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The term 'musical' is used in several different senses. In its weakest sense, 'musical' means simply a film with a significant amount of diegetic music (music made by onscreen characters). In this sense, the term designates an extremely diverse international genre, with important examples from every decade since the 1920s and from every continent.
In the 1930s European 'musicals' had little in common. British musical films typically featured music hall stars like Gertrude Lawrence, Evelyn Laye, and Jessie Matthews; German films borrowed their music and plots from the operetta tradition-though also, in the case of Die 3 Groschenoper ( 1931), from the theatre of Bertolt Brecht; in France, René Clair's musical films deployed avant-garde motifs and techniques. From the 1940s to the 1960s, a parade of idiosyncratic European directors created films often referred to as 'musicals', but which had little more in common than the use of diegetic music. British productions included the ballet-oriented films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Richard Lester's psychedelic Beatles films, Hollywood imitations such as Half a Sixpence ( 1967) and Oliver! ( 1968), and, more recently, Absolute Beginners ( 1986). France contributed the operatic creations of Jacques Demy, the parodic work of Jean-Luc Godard, and a series of Johnny Hallyday vehicles, while Sweden offered Abba the Movie ( 1977). Outside Europe, Jamaica made The Harder they Come and other reggae films and Egypt initiated an entire domestic musical genre. In fact, in recent years the largest producer of musical films has been India, where 'musicals' have long constituted one of the most characteristic Indian genres.
When the term 'musical' is used in its weaker sense, all of these films may be termed 'musicals'; that is, they include a great deal of diegetic music, some produced by principal characters. Such films will be referred to here as 'musical films', while the standalone term 'musical' will be reserved for films featuring not only the presence of music, but also a shared configuration of plot patterns, character types, and social structures associated with that music. In this stricter sense, the musical is not an international genre, but one of the most characteristic creations of the Hollywood film industry. To study the musical is thus primarily to analyse the history of Hollywood's 1,500 or so musical films.
Born during the heyday of popular melodrama, vaudeville, and song slides, cinema has from its very beginnings made use of various types of music. Even in the silent era, music was not restricted to the role of accompaniment. In the United States, at least as early as the 1907 film version of The Merry Widow, films based on operettas offered well-known music to be produced by live musicians in synchronism with on-screen action. In 1911, film versions of popular operas ( Pathé's Il trovatore and Faust, Edison's Aïda) were distributed with specially arranged music. In Europe, films like Johan Gildemeijer's Gloria transita ( 1917) and Gloria fatalis ( 1922) employed a similar system, with live musicians singing the operatic arias mouthed by the characters on screen. Throughout the silent era, film producers laced their stories with visible musical sources in order to provide overt opportunities for the use of 'cue' music (i.e. live music synchronized to specific on-screen cues like bugle calls, organ grinders, and national anthems).
Starting in the late 1920s, cinemas around the world exploited new sound technology by building scenarios on a generous dose of diegetic music. In the United States, producers called on every conceivable musical source: opera, operetta, classical music, military marches, Viennese waltzes, folk songs, gospel hymns, Jewish canticles, Tin Pan Alley tunes, night-club numbers, vaudeville routines, jazz riffs, and even burlesque favourites. Ever since, the musical genre has been characterized by its ability to assimilate each new musical style, from swing to rock and from be-bop to heavy metal.
The musical diversity of the late 1920s and early 1930s was matched by the breadth of narrative traditions invoked. Paramount's European directors Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian repeatedly called upon European male music hall stars Jack Buchanan and Maurice Chevalier to partner American opera singer Jeanette MacDonald