Thirty films that expand the art of musical comedy

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Cinema musicals are back in vogue. This year’s biggest releases so far include Jon M. Chu’s film from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights,” Leos Carax’s “Annette” and an adaptation of the recent Broadway hit “Dear Evan Hansen. “. Still to come is another production from Miranda, “Tick, Tick.” . . BOOM! ”(His directorial debut) and Steven Spielberg’s remake of“ West Side Story ”. The trend is right: the intrinsic pleasure of hearing music, seeing it performed, and watching dancers in motion is one. basis of ecumenical gratification in times of turmoil. (It is no coincidence that the genre flourished during the Depression and World War II.) But the musical is as perilous as it is exhilarating, and its pitfalls are built into its glorious temptations. Singing and dancing are so inherently joyful to watch, so naturally adapted to the speaking image medium, that they can lull filmmakers into passivity: just point the camera and let the pleasures unfold .

This is what happened in the early decades of talkie cinema, when musicals proliferated under poor management, until they clogged the market and the genre nearly went bankrupt. It found new commercial life and cultural significance, as well as new inspiration, thanks to the 1933 film “42nd Street,” which featured fantastic production numbers from Busby Berkeley, but even the revitalized genre quickly revealed its limits. . Fred Astaire, who rose to fame in 1934, insisted on being filmed dancing in long takes that simply showed his entire body in motion. “Either the camera will dance or I will,” he said. His request made his directors inert and his famous dance numbers of the thirties boring. As their example proves, filming music requires more than any other subject. What great movie musicals have in common is more than top notch singers, dancers and songs. (Indeed, some of the greatest singing and dancing performances in cinema, such as those of the Nicholas Brothers, are, unfortunately, filmed with little imagination.) These films are all, first and foremost, experiences cinematographic in which a concept of music is carried out through images.

That is, a lot of the movies that push the genre forward cannot be categorized as musicals at all. The list of the thirty films shown here, in chronological order, includes works by Berkeley and other authors of the mainstream musical, including Stanley Donen, although it is not his most famous film, “Singin ‘in the Rain. “, which, although it may be, is more inventive as a comedy than a musical. But the list also includes dramas, documentaries, and idiosyncratic hybrid forms that bring the pleasures and performance of music to the fore. (If space weren’t an object, the list could also include some great musical moments in films that are otherwise by no means musicals, including classic examples like Charlie Chaplin’s absurd spiel in ” Modern Times ”and moments as surprising as Marianne Faithfull’s performance of“ As Tears Go By ”in“ Made in USA ”by Jean-Luc Godard). The directors of these films do not content themselves with filming the musical shows that appear before them; they seem to redesign the very possibilities of music on film. Their accomplishments suggest that, even with the current glut of musicals, there are still untapped possibilities for the genre. As Al Jolson said in “The Jazz Singer”, the first musical feature, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

1. “The oyster princess” (1919)

It’s a silent movie, but it’s still a virtual musical. It was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, in his native Berlin; he went on to direct many musicals in Hollywood, with sound, but he was never so extravagant of imagination as when he had to evoke music through the images alone. The comic story involves an American plutocrat, Mr. Quaker, the King of the Oysters (Victor Janson), whose daughter, Ossi (played by Ossi Oswalda), is desperate to marry. The result is a saga of mistaken identities that culminates in an explosion of effervescent erotic comedy, the genre for which Lubitsch is aptly famous. But the centerpiece of the film is a gigantic setting: the wedding reception, hosted for the fifty closest friends of the family, featuring a horde of servants whose care is choreographed with comedic precision. The party features a jazz band and its conductor is played by the angular and antique Curt Bois (whose eighty-year career included “Casablanca” and “Wings of Desire”). His dance in front of the musicians is wildly amplified by what one intertitle calls a “foxtrot epidemic”, which breaks out among the guests. The dance overflows from the floor to the balcony, goes up and down the stairs, around the balustrades, with formations and gyrations that would be the envy of any filmmaker working with a real soundtrack.

2. “Applause” (1929)

This drama, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, contains more music and dance than many musicals, and it films these sequences more movingly than most. It’s the story of a burlesque dancer named Kitty Darling (played by melancholy Helen Morgan), who gives birth to a girl backstage, during intermission, and raises her to be better than the burlesque. But, as an adult, the young woman, April Darling (Joan Peers), is tempted by the limelight and romance. Mamoulian, renowned director, offers a lively but disillusioned point of view, both dramatic and visual, on the energy and degradation, the thrill and the sordid, of stage life. He films the sultry cheers of viewers, the banalities kicked out onto the stage with desperate sales art, the cruel result when the audience gets fickle – and he does so in highly inflected images, which fill the screen with his passionate characters and their sharp gestures and expressions. The film is an intense melodrama, with a heart-wrenching and ironic farewell scene between April and her beau, Tony (Henry Wadsworth), set amid the mundane hustle and bustle of the Times Square subway station. A culminating specialty act, performed by April, furiously captures the outrage and derision endured on and off stage by women in the theater.

3. “42nd Street” (1933)

“42nd street.”Photograph courtesy of Everett

It’s Busby Berkeley’s absolute first classic, one in which he found his voice and put the art and heart of the musical to the beat of the title track. (Although he has directed many feature films from start to finish, his name is synonymous with the geometric production numbers he designed and directed for films in which the dramatic action was directed by others, as is the case with “42nd Street.”) In addition to catering to the box office hit genre, the film, with its serious behind-the-scenes dramatic comedy (based on a fascinating and sinister interior novel by Bradford Ropes ), ignited the imagination of Berkeley. It connects the rhythms of city life to the biorhythms of conscious and unconscious lust. His production numbers are mini-dramas of overwhelming and thrilling collective energy, capturing the struggle of individual personalities to emerge and shine. They are also dizzying leaps of observational imagination, kaleidoscopic abstraction and marvelous transformation; Berkeley is not a simple genius stylist but a savage symbolist, a philosopher in images. The dramatic scenes, vigorously directed by Lloyd Bacon, come to life in tart performances by Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels and Dick Powell, with comedy by Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel, Ned Sparks and Guy Kibbee – and with the fluttery but fiercely the determined innocence of Ruby Keeler, in her first leading role.

4. “The stepchildren of God” (1938)

Oscar Micheaux, the prolific and seminal black independent filmmaker who owned his own production company, made great silent films, but with the advent of sound his work changed. At the time, Hollywood was mostly closed to black performers, but Micheaux turned dramas like this, starting in 1938, into virtual documentaries about black performance – especially dance – that otherwise went unrecorded. nor preserved. The film, a tragedy of racial politics, social norms and psychological frenzy, is a high-tension melodrama about a fair-skinned little black girl named Naomi who is adopted into another black family. As a child (played by Jacqueline Lewis), Naomi is desperate to pass as white, and as an adult (Gloria Press), she is revealed to be hopelessly in love with her half-brother, Jimmie (Carman Newsome). But much of the action takes place in a nightclub, where the music – hotter jazz than Hollywood would know – is provided by conductor Leon Gross, and where the dancers (those mentioned in credits are Consuelo Harris, the Tyler Twins, and Sammy Gardiner) are so easily and casually superior to anyone working in Hollywood at the time (yes, including Fred Astaire) that they sorely mock the exclusions imposed by mainstream cinema and by American society as a whole.

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