Sunday, January 24, 2016

Musical Film -- A Summary

The musical film is a film genre in which songs sung by the characters are interwoven into the narrative, sometimes accompanied by dancing.

The songs usually advance the plot or develop the film's characters, though in some cases they serve merely as breaks in the storyline, often as elaborate "production numbers".

The musical film was a natural development of the stage musical after the emergence of sound film technology. Typically, the biggest difference between film and stage musicals is the use of lavish background scenery and locations that would be impractical in a theater. Musical films characteristically contain elements reminiscent of theater; performers often treat their song and dance numbers as if there is a live audience watching. In a sense, the viewer becomes the diegetic audience, as the performer looks directly into the camera and performs to it.

The First Musicals

Musical short films were made by Lee de Forest in 1923-24. Beginning in 1926, thousands of Vitaphone shorts were made, many featuring bands, vocalists and dancers. The earliest feature-length films with synchronized sound had only a soundtrack of music and occasional sound effects that played while the actors portrayed their characters just as they did in silent films: without audible dialogue.  The Jazz Singer, released in 1927 by Warner Brothers, was the first to include an audio track including non-diegetic music and diegetic music, but it had only a short sequence of spoken dialogue. This feature-length film was also a musical, featuring Al Jolson singing "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face", "Toot, Toot, Tootsie", "Blue Skies" and "My Mammy". Historian Scott Eyman wrote, "As the film ended and applause grew with the houselights, Sam Goldwyn's wife Frances looked around at the celebrities in the crowd. She saw 'terror in all their faces', she said, as if they knew that 'the game they had been playing for years was finally over.  Still, only isolated sequences featured "live" sound; most of the film had only a synchronous musical score.  In 1928, Warner Brothers followed this up with another Jolson part-talkie, The Singing Fool, which was a blockbuster hit.  Theaters scrambled to install the new sound equipment and to hire Broadway composers to write musicals for the screen.  The first all-talking feature, Lights of New York, included a musical sequence in a night club. The enthusiasm of audiences was so great that in less than a year all the major studios were making sound pictures exclusively. The Broadway Melody (1929) had a show-biz plot about two sisters competing for a charming song-and-dance man. Advertised by MGM as the first "All-Talking, All-Singing, All-Dancing" feature film, it was a hit and won the Academy Award for Best Picture for 1929. There was a rush by the studios to hire talent from the stage to star in lavishly filmed versions of Broadway hits. The Love Parade (Paramount 1929) starred Maurice Chevalier and newcomer Jeanette MacDonald, written by Broadway veteran Guy Bolton.

Warner Brothers produced the first screen operetta, The Desert Song in 1929. They spared no expense and photographed a large percentage of the film in Technicolor. This was followed by the first all-color, all-talking musical feature which was entitled On with the Show (1929). The most popular film of 1929 was the second all-color, all-talking feature which was entitled Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929). This film broke all box office records and remained the highest grossing film ever produced until 1939. Suddenly the market became flooded with musicals, revues and operettas. The following all-color musicals were produced in 1929 and 1930 alone: The Show of Shows (1929), Sally (1929), The Vagabond King (1930), Follow Thru (1930), Bright Lights (1930), Golden Dawn (1930), Hold Everything (1930), The Rogue Song (1930), Song of the Flame (1930), Song of the West (1930), Sweet Kitty Bellairs (1930), Under a Texas Moon (1930), Bride of the Regiment (1930), Whoopee! (1930), King of Jazz (1930), Viennese Nights (1930), Kiss Me Again (1930).  In addition, there were scores of musical features released with color sequences.

Hollywood released more than 100 musical films in 1930, but only 14 in 1931. By late 1930, audiences had been oversaturated with musicals and studios were forced to cut the music from films that were then being released. For example, Life of the Party (1930) was originally produced as an all-color, all-talking musical comedy. Before it was released, however, the songs were cut out. The same thing happened to Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931) and Manhattan Parade (1932) both of which had been filmed entirely in Technicolor.  Marlene Dietrich sang songs successfully in her films, and Rodgers and Hart wrote a few well-received films, but even their popularity waned by 1932.  The public had quickly come to associate color with musicals and thus the decline in their popularity also resulted in a decline in color productions.

Musicals after the 1950s

In the 1960s, 1970s and continuing up to today the musical film became less of a bankable genre that could be relied upon for sure-fire hits. Audiences for them lessened and fewer musical films were produced as the genre became less mainstream and more specialized.

In Other Nations

Musical film has also been important in Spanish speaking nations, in India (to the present day) and during the Stalin era of the Soviet Union as propaganda.

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