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 looksDIRECTLY into the camera and performs to it.
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 scrambledTO 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 aCHARMING 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.
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.
The taste in musicals revived again in 1933 when director Busby Berkeley began to enhance the traditional dance number with ideas drawn from the drillprecision he had experienced as a soldier during World War I. In films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Berkeley choreographed a number of films in his unique style. Berkeley's numbers typically begin on a stage but gradually transcend the limitations of theatrical space: his ingenious routines, involving human bodies forming patterns like a kaleidoscope, could never fit onto a real stage and the intended perspective is viewing from straight above.
Musical stars such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were among the most popular and highly respected personalities in Hollywood during the classical era; the Fred and Ginger pairing was particularly successful, resulting in a number of classic films, such as Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance(1937). Many dramatic actors gladly participated in musicals as a way to break away from their typecasting. For instance, the multi-talented James Cagneyhad originally risen to fame as a stage singer and dancer, but his repeated casting in "tough guy" roles and mob films gave him few chances to display these talents. Cagney's Oscar-winning role in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) allowed him to sing and dance, and he considered it to be one of his finest moments.
Many comedies (and a few dramas) included their own musical numbers. The Marx Brothers' films included a musical number in nearly every film, allowing the Brothers to highlight their musical talents. Their final film, entitled Love Happy (1949), featured Vera-Ellen, considered to be the best dancer among her colleagues and professionals in the half century.
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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 the 1960s the success of the films West Side Story, The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Oliver! andFunny Girl suggested that the traditional musical was in good health. However popular musical tastes were being heavily affected by rock and roll and the freedom and youth associated with it, and indeed Elvis Presley made a few films that have been equated with the old musicals in terms of form. Most of the musical films of the 1950s and 1960s such as Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music were straightforward adaptations or restagings of successful stage productions. The most successful musical of the 1960s created specifically for film was Mary Poppins, one of Disney's biggest hits.
Unlike the musical films of Hollywood and Bollywood, popularly identified with escapism, the Soviet musical was first and foremost a form of propaganda. Vladimir Lenin said that cinema was "the most important of the arts." His successor, Joseph Stalin, also recognized the power of cinema in efficiently spreading Communist Party doctrine. Films were widely popular in the 1920s, but it was foreign cinema that dominated the Soviet filmgoing market. Films from Germany and the U.S. proved more entertaining than Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein's historical dramas. By the 1930s it was clear that if the Soviet cinema was to compete with its Western counterparts, it would have to give audiences what they wanted: the glamour and fantasy they got from Hollywood. The musical film, which emerged in the 1930s embodied the ideal combination of entertainment and official ideology.
A struggle between laughter for laughter’s sake and entertainment with a clear ideological message would define the golden age of the Soviet musical of the 1930s and 1940s. Then-head of the film industry Boris Shumyatsky sought to emulate Hollywood’s conveyor belt method of production, going so far as to suggest the establishment of a Soviet Hollywood.
In 1930 the esteemed Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein went to the United States with fellow director Grigori Aleksandrov to study Hollywood’s filmmaking process. The American films greatly impacted Aleksandrov, particularly the musicals. He returned in 1932, and in 1934DIRECTEDThe Jolly Fellows, the first Soviet musical. The film was light on plot and focused more on the comedy and musical numbers. Party officials at first met the film with great hostility. Aleksandrov defended his work by arguing the notion of laughter for laughter's sake. Finally, when Aleksandrov showed the film to Stalin, the leader decided that musicals were an effective means of spreading propaganda. Messages like the importance of collective labor and rags-to-riches stories would become the plots of most Soviet musicals.
The success of The Jolly Fellows ensured a place in Soviet cinema for the musical format, but immediately Shumyatsky set up strict guidelines to make sure the films promoted Communist values. Shumyatsky’s decree “Movies for the Millions” demanded conventional plots, characters, and montage to successfully portray Socialist Realism (the glorification of industry and the working class) on film.
The first successful blend of a social message and entertainment was Aleksandrov’s Circus (1936). It starred his wife, Lyubov Orlova (an operatic singer who had also appeared in The Jolly Fellows) as an American circus performer who has to immigrate to the USSR from the U.S. because she has a mixed race child, whom she had with a black man. Amidst the backdrop of lavish musical productions, she finallyFINDS LOVE and acceptance in the USSR, providing the message that racial tolerance can only be found in the Soviet Union.
The influence of Busby Berkeley's choreography on Aleksandrov’sDIRECTING can be seen in the musical number leading up to the climax. Another, more obvious reference to Hollywood is the Charlie Chaplin impersonator who provides comic relief throughout the film. Four million people in Moscow and Leningrad went to see Circus during its first month in theaters.
Another of Aleksandrov's more popular films was The Bright Path (1940). This was a reworking of the fairytale Cinderella set in the contemporary Soviet Union. The Cinderella of the story was again Orlova, who by this time was the most popular star in the USSR. It was a fantasy tale, but the moral of the story was that a better life comes from hard work. Whereas in Circus, the musical numbers involved dancing and spectacle, the only type of choreography inBright Path is the movement of factory machines. The music was limited to Orlova’s singing. Here, work provided the spectacle.
The other director of musical films was Ivan Pyryev. Unlike Aleksandrov, the focus of Pyryev’s films was life on the collective farms. His films, TractorDRIVERS (1939), The Swineherd and the Shepherd (1941), and his most famous, Cossacks of the Kuban (1949) all starred his wife, Marina Ladynina. Like in Aleksandrov’s Bright Path, the only choreography was the work the characters were doing on film. Even the songs were about the joys of working.
Rather than having a specific message for any of his films, Pyryev promoted Stalin's slogan "life has become better, life has become more joyous."Sometimes this message was in stark contrast with the reality of the time. During the filming of Cossacks of the Kuban, the Soviet Union was going through a postwar famine. In reality, the actors who were singing about a time of prosperity were hungry and malnourished. The films did, however, provide escapism andOPTIMISM for the viewing public.
The most popular film of the brief era of Stalinist musicals was Alexandrov's 1938 film Volga-Volga. The star, again, was Lyubov Orlova and the film featured singing and dancing, having nothing to do with work. It is the most unusual of its type. The plot surrounds a love story between two individuals who want to play music. They are unrepresentative of Soviet values in that their focus is more on their music than their jobs. The gags poke fun at the local authorities and bureaucracy. There is no glorification of industry since it takes place in a small rural village. Work is not glorified either, since the plot revolves around a group of villagers using their vacation time to go on a trip up the Volga to perform in Moscow.
Volga-Volga followed the aesthetic principles of Socialist Realism rather than the ideological tenets. It became Stalin's favorite film and he gave it as a gift to President Roosevelt during WWII. It is another example of one of the films that claimed life is better. Released at the height of Stalin's purges, it provided escapism and a comforting illusion for the public.