Friday, 25 January 2019

Hollywood musicals of the 1930s: "Footlight Parade" and "Dames" to "King of Jazz" and "Cavalcade"

The "Shanghai Lil" sequence from Footlight Parade (1933) is my all-time favourite. Who could ask for more? You've got one of Harry Warren and Al Dubin's best songs, with the Hebrew musical influence at it's strongest, i.e. it's basically an up-tempo number in a minor key (like "42nd Street" and "Puttin' On the Ritz"); we're treated to...

...a demonstration of James Cagney's exuberant, muscular, mesmerisingly eccentric, stiff-limbed dancing style; we have two performers raised in the Irish clog-dancing tradition stomping in tandem on a saloon counter with so much vigour, you'd swear they were trying to demolish it (Cagney is light, almost balletic, while Ruby Keeler - as always - has all the grace of an arthritic hippo); there's oodles of offensive racial stereotyping; witty lyrics - "That oriental/ dame is detrimental/ to our industry"!); a full-scale bar brawl; and lots of hookers and drugs (this was a pre-code movie, so they could still get away with that sort of sordid frightfulness). 

I'd seen a lot of Hollywood musical sequences in my time, thanks to compilation films such as That's Entertainment! 1, 2 & 3, but I hadn't sat through that many musicals from start to finish - as with opera, I was just too impatient to get to the good bits. That's all changed recently. What one gains from watching the whole of a top-tier 1930s musical is that the musical numbers are even more exciting and satisfying when they do eventually appear - especially the big, grabby show-stoppers at the end - but I'm not sure one often gains much else from the experience. The plots are, at best, flimsy, usually involving mean, sanctimonious rich folk trying to stop the show going on - and the two young stars of the show getting hitched - or changing their mind about backing it at the last minute. There's invariably a lot of wasteful opulence on display, providing fantasy porn for the cash-strapped Depression- era audience to lose itself in - multi-millionaires, grotesquely luxurious hotels and lavish lifestyles abound. 

There's lots of largely unfunny dialogue and bits of comedy business allowing the studios' stock of comic actors to strut their stuff - e.g. Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore at RKO in the Astaire/Rogers movies,  and Guy Kibee and Hugh Herbert in the Busby Berkley/Dick Powell/Ruby Keeler stuff at Warners.  This must have worked well at the time - or they wouldn't have kept on doing it - but I doubt it has many punters rolling in the aisles these days. The secret of early '30s musicals was not to let the energy levels drop for a single instant, which is why the two best examples of the genre are 42nd Street - where watching the film is like being on an amphetamine drip - and Footlight Parade - which relies to a large extent on James Cagney's propulsive performance, along with Joan Blondell's attractive girl-next-door down-to-earthness, Dick Powell's charm and clear tenor voice, and, of course, choreographer Busby Berkley's genius.

Dames (1934) isn't in the same league as it's three towering predecessors (42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933), and relies on more "comedy" and plot than we're used to, but it's saved by three great Busby Berkley sequences - "The Girl with the Ironing Board", "Dames", and the great "I Only Have Eyes for You" (a sort of quasi-nightmare, given all those images of Ruby Keeler!):

Berkley's madness/genius was back on display in Gold Diggers of 1935 (which he also directed). Unlike Dames, it's worth watching from beginning to end. The film benefits from the absence of Ruby Keeler and the appearance of Adolphe Menjou as a wildly over-the-top, down-on-his-luck Russian show director. The comedy elements are funnier than usual (the silliness and meanness of the super-rich are again the main targets of the humour) and it ends with the most gloriously deranged of all Berkley's productions, the "gay Nazi" extravaganza "Lullaby of Broadway":

I'll end with a round-up of notable non-Warner/RKO 1930s musicals, starting with the most commercially successful of the lot - MGM's The Great Ziegfeld (1936), a lavish biography of the theatrical impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld. Running just under three hours, starring William Powell, Luise Rainer and Myrna Loy, stuffed with expensively-staged musical numbers, it won three Oscars (including Best Picture) and it was a huge box office success. Despite all that, it's unbelievably boring: from about ten minutes in, and despite the fact that I enjoy almost anything starring William Powell, I couldn't wait for it to end. The pizzazz, crackle, energy, vulgarity and sheer choreographic lunacy of the great Warner pictures are entirely missing, as are the beauty and inventiveness of the Astaire/Rogers films. Apart from its long-windedness, the film's main problem was the decision to film most of the numbers as if they were stage performances - the very approach Berkley had jettisoned. And when the film tries to ape the great man's audacity, the results are lumpy and unmagical:


Universal's King of Jazz (1930) was a hugely expensive ($2m) musical shot in  two-tone technicolour whose box office failure marked the end of the first phase of musicals in the talking pictures era - the public had simply had enough of them by the time it came out. The format just doesn't work - despite the imaginative filming of some of the numbers, it's essentially a stage show, complete with endless, toe-curlingly dreadful comedy sketches between the musical numbers, and a bewildering selection of musical styles: the film-makers were evidently determined to include something for everyone, and ended up pleasing nobody. It's now mainly notable for introducing Bing Crosby (as one of The Rhythm Boys) to cinema audiences...

...and for this spectacular version of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", performed by The Paul Whiteman Orchestra, the 125-piece Roxy Symphony Orchestra - and George Gershwin himself at the piano:

One of the strangest film successes of the '30s was Hollywood's adaptation of Noel Coward's 1931 stage play, Cavalcade, which presents a view of English history and its effect on "real" people from New Year's Eve 1899 to (in the 1933 film version) New Year's Day 1933. The Fox Film Corporation filmed a London stage performance, and essentially matched it, scene for scene. It made a large profit, and won the Oscar for Best Picture - it makes for a fascinating watch now, but it's hard to understand just why American audiences were so enthusiastic. Quite apart from all the history and social history covered, it's packed with popular songs, patriotic favourites and national anthems and several original Coward compositions - including the famous "20th Century Blues", performed in the film by Ursula Jeans:

I'll end with my favourite song from what became - when I saw it a few months ago - one of my favourite '30s musical films (yes, I do realise that, despite the title of this post, it had nothing to do with Hollywood). The Threepenny Opera, a superbly atmospheric, somewhat loose 1931 film adaptation of the Brecht/Weill 1928 musical play, Die Dreigroschenoper,  featured Lotte Lenya (yes, Rosa Klebb herself) performing the murderous, haunting "Seeräuber Jenny" (Pirate Jenny):

I harbour severe doubts about claims regarding Berthold Brecht's brilliance - but none at all about Kurt Weill's: a true 20th Century musical genius.

I'll eventually write about some of the '40s and '50s musicals I've watched recently - humdingers and stinkers alike!

1 comment:

  1. I think this is one of the best posts you have written. I do not appreciate film musicals [people breaking into wet songs, early and very garish Technicolour etc], but I have to reconsider my position. I did not know Cagney had made musicals other than YDD [what a dancer1]."Lullaby of Broadway" was stunning [Odessa Steps] and the Lotte Lenya excerpt made me go back to the "Zu Asche, Zu Staub" sequence in Babylon Berlin.

    Is it because I am an old man now, but everything seems to look much better and sharper and/or more atmospheric in black and white?