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Superabundance: Revues and Musicals

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Adapting musicals was a path of little resistance for movie producers. These proven New York successes with recognizable stars and tunes which left you humming must have seemed to producers like a quick road to riches. Now we would call these shows pre-sold packages. A studio could hire a Broadway director and performers, transform the play’s book into a screenplay, record the songs, and voilà! The public would beat a path to the door to see this improvement on the virtual Broadway idea. Richard Barrios aptly characterizes the events of mid-1929 as a “musical virus infecting Hollywood.” 1 Broadway was the center of the entertainment universe, and audiences evidently were   keenly interested in seeing what all the fuss was about. Many went to the movie theaters. Apparently, though, not all fans and critics liked what they found there.

In retrospect, we tend to think of all these films as “musicals” and to see their development as an evolutionary progression. But the early sound musical was not a well-defined or homogeneous film form. Barrios posits numerous examples of overlapping subgenres, and Rick Altman has criticized the standard historical account of the musical. 2 Far from being linear transitions, these early musicals were pastiches made of separate theatrical traditions—the revue, the operetta, and the musical comedy.

The film revue presents its musical and comedy numbers as discrete performance blocks, often in the form of encapsulated sound segments. The order in which these blocks appear, their length, and even their content are not crucial to the overall development of the film. The roots of this kind of filming were in the theatrical revue, a form which had flourished for about forty years. Martin Rubin has argued that the revue was one of several aggregate entertainment forms which grew out of a nineteenth-century aesthetic of superabundance that provided spectators with more than they could possibly absorb in a single sitting, for example, the three-ring circus. The cinema prolonged the aesthetic of superabundance by overwhelming the viewer with dense spectacle—for example, filling the screen with all-star performers from a Ziegfeld musical in sound and color, as in the closing pageant of parading showgirls in WHOOPEE ! (dir. Thornton Freeland, 1930). In the early-twentieth-century stage revue, a master of ceremonies (W. C. Fields, Josephine Baker, and Maurice Chevalier are Rubin’s examples) presents the show and provides coherence. In contrast to the unrelated acts of vaudeville, the revue was organized around a theme or a simple narrative progression. (The format survives vestigially in Las Vegas and touring ice shows.) This stage entertainment had lost much of its popularity when the talkies came along. “By the late 1920s,” Rubin argues, “these spectacular revues, although still active, were being viewed as bloated dinosaurs by many critics and sophisticates…. As it had done for the melodrama earlier, the cinema gave a new lease on life to the spectacular production number and to the revue form that nurtured it.” Good examples are the MGM Metrotone Acts produced in 1929. Each is introduced by a well-known emcee, such as the radio personality Jack Pepper. He speaks directly to the audience, even urging them to applaud after each performance. (Pointing offscreen, Pepper warns, “And I’ll be listening, from over here.”) Each performance is discrete and opens and closes with a curtain. Or consider the Fox revue HAPPY DAYS (dir. Benjamin Stoloff, 1929). Shot in the 70-mm Grandeur process, the filmmakers tried to engorge the big high-resolution screen. “Three-quarters of the footage is devoted to a series of spectacular stage ensembles that are eye-openers in screen pageantry, numbers involving masses of people and bigness of backgrounds,” observed Variety .

There is, for instance, a whole minstrel first part, with four tiers of people in the ensemble, numbering a total of eighty-six and all of them screened in proportions that give them individuality. There are several dance ensembles, one of them with a leader and thirty-two girls in intricate maneuvers, and each separate dancing girl visible in what would otherwise be a semi-atmospheric shot. (Variety , 19 February 1930)

The only lack in this display of superabundance was color—which, the commentator assured his readers, was just around the corner.

The operetta was another resurgent nineteenth-century musical form. Big hits like Rose-Marie and The Student Prince , both 1924, and the landmark Show Boat in 1927, were prototypes for the movies’ singing spectacles. (One of these, A Connecticut Yankee 1927, was the debut of the young choreographer Busby Berkeley.) These stories told in song were the source of many direct screen adaptations, such as RIO RITA and THE ROGUE SONG . The latter (from Lehar’s Gypsy Love) , with Lawrence Tibbett, showed the power of the virtual performance as a lure; Variety noted that the volume of the film’s sound track eclipsed the star’s real voice: “The power is tremendous, and those who go from the Astor to the Metropolitan to hear him are going to be surprised at the difference in volume on the big auditorium hearing. That’s what that mike can do.”

Screen musical comedies were often adapted from stage predecessors. The resulting film musicals tried to cover all the entertainment bases. Filled with music and pageantry, they were conveniently symbolized by the slogan “All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing.” SPRING IS HERE (dir. John Francis Dillon, 1930) is a good example of the superabundant musical. It has a narrative that corresponds to the book in a stage show, but it also uses the conventions of the operetta for introducing songs. For instance, in a soliloquy the actor “thinks aloud” with musical accompaniment, and lovers’ words segue into song (which expand with the addition of a chorus and dancers).

Genre boundaries were very fluid. Around 1929–1930, it was the rare movie that was not a musical in some sense of the term. Practically every film had a specially composed theme song. (Contrary to received opinion, the theme song written by Dorothy Parker for DeMille’s DYNAMITE 1929 was “How Am I to Know,” not the apocryphal “Dynamite, Dynamite, Blow My Sweet One Back to Me.”) Most movies, even Westerns like IN OLD ARIZONA (dir. Walsh and Cummings, 1929) or flapper melodramas like THE WILD PARTY (dir. Arzner, 1929) had gratuitous songs. The showgirl in Hal Roach’s first talkie, HURDY GURDY (1929), said it best. “If you can’t think of anything to say, just sing.” And she does. Producers finding themselves in the same quandary about how to insert their de rigueur musical sessions seem to have heeded her advice. Reviewers singled out films which did not contain music, including THE VIRGINIAN , DISRAELI , and MADAME X. Another factor not to be underestimated was radio. All these Hollywood musical formats were influenced by, and competing with, variety show programs on contemporary broadcasts.

Critics during the season of 1929-1930 grew tired of Hollywood’s musicals. Their remarks are consistent with declining box-office revenue for these films, suggesting that their sentiments were widely shared. The harshest comments were directed toward films which failed to keep a story flowing. The New York Herald Tribune’s review of NO , NO , NANETTE (dir. Clarence Badger, 1929) demanded an integration of music and narrative: “Instead of mixing up the story with the songs, the screen No, No, Nanette insisted on placing the musical numbers at the beginning and end of the picture and on making them fit in with some fantastic plot about the production of a show. Thus, the outdated narrative, deprived of the salvation of song cues, was forced to wander on aimlessly to a tedious conclusion, and all of the frailties of its formula were cruelly exposed.” By contrast, Don Carle Gillette, the Film Daily reviewer, found that MONTE CARLO (1930) properly mixed song and story: “Ernst Lubitsch has done it again! … It boasts an amusing and touching romance, witty dialogue and racy humor. The songs are comic   as well as tuneful, and they don’t get in the way because they are part of the plot and help to swing the story along.” 5 An example is the justifiably famous “Beyond the Blue Horizon” number. As Jeanette MacDonald flees Paris, the tempo of her song is picked up from the chugging of the locomotive. The whistle becomes part of the score. The train hurtles through the South of France, and when it passes peasant grape-pickers in a vineyard, they supply the song’s chorus in perfect serendipity. Though humorous, the sequence also provides the essential narrative bridge from one locale to another. Lubitsch’s films showed that in an integrated musical, the music could reinforce a strong story and add star interest.

This season was in a state of flux and uncertainty as musical films were defined and refined. But the musicals did not immediately become, contrary to the message of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN , the permanent archetypes of film genres. Rather, the period was more like a shopping spree in which filmgoers selected then rejected these entertainment options.

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