Sunday, November 1, 2009

Gotta Sing!

My movie reviews for the month of October should have given you chills, and not just for the bad writing, but, because in honor of Halloween I celebrated horror films throughout the month. So this month instead of screaming in freight why not put a smile on your face and a song in your heart (to quote the famous Rogers & Hart tune) and celebrate the movie musical!

In the past I have mentioned comedy is my favorite movie genre, this year I devoted the entire month of April to it, due to April Fool's Day. But if I had to chose I'd say the musical is my second favorite genre. The musical was probably the last movie genre created for the screen. Think about it. All other genres existed during the silent era; comedy, drama, horror, war films, westerns and romance. And all were converted to the sound era, but, once the movies learned how to talk musicals began to dominate movie theatres. It was musicals which were innovating the movie industry. The first film to feature sound was of course "The Jazz Singer" (1927) with Al Jolson. If you've never seen the movie, you might think the entire film had spoken dialogue, this isn't so. I would say 80% of the film was silent. Sound was only used for Jolson's musical numbers like "Toot, Toot, Tootsie". Thus immediately movies began to sing. It would seem that was the primary focus for sound. Nearly all of the first sound films were in fact musicals. But these films also added a new element, further pushing the medium. Now films were in color. And it was the musical which lead the way.

Once again it was Warner Brothers (who gave us "The Jazz Singer") now leading the way with color when it gave us the first all natural color film (so read the tagline) with sound and music, "On With the Show!" (1929). It did good business but Warner Brothers would hit the sky with its next all color, all music film, "The Gold Diggers of Broadway" (1929), which became the reigning box-office champion and held that honor for the next ten years. No film managed to gross as much money as it did. It today's terms it was estimated to gross $60 million dollars. The musical was here to stay and become a permanent fixture in American movies and worldwide. It took "Gone With the Wind" (1939) to knock it off its throne.

Sadly these films are either considered lost or are out and print and very rare. There is some remaining footage of "The Gold Diggers of Broadway", which I've read can be found as part of the bonus material on "The Jazz Singer" DVD as well as one of the follow up "Gold Digger" films; "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933). As for "On With the Show" though it was originally released in technicolor, all that remains is a black&white print.

Regardless it was the musical which entertained audiences during the depression providing escapism. During 1930 musicals had hit a decline, there were simply too many musicals being released and audiences did grow tired of them, but they did rebound. Mel Brooks once said of musicals, "they can blow the dust off your soul". And that is essentially true. Watching musicals put you in a good mood. They put a smile on your face, they brighten up your day. I can honestly think of nothing better than watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance. There is no drug, no drink, no self induced stimulation, that can put me on the same high as watching them. It is pure movie joy.

Of all the movie genres I am probably the most nostalgic about the musicals. I love the classic musicals of the 1930s and 1940s because they take us to a time which I am very familiar, having grown up watching films from those decades, but, also because of my love of music. And the combination of both is very strong. Just as I am most comfortable discussing classic movies, so am I most comfortable discussing music from this period. These are the songs I grew up listening to. I am a big fan of Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Rogers & Hart. It is almost primarily the only kind of music I listen to, whether it is a great swing band version of one of their tunes or a jazz version by Chet Baker, Dave Brubeck or Ella Fitzgerald.

Musicals were some of my biggest inspirations growing up. Some of the first movies I remember remember seeing were musicals. It was "The Great Ziegfeld" (1936), the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, which first planted the idea in my head to make movies. I remember the big impression other films had on me like "Higher & Higher" (1943) with Jack Haley (best known for his role in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) as the Tin Man) and Mary Wickes, not to mention a very young Frank Sinatra. I remember the first time I saw Fred Astaire in his movies with Ginger Rogers. And in later films like "Royal Wedding" (1951) and "Three Little Words" (1950). Even as a child I thought Fred Astaire was the epitome of class and sophistication. I would insisted upon wearing tails at any formal family gathering. Another big star in my family was Carmen Miranda. One of my grandmother's favorite stars. I remember the first time I saw her in "The Gang's All Here" (1943) with Alice Faye and Benny Goodman. That also left a very big impression on me.

Of course discussing the musical is nothing new to me. I have written about several in the past, including some in my "Masterpiece Film Series"; "The Broadway Melody of 1929" (1929), the first musical to win the "Best Picture" Oscar, "Top Hat" (1935) with Fred & Ginger, featuring the iconic moment when they dance to Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" and perhaps the most popular musical, "Singin' in the Rain" (1952). But I've also reviewed Bing Crosby in "Going Hollywood" (1933), one of his break-out roles and "The Band Wagon" (1953). And I've reviewed more modern musicals like the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, "Chicago" (2002). Which at the time I called the best film of the year.

Throughout the month I'll be talking about, of course, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy and Busby Berkeley, perhaps the most famous director of musicals.

So sit back relax and enjoy this tribute to the movie musical!