Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance!
by Sean Axmaker
"You ain't heard nothing yet," Al Jolson promised his audience in The Jazz Singer, Hollywood's first talkie feature. That description, "Hollywood's first talkie feature," feels misleading. For one thing, only parts of the film featured sound. For another, Jolson wasn't spending those precious moments talking to the audience. He was belting out minstrel numbers. He was singing. The birth of talking pictures was the birth of the movie musical and for all the changes the musical has undergone, the music hasn't stopped.
Singin' in the Rain
The musical has been described as the purest of film genres, the most utopian, and the most purely expressive. It's a world where lovers spontaneously burst into lyric to woo and dance to court one another. The choreography of courtship can also be seen as a physical expression of joy and, in some cases, a substitution for sex. Not that anyone in the audience was thinking any of this, at least not consciously. Neither were they phased by the sudden explosion of song in the middle of a scene. Musical numbers were as familiar a convention of classical cinema as the promise of a happily ever after or a fade-out on a climactic kiss, established in such groundbreaking early musicals as The Broadway Melody (the original backstage musical) and Rouben Mamoulian's gritty Applause (the first musical to tear the camera from the static tripod and put it in motion).
Hollywood cinema has always been torn between opposing impulses: on the one hand, to recreate the world on the screen and reflect it back to the audience, and on the other, to create a fantasy world into which the audience, for a couple of hours, can escape. Nowhere are those contradictory poles more evident than the early depression era musicals of Warner Bros., a studio that specialized in the snappy, smart-talking urban milieu. Golddiggers of 1933 opens with Ginger Rogers singing "We're In The Money" (in pig-latin, to boot) before the show is shut down for lack of funds. The breadlines were always a step away, yet the plucky perseverance of energetic boys and girls invariably made a star of chorus girl Ruby Keeler by the end of the film and cemented her romance with boyish Dick Powell.
The best of these films - 42nd Street (the quintessential backstage musical), Footlight Parade (with James Cagney in a rare dancing role), and Golddiggers - were choreographed by Busby Berkeley, the Broadway wunderkind who embraced the unlimited possibilities of cinema and made the camera a part of the dance and gave audiences a front row seat that swooped and soared and looked down at the geometric beauty of dancers apparently playing to the ceiling.
In contrast to these streetwise fantasies were the elegant yet snappy films of the screen's most graceful duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The gawky Astaire became a swan when he danced in top hat, white tie, and tails, and the brassy Rogers became a sophisticate in her gowns. Initially paired as supporting players in Flying Down to Rio, they were rushed into a series of star making films, most notably Top Hat and Swing Time.
They were far from the only game in town: from Bing Crosby and Al Jolson to Alice Faye and Deanna Durbin, from Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald to Sonja Henie and her ice-skates, every studio was turning out musicals. Yet the biggest song and dance stars of the 1930s were a pair of performers too young to vote: Shirley Temple, who cooed and soft-shooed through dozens of cute musicals (including Bright Eyes, which features her signature song "On the Good Ship Lollipop"), and Mickey Rooney, whose spring-loaded adolescent energy was paired with Judy Garland to launch the unmistakable "Hey kids, let's put on a show" sub-genre with such classics as Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band.
By the 1940s a technology almost as revolutionary as sound allowed the musical to be reborn once again. Technicolor turned Arthur Freed's MGM musical unit into the day-glo dream factory. The roots of his musicals can be found in the magical Wizard of Oz, where the sudden blast of color tells the audience that they aren't in the black-and-white Depression-era heartland of Kansas anymore. We, along with farm girl Dorothy (Judy Garland, in her star-making role), have entered the world of fantasy. Garland became an essential leading lady in the glowingly nostalgic Meet Me in St. Louis (one of the most gorgeous movies ever made) and The Harvey Girls, while the gymnastic Gene Kelly (who burst on the scene co-starring next to Garland in For Me and My Gal) danced his way through The Pirate (also with Garland) before striking out into directing. Among his collaborations with director Stanley Donen are two of the great musicals of all time: the innocent and energetic singing sailors fantasy On the Town and the ode to Hollywood fantasy Singin' in the Rain, the historically inaccurate but nonetheless irresistible story of nothing less than the birth of talkies and the Hollywood musical. (For background on Technicolor, check out the excellent documentary Glorious Technicolor, a featured supplement on the special edition of The Adventures of Robin Hood.)
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