dancing. "Make 'Em Laugh" from Singing in the Rain is probably the best example of this category.
"Abundance" numbers celebrate a rich physical reality free from poverty or need. If the character is singing about something real (food, a train, a building) chances are that this is the category. "Greased Lightning" from Grease is a prototypical example of this because the boys onscreen are celebrating both their car ("with new pistons, plugs, and shocks") and what their car will get them ("I can get off my rocks.")
"Community" numbers demonstrate rich relationships between characters, whether they are neighbors, friends, family, or lovers. The barn-raising scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a terrific example of this, as is "You Can Count on Me" from the Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra vehicle On The Town.
"Intensity" numbers emphasize outsized emotions and the freedom from non-commitment. Every emotion revealed in the number is felt completely, totally, and IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. "Pinball Wizard" from Tommy is a great example of this category, as the number itself shows us both the intensity of competition and the intensity of the singer's anger towards the title character.
"Transparency" numbers reflect honesty—a freedom from easy irony where all people simply speak the truth. For the purposes of our argument here, we are going to define this category very narrowly, as a slow love song. These are the numbers that my students cannot stand; they stop the movie cold. I can remember seeing Grease the summer it was released and witnessing a stampede up the aisles as people went to buy more popcorn or take a leak while Olivia Newton John sang "Hopelessly Devoted to You." Modern audiences have no patience for honesty or love.
We can use Dyer's categories to play a fun game OR ruin all movie musicals for ourselves forever. I have had students share with me at the end of the semester that thanks to this system (and other genre conventions and categorization systems I share with them in class) I have "ruined" movies for them forever. They tell me that they used to go to the movies for a cheap good time, but now they can't help but THINK during the movie, and that ruins the movie. Ouch.
So much for the documentary short — now on to this week's feature film!
Because this is a 1930s Warner Brothers film, we learn to take the sweet with the sour. No other studio during the Great Depression so successfully mixed social realism with escapist entertainment. This lends 42nd Street the charming quality of being at once a potent reminder for original audiences about what was really going on outside the theater and a charming escape from it. The film is not shy about detailing the desperate, sordid lives some of these actors and dancers lead. It is during the show-with-a-show's song and dance numbers that we (and the principals) experience transcendence.
Though Lloyd Bacon directed the film, Busby Berkeley choreographed the musical numbers. Berkeley was the genius of '30s and '40s musicals. Ever see a movie where we cut to a camera "on the ceiling" staring down at a group of chorus arranged to look like a blossoming flower, or a spinning windmill, or a highly organized army of ants carrying away an entire pick-a-nick lunch? Berkeley invented that. His camera floats, it dives, it shimmies through the legs of row upon row of nubile chorus girls. In his seminal book Cult Movies, Danny Peary suggests that, while the musical numbers of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at rival studio RKO were metaphors for seduction, over at Warner Brothers Berkeley used his camera so aggressively and so intrusively that his camera work mimicked the sexual act itself.
Ultimately, this is a vision of Utopia with which I agree: a plentiful, never-ending Hollywood musical number, one in which we have friends, honesty, surplus, and the kind of stamina it would take to enjoy it all. This is a heaven that I can get behind.
"Heaven, I'm in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak,
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we're out together, dancing cheek to cheek."
Sigh. See you next week, music lovers!
The timing of this article is extremely eerie, since not two weeks ago I began a run of classic Hollywood musicals that I had never seen before, including 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, and The Gold Diggers of 1933. I am very impressed with Busby Berkeley's sense of space and motion, and a couple of shots literally made me gasp a little with their beauty and imagination. I still have a few of the 30's musicals to watch such as a couple of Astaire-Rogers flicks as well as a viewing of Babes in Arms to honor the late Mickey Rooney before I move on to later stuff like Meet Me in St Louis and On the Town. I'm excited to follow along with these foolish pleasures, since I find so much under tapped joy in the straightforwardness and energy of musicals. I found that article by Dyer very interesting, but a lot of it was way over my head, so I won't attempt to fumble through an interpretation. Thanks F This Movie for turning your gaze to these forgotten gems.ReplyDelete
Myke if you want to talk musicals please give me a twitter message, I have been wanting to talk movie musicals with people forever if you fancy discussing what you see on your musical journey with someone (@GabbyFerro01)Delete
Unfortunately, I am not on Twitter for a multitude of reasons, but I do have an existing Facebook account if that would work.Delete
Sure it would :) https://www.facebook.com/gabby.ferro.9Delete
Oh how happy this made me! I can't tell you what kinds of hell I have been put through for loving movie musicals. You are right, young people hate musicals. I have loved them since I was really small and boy did I get mocked for it, especially around 14 - 18. So it is so nice to see some love for them! I am a fan of Dyer's work, I am actually re-reading Stars at the moment. I haven't read that article before so thank you for sharing the link I will go have a look. I also want to rent out 42nd street from my uni library again and think over the abundance as Utopia as I haven't watched this one in a while and think it will be a real treat to re-visit it.ReplyDelete
Young people hate musicals.ReplyDelete
Frozen is the most successful animated film yet.
Frozen is a musical. (?????)
Frozen is on my mind because I just read another blog where the blogowner ranted that the film was amateurish because the plot twist wasn't telegraphed. "Then the little sister falls in love with another guy who may or may not also be a psycho." Interesting choice of words, given his complaint...
There are also many young people in the musical theatre community who also love musical films. However, when you are in this community, you are going to be in the minority in your school unless you have a cool drama group. Haha that critique of Frozen sounds so bizarre. Occasionally this happens with musicals, they become popular with most young people. Like High School Musical. I am so glad it is Frozen that has got through to them because I adore Frozen. It seems to have got them into Idina Menzel (I have been a massive fanzel for years) who might even help them go a little further with there love of musicals, I am hoping so anyway.Delete
As I mentioned before in a previous column, because young people cannot suspend their disbelief when real people sing and dance-- the only musicals we get anymore are cartoons.ReplyDelete
Another great book is Gerald Mast's Can't Help Singin', which covers American musicals on both screen and stage.ReplyDelete
I've been a fan of musicals (of any kind) since I was a kid watching West Side Story on television. Even though it was a horrendous pan-and-scan print, I was transfixed by the audacity of singing and dancing gang members ("Cool" is still my #1 musical number of all time). I feel bad for anyone who can't suspend their disbelief to enjoy these marvelous works - they're missing out on so much.
No, wait! "Never Gonna Dance" from Swing Time is my favorite musical number.
Oh my God, I had no idea that Mast wrote a third book. I thought The Comic Mind and A Short History of the Movies were it. He died very young. Thanks for pointing this out. Mast is my hero. I'm reading it on my Kindle right now!Delete
You're in for a treat - it's an awesome book. It was thanks to Mast that I sought out James Whale's wonderful adaptation of Show Boat (which is infinitely better than the sticky gumdrop that is the 50's adaptation).Delete
I am not a fan of the 50s version either. Carol Burnett did a great parody of it. I was so eager to see the Whale version I watched it on youtube, which is not the best way to see something but I am glad I at least got to kind of watch it. Talking of Swing Time I got my siblings to watch it when they were 3 and 4 and they started pretending to be Fred and Ginger. Their favourite was 'Pick yourself up'. It was pretty adorable I have to say.Delete
The 1936 Show Boat is supposed to be available from Warner Bros as a manufacture-on-demand DVD, part of their archive collection.Delete
Swing Time is my favorite Fred n' Ginger movie. This was in those glorious days where top-flight stage composers like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin would write songs for movie musicals, and Jerome Kern didn't disappoint.
I'm Brit so they don't ship over here!Delete
Swing Time is my favourite Fred and Ginger movie as well! Have you seen any Deanna Durbin movies?
I must confess that I have not, but you've inspired me to check them out. I think I'll start (appropriately enough) with Can't Help Singing, as it features music by Mr. Kern.Delete
Fabulous I hope you like it I look forward to chatting over facebook :)Delete
I apologise for my hideous grammar I'm Brit honestly! I am on my phone and not very good at typing with it!Delete
I'm still waiting for my musical wall to get torn down. Though I have always enjoyed the musical numbers in Disney movies, with a few exceptions (Wizard of Oz comes to mind) musicals in general just have never done it for me. A few months ago I was so excited to watch Singin' in the Rain after either reading or hearing someone talk about it here, and it never really clicked - it was okay, but never felt GREAT. I just hope that similarly to when I finally started loving "older" movies, this is a genre that I will eventually grow to love because I really feel like I'm missing out.ReplyDelete