The first ever Hollywood Musical was introduced in the 1920’s. In 1927 Alan Crosland directed The Jazz Singer featuring the infamous painted face of Al Jolson, which not only proved to be a box office success, but it was a major breakthrough in American Cinema. Warner Brothers Studios had developed the vitaphone. A sound-on-disc system which gave the traditional silent movie a voice. Sound in films, until this point, was completely unheard off. This was the beginning of something huge. The Jazz Singer caused a sensation amongst cinema goers everywhere. The majority of cinemas actually showed it as a silent film because they were not yet equipped with the new sound system, but by 1928 and the introduction of Jolson’s second film The Singing Fool, most cinemas were showing it with sound which set box office takings for the next 11 years only until it was taken over in 1939 by Gone With The Wind.
Although Warner Brothers were the first to produce musical films other studios followed lead and soon caught up with them by 1929. MGM won its first Oscar with Broadway Melody in 1929. Paramount, Fox, Columbia, RKO and Universal studios were all at one time associated with the production of Hollywood Musicals. Each different studio was associated with a specific director/producer. For example with Warner Brothers it was Busby Berkeley. With MGM it was Arthur Freed and with Paramount it was Ernst Lubitsch. Even today these three names are still associated with their work which was achieved more than 60 years ago.
Onwards and Upwards
Musical films made steady progress in the early thirties. There had been many successes within the musical film industry such as Whoopee (Eddie Cantor, 1930), Dames (Ray Enright, 1935), Forty Second Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933) and Disney’s Classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Yet there was yet another breakthrough set to change the film industry once again. In 1939, MGM released its first Technicolor film musical success, The Wizard of Oz. This film was an adaptation of a children’s book and proved to be one of the most expensive films ever made at that time. It was and still is considered a masterpiece. The earlier Technicolor Musicals featured bold brash colours where-ever possible.
During the course of the forties and up until the early fifties, Hollywood musicals were still being produced and consumed by a large audience. However like any era, it must come to an end at some point, as did the Hollywood Musical. By the mid-fifties a new taste had revolutionised within popular music. Rock ‘n’ Roll. Elvis Presley’s hit movies meant the end of the traditional Hollywood Musical. They were no longer a shock to the audience as the Elvis phenomenon had taken over. The popularity of television also took its toll on cinema audiences. It was a luxury to be able to stay at home and watch the television. In 1974, it seemed that even MGM studios had finally accepted the fact that the more traditional musicals were in decline with the release of That’s Entertainment and That’s Entertainment – Part 2.
Since the first Hollywood Musical was introduced, Broadway has provided Hollywood direct with ideal material for the Hollywood film Musical. Most successful Broadway shows have been, at one time or another, recreated on screen. The earlier Musicals were recreated in such a way that it looked as if there was no cinematography present. The shots were taken in a way to make it look as though the cameras had filmed the show by pure accident, but it worked. According to Rick Altman this kind of filming was known as backstage. And the final product went under the sub-heading if Show Musicals. Rick Altman dedicated nearly half of The American Film Musical, 1987 to Musical sub-genres. In his opinion there are three main sub-genres of Hollywood musical. The fairy tale, the show and the folk.
By categorising musicals in such a way we see the reason for their prolonged success. Each subgenre of musical has elements which appeal and fulfil a particular desire of an individual. In other words, there is not an audience to which these films do not cater for.
The Fairy Tale Musical
To create the feeling amongst viewers of being in another place. It is important to note that leading roles are chosen not for their vocal talent but for their dancing ability and charisma on-screen. Two of the greatest musical talents Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly were prime examples of this. They merely spoke their songs as apposed to really singing them. They had the charm and presence on screen which is what mattered. Those who had the voice, Sinatra and Crosby were shown as though it came so effortlessly without even trying. Singing was not a vital requirement. The fairy tale musical, although renowned for its sexual presence, contained the image that love would conquer all. It should bare no resemblance to the real world in which we live in. It is purely fantasy.
Early fairy tale musicals originally had no children present within them as it was feared they would remind viewers of the inevitable, marriage, children, and ultimately responsibility. However, children were later used to show sensitivity in leading males or as a scapegoat of innocence in the midst of a plot filled with sexual innuendos. According to Altman, sex is present in three forms within this genre. Sex as sex in its truest form, sex as battle and finally sex as adventure. He uses the word sex not purely to convey the physical act of love but as a general means to describe pure sexual attraction between two lovers.
In the early thirties firstly, we see sex as sex. This was the plain need for sexual attraction between actors and actresses. Innuendos, in-jokes, cheeky winks to the camera. They all displayed the need for sex even though not outwardly saying so. Sex was usually present in the shape of a comedy or romantic comedy in which these innuendos were accepted as a vital part of the story.
In the late thirties we see sex as a battle. Although they share many similarities sex as battle is quite different to the previous. It basically compliments the first in that it confirms the need for sex on-screen. However, it is displayed with more energy and mystery than its counterpart. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were one of Hollywood’s leading duets. Their on-screen relationships were intense and exciting and exactly what viewers craved. This love-hate relationship, denial of emotions and hidden desires is what differentiated sex as a battle from its other two forms. Altman uses the word violent to describe the attraction between the lovers. By this he does not mean that the leading actors act abusively towards their on-screen partners but that time is not wasted on lingering glances and soft touches. Their partner is treated more like a playmate than anything. Rough is probably more suitable than violent in terms of describing the chemistry between the lovers.
And finally sex as adventure. Although Altman says this is quite different from the other two forms, sex as adventure does share some similarities. In a nutshell, Altman claims that this is when one partner has an apparent fear of sex, which is ultimately compensated by the others uncontrolled drives. It could be linked again with sex as battle. Here the hero must be dangerous and violent not sensitive and peaceful. An outlaw. A foreigner. He must be daring. Like Zorro.
The Show Musical
Or the backstage musical. This creates a feeling of being in another body. To be someone else. This is quite different to the fairy tale musical. Show musicals are primarily concerned with putting on a show. To entertain the audience is their main function. The show musical is similar to Broadway in every way but it also adds in that little bit extra. Not only does the audience see a performance but they also see what appears to be off-screen. The stage was already a tradition. It was already well-established, so all Hollywood needed to do was borrow the tradition and adapt it on-screen. The actual time spent on the performance is, however not that long. The show musical is concerned more about the build up to the performance.
In terms of sexual presence, the show musical could justifiably be more risquï¿½ in terms of what it revealed to its audience. Crotch scenes, leg shots, garters, frilly knickers. It was all on show! Busby Berkeley was famous for it. A ‘Berkeley film’ was infamous to its viewers. The camera was nearly always aimed at the mid-section of his chorines. This kind of behaviour would not be accepted in any other kind of subgenre. Show musicals were basically an excuse to show the unseen. It was however, done in a careful and cautious manner.
The Folk Musical
The folk musical is concerned with lived reality. It transforms its audience to a mythicized version of the cultural past. Its main focus is the family and the home. This differentiates it from the other subgenres. It is based upon a realistic image yet it is as unlike real-life as the fairy tale musical. Anything is possibly when you’re in familiar territory, with familiar faces and all speaking a familiar language according to the folk musical. This offers the audience a sense belonging. That there is a desire to create a happy and content life through family and community. A good example of this is The Sound of Music or Meet Me in St Louis. Here we see that both families are discontented for one reason or another and the main theme of the film is to create harmony once again.
This is of course a summarised version of Rick Altman’s An American Film Musical. I have tried as best I can to conclude his findings, however I have referenced the book for those who wish to read up further on any of the topics mentioned.
Hollywood musicals are no different to the rest of us and like anything new and exciting, the novelty wears off, as did traditional film musicals. Admittedly there were periods where the industry lay dormant, however three or four years out or 76 is nothing short of genius. The Hollywood Musical Industry was host to some of the most talented performers in history and by performers we not only include the actors but the choreographers, directors, producers, and musicians too. Although there is no doubt it is a mass-produced popular industry, the Hollywood Musical scene has differentiated itself from any other popular culture by its flexibility to adapt and move with the times. It is in my opinion always going to be going on with the show!!!