It’s worth noting that around this time a whole new Musical medium, the Movie Musical, was born. And strangely enough, it all started with Al Jolson. Jolson had innumerable stage and film vehicles, but only produced two works of lasting artistic importance, both of which came after he had transferred from Broadway to Hollywood.
The first, The Jazz Singer, which was actually the very first musical movie back in 1927, had more substance than any of Jolson’s other vehicles, stage or film…but then, it was based on an actual play. Its half-silent, half-sound construction can seem a little odd to modern audiences, and the two scenes where Jolson performs in his trademark blackface have made the film somewhat controversial among younger viewers, but Jolson’s sung performances are sublime. His performances of “Toot, Toot, Tootsie”, “Blue Skies” and “Mammy” have become some of the most iconic moments in all of musical film, but perhaps even more moving are the film’s softer songs, “Dirty Hands! Dirty Face!” (about a father’s love for his son) and “Mother of Mine, I Still Have You”. And the story is still engaging and involving to this day…so much so that both the hit Eighties Musical The Tap Dance Kid and one of the most iconic animated musical shorts of all time, “I Love To Sing-a”, would be based on the same story. Also, while the songs may not be integrated into the story in the modern sense, they are certainly connected to its themes, with “Dirty Hands! Dirty Face!”, “Mother of Mine”, and “Mammy” all centering around the film’s core themes of parental and filial love.
The other true Jolson masterpiece was Hallelujah, I’m a Bum, a romanticized portrayal of the homeless ‘bums’ of Central Park during the depression. There would be another musical years later that attempted the same thing, Subways are for Sleeping, but this film pulled off the idea with infinitely greater success. Here, Jolson portrays the so-called “Mayor of Central Park”, the ringleader of a collection of bums who have turned their way of life into a philosophy. He falls in love with a beautiful amnesiac he dubs “Angel”, and even takes a job to support her, only to find out she is really the fiancée of the Mayor of New York, played by Frank Morgan.
The Rodgers and Hart score seems to draw a surprisingly heavy influence from Twenties Operetta: while there are a few self-contained songs, including two standards (“You Are Too Beautiful” and the title-song), much of the score consists of elaborate musical scenes built out of rhymed dialogue and short song fragments. The film also features perhaps the saddest ending I’ve ever encountered in a Musical where nobody actually dies.
Unfortunately, other than Rose of Washington Square (where he played only a supporting role), most of Jolson’s later film vehicles were much like his stage shows…that is, paper-thin excuses for their star to perform his trademark shtick. The movies by Jolson’s closest peer, Eddie Cantor, were much the same. Of his films, the most remembered today is Whoopee. It has a very amusing performance from Cantor, very enjoyable musical numbers, and makes no sense whatsoever. Cantor’s trademark brand of comedy has aged rather better than Jolson’s (although he still spends a chunk of the film in blackface), but his films (and the stage shows that proceeded them) were still essentially empty vehicles for schtick.
Still, overall, the earliest film musicals, such as 42nd Street and the other Busby Berkeley backstagers, had more interesting scripts than most musical films from later in the decade, because no-one had yet pigeonholed film musicals as a genre the way they had with stage musicals at the time, and a musical movie was pretty much written the same way as any other movie. These films were written as tough, hard-boiled comedy-dramas smothered in the ambience of the Great Depression, and featured far more realistic and grounded plots and characterization than the stage Musical Comedies of the day. They seem somewhat cliché-ridden today, but in this case that’s mostly because they invented the formulas that have now become clichés. They are splendid films, without a doubt, and Busby Berkeley’s mind-blowing choreography for them provided the basis for every filmed production number since, but they have one drawback as far as the development of the musical genre is concerned: their scores were largely limited to generic (if often excellent) pop tunes delivered diagetically rather than as spontaneous musical expression, and so, for all their often magnificent music and choreography, they weren’t really ‘musicals’ in the modern sense of the word.
Two other stars who specialized in diagetic film Musicals also specialized in pushing boundaries, to the point where between them they almost single-handedly brought about the creation of Hollywood’s self-censoring body, the Hays Code. Mae West burst onto the Hollywood scene with She Done Him Wrong, an adaptation of a semi-musical play called Diamond Lil that West had written and starred in on Broadway (and that was so controversial in its own right that even pre-Hays Code Hollywood wouldn’t allow her to acknowledge it as the source for her movie at the time). It stars West as a wise-cracking master manipulator who uses her sexuality to get whatever she wants and who literally gets away with murder in the end, but does it with such elegantly risque style that it’s impossible to resist her (think a smarter, more savvy version of Chicago‘s Roxie Hart). The film featured a score made up of period standards delivered in West’s character’s nightclub act, most prominently the traditional folk song “Frankie and Johnny”, which had already been West’s signature number for some time (it was in the play too). Her later movies were essentially retreads of She Done Him Wrong…the honest-to-God truth is that West really only ever had one play in her. In fact, she arguably only had one joke in her…responding to literally everything with a deadpan, ambiguously smutty one-liner…but it was a good enough joke that she managed to build a pretty impressive career on it, I’ll give her that.
Marlene Dietrich’s most famous film, made while she was still in Germany, was The Blue Angel. The story, a subversive deconstruction of conventional German morality, tells of the gradual degradation and eventual destruction of an elderly Professor due to his sexual infatuation with an erotic nightclub singer played by Dietrich. The score consists mostly of numbers at the titular nightclub, including Dietrich’s signature standard “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)”, which is heard in two renditions, one gentle and vaguely wistful, the second a cold, brutal expression of her power. The music also includes an ironic rendition of “Üb’ immer Treu und Redlichkeit”, an old German standard with a melody drawn from Mozart which was then regarded as emblematic of the traditional German “morality” the film is trying to subvert.
The film, which exists in two versions, one entirely in German and one mostly in English, is surprisingly short on dialogue in any case, almost to the point of having one foot in silent film. In particular, Emil Jannings (who plays the doomed Professor), a lauded veteran of the silent era, gives the same kind of over-the-top, rubber-faced performance you’d expect in a silent, and there are moments when his character’s degradation becomes excessively unpleasant and gratuitous (which constitutes the film’s only real flaw…the guy isn’t terribly likable, but it’s still kind of uncomfortable to see how much he suffers by the end).
Even so, Dietrich gives a brilliant performance, full of nuance and deliberate ambiguity, and the film is extremely striking from a visual perspective…indeed, it would provide the visual inspiration for much of Bob Fosse’s work, particularly on the film version of Cabaret. (Actually, there was an attempt in the Sixties to turn The Blue Angel into a Broadway musical, under the title Pousse-Café, with music by Duke Ellington of all people. Unfortunately, the result was disastrous…Ellington’s few Broadway scores never seemed to catch him on a good day, the book was terrible, and former Can-Can star Lilo gave the worst performance of her career in it.)
Soon, however, the film musical fell into the same genre patterns as the stage musical. The earliest film Operettas, particularly those by the team of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, showed an influence from the wit and sophistication found in European comic Operetta…one of their biggest hits was indeed based on a European Operetta, Lehar’s The Merry Widow, and it was apparently risqué enough to spark one of the major turning points regarding film censorship standards. However, by the time the genre had settled into its conventions, it was little different from its Broadway equivalent. Operetta may have stayed in vogue a little longer in film than it did onstage, but most of Jeanette Macdonald’s later vehicles with Nelson Eddy are actually based on Broadway Operettas and follow their conventions closely, from the utterly ridiculous plots to the cringe-inducing ‘comic’ side characters. The first four films in this “series” (Naughty Marietta, Rose-Marie, Maytime and The Firefly, the last of which featured Allan Jones substituting for Eddy) do feature some excellent music, and they have aged better than their Broadway counterparts, perhaps because Macdonald and Eddy have far more personality than the leads in most Broadway Operettas (which didn’t really make use of stars at all, as a rule). Still, they come across as fairly stilted and dated to a modern audience, and the series’ quality went dramatically downhill after the first few films.
Meanwhile, Fred Astaire, after leaving Broadway for Hollywood when his sister and dancing partner Adele retired to get married, spent most of his career there doing the same kind of frothy, jazzy Musical Comedies he had done on Broadway. His famous series of films with Ginger Rogers feature sublime musicals numbers, and given that they’ve been able to retain their original stars and choreography as their stage equivalents obviously could not, it’s not surprising that they’ve held up quite a bit better. They even had a certain measure of dramatic integration in their scores…at any rate, certainly more than any of their stage equivalents ever had. In particular, their greatest masterpiece, Swing Time, is as integrated as any conventional Musical Comedy had been up to that point, full of very specific situation songs like “Pick Yourself Up” and “A Fine Romance”, with its use of the Eleven-O’Clock number “Never Gonna Dance” as an emotional climax being downright dramatic.
That said, the honest truth is that the spaces between the songs in these films are still a mess of contrived plotting, arch dialogue and unfunny comedy relief, and are basically just marking time until the next number. Also, as much of a genius as Fred Astaire undeniably was as a dancer and even as a singer, the sad truth is that he was not much of an actor, and though no-one seems to care much given the obvious compensations he brought to the table, the fact remains that his callow demeanor and arch line readings make the gaps between the musical numbers all the more tedious.
As you see, the most popular styles were generally associated with specific star performers, as most film musicals of the Thirties fall into ongoing series built around various stars. In addition to MacDonald-Eddy and Astaire-Rogers, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney followed up their film version of Babes in Arms with a string of very similar adolescent romance films, most of which had some good music and fine performances from Rooney and Garland, but script-wise were little better than the original Babes in Arms stage show. Shirley Temple’s films were very successful at the time, but apart from the occasional excellent musical number, they seem absolutely ghastly today…they were the direct precursors of Annie in their sentimental orphan plots and uptempo kids’ songs, but no-one without firsthand exposure to the Temple films would believe how mature and rational Annie actually is in comparison. There were also some attempts to create a film version of the Broadway Revue, but most of them turned out horribly uneven at best.
The influence of the Marx Brothers, was of course far broader than just the musical, as they affected nearly every comedy made after them. Still, they got their start playing in full-scale Broadway musicals before they came to Hollywood, and they never quite left that influence behind. For example, their most acclaimed masterpiece, Duck Soup, features only two musical sequences (one at the beginning and one just before the climax), but both are extended, multi-part musical scenes reminiscent of Comic Operetta, so one could make a serious case that the film contains much more than two songs. And even in their declining later films, they would still introduce wonderful comic novelty songs such as “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady”. In any case, you can see the team’s comedic innovations on display in such pure-comedy musicals as Little Me, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, and the many shows that followed in the footsteps of Mel Brooks’ The Producers.
Another comedy team, Laurel and Hardy, also wound up starring in a landmark musical film, the classic 1934 movie version of Babes in Toyland. While it only contained five of the original show’s songs and a few instrumental themes from the score, and while the songs were entirely relegated to the young lovers (Tom the Piper’s Son and Little Bo-Peep in this version), with the two stars never singing a note, it is still probably the best take on the show’s story to date. Granted, the costuming and effects are extremely primitive by modern standards and at times look rather nightmarish, but Laurel and Hardy (here called Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, an extremely clever way of making them fit right into a cast composed largely of nursery-rhyme characters) are at their most riotous, and Henry Brandon (as Silas Barnaby, the ‘Crooked Man’) makes a marvelous and genuinely menacing villain.
There would be three more film versions of Babes in Toyland in later years, but none of them remotely measured up to the first one. The first of these remakes, made by Disney in the Sixties, was musically richer, with more of the original score preserved, but was far sillier and less focused than the Laurel and Hardy classic. The second was a low-budget near-mockbuster from the Eighties that is only remembered today because it featured a very young Drew Barrymore and a not-yet-famous Keanu Reeves. The third, a Nineties animated version, was fairly inconsequential, though it did feature some surprisingly decent original songs and a fine voice performance by Christopher Plummer as Barnaby (the first screen Barnaby to come across as genuinely threatening since Brandon). However, these last two versions only used the title-song and “The March of the Wooden Toys” from the original score, making their links to the show tenuous at best.
The last of the Hollywood “series” franchise built around a specific set of stars didn’t make its debut until 1940: the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road Pictures” series. While Crosby and Hope were without question immensely talented performers, these movies have aged even more badly than the other franchises mentioned above (except perhaps the Shirley Temple films). Frankly, much like the old-school Musical Comedies on the Broadway stage in the early Forties such as Something for the Boys, the script formulas that frankly weren’t all that good to begin with were getting stale and, to put it bluntly, kind of desperate. Of course, the Film Musical had already started its transition into more sensible and meaningful fare by the time these films came along, which makes the fact that they managed to get multiple hit movies out of this tired one-joke franchise all the more surprising.