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The Musical: Welcome as the Measles

film musicals hollywood broadway

The fate of Fox’s SONG O’ MY HEART demonstrates the musical genre’s increasing loss of favor as early as February 1930. Frank Borzage shot the film, which starred the renowned tenor John McCormack, partly on location in Ireland using Technicolor and the Grandeur process. Variety liked the film as a virtual performance: “The recording on McCormack is excellent, as is the judgement evidenced in the handling of all the component parts…. Besides, John McCormack and eleven McCormack songs for 75 cents.” Yet the plot was a trifle. Obviously, because Fox had paid McCormack $500,000, it wanted to reap as many notes as possible from him. The public apparently desired something more than a cinematic concert; the film played poorly, and McCormack’s option for a second film was not picked up.

The box-office failure of THE KING OF JAZZ (dir. John Murray Anderson) in early 1930 was another sign that the public was tiring of the concoction of attractions constituting the revue movie.

What it lacks most is a little more skill in its construction, for it runs from the ultra artistic to the commonplace. It is a magnificent patch work quilt clumsily sewn together, for it has everything, including trick photography, exquisite color, a cartoon sequence, some good laughs and the most stupendous sets shown to date in a screen musical. The whole affair is rather a musical cocktail centered around King Paul himself and his merry musicians. (Film Daily , 4 May 1930, p. 1)

Hall described Warners’ SWEET KITTY BELLAIRS (dir. Alfred E. Green, 1930) as “operetta-conscious in a dull way.” 9 Variety actually liked BRIDE OF THE REGIMENT (dir. John Francis Dillon, 1930), but to the extent that it departed from the musical norm: “Containing a nicely knit story … with less emphasis laid on the music than most operetta talkers, Bride of the Regiment has a far better chance than many of the predecessors in its class.” Filmmakers, the review continued, were “realizing fans are far more concerned with story and plot.” CHILDREN OF PLEASURE (dir. Harry Beaumont, 1930), because it contained so many songs, was “built for the novelty era.” Reviews like these clearly demonstrate the pressure which studios were receiving to integrate music within a narrative—or omit it.

Why, the trades pondered, had the musical become so prevalent? “Can it be that the mental weavers of Los Angeles-by-the-Sea can think of no other tales than those about chorines, dressing rooms, soubrettes and bum comedians or has Hollywood gone so completely Broadway that nothing else matters?” queried Film Daily . “Too much aqua pura,” Variety remarked in its inimitable style, “has trickled under the trestle since the backstage formula was first promulgated by Hollywood.”

The rapid falloff in box-office returns for musicals that began in the summer of 1930 continued during the new season, reflecting an unmistakable popular backlash against the genre. Fan magazines and exhibitors’ letters to the trade press communicated the general public’s increasing boredom. Samuel Goldwyn, one who listened, predicted that 50 percent fewer films would be made in 1931, with the biggest cuts in musicals: “It is ridiculous for studios to attempt to turn out fifteen to twenty musical productions a year. The best showmen on Broadway with years of experience in the field are only able to do one or two.” Alicoate confirmed that Hollywood was rebalancing its genres: "Reacting to box-office experience and exhibitor pleas, producers are making another reduction in the number of musicals for next season…. Scenario writers have been instructed to go slow on musical material. ’ The cuts in musical production were supposed to have precipitated an “exodus of chorines from Hollywood,” along with songsmiths, musicians, and assorted Broadway talent. Paramount even laid off Jeanette MacDonald.

Why the change in taste? The simplest explanation is that the public was surfeited with the glut of musical movies as a genre. But some critics and industry insiders suggested that the public was dissatisfied with the content: plotless revues and excessive singing. The composer Sigmund Romberg (The Student Prince, Viennese Nights) complained that music and dancing failed on Hollywood screens because the producers had not adopted what he called a graduated approach to musical content:

Did the movie producers realize the difference between a score and a song? Did any of them stop to think that a score is a unit of melodies written after careful consideration, by graduation, to bring an audience into a certain mood, or frame of mind, as the book may require? Nobody knew, or cared, that in a score, a composer, from the opening note to the closing bar, through skillful manipulation of different tempos, with different instrumentations, through different songs, plays for two and a half hours with an audience and sells them something so satisfactory that, by the end of the evening, they go out whistling his numbers and recommending the show to their friends. (Sigmund Romberg, “What’s Wrong with Musical Pictures,” Rob Wagner’s Script , 2 August 1930, reprinted in Anthony Slide, ed., The Best of Rob Wagner’s Script [Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1985], p. 12)

Implicit in Romberg’s criticism that the musical was not being approached as a whole, structured work but rather a series of “numbers” is the neglect of the function of the “book,” the narrative element. The composer and lyricist should lead an audience through the operetta’s structured progression. He believed that instead of canned revues, moviegoers responded to films with a story. Alfred E. Green, the Warners director, concurred: “Music must be subordinated to action.” The Wall Street Journal reported that this was the Hollywood consensus: “Film producers in planning their new production programs will endeavor to place more emphasis on the quality of entertainment and less on the mere novelty of sound. The industry has been deluged with musical revues and operettas for the screen. This fall it seems more likely that greater importance will be given to plot.” Alicoate wrote in “Flops of 1930” that musicals had “committed box-office hari-kari.”

A great majority of these screen musicals that came in like a lion and went out like a lamb were beautiful, but Oh! so dumb. We believe the musical talkie still has a chance regardless of the fact that it is now as welcome as the measles in most directions. Sunny Side Up was a smash because it combined story and action with honest-to-goodness comedy and bright tunes that one could remember. (Film Daily , 1 July 1930, p. 1)

Hall liked VIENNESE NIGHTS (dir. Alan Crosland, 1930) because “its none too novel narrative often captivates one’s interest.” After a year of complaints about their lack of originality and entertainment value, Hollywood stopped releasing musicals. Does this mean that producers were following the critics’ recommendations? Not necessarily—perhaps not even likely.

While the critics may articulate (accurately or not) the reasons behind audience reaction to films, only when the trend becomes a box-office reality are studios likely to react in turn. The films of the 1930-1931 season were the first to suffer the jolt of the Depression. Superabundance was expensive. These films had to do very well just to recoup the high cost of production values (which might include Technicolor photography and release prints), royalties paid to Broadway producers, and hefty fees for stars. But contrary to the general belief that hard times generated a desire for escapist fare, audiences showed little interest in these revues and musicals. Mordaunt Hall’s ten-best list of 1930 films, significantly, did not contain a single musical.

Several productions with a Broadway genesis were de-tuned for their movie versions. Columbia, for instance, bought the rights to the James Gleason and Maurice Marks musical Rain or Shine , but Capra’s 1930 screen version contained no songs (only some background music from the original). Instead, it featured the comedian Joe Cook doing his balancing act circus specialty. “There may not be much to the factual story of this musical comedy now without song,” wrote Hall, “but it possesses the quality of humor that is not too strained.” What happened to FIFTY MILLION FRENCHMEN strikingly illustrates this retreat from musicals. Warner Bros. had underwritten the original Broadway musical, which featured songs by Cole Porter, specifically for the purpose of filming it. But when the studio shot the movie, it cut out all the songs, including the soon-to-be standard “You Do Something to Me.” A few Porter melodies were used as (extremely expensive!) background music. The play’s love story was transformed into a filmed farce showcasing the slapstick of the Palace Theater comedy team of Olsen and Johnson. It ends with a chase in fast-motion (silent comedy style) with post-dubbed footsteps   and sound effects. “With the song and dance numbers eliminated and action being substituted in their place,” said Film Daily with approbation, “this screen adaptation of the Broadway musical success comes off as a fairly satisfying piece of comedy entertainment.” The tendency to strip musicals of their music (which in these cases had already been paid for by the studios) demonstrates clearly that the genre was rejected not primarily for economic reasons but rather as a response to customers’ changing tastes.

As always, however, these changes were not global. Hollywood did not suddenly decide to throw aside the earliest conception of sound as a supplement and adopt the ideal of the voice-dominated environment. The films of this season were full of contradictions. In some musicals, like the above two examples, the songs were naturalized to the point of extinction. In others, song-and-dance numbers were still conspicuously encapsulated as virtual performances. (Jules Bledsoe, for example, sings “The Toreador” from Carmen and “Old Man River” from Show Boat in REMOTE CONTROL [dir. Malcolm St. Clair, Nick Grinde, 1930]). Some movies used nonstop talk, superabundant sound effects, and background music to maximize the acoustic potential of the medium; others experimented with extended nondialogue passages for a contrast effect. Even within one film some parts flaunted vocal and audio effects and other sections used sound “inaudibly.” And finally, in early 1931, CITY LIGHTS was released. Because it was the most prominent new film to buck the trend and use no dialogue whatsoever, Chaplin’s film was widely viewed as a test. Would it stand against the talkies? Would it, as Chaplin hoped, start a return to silent filmmaking as a minority practice within Hollywood?

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