The Migration of Musical Film: From Ethnic Margins to American Mainstream

The Migration of Musical Film: From Ethnic Margins to American Mainstream

The Migration of Musical Film: From Ethnic Margins to American Mainstream

The Migration of Musical Film: From Ethnic Margins to American Mainstream


Movie musicals are among the most quintessentially American art forms, often celebrating mobility, self-expression, and the pursuit of one's dreams. But like America itself, the Hollywood musical draws from many distinct ethnic traditions. In this illuminating new study, Desirée J. Garcia examines the lesser-known folk musicals from early African American, Yiddish, and Mexican filmmakers, revealing how these were essential ingredients in the melting pot of the Hollywood musical.

The Migration of Musical Film shows how the folk musical was rooted in the challenges faced by immigrants and migrants who had to adapt to new environments, balancing American individualism with family values and cultural traditions. Uncovering fresh material from film industry archives, Garcia considers how folk musicals were initially marginal productions, designed to appeal to specific minority audiences, and yet introduced themes that were gradually assimilated into the Hollywood mainstream.

No other book offers a comparative historical study of the folk musical, from the first sound films in the 1920s to the genre's resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s. Using an illustrative rather than comprehensive approach, Garcia focuses on significant moments in the sub-genre and rarely studied films such as Allá en el Rancho Grande along with familiar favorites that drew inspiration from earlier folk musicals--everything from The Wizard of Oz to Zoot Suit. If you think of movie musicals simply as escapist mainstream entertainment, The Migration of Musical Film is sure to leave you singing a different tune.


On the surface, there would appear to be little in common between The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Cabin in the Sky (1943), two musical productions by MGM. The first film is based on a classic work of American children’s literature that charts a young girl’s journey from Kansas to the fantastical world of Oz. Cabin in the Sky, by contrast, has its origins in a popular Broadway show and features an all-black cast in a parable of sin and salvation.

In spite of their differences, the films’ final scenes bear a striking resemblance. In both, the lead characters, Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and Little Joe (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson), respectively, have sustained an injury that has caused them to fall into a delirious sleep. They are disoriented and weary as they recount their dreams to the friends and family who gather at their bedsides. Earlier in the films, Dorothy and Little Joe express a desire for experiences beyond what their everyday lives can offer. Dorothy longs for a world away from the struggles of farm life, a place “beyond the rainbow” where “troubles melt like lemon drops.” In journeying to that other land, she leaves behind the farm and its inhabitants and replaces them with people and places both frightening and beautiful. Little Joe also expresses dissatisfaction with his circumstances. He seeks the excitement of nightclubs where gambling, jazz, and loose women abound. Despite the best efforts of his wife, Petunia (Ethel Waters), to keep him wedded to home, family, and community, Little Joe strays. Once Dorothy and Little Joe encounter trouble in their new worlds, however, they realize the error of their ways and return home, waking in their own beds.

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