No genre stands as a stronger testament to the decadent heights and nostalgic appeal of the Golden Age of Hollywood than the musical. At the time, musicals wowed viewers with opulent sets, glamorous costumes and gorgeous stars belting out show tunes written by the best Broadway writers of the era. In the early ’30s, sound was still a new cinematic tool, fresh and invigorating to audiences that had never expected to hear a movie star speak, let alone sing. Gaining popularity in the midst of the Great Depression, the musical also offered a chance for poorer patrons to experience the glitz of a Broadway show without the price tag. The musical became theatre for the masses: a democratic spectacle.
Nowadays, the Golden Age musical remains a nostalgic institution. Musicals of the era appeal to our fondness for blockbuster cinema devoid of the shallowness and cynicism of the current climate. They entertain us with the frothiness of the lyrics, choreographic charms and effortless talents of their stars. Musicals capture the glamour and optimism of the studio system at its height. They might not be as visually sophisticated as the works of Orson Welles or John Ford, or boast themes as rich as the work of William Wyler, but they embody an essential aspect of the time period, acting as a time capsule of the era’s charms.
Cinema of the ’30s and ’40s was filled with musicals of all sorts, starring flash-in-the-pan performers. However, amidst all the tap-dancing ingénues and B-list crooners lost to time, some stars and films captured what made this era so important, personifying the glamour and optimism of the period. While most of the stars of the Golden Age musicals were the singers and dancers in front of the cameras, one of the most significant influences of the era was behind the camera: choreographer/director Busby Berkeley.
Musicals of the era appeal to our fondness for blockbuster cinema devoid of the shallowness and cynicism of the current climate. They entertain us with the frothiness of the lyrics, choreographic charms and effortless talents of their stars. Musicals capture the glamour and optimism of the studio system at its height.
Originally a Broadway choreographer, Busby Berkeley was significant for liberating musical film choreography from the theatrical proscenium stage. Instead of utilizing the camera as a stand-in for a theatrical audience, Berkeley used the freedom of the camera to create elaborate musical numbers where the performers became visual abstractions on-screen, mere elements that, when viewed together from the impossible angles cameras were capable of shooting from, produced a fabulous visual effect. His most popular technique was the kaleidoscope, where masses of showgirls — shot from above — would create elaborate shapes, such as flowers or starbursts. In other moments, like the climactic numbers of 42nd Street, Berkeley would manoeuvre the camera through the legs of dancers, turning their limbs into geometrical shapes to drive the number’s momentum.
Berkeley was also known for slipping sexually provocative numbers into his work, using suggestion and silhouettes to titillate without attracting the ire of the censors. For instance, “Pettin’ in the Park” (from Gold Diggers of 1933) has a stage full of women changing their wet clothes behind a large, dark canvas, their nude bodies clearly visible via silhouette. Berkeley’s films appealed to the glamour of the musical. They were deliberately shallow and yet, despite the overt sexiness of his dances and the ludicrousness of his titles, his pictures boasted interesting female characters. The men in his films are generally dolts—either rich old snobs lecherously chasing ingénues or anti-art bankers incapable of supporting artistic endeavours. Conversely, the women are sharp, cunning and complex. They’re quick with witty repartee and supportive of each other, but not above making selfish mistakes. They’re attractive, but their characters are not limited to their beauty or physical abilities, whether dancing or singing, which are considerable. His films also appealed to the poverty-stricken masses of the ’30s, portraying bankers as villains and championing down-on-their-luck folks chasing their dreams.
If Berkeley’s films represented the visual glamour of the musical in the ’30s, the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers captured their effortless appeal. Astaire and Rogers comprised unquestionably the most talented dancing duo of their generation. Astaire was the more talented dancer of the two, demonstrating the fleetest feet in all of cinema, but it’s key to remember that, as the famous quote (incorrectly attributed to Faith Whittlesey) goes, “Ginger Rogers did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels.”
Busby Berkeley was also known for slipping sexually provocative numbers into his work, using suggestion and silhouettes to titillate without attracting the ire of the censors.
Rogers and Astaire starred together in ten films at RKO, including The Gay Divorcee, Shall We Dance and Swing Time. Their 1935 film, Top Hat, remains one of their best. Boasting a musical score and lyrics by Irving Berlin, the film plays as a Shakespearean comedy of sorts, with a plot full of mistaken identity and star-crossed love. Astaire plays a theatrical star in London for a show that falls in love with the girl staying in the suite downstairs. While the film’s plot is high farce, it’s the dance numbers that make it essential.
The most famous number in the film is “Cheek to Cheek,” the climactic song that sees Astaire and Rogers waltz across a ballroom, Astaire demonstrating his impeccable timing and Rogers her impossible flexibility. However, the film’s best number is “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)?” The musical number acts as Astaire and Rogers’ courtship in miniature, with Astaire singing of his excitement at being alone with her. No other dance number in film manages to capture so well the tentative excitement of a romance in its embryonic stages while also being obviously — even aggressively — perfect in technique.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers represent the classical musical at its most aesthetically appealing and beautiful. Judy Garland, on the other hand, embodies the inherent optimism of the musical—its corniness, even. Garland became famous for her work with Mickey Rooney in the ’30s, before starring in The Wizard of Oz in 1939, which catapulted her into superstardom, and later musicals like 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis. The Wizard of Oz encapsulates the appeal of Garland as a performer. As Dorothy Gale (the Kansas girl swept up in a whirlwind and transported to the magical world of Oz), Garland embodies the innocent naivety of the musical. Musicals are all about open emotionalism—the characters sing their feelings, exposing their emotions to the world. Musicals can be clever and sassy, even satirical, but never cynical, as cynicism is contrary to the naked emotionalism at a musical’s heart. Garland’s optimism comes through best in the famous “Over the Rainbow,” where her heart (and the film’s) is laid bare.
The musicals of the Golden Age reached their peak with the films of Gene Kelly. If Fred Astaire made his dancing look effortless, drifting across the floor with impossible speed and precision, Gene Kelly wore the physical effort plainly on his face. He didn’t dance because he could; he danced because he was compelled to.
Much of the appeal of classical musicals today is in seeing famous music stars of the past show off their performing chops. While crooners like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are best remembered as musical giants who sung your grandmother’s favourite songs, they were actually immensely charismatic performers in their own right. Watching their old musicals demonstrates their range as actors. These films also show their voices are unmatched, either on radio or screen. Bing Crosby won an Oscar for Going My Way and created a bonafide Christmas classic with White Christmas. Sinatra played second fiddle to the likes of Gene Kelly in the late ’40s, before becoming a leading man in his own right, starring in classic musicals like Guys and Dolls, which also featured a singing Marlon Brando.
The musicals of the Golden Age reached their peak with the films of Gene Kelly. If Fred Astaire made his dancing look effortless, drifting across the floor with impossible speed and precision, Gene Kelly wore the physical effort plainly on his face. He didn’t dance because he could; he danced because he was compelled to. It was as if his entire soul forced his body into motion, thrusting him into furious dance because not even song could express the feelings coursing through his body. Kelly was the musical everyman, often playing the simple-natured, wide-eyed optimist who saw the best in life and the world. In An American in Paris and On the Town, he delivers his particular brand of musical optimism, creating fantasy visions of Paris and NYC, filling them with enthusiastic song and dance. However, the gently satirical Singin’ in the Rain is his best film.
In the famous “Singin’ in the Rain” number, where Kelly dances through a downpour, swaying on lamp posts and soft-shoeing across sidewalks, we witness the best portrayal of Kelly’s unbridled appetite for song and dance. Kelly was apparently suffering from a dreadful fever when filming the number, which is fitting because the performance puts his feverish enthusiasm on full display. Kelly might not have been a better singer than Bing Crosby or better dancer than Fred Astaire, but he was ultimately a more appealing performer. He left everything he had on the screen; he embodied the pure emotion of the classical musical.
The musical continued to be popular beyond the work of Kelly, with films like Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, The Sound of Music and West Side Story winning Oscars and scoring at the box office, but by 1960, the Golden Age of Hollywood was on its last legs. These later Technicolor extravaganzas were the last hurrahs of the musical genre, which has resurfaced sporadically in the following decades. There’s a reason for this: when the studio system crumbled, the power to leverage the amount of talent necessary to create a successful musical dissolved as well.
Musicals defined the appeal of the studio system; they were possible because the studio had the resources necessary to attract Broadway’s best songwriters, choreographers and performers. Nowadays, the classic musical embodies the nostalgic view of this bygone era, when Hollywood’s interests in commerce and entertainment combined to create rigorous, beautiful, enthusiastic art.