Tuesday, January 10, 2012

MOVIE BOOKS I LOVE: A SONG IN THE DARK: THE BIRTH OF THE MUSICAL FILM by Richard Barrios

This is an occasional series featuring my favorite movie books. Before TCM and the internet, the only way to satisfy my passion to know more about Classic Hollywood was through books, books and more books. I've cleared away the clutter over the years, but many remain permanent residents in my home. You'd never throw out an old friend, now, would you?
This is another book in my library that is so worn by repeated readings and look-ups that I am ashamed to loan it out to anyone. It covers one of the eras of Hollywood cinema that I love the best - that of the very early movie musicals.

For those who think a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical is an example of an early movie musical, this book will be a revelation. Richard Barrios takes us, in a totally entertaining manner, on a well researched journey from the earliest days of sound to the first musical classics. It's a compelling tale of trial and error, great triumphs for some and painful heartbreak and failure for others. This is the real story of the era of Singing in the Rain, and, as if often the case, truth is more interesting than fiction.

Early Sound
In 1925, the biggest star at the Warner Brothers Studio was Rin Tin Tin. That year the studio acquired the Vitaphone process, which recorded sound on disc. Vitaphone sound was introduced in 1926 as the musical soundtrack of the feature, Don Juan.
In addition to the feature film, Warners also presented a series of short sound films featuring mostly classical music and a short spoken message from Will Hayes.
Once Jolson and The Jazz Singer hit the theaters in 1927, there was no turning back, although the sound on disc method was quickly replaced by the sound on film process.

The Broadway Melody: 
All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!
This is the movie that put it all together. Crude, with a creaky story even for 1929, The Broadway Melody was one of the very first true musical films. Released at  time when technology was rapidly enhancing the quality of talking pictures, it became the model for literally hundreds of successors and imitators. Seen today, it seems a dated antique, but Barrios breathes life back into the story of the film that won the 1929 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Hollywood Revues
A major craze of the era was the revue - a variety-show format where each studio showcased the musical talents of its contract players. The musical film was still viewed as a competitor with the stage musical, and not yet as something wholly unique. If Broadway could have The Ziegfeld Follies and The George White Scandals, Hollywood could have Paramount on Parade and MGM's Hollywood Revue of 1929. Some stars shined in the venue and some produced either a giggle, a moan or a cringe. Marion Davies, Ruth Chatterton and Joan Crawford did their best, but their musical limitations were exposed (although Davies did shine in the musical Marianne). Buster Keaton, on the other hand, surprised everyone with his totally appropriate baritone and dancing agility. Marie Dressler proved she could master any genre and Maurice Chevalier and Lillian Roth blew the competition away.

From Broadway to Hollywood
One of my favorite sections of this book is the story of how many Broadway performers were brought to Hollywood in the belief that their musical stage success would translate to film. In the typical trial and error method of the era, many great stage performances were captured on film. Ironically, the medium the stage performers looked down upon preserved many of their greatest achievements. Thanks to Hollywood we have the talents of musical theater greats like Marilyn Miller, Ann Pennington, Mary Eaton, Fanny Brice, Irene Bordoni, Ethel Waters, Paul Robeson, Helen Morgan and Charles King preserved on film. Most didn't make it in Hollywood and headed back to Broadway after one or two films. Some, like Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, added movie stardom to their already impressive resumes. All left evidence of their artistry for the world to forever enjoy.

The Stars
As the era unfolded, it was clear that some performers were destined for greater stardom, while some saw their luster dimmed.
In - Stars Who Succeeded
Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers get musical
Stars like Nancy Carroll, John Boles, Bessie Love, Bebe Daniels, Buddy Rogers,  and Janet Gaynor saw their film careers escalate with their success in musical films. Opera stars like Lawrence Tibbett and Grace Moore enjoyed their moment in the cinema sun, and even Gloria Swanson surprised her critics when she proved she could sing (and even had a hit song, "Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere," from The Trespasser).

Out - Those Who Failed
Clara Bow (and Fredric March)
Established silent stars like Corinne Griffith and Mae Murray were not only defeated by sound, but failed in their musical attempts, as well. Clara Bow proved to have ability, but her fear of the microphone as well as her failing health sent her star into decline.

42nd Street and Beyond
It was only a matter of time before the winning formula was found and artists like Fred Astaire, Busby Berkely, Bing Crosby and Ginger Rogers transformed the Hollywood Movie Musical into the professional and polished product we know today. With Warner Brothers' 42nd Street and Paramount's Love Me Tonight, the genre was perfected. No longer the poor rival to the stage, the movie musical had found its identity. All of those early possibilities and promises blossomed into a bona fide art form.

As a story that lives the margins of a larger one (the arrival of sound), thein  saga of the early movie musicals is a wonderful and harrowing tale. Experimenting and learning as they went along, careers were made and lost. And, while the end product of this experimentation is a cherished art form, there is nothing so charming as the journey that gave us singers who sound like regular people, chorus girls who are not always in step and who sometimes look as though they need a Jenny Craig consultant, and Technicolor skies that were green instead of blue.

The research is impeccable (with tons of juicy behind-the-scenes gossip) and the writing delightful. Barrios writes as an enthusiastic lover of film rather than a stuffy scholar and I never, ever want to part with this book.


Some of My Favorite Early Musicals:
Ultra romantic John Boles and Bebe Daniels in Rio Rita
Sally (Marilyn Miller in all of her glory - 1929)
Follow Thru (Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers in a gold musical. They sing "we'd make a peach of a pair" and they sure do  -1930)
Rio Rita (John Boles and Bebe Daniels - romantic as hell - 1929)
Madam Satan (wild CB DeMille - 1930)


"A Song in the Dark" (1995) is available for a very wide range of prices at various sites, including Amazon.

11 comments:

KimWilson said...

I've never read the book, but I am glad it has so much good information in it. Nice article.

KC said...

I'm so excited to hear how much you refer to this book! I just got it and I was hoping it would be as cool as it seems.

FlickChick said...

Thanks, Kim - it has a tremendous amount of great info for anyone who loves early cinema.

FlickChick said...

KC - oh, please let me know if you just love it! (I think you will!).

Kevin Deany said...

This book is a great favorite of mine as well. I think a new edition of the book came out several years ago, but I haven't read it.

I got the first edition as a gift when it first came out and his mouth watering descriptions of some of those films made me regretful that I would likely never see them. Thanks to TCM, that situation was happily rectified.

I do know his description of "Golden Dawn", as awful as it sounded, made me curious to see it. I later did and I'm still recovering.

FlickChick said...

Well, "Golden Dawn" is off my list! The other one I am afraid to see is "Let's Go Native"!

Christian Esquevin said...

Very nice post FlickChick! Thanks for covering these great books. Do you have Gotta Sing Gotta Dance: A History of Movie Musicals by John Kobal? It's a great book that includes some interview quotes of the principal cast and crew members.

The Lady Eve said...

You've got quite a film reference library, FlickChick. I always look forward to your "Movie Books I Love" posts and, as you know, purchased a copy of one of your recommendations. Meanwhile...the moment I saw the name 'Barrios' I thought of my high school biology teacher who had that name last name. Wonder if they're related?!?

FlickChick said...

Christian - thank you. I have read Mr Kobal's book (and hesitate to keep including his works here for fear I'll sound like a broken record). Kobal is a treasure.

FlickChick said...

Lady Eve - before TCM, VCRs and the internet, books were all I had! I love well done reference books! Sorry if I gave you a flashback to high school!

Samantha said...

That was great! I just loved it.