8

The Sound Film and the American Studio System

NEW GENRES AND OLD

Sound radically changed the configuration of the Western cinema. In the United States, it gave rise to important new genres and a system of production which determined the character of American films for more than twenty years. The most significant of the new genres was the musical film, whose development parallels that of the sound film. Photographed versions of Broadway musicals were among the first sound films ever made, and The Jazz Singer (1927), of course, was one of them. At first, these movie musicals were little more than filmed theater, but within a few years the form had grown enough in cinematic sophistication to become the major genre of thirties cinema. This was largely the work of two men—Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) and Fred Astaire (1899-1987).

A dance director from the New York stage, Berkeley came to Hollywood to work for Samuel Goldwyn in 1930, but his genius was not revealed until he moved to Warner Bros. in 1933. There, as dance director for musicals like 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933), Footlight Parade (Lloyd Bacon, 1933), Dames (Roy Enright, 1934), Gold Diggers of 1935 (Busby Berkeley, 1935), In Caliente (Busby Berkeley, 1935), and Gold Diggers of 1937 (Lloyd Bacon, 1937), most of which starred some combination of Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, and Ruby Keeler, he developed a flamboyant visual style which turned the production numbers of pedestrian backstage romances into surreal fantasias for the eye. Based upon the use of swooping aerial photography (or "crane choreography" *), kaleidoscopic lenses, highly expressive camera movement, and sophisticated montage techniques, Berkeley's production numbers come closer to an experimental cinema of abstract impressionism than to anything in the traditional narrative film.

Fred Astaire, by contrast, achieved a much greater integration of music and dance with narrative in the series of RKO musicals in which he played opposite Ginger Rogers between 1933 (Flying Down to Rio, Thornton Freeland) and 1939 (The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, H. C. Potter). Beginning as a performer, Astaire left an extremely successful stage career to work in films, and he went on to direct and choreograph

____________________
*
Aerial photography accomplished by means of a large boom crane.

-274-

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