Leading film historian Jeanine Basinger reveals, with her trademark wit and zest, the whole story of the Hollywood musical--in the most telling, most incisive, most detailed, most gorgeously illustrated book of her long and remarkable career.
From Fred Astaire, whom she adores, to La La Land, which she deplores, Basinger examines a dazzling array of stars, strategies, talents, and innovations in the history of musical cinema. Whether analyzing a classic Gene Kelly routine, relishing a Nelson-Jeanette operetta, or touting a dynamic hip hop number (in the underrated Idlewild), she is a canny and charismatic guide to the many ways that song and dance have been seen--and heard--on film.
With extensive portraits of everyone from Al Jolson, the Jazz Singer; to Doris Day, whose iconic sunniness has overshadowed her dramatic talents; from Deanna Durbin, that lovable teen-star of the '30s and '40s; to Shirley T. and Judy G.; from Bing to Frank to Elvis; from Ann Miller to Ann-Margret; from Disney to Chicago . . . focusing on many beloved, iconic films (Top Hat; Singin' in the Rain; Meet Me in St. Louis; The Sound of Music) as well as unduly obscure gems (Eddie Cantor's Whoopee!; Murder at the Vanities; Sun Valley Serenade; One from the Heart), this book is astute, informative, and pure pleasure to read.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Musicals are deceptively hard to define. A film is not a musical just because someone gets up and sings a song . . . or steps up and does a little jig. No, just having a musical number in a movie does not make it a musical. Music can turn up anywhere. Sometimes gangsters go to nightclubs and a chorus line dances out, and after doing a little number to set the atmosphere they disappear or recede into the background. Street singers on the sidewalk can appear in horror films. Marching troops in a combat movie can be singing “Over There.” All through the 1941 version of the western Billy the Kid, a character named Pedro plays his guitar and sings, and when the leading lady (Mary Howard) has a birthday party, the entire cast sings. In Captains Courageous (1937), in which Spencer Tracy inexplicably plays a Portuguese fisherman (and even more inexplicably wins an Oscar for it), Tracy sings. The idea is that all Portuguese fishermen would naturally sing because . . . well, because they are Portuguese. Or maybe because they’re fishermen, since the whole crew sings chanties while they chop and prepare bait. Their boat is a musical universe, except that the film is not a musical, and neither is Billy the Kid.
These films are using songs, but are not presenting music as performance. The musical moments are supposed to be about natural behavior, and as such, they are additions to a level of realism or believability that an audience can recognize. If it’s someone’s birthday party, we sing “Happy Birthday,” right? Seamen sing chanties, right? These are seemingly spontaneous musical presentations by characters. The movie is asking a viewer to accept them as real behavior, not musical-movie behavior.
“Spontaneous musical presentation” can be stretched pretty far in movies, particularly if a star associated with singing does it. Songs can appear out of the blue. Marlene Dietrich, playing a jewel thief, sits down at a piano somewhere in Spain and calmly warbles a tune designed to seduce Gary Cooper in Frank Borzage’s 1936 Desire. (And Cooper falls for it.) Dietrich is and always was associated with her Blue Angel “Falling in Love Again” tactics, which could ruin an innocent man’s life; so her prior films and established persona make this single song seem natural. Dietrich even manages to insert a little faux dance. She wears an off-the-shoulder black gown adorned by thin feathers sewn to “stand up” around her arms. These feathers are set in motion by her hands moving across the piano keys. The feathers do a little hula, sinuously waving at Cooper as if they were tiny fingers beckoning him near. When Dietrich shifts her mood and suddenly begins to play her song at a faster pace, turning it into a jaunty little flirtation, the feathers speed up, too. They pep up into a saucy little tap number. Dietrich sings—but also manages to “dance” through fashion—without ever getting up off the piano bench. And the movie is not a musical, nor is she playing a musical performer.
It’s easy to eliminate movies with “natural behavior” songs (even dances) from the musical genre, but there are actual musical performances all over the place in movies that aren’t supposed to be musicals. In Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943) a harem girl sings “Boola Boola,” the Yale song, to a group of Nazis. In After the Thin Man (1936), Dorothy McNulty leads a hard-tapping, gyrating chorus line in song and dance, and also performs the solo “Smoke Dreams.” Dietrich performs an elaborately designed and costumed dance number in the 1944 Kismet, which is not the later, musical version of the story. She plays the “queen of the Household of the Grand Vizier,” which means she’s the queen of his harem dancers. She wears a superstructure of braids for a hairdo, and has her beautiful legs covered by gold paint. In the 1937 She’s Got Everything, Ann Sothern plays a broke heiress working as a secretary to Gene Raymond, a wealthy “coffee tycoon.” The movie is a romantic nonmusical comedy that runs a scant seventy minutes, but it has time for the two of them to visit a nightclub where Sothern suddenly sings “It’s Sleepy Time in Hawaii” to Raymond. Sothern is not playing a singer. She has never sung before in the film, nor will she sing again. While she is crooning away (“Let me go to sleep and dream of love”), Raymond listens, but does not sing back to her, although Raymond was an established musical star, well-known as a singer. He isn’t given the opportunity to sing because he’s not playing a singer and the movie is not a musical. Yet out of nowhere, Sothern’s character sits at her table and, accompanied expertly by the orchestra, does what can only be called a “number.” When she finishes, the nightclub audience applauds. It’s the world of Hollywood moviemaking where musical things can happen, do happen, but they don’t make the film a musical.
There are “reasons” for all of this. A harem girl is supposed to entertain—and besides, she’s a spy, and “Boola Boola” is her code recognition (what a code!). McNulty is one of Nick Charles’s murder suspects, and she’s a nightclub entertainer. Dietrich’s job is to entertain the head potentate of the realm whenever he calls her out to do it, and “dancing” was the censors’ idea of what that could mean. Taking advantage of a harem-girl character and a nightclub entertainer gives the moviemakers a chance to liven things up, fill time, and develop dubious plot complications without turning a movie into a musical. The Ann Sothern case is one of the things people who want to believe all Hollywood films are masterpieces don’t want to think about. It’s seventy minutes of low-budget filmmaking, a song will help things along, and Sothern is lovely and can sing, and besides, this is a little romantic comedy and the audience isn’t going to care if she sings. They’ll love it . . . and they did, even though the boundaries of logic had been violated by Sothern’s out-of-nowhere “performance” of a musical number. The assumption was supposed to be: Don’t you ever sing to your loved one? Publicly? With an orchestra? In a nightclub? No? Well, you know you’d like to, so our star will do it for you.
The Ann Sothern case—why is she singing?—is hardly the only nonmusical movie that has a form of “performance.” All around the western heroes of John Ford lies music, including the evocative “Red River Valley” and “Shall We Gather at the River” themes woven into Ford’s soundtracks. In Ford’s cavalry westerns, particularly Rio Grande (1950), the music is key to atmosphere, meaning (through lyrics), and the establishment of camaraderie. When the Sons of the Pioneers, allegedly a group of cavalrymen sitting around a campfire, sing the haunting “My Gal Is Purple,” John Wayne walks alone beside the Rio Grande, lost in his memories of the past, his failed marriage, his loneliness, and the sudden physical presence of his wife, who has arrived to reclaim their son from cavalry service. The music, the setting, the lyrics, all bring specificity to an audience about subtext, feelings, and characterization. But what if the music in a western moves away from the campfire? How far can music be taken before the genre is changed? I’m not talking about the overtly musical westerns, such as Calamity Jane (a 1953 Doris Day vehicle), Red Garters (a 1954 musical satire of westerns, starring Rosemary Clooney), or Annie Get Your Gun (a 1950 adaptation of a Broadway musical that was never a real western in the first place). I’m asking, What about Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo (1959)? Trapped inside his jailhouse, awaiting the arrival of deadly foes, sheriff John Wayne and his deputies, Walter Brennan, Dean Martin, and Ricky Nelson, pass the time, trying to keep calm. Nelson plays his guitar and sings, and the entire group launches into a rolling version of “My Rifle, My Pony, and Me,” accompanied by Brennan on the harmonica. (Only Wayne does not sing, as is appropriate: he is John Wayne. He looks on, pleasure and appreciation written on his face.) It cannot be denied that Martin and Nelson, two pop singers of the era, are in fact doing an anachronistic musical number, as audiences of the day would expect from them. It’s a wonderful moment in the movie, and as bizarre as it is, it works. It’s the coming together of a group that must face death and danger, and it shows their resilience, their self-control, and their newly defined camaraderie. But does this musical interlude, which is not like singing “Happy Birthday” or a bunch of sea chanties, make Rio Bravo a musical? No, it doesn’t. Again, musicals are not defined simply by the performance of a musical number. They must be defined by the purpose of that number, the frequency of other numbers, and the inciting of audience expectation of that number.
Sometimes there’s a reason a musical number is in a movie that doesn’t seem to call for one, but the reason is external to the plot. For instance, in 1939’s Love Affair, Irene Dunne sings three times: first, a classical song while Charles Boyer’s grandmother (the unacceptable Maria Ouspenskaya) plays the piano; second, when she tries out for a job in a nightclub (“Dance, My Heart”); and third, when some schoolchildren join her for a rendition of “Wishing,” a song that became popular as a result of the film, with Dunne adorning the sheet music. Why does Love Affair, a melancholy romance, have three musical moments?
It has been established from the beginning that Dunne used to be a nightclub singer, but she’s now being kept by a wealthy man (Lee Bowman). Thus, she can sing while Ouspenskaya plays, and that makes sense; it’s improvisational and lovely. And when she breaks free of Bowman in order to become worthy of Boyer, it’s logical she would return to her former profession in a nightclub. But—after she’s run over by a car in the New York streets and becomes crippled—why does she sing with schoolchildren? In particular, why does her hospital nurse wheel her over to a schoolyard, so three little girls can join her while she sits in her wheelchair, strums a ukulele, and helps them do an all-out rendition of “Wishing”? There’s a plot “reason.” The school principal (called “Pickle Puss” by the students) needs an excuse to come out and offer Dunne a job as the music teacher for the school—even though she’s crippled, he doesn’t know who she is, and she’s never taught school before. Later, when Dunne’s not getting better, the children (and “Pickle Puss”) come to visit her in her apartment and sing “Wishing” for her. Does any of this make sense? Or make the movie a musical? Not really. But the music defines Irene Dunne: When she’s moved by Boyer’s grandmother, she sings. When her heart is full of optimism and joy, she sings. And when she’s desperate and trying to keep her spirits up, she sings, even though musical performance is not the operating mode of the movie. The decision for the songs is about stardom, character, audience expectation, and sheet music sales . . . not about genre. If the songs were removed from Love Affair, it would tell the same story in the same emotional tone. The music doesn’t define it.
Purpose is everything in any sudden musical rupture in a movie. Margie (1946), starring Jeanne Crain, capitalized on postwar craving for a sense of “the old days” by presenting a sweet story set in the 1920s. It’s about a high-school girl who falls in love with her French teacher. The movie is not a musical, but it found purpose in the good use of period songs of the flapper era, as when Margie watched from her upstairs window while her popular next-door neighbor (Barbara Lawrence) and a boyfriend play a record and do an impromptu dance to “A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You.” In Congo Maisie (1940), Ann Sothern (again) stops an angry mob of murderous African tribesmen by emerging from a colonial station wearing a low-cut sequined gown and a feathered headdress à la Ziegfeld. She advances toward them, dancing and singing “St. Louis Woman,” and performing some grade-school magic tricks. The magic scares them, but it’s the song that stops ’em cold. A worthy purpose.
Sex was often a musical purpose. An improvisational use of music helped Hollywood solve one of its biggest censorship problems: establishing sexual attraction and the fulfillment of it. If a nonmusical couple suddenly “sang” together—well, an audience could understand what that meant. When Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert launched themselves into the group mix bawling out “The Man on the Flying Trapeze” in It Happened One Night (1934), their whole relationship changed. When Robert Williams and Jean Harlow “sang” an argument about whether or not he’d wear the spats she’d bought for him in Platinum Blonde (1931), their playful back-and-forth, their pushing into each other’s rhythms, acted out a specific kind of love scene; and when Myrna Loy and Walter Pidgeon sang and danced around the streets of New York City on a late-night get-together (Man-Proof, 1938), an audience knew it was only a matter of time until Pidgeon’s fiancée, Rosalind Russell, would be out of his life. Loy and Pidgeon, playing nonmusical characters, skip down the block, arm in arm, their voices joined in perfect sync, easily slipping into the pretense that they are characters in a movie musical. Audiences understood the comic reference and what it said about them. It wasn’t just their song and dance that said “sex” or “love”; it was their union—physical, improvisational and thus spontaneous, and coming out of them in spite of themselves.
A perfect example of how specific purpose tips the balance lies in. Ace Drummond, a nonmusical Universal serial made in 1936, created by the celebrated World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Under no circumstances could Ace Drummond be thought of as a musical. It’s been built for adventure and excitement, and for a young audience; and yet the daring air ace, who roves the world of danger, sings. In the first episode (“Where East Meets West”), Ace (played by John King) is a passenger on an airplane in Asia. As the plane takes off, it hits severe air turbulence, and a woman on board becomes frightened. To calm her, Ace sings. (King is a good singer, as it turns out.) The song is “Give Me a Ship and a Song.” The lyrics roll out: “Give me an open sky and a plane to fly . . . Give me a motor’s roar and a plane to soar.” Ace is cheerful and happy; and hearing his jolly ditty, everyone perks up, including the frightened lady.