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The Musical

The classical period of the musical coincided with the heyday of the Hollywood studios from the early thirties to the early fifties. The conventions of the integrated musical were formed in the Astaire–Rogers musicals made at RKO in the thirties and the form peaked at MGM in the forties and early fifties, most notably in films produced by Arthur Freed. Thomas Schatz has provided a useful definition of the integrated musical. ‘Rather than create a realistic –or at least plausible –world whose inhabitants find reasonable motives for breaking into song (rehearsals, shows, etc. he music itself seems to determine the attitudes, values and demeanour of the principal characters. As the musical genre evolved it sacrificed plausibility for internal narrative logic, steadily expanding its range of narrative, visual and musical expression’. The nature of integration in the film musical lies not simply in the idea that the music and the dances, in particular, should advance the plot but also suggests integration with the entire cinematic process. Integration involves not only choreographing the dances for the camera but also involves the general movement of the film from camerawork to editing.

In other words the film is a total piece in which the numbers not only evolve from the narrative but also, in turn, influence the narrative. This integration was first fully realised in the Freed–Kelly–Donen musicals e. g. On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain. At the centre of the integrated musical is modern dance where the body is used without restrictions of style and method, almost spontaneously. This becomes the means of psychological expression through movement. The musical’s special power as a genre has been to embody an American popular mythology.

By doubling romantic relationships with the energy and beauty of song and dance, the musical endows courting with magical qualities. Music and spectacle were generated by the energy of successful courtship. The loss of status of singing and courtship, as uniquely valuable activities to be celebrated, coincided with the decline of the studio system. The thirties and forties were the great decades for the musical with an average of between forty and fifty per year being produced. By the seventies this had declined to single figures.

Seven video packages designed for use in the study of the musical have recently been added to the Film and Video Lending Collection designed for use in the study of the musical. Each package is made up of either two or three VHS videocassettes and notes which contextualise the packages within the genre and place them in relation to other musicals in the Film Study Collection on film. The notes also provide specific suggestions for the use of extracts from the films on videocassette.

Films on both VHS and 16mm are organised below into three sub-genres (fairytale, show and folk) proposed by Rick Altman. Not all musicals fall neatly within boundaries of one of these sub-genres. It’s Always Fair Weather, for example, as a whole operates as an urban folk musical but the satire of television in the last third of the film draws it towards the show musical. Although Altman locates Ziegfield Follies in the fairytale sub-genre it seems marginally placed between the fairytale and show musical.

Ostensibly a tribute to the Follies it lacks any unifying narrative. Although the introductory numbers –‘Bring on the Beautiful Girls’ and ‘Bring on the Wonderful Men’ –display sexual desire as a motive force, this is not consistently maintained through the series of musical numbers and comedy sketches that follow. This sub-genreborrowed massively from a long (pre-cinema) tradition of European and American operettas. Methods are a combination of those used by the fairytale and the romantic comedy.

In the early sound years (1929–1934) the sexual energy driving the plot is clearly acknowledged (sex as sex) e. g. in The Love Parade, Love Me Tonight and One Hour With You. In the climate created by the tightening of censorship the Astaire–Rogers classics made at RKO disguise the sexual energy that drives the plot behind a mask of courtship battles (sex as battle). Sexual energy is sublimated onto the process of courtship through the energy, repartee and adversary relationships associated with battle.

The progression of the Astaire–Rogers musicals depends on the simultaneous growth of their quarrelling and of their love. This ambiguous growth of the relationship is expressed through dance. The pattern of the initial contact–challenge dance, in the eight Astaire–Rogers RKO musicals, is epitomised by Top Hat (the fourth) and then modified with greater emphasis on adversary numbers with their quarrelsome, ironic tone in the last four films including Swing Time (the sixth).

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