Musicals

For sheer entertainment, you can’t beat Musicals with the likes of Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Jane Powell, John Raitt, Stanley Donen, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Cyd Charisse, Moira Shearer, Judy Garland, Chubby Checker, Danny Kaye, Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe and outstanding Musical directors Howard Hawks, Oscar Rudolph, Josef von Sternberg, Henry Coster, Stanley Donen, George Abbott and Hal Walker.

The Musical film is a film genre or category in which songs sung by the characters are interwoven into the narrative, sometimes accompanied by dancing. The songs usually advance the plot or develop the film’s characters, though in some cases they serve merely as breaks in the storyline, often as elaborate “production numbers”.

The musical film was a natural development of the stage musical after the emergence of sound film technology. Typically, the biggest difference between film and stage musicals is the use of lavish background scenery and locations that would be impractical in a theater. Musical films characteristically contain elements reminiscent of theater; performers often treat their song and dance numbers as if there is a live audience watching. In a sense, the viewer becomes the diegetic audience, as the performer looks directly into the camera and performs to it.

The 1930s through the 1960s are considered to be the golden age of musicals, when the genre’s popularity was at its highest in the Western world.

Musical short films were made by Lee de Forest in 1923-24. Beginning in 1926, thousands of Vitaphone shorts were made, many featuring bands, vocalists and dancers. The earliest feature-length films with synchronized sound had only a soundtrack of music and occasional sound effects that played while the actors portrayed their characters just as they did in silent films: without audible dialog. The Jazz Singer, released in 1927 by Warner Brothers, was the first to include an audio track including non-diegetic music and diegetic music, but it had only a short sequence of spoken dialog. This feature-length film was also a musical, featuring Al Jolson singing “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face”, “Toot, Toot, Tootsie”, “Blue Skies” and “My Mammy“. Historian Scott Eyman wrote, “As the film ended and applause grew with the houselights, Sam Goldwyn‘s wife Frances looked around at the celebrities in the crowd. She saw ‘terror in all their faces’, she said, as if they knew that ‘the game they had been playing for years was finally over. Still, only isolated sequences featured “live” sound; most of the film had only a synchronous musical score. In 1928, Warner Brothers followed this up with another Jolson part-talkie, The Singing Fool, which was a blockbuster hit. Theaters scrambled to install the new sound equipment and to hire Broadway composers to write musicals for the screen. The first all-talking feature, Lights of New York, included a musical sequence in a nightclub. The enthusiasm of audiences was so great that in less than a year all the major studios were making sound pictures exclusively. The Broadway Melody (1929) had a show-biz plot about two sisters competing for a charming song-and-dance man. Advertised by MGM as the first “All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing” feature film, it was a hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1929. There was a rush by the studios to hire talent from the stage to star in lavishly filmed versions of Broadway hits. The Love Parade (Paramount 1929) starred Maurice Chevalier and newcomer Jeanette MacDonald, written by Broadway veteran Guy Bolton.

Warner Brothers produced the first screen operetta, The Desert Song in 1929. They spared no expense and photographed a large percentage of the film in Technicolor. This was followed by the first all-color, all-talking musical feature which was entitled On with the Show (1929). The most popular film of 1929 was the second all-color, all-talking feature which was entitled Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). This film broke all box office records and remained the highest grossing film ever produced until 1939. Suddenly the market became flooded with musicals, revues and operettas. The following all-color musicals were produced in 1929 and 1930 alone: The Show of Shows (1929), Sally (1929), The Vagabond King (1930), Follow Thru (1930),Bright Lights (1930), Golden Dawn (1930), Hold Everything (1930), The Rogue Song (1930), Song of the Flame (1930), Song of the West (1930),Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Under a Texas Moon (1930), Bride of the Regiment (1930), Whoopee! (1930), King of Jazz (1930), Viennese Nights(1930), Kiss Me Again (1930). In addition, there were scores of musical features released with color sequences.

Hollywood released more than 100 musicals in 1930, but only 14 in 1931. By late 1930, audiences had been oversaturated with musicals and studios were forced to cut the music from films that were then being released. For example, Life of the Party (1930) was originally produced as an all-color, all-talking musical comedy. Before it was released, however, the songs were cut out. The same thing happened to Fifty Million Frenchmen(1931) and Manhattan Parade (1932) both of which had been filmed entirely in TechnicolorMarlene Dietrich sang songs successfully in her films, and Rodgers and Hart wrote a few well-received films, but even their popularity waned by 1932. The public had quickly come to associate color with musicals and thus the decline in their popularity also resulted in a decline in color productions.

The taste in musicals revived again in 1933 when director Busby Berkeley began to enhance the traditional dance number with ideas drawn from the drill precision he had experienced as a soldier during World War I. In films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Berkeley choreographed a number of films in his unique style. Berkeley’s numbers typically begin on a stage but gradually transcend the limitations of theatrical space: his ingenious routines, involving human bodies forming patterns like a kaleidoscope, could never fit on to a real stage and the intended perspective is viewing from straight above.

Musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were among the most popular and highly respected personalities in Hollywood during the classical era; the Fred and Ginger pairing was particularly successful, resulting in a number of classic films, such as Top Hat (1935), Swing Time(1936) and Shall We Dance (1937). Many dramatic actors gladly participated in musicals as a way to break away from their typecasting. For instance, the multi-talented James Cagney had originally risen to fame as a stage singer and dancer, but his repeated casting in “tough guy” roles and mob films gave him few chances to display these talents. Cagney’s Oscar-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) 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‘ films included a musical number in nearly every film, allowing the Brothers to highlight their musical talents. Their final film, entitled Love Happy (1949), featured Vera-Ellen, considered to be the best dancer among her colleagues and professionals in the half century.

During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, a production unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer headed by Arthur Freed made the transition from old-fashioned musicals, whose formula had become repetitive, to something new. (However, they also produced Technicolor remakes of such musicals as Show Boat, which had previously been filmed in the 1930s.) In 1939, Freed was hired as associate producer for the film Babes in Arms. Starting in 1944 with Meet Me in St. Louis, the Freed Unit worked somewhat independently of its own studio to produce some of the most popular and well-known examples of the genre. The products of this unit include Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and The Band Wagon (1953). This era saw musical stars become household names, including Judy GarlandGene KellyAnn Miller, Donald O’ConnorCyd Charisse, Mickey RooneyVera-EllenJane PowellHoward Keel, and Kathryn Grayson. Fred Astaire was also coaxed out of retirement for Easter Parade and made a permanent comeback.