To give Hollywood its due they did come up with one really unique and wonderful art form. The Hollywood musical, particularly as practiced in the MGM musicals of the 1930s up through the mid 1950s.Ok, yeah, most of the stories and plot lines are dumber than dirt, but many of the musical routines were magical and great.
The first musicals were in the late 1920s, almost as soon as sound hit the movies. The earliest forms were taken from some of the Vaudeville and Broadway acts of the time. The earliest were somewhat crude by later standards, and you could tell that the early practitioners were feeling their way a bit.
But the thing that shines through even in the early examples was the joy and exuberance of the new art form. Even when the sexuality and sensuality of the period showed through there was still a bit of fun innocence that is not seen today. What? You thought the 60s generation invented sex? Oh brother. You may beyond hope. Or government educated. Or both.
When the 1920s people went to the movies they wanted to be entertained and to forget the horrors of the war they had just fought in Europe. They wanted movies to be fun, and they expected their entertainers to entertain and take them away from filth and bad memory.
The musical evolved in the 1930s to massively lush productions with really fun choreography and complex geometric camera shots in the Busby Berkeley offerings. Fredrick Austerlitz – aka Fred Astair – showed what really hard work and constant attention to detail and brutally rehearsing until he dropped could achieve – and made the results look like he and his partner were having spontaneous fun. Watch some of the Astair routines and you will see a smoothness that no one else has ever duplicated.
When the 1930s people went to the movies they wanted to be entertained and to forget the brutality of the depression they were living in. They also wanted to be able to forget the building clouds of war in Europe. They wanted movies to be fun, and they expected their entertainers to entertain and take them away from poverty and daily struggle.
As the 1940s came about the “Golden Age” of the musical came about. Color, lavish settings, good singing, good dancing, glorious stars were all over the screen. Fred Astair, Gene Kelley, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell, all the real greats practiced their magic in this era. Jimmy Cagney was also one of the great hoofers – I’ll bet you thought he was only a gangster – not so – he could really dance and sing.
When the 1940s people went to the movies they wanted to be entertained and to forget the war they were living in. They also wanted to be able to forget the constant fear of hearing that people they loved had died in the carnage far away from home. They wanted movies to be fun, and they expected their entertainers to entertain and take them away from fear and daily pain.
The 1950s saw the peak of the great musicals and the decline thereof. The main form of musical dancing from the 1920s up through the early 1950s had been tap, ballroom, a fusion of the two and was basically happy, as well as artistic. The artists worked like dogs to perfect their art – but it was for fun and entertainment. Some adoring youngster once asked Jimmy Cagney what his artistic influences and inspirations were. Cagney replied – “My paycheck”. Commendable attitude. Well, the kid wanted to know how he had mentally prepared himself to do such great work. Cagney replied – “I thought about eating”. Unfortunately the 1950s musicals took themselves entirely too seriously. Ballet was introduced, not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but ultimately bad for the art form.
I have known a fair amount of ballet people in my time. I used to practice and teach ballroom dancing. When the subject came up the ballet types would always sniff a bit and look down their noses as though the very idea were beneath their notice. “Ah yes, social dancing”, they would proclaim. Part of the problem is that it takes a frightful amount of training, hard work, sacrifice and all that stuff to be good at ballet. I don’t really regard it as dancing (heresy!). I define dancing as moving in time and in character to the music being played. I lead, woman follows (yeah, I’m an atavism). Ballet is extremely athletic and gymnastic and the dancers are doing more counting than moving in time to the music. Anyway, back to the premise. Ballet types tend to feel more kinship with the starving, struggling great artist types then they do with entertainers.
Back to the discussion – musicals became rather serious, intense, artistic stuff than they were pure entertainment. I know that the Hollywood types from the 1960s forward tend to think of themselves as serious artists who also need to inform us ignorant working stiffs just how and what we should be thinking. I don’t need this crap from an entertainer, and I certainly don’t need message movies that pretend to be art.
Audiences from the 1960s forward tend to expect their movie people to be opinionated assholes rather than entertainers. We expect the movies to have some message – at least the mainstream stuff seems to have. They might think of this as having grown past pure entertainment, but I think it is a fall from grace. When I hire a plumber to plumb, that’s what I expect him to do. When I hire entertainers, that’s what I expect for them to do.
I’ll get my art from a gallery, from books, or from some media of my own choice. I believe that the business of trying to make musicals be “serious art” instead of just jolly good entertainment was what finally killed them. Oh yeah, and the rock musicals were just plain lame. Not a good vehicle at all.
So farewell, most glorious achievement of Hollywood. We can just be glad that we live in age when a goodly portion of these gems can be had on home entertainment media.
The musical is dead – Long live the musical.