A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film

Synopsis

It was the most chaotic era in the history of American entertainment, possibly its most dynamic, and in some ways its least understood. In a stunningly brief time, as the Jazz Age roared to a close, the art of the silent film became extinct, thrown over in favor of the unknown, virtually untested medium of talking pictures. Leading the way was a brand new American art form: the movie musical. Taking off like a shot from day one, this new genre instantly became the a quintessential form of American entertainment. Here for the first time is the story of this fabulous, forgotten age when the movies learned to sing and dance. Chronicling the early musical film years from 1926 to 1934, A Song in the Dark offers a fascinating look at these innovative films, the product of much of the major experimentation that went on during the development of sound technology. Illuminating the entire evolution of this new sound medium, Richard Barrios shows how Hollywood, seeking to outdo Broadway and vaudeville, recruited both the famous and the unknown, the newest stars and the has-beens, the geniuses and the hustlers. The results were unlike anything the world had seen or heard: backstage yarns, all-star revues, grandiose operettas, outlandish hybrids--some wonderful, many innovative, a few ghastly. He recalls, for example, such monumental films as the 1927 hit The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, the first feature film to include both talk and song. Corney, hokey, and repellently manipulative, it was by most accounts, even by 1927 standards, a poor film. Yet, showcasing the spectacular and extremely popular Jolson, it created a new dimension of intensity that silent films could not duplicate, playing to over one million people per week across the country only three weeks after its release. He discusses such memorable releases as The Broadway Melody (winner of the Academy Award for best film in 1929), the first true musical film that established movie musicals as potent and viable entertainment. Barrios goes on the offer in-depth discussions of innovative films such as The Desert Song, and On With the Show!, the first all-color talkie, as well as the more mature musicals of the 1930s including the Warner Brothers' "backstage" musicals of 1933-34 that started with 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers films. And, of course, he talks about the famed Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire collaborations, such as Flying Down to Rio, which, with their sophisticated style and technique, established them as the premier film musical team. Throughout, Barrios highlights the careers of the original great musical stars like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Busby Berkeley, and Maurice Chevalier, and presents the films of newcomers such as Jeanette MacDonald, Bing Crosby, and Ruby Keeler. The fickle public rushed to see these stars--talking and singing and dancing across the screen--then suddenly turned away. It took the Depression to bring back musicals, bigger and brassier than ever. The triumphs, disasters, and offscreen intrigue are all here in a fascinating story told with a blend of scholarly research, engaging writing, and cogent criticism. With more than fifty photos, extensive annotations, and a discography, A Song in the Dark memorably recovers this vital and unique film heritage.

Excerpt

For the past century, film has been bullying and beguiling its way into our lives and our cultures. It stimulates its audience's perceptions and responses and sometimes defines them, after which the audience uses those responses to endorse or reject each new film trend. The process can continue back and forth in endless permutation, and in the process film has sometimes attained and occasionally earned an elevated status. It has been, all in all, quite a progression--a throwaway diversion that came to define a large bloc of the collective sensibility.

Some of film's most extravagant stake on its audience's attention has come with its musicals. Despite the many distinguished specimens made abroad, musical film is a peculiarly American concept, alternately loved and derided. For many years musicals had--the past tense need apply--a remarkable propensity for fulfilling wishes and making fantasies seem reasonable. Innocence and cynicism, decorum and ebullience seem to meet at the point where some quintessential images are forged--Astaire and Rogers dancing cheek to cheek, Garland on the trolley, Kelly in the rain, Monroe and her diamonds. For all their putative triviality and the disrespect paid them by some elitists, musicals create unexpectedly powerful impressions. Their songs and stars resonate, they've been remembered and treasured and imitated, they constitute a singular legacy. And now they now seem an extinct species, a gleaming memento of an irretrievable and far less complicated past. The special area of escapism they once dominated has been displaced by television and, on the big screen, by action pictures that use comic strip violence to create brutal latter-day "production numbers." There have been other displacements too, including the most cynical of all, music videos. The musical was a comparative latecomer to film genres . . .

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