Friday, June 26, 2015

Classic History Movie Project Blogathon: Early Musicals: Throw it on the wall and see what sticks

This is my entry in the Classic History Movie Project Blogathon hosted by the 3 divinities, Fritzi at Movies Silently, Ruth at Silver Screenings and Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. Please be sure to check out the great entries representing the entire history of the medium we love best.


By 1927 the silent film had evolved into a high art form. The language of film was set and the world of glamour and the stars had captured the imagination of the globe. Life was good. And then Jolson spoke...and sang.... and the universe of film changed forever.

People line up to see and hear Jolson
As so grandly depicted in "Singin' in the Rain," Hollywood was thrown into a tizzy by sound. Silent stars were not only forced to speak, but in many cases were forced to sing, dance and do other musical things (think Buster Keaton and Clara Bow). But silent films were never really silent. From big orchestral accompaniments in big cities to the lone piano player in the small towns, movies always had music. Theme songs were common (for example: "Diane" was the theme song played to "Seventh Heaven"). One could argue that silent film had more in common with dance than it did with talking films. 

From 1927 to 1933, Hollywood's musical trial and error was was on display for all the world to see. Sometimes the results were glorious, sometimes they were interesting and sometimes they were just plain embarrassing. But never before or since has the movie-going world been treated to so many creative achievements and so many diverse talents from all forms of entertainment. It truly was a time of throw it against the wall and see what sticks.

The Prologues: dipping a toe in the water
Technology is here to stay
Warner Brothers and Vitaphone lead the way with sound. Even before "The Jazz Singer" in 1927, Warners offered a full recorded score for 1926's "Don Juan." Included with the program was a prologue of short sound performances featuring musical stars from the NY Philharmonic and Metropolitan Opera. Spoken words were heard only from Will Hays, who introduced the program.

And so, from radio, vaudeville and Broadway came the storied stars. Sound provided the world a glimpse of performers that most would never have the opportunity to see. From the heights of the Metropolitan Opera to the common clay of burlesque, prologues and musical shorts created a hunger for musical entertainment at the movies. 

The Stars: oh, silent stars, why are you still here?
1928 solidified Jolson's stardom in "The Singing Fool," while a certain mouse made his whistling debut in "Steamboat Willie."
Mickey was a musical mouse
Audiences were treated to performances by the great Broadway stars Marilyn Miller in "Sally" and "Sunny," and Fanny Brice in "My Man." Other stage and radio luminaries such as Sophie Tucker, Beatrice Lillie, Gertrude Lawrence and Helen Morgan took a crack at musical features, shorts and studio extravaganzas such as "Paramount on Parade" and MGM's "Hollywood Review of 1929." None of them made a dent and headed back to the stage without a backward glance.

Many Hollywood stars did not make the sound cut musically or otherwise. However, there were some surprising survivors and even thrivers.

Ramon Novarro proved he could sing when he crooned "Pagan Love Song," Bebe Daniels and John Boles thrilled audiences in "Rio Rita" and the glorious Gloria Swanson stepped up to the plate in 1929's "The Trespasser" with a throbbing rendition of "Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere."

Janet Gaynor became a musical sweetie for a while, as did the adorable Nancy Carroll, who was frequently partnered with Charles "Buddy" Rogers.
Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers: cute cute cute!
The Hits and Misses: can't get enough
Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King have music on their minds
By far the luckiest silent sweetie to make in dent in sound musicals was Bessie Love in 1929's sensational "Broadway Melody." Though it looks pretty creaky today, "Broadway Melody" proved that feature length films could talk, sing, and dance in a cinematic fashion that did not simply photograph a stage play. Broadway star Charles King provided the male lead, starlet Anita Page provided the beauty and Bessie Love provided the depth and heart of the film. Songs written specifically for the film by Nacio Herb Brown and  (including the title song, "You Were Meant For Me," and "The Wedding of the Painted Doll") and the all talking! all singing! all dancing! musical numbers (filmed in color - now lost) left the audiences wanting more.
So successful was this film that it won the 1928-1929 Academy Award for Best Picture.

Suddenly, the movie market was flooded with musicals. The public could not get enough of backstage musicals, operettas, Broadway-to-Hollywood musicals and all star extravaganzas.

This is NOT a Musical: too much of a good thing
And just as fast as it started, it stopped. Too much cake, even if it is good cake, can cause you to get sick of it. And by 1930 the public had had too many musicals. Films that were started as musicals were suddenly changed to non-musicals in mid-production. Broadway musical star Marilyn Miller has started "Her Majesty Love" as a musical only to finish it as a non-musical. She packed her bags and dancing shoes and went back to New York. Hollywood released over 100 musical films in 1930. 14 musicals were released in 1931.

A lone musical success in 1930 was "Whoopee!" starring Eddie Cantor. Straight from the successful Ziegfeld production, Cantor was an immediate musical success. Goldwyn's production not only had the star and the Ziegfeld name, but Technicolor (that still survives) and choreography by a guy named Busby Berkeley, who would soon head over to Warner Brothers and change the way dance is seen on film.

There were some successes (1932's "Love Me Tonight," for example), but, for the most part, audiences had tired of musical films.

42nd Street, Crosby & Astaire: all set now
And then the cycle started up all over again. By 1933 Warners had discovered the winning formula of "42nd Street": stars, chorus girls, a fast pace, memorable songs, snappy dialogue and true cinematic style. 

Over at RKO, Fred Astaire set the standard for intimate dance and elegant style, while at Paramount, Crosby set the style for a singer whose stardom rested on a voice and a personality.
This is how you do it
Silent star Marion Davies gets a lift from up and
coming crooner Crosby in "Going Hollywood"
All that followed would one way or another imitate these patterns. Never again would there be room for slightly out of step dancers, turquoise Technicolor skies, new voices and the trial and error of new technology right before our eyes.