Free Film School #80: The Theory of Movie Musicals (Part 2)

Professor Witney Seibold walks you through the history of the movie musical, from 1927 to Rock of Ages.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

Greetings, my dearest pupils, and welcome to the newest installment of the Free Film School here in the ivy-covered halls of CraveOnline. I am your ivy-covered professor, Witney Seibold, who most assuredly holds a degree in something or other. Before we begin this week’s lecture, I would implore that you go back to last week’s article, which detailed some abstract theories on movie musicals. It was the first part of a series.

This week’s lecture will be the second part in this two-part series on musicals, and I will be giving a (perhaps maddeningly) brief rundown on the history of the musical as it’s moved from 1927 to the present. I will be citing many many notable movie musicals that either stand as exemplars of the genre, or that I am personally fond of. I understand that, since the genre is so large and all-encompassing, it will be difficult to mention every single one of the notable movie musicals that have been made, and it’s likely that I will gloss over or fail to mention some of your favorites. To this I say: that’s why God created internet comment sections.

First, a brief rundown on the introduction of sound into cinema. Nearly the first three decades of film were made without sound, and these vital first few decades were where most of standard film acting and general aesthetics were invented. If you don’t know silent cinema, then you are missing perhaps the most vital era of filmmaking. Most films were released with no soundtracks at all, and were accompanied in movies theaters by live musicians who would improvise a score, or be assigned a score. Some big-budget features had entire orchestras. The first feature film to be released with spoken dialogue and on-set singing was Alan Crosland’s 1927 film The Jazz Singer, which starred Al Jolson as a Jewish man who is torn between singing for his father as a Cantor, and being a hit nightclub singer. The film featured real singing, and the first words of spoken dialogue in a film were “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” The Jazz Singer, also the first movie musical, set the film world on fire and was hotly contested by many in the industry. Some actors felt that the addition of sound to cinema was a gross mutation from the important silent aesthetic; Charlie Chaplin famously decried talking pictures, and persisted in making silent (or mostly silent) films for a few more years. Famed It girl Clara Bow hated sound, and openly hoped for fires to destroy sound recording equipment. Despite detractors, music and dialogue were too alluring to resist, and sound became a proper film revolution. Some like to equate 3-D effects and the recent 48fps movies as the next revolution. Those are small potatoes compared to what sound did.

Sound, it turned out, was here to stay, and studios quickly jumped on the bandwagon, making films with quick, quippy dialogue, and plenty of singing. The innovation of sound introduced an explosion of musicals all throughout the 1930s, and many consider the decade to be the Golden Era of the movie musical. Some also cite the Great Depression as another contributing factor to the proliferation of movie musicals. For musicals, as stated in last week’s lecture, are typically formed out of a very basic and primal form of performance. To escape the horror of the poverty and starvation outside, it has been theorized, many audiences fled into the opulent and entertaining world of musicals.

When people think of musicals of the 1930s, they typically think of one filmmaker in particular: Busby Berkeley (1895-1976). Berkeley was a choreographer known for large, elaborate dance numbers that involved dozens of people all dancing in unison. He essentially took the aesthetic of the stage, and tweaked it for the screen. His most famous films are the Gold Diggers movies, 1933’s 42nd Street (which was later adapted for the stage), Girl Crazy (1932), and he even worked on some choreography for The Wizard of Oz, although his scenes were deleted from the final cut. Berkeley’s most notable contribution to the world of musicals was his famous shooting-straight-down-from-above technique, wherein he would stage elaborate geometrical shapes using dozens of dancers. You’ve likely seen clips of Berkeley’s musicals in the past. Berkeley’s films were, rather notoriously, simple escapist fantasies. Many were about young, innocent, and poverty-stricken gals from smalltown America who moved to the big city to be discovered by a showbiz bigwig. The endings were always happy, and the heroines were always rewarded for their innocence and tenacity.

Just as frothy, and far more popular, were the dance films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I will be brief here, and the Astaire/Rogers films will warrant a lecture of their own someday. Suffice it to say: Fred Astaire is arguably the best dancer to ever appear on a screen, and Rogers, as the saying goes, did everything he did backwards and in heels. Their films were always romances about how the two of them suffer a complicated set of sitcom circumstances that skillfully keep them apart for the bulk of the film. Astaire/Rogers films equate dancing with love, and often more is said through the virtuosic dance numbers and through the catchy songs than through the silly dialogue. The two of them notoriously would rehearse for hours and hours, sometimes until their feet bled. Their best film is probably George Steven’s 1936 film Swing Time, although I personally give equal credence to Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat from the previous year. The films are peerlessly joyful, and the dancing is truly amazing. Seriously. See at least one or two Astaire/roger movies.

Most musicals of the 1930s were romances or comedies. The Marx Bros. films all featured numerous musical numbers. Fast dialogue and funny music were the word of the day, and the new form was perfectly suited for stage-bred musicians and comedians who could now record their acts in whole.

Not all movie musicals of the ‘30s were trifles, though. The duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart moved to the world of film musicals with ease, translating their stage shows to the screen with hits like Babes in Arms (1937) and On Your Toes (1936). Their magnum opus was probably Pal Joey, although their most famous movie was probably the amusingly titled Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! from 1933. Their musicals weren’t any more sophisticated than their peers in terms of their stories, often being revues with romances attached, but the lyrics and songwriting were most certainly a cut above some of the goofy cuts of the (admittedly awesome) Cole Porter, or the comparatively sentimental Oscar Hammerstein.

1937 also saw the birth of a new film form: The animated feature film. While Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs isn’t technically the world’s first animated feature, it certainly was the first successful one. No surprise: it was also a musical. The form was so well-known, and Snow White was so successful, that Disney is still, to this day, ensuring that most of their films feature princesses in peril, and perhaps numerous songs. The animated feature, the Disney Princess brand, and the animated musical were all born with this one film.

As World War II began, however, musicals began to change. Perhaps with a recovering economy, the people were no longer interested in flighty and frothy comedies anymore, and began aching for something a bit more, I dunno, sophisticated. The more famous films of the 1940s tend to be wartime dramas like Casablanca, or stirring social dramas like Citizen Kane. There were still plenty of musicals, but this so-called Golden Age of Hollywood is known more for its explosion of filmmaking and storytelling acumen than it is for its singing and dancing. That said, there were still several notable movie musical from the 1940s, the most enjoyable of which was probably the series of "Road" movies starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. The Hope and Crosby films were all pretty much identical: Bob and Bing played a pair of irascible bachelors who decide to swear off of women right before they find themselves on the road to an exotic locale of some sort (Bali, Zanzibar, Rio, etc.), and in the company of a plucky and attractive lady. They would vie for the affections of the lady, and their friendship would suffer, only to be healed by the end. Usually during a song. Bing Crosby’s voice was the most seductive thing in the world during this age of crooners.

I also recommend the films of Danny Kaye, a cheerful and fun fellow who managed to infect each one of his films with a peerless innocence that is hard to define. Try out A Song is Born. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the glorious and tragic career of Judy Garland, best known, of course, for The Wizard of Oz. That film helped launch her (tragically brief) career of movie musicals like Ziegfeld Girl, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Easter Parade with Fred Astaire. Several of her films were projects with Mickey Rooney, and the two would often be seen putting on a show in order to save some sort of impoverished institution. Garland looked like a young girl, but had the voice of a woman. Hearing her sing was a resonant and beautiful experience. She projected warmth. She continued to work through the 1950s and even into the 60s, when she died all too soon at age 47. If you get a chance, watch George Cukor’s 1952 film A Star is Born, and you may see some of Garland’s experience in microcosm.

By the 1950s, that silly, slight version of movie musical passed into the hands of higher-concept projects. Original movie musicals were considered passé, and indeed the best movie musical of the decade, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain starring and directed by Gene Kelly, was very much a nostalgia trip for Hollywood. The film, about the introduction of sound into cinema, was an orgy of self-reflection and self-reference, only seen through a more modern eye. It comically showed the journey actors and singers had to take in order to transition to sound, and points out that many of the silent sirens may not have had very good speaking voices. Kelly, a dancer by trade, is a much more masculine presence than the Fred Astaires of the previous generation, and Singin’ in the Rain is a classic corny Technicolor Hollywood film about classic silent, black-and-white Hollywood. It doesn’t get the 1920s right, but it gets the 1950s perfectly. Many consider it the best film about movies ever made. I love Singin’ in the Rain, although I kind of bristle at the long, long “Gotta Dance” number at the end.

Since original musicals were kind of passé, the 1950s saw a slew of adaptations of previous Broadway hits, most notably, film versions of the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein, produced on stage over the course of the 1940s and early ‘50s. Rodgers and Hammerstein have often been cited for transforming musicals from revues into actual musical narratives, all with Oklahoma! in 1943. With Oklahoma!, the songs in a musical were now used to advance the story, rather than take an amusing intermission from it. In the 1950s, most of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals made it to the screen. 1955 saw Oklahoma!, 1956 saw both The King & I, and the bonkers Carousel. 1958 saw South Pacific, which is a musical so colorful, you’ll wonder what the usher slipped into your drink. All of these productions were well-moneyed, featured awesome music, and were considered huge “A” productions.

Disney, meanwhile, was hitting its stride in the 1950s with a string of animated features that are, today, considered the center of their brand. Disneyland opened in 1955, mind you, so Disney was just beginning to become the world-dominating power that it is in 2013. The decade saw Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953), The Lady and the Tramp (1955), and my favorite, Sleeping Beauty (1959). All of these were musicals with original songs. Again, thanks to this decades-old tradition, Disney films are still seen in a certain way: as musicals with princesses and talking animals. It wasn’t until they started buying other companies and properties (Miramax, Studio Ghibli, The Muppets, Marvel Comics, Lucasfilm) that they tried to diversify. Pretty soon Disney will own you.

As the ‘50s gave way to the ‘60s, youth culture began to rise to the fore. The World War II generation had now raised teenagers in an era of peace, and trouble began to brew. Parents were not expected to open up about the violence of their past, which may have translated into violent and rebellious instincts in their kids (if I may wax sociological for a moment). Rock ‘n’ Roll entered the scene, and Elvis began making movies. Teen films were the new word of the day, and youth culture gave rise to the youth market. The youth market, by the way, is still the biggest money-maker in the film world, which is why so many big-money movies are simple PG-13-rated action films intended for teenage boys. The 1950s and early 1960s, then, saw all kinds of low-budget sex-laced bikini/Elvis/biker/miniskirt films that were clearly paying homage to the musicals of the past, but had a more palpable party vibe.

There were still some high-profile Broadway adaptations in the ‘60s, though. 1965’s The Sound of Music, another by Rodgers and Hammerstein, is a truly great film, and some of these Broadway adaptations were winning Oscars. 1961 saw West Side Story, 1969 saw Oliver!. I like The Music Man from 1962, and 1967’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, a bizarre Roman spoof by Stephen Sondheim. And who could forget My Fair Lady? It should be noted that most of the musicals after the 1940s featured actors lip-synching the famous songs, with Marni Nixon or other talented singers dubbing over them. It’s boldly artificial, yes, but still makes for awesome music, even if you know that’s not really Audrey Hepburn singing.

The 1960s also presented us with a few high-profile flops like Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly!, which may have been the death knell for the glories of musicals in the past. Musicals, like everything in the 1970s, started to take a grittier turn. American cinema in the 1970s saw the explosion of the Cultural Revolution, and watching Gene Kelly dance with an animated mouse was perhaps not what Woodstock attendees wanted to see. The mainstream Broadway adaptations began to incorporate death and tragedy, and 1971 saw Fiddler on the Roof, a very dour version of an otherwise lightly-toned show. 1972 saw the excellent and sexed-up film version of Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland’s daughter. The film took place right before WWII, and was hardly a romantic blast of nostalgia. It was dirty and wicked and sexy. It got the ‘70s right, and, in its way, it also got the late ‘30s right.

Most musicals in the 1970s tended to be rock operas, and incorporated pop music forms, rather than the classical croons and rhymes of previous generations. Now we were treated to rock operas like Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Who’s Tommy, based on their concept album, directed by Ken Russell, a bizarre odyssey of commercialism, drugs, infidelity, and a scene where Ann-Margaret bathes in baked beans. When you see the beans scene, you’ll know that Oklahoma! is very much a thing of the past. Now we had musicals like The Rocky Horror Picture Show to contend with. Throw in The Wiz and Hair, and you’ve got a pile of awesome “important” and very, very modern musicals to deal with. Even though it came out in 1982, I would count Pink Floyd’s bizarre rock opera The Wall in with that crowd as well, as it dealt with surreal imagery and poetic lyrics to convey more a state of mind than a real story. Only one musical of the 1970s dealt with outright corny nostalgia, and that is the overrated 1978 classic Grease, which many love, and I kind of hate, thanks to hundreds of drunken karaoke versions of “Summer Nights.”

Also The Muppet Movie (1979). I defy you to listen to “The Rainbow Connection” and not cry a little.

As the 1980s began, musicals died outright. There were a few notable Broadway adaptations, but they were clearly trying to recapture to old magic, and didn’t do much of note. Annie, A Chorus Line, and Little Shop of Horrors all have their fans, but they are not at the forefront of any sort of movement. Although Frank Oz’s Little Shop is a keen musical about a killer plant from outer space, and features some of the best practical special effects in any movie; it’s right alongside John Carpenter’s The Thing in that regard. Plus the songs burrow into your brain.

Otherwise, the 1980s are kind of a musical wasteland. Indeed, 1980 is probably the worst year for musicals, as it saw the release of four of the worst the form has to offer: The Olivia Newton John vehicle Xanadu, The Village People’s Can’t Stop the Music, The Bee-Gee’s oddball Beatles tribute Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and a truly wonderful and brain-melting piece of crap called The Apple, which retells the Adam & Eve story in the distant future of 1994 amongst glittery outfits and evil music corporations. I grew up in the 1980s, and, looking back in such a way, it seems like it was one of the most creatively bankrupt times for entertainment; so much of what I grew up with was soulless commercial fare.

The 1990s cleaned things up a bit, mostly thanks to another renaissance of Disney animated features. This was the time when The Little Mermaid totally revitalized an otherwise flagging animation department, and led to some of the company’s biggest hits. 1991’s Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and Aladdin and The Lion King made millions. Live-action musicals were now totally passé (Newsies anyone? I love John Waters’ Cry-Baby, but it’s not exactly a blockbuster), but the animated musical was experiencing a new high. The only high-profile ‘90s movie musical I can think of was Evita starring Madonna.

One film revitalized movie musicals in the 2000s, but sadly started an unfortunate trend. That was Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann’s visual assault of repurposed pop hits and clunky over-design. By all aesthetic standards, Moulin Rouge! is a failure, but the music struck audiences just right, and the film became a huge hit. The legacy of the film was that A) musicals were hip again, and B) they had to be overdesigned and glitzy. Hence we saw a mediocre adaptation of Kander & Ebb’s Chicago in 2002, a film version of Hairspray in 2007, and Dreamgirls in 2006, all of which were big hits, and none of which are very good. Well, I kind of liked Dreamgirls.

Musicals were back, but not necessarily in a powerful way. They weren’t as present as they seemed to be in the past, and indeed, many bad musicals started to leak in around the edges. 2005, like 1980, saw some of the worst movie musicals ever made with Rent, the musical version of The Producers, and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera, which I will not talk about for any reason. Although the 2000s couldn't be a total wash if they could bring us 2007’s Once, a naturalist musical about musicians falling in love and recording a record together. Once is one of the more touching film romances as well as a stirring musical.

And where are we now? The trend these days seems to be jukebox musicals: Mamma Mia! (2008), Across the Universe (2007) and Rock of Ages (2012) are all recent films that took existing pop hits and shoehorned them into a narrative musical structure, to mixed results. One could say that, with the 2000s and ‘10s, we're going through another nostalgia-based revolution based on re-singing popular hits, rather than making original musicals again. These days, it is only acceptable for animated films to be musicals, and even then, it’s not encouraged. We are at a down-clip in movie musicals right now. They are once again passé. I can’t say where we’ll go from here. Maybe movie musicals and rock operas will come back at some point. Maybe CGI-laced action bonanzas will give way to CGI-laced song and dance extravaganzas. Maybe people will long for the awesomeness of actual singing and dancing again. Maybe the purity of music and dance will once again shine through. Say what you will about the recent Les Misérables, at least they thought to let the actors sing their own songs.

No genre ever truly dies. They just go through waves of popularity. Right now, we’re in sci-fi and fantasy movie mode. Angsty romances and superheroes seem to be in the center of the public eye. Perhaps westerns will come back. Maybe noir will come back. Maybe musicals will even come back. More than likely, we’ll have something we cannot predict. Until then, I can sit down with Top Hat, watch the dancing, sing along, and fall in love with music again.

Homework for the Week:

Is my history accurate to you? What’s your favorite era of musicals? Which movie musicals are your favorite? Do you think musicals are dead, or can they live again? What’s the best approach to watching a movie musical? Do you start in the modern era and go backwards, or start in 1927 and move forward?

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies ExtendedFree Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on Twitter at @WitneySeibold.