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!