Commentary Magazine

Movie Musicals

Though I’m very fond of movie musicals, I rarely go to them; or perhaps I should say I rarely go because I’m very fond of them. I may be unduly exclusive in what I want a film musical to be, but among the things I don’t want are musical films whose principals don’t dance, or whose musical numbers are confined by some “realistic” premise (e.g., a show within the show), or reverential transcriptions of hit Broadway shows. (For reasons one and three, among others, you’ll see no review of Fiddler on the Roof here.) Of course, I’m aware that the kind of film musical I want is dead as the proverbial dodo; the last (and, I think, best) instance of the genre at its peak was The Band Wagon in 1953, and it’s been seventeen years now since I’ve seen a film which came even momentarily within striking distance of those musicals of which I’m fondest.

Because I’m fond of movies, I rarely go to Ken Russell movies; I’m willing to waive my right to an opinion on The Music Lovers and The Devils rather than sit through them. But I can restrain my critic’s lust for opinion only so long, and so I went to see Ken Russell’s The Boy Friend. I gather that the Sandy Wilson show from which Russell’s film is adapted was an intimately scaled, affectionate evocation of the stage musicals of the 20’s and 30’s, and that, to the proceedings, Russell’s loveless super-spoof contributes the character of De Thrill, a flamboyant Hollywood director watching the tacky show within the show as a prospective movie property and simultaneously reimagining it on the grandiose scale of his own productions. De Thrill, along with everything else in the movie, is mocked, but what is Ken Russell if not De Thrill, the genius director pouncing on this flimsy work as a vehicle for the display of his own virtuosity? The extension, via De Thrill, of The Boy Friend into the world of the movies allows Russell to add Busby Berkeley-like production numbers to the things made fun of, but it is a bad joke, both because (as Eric Bentley observed in reviewing the original stage show) good jokes are against one’s own generation, and because Busby Berkeley in particular, being unintentionally funny to begin with, is virtually parody-proof. (Which is not to say that one can’t, as in Singin’ in the Rain, do a number wittily imitating the style of Busby Berkeley that actually far surpasses the original.) The laughter of the audience watching Russell’s spoof is really no different from that of the audience watching the recent camp revival of Berkeley’s own The Gang’s All Here, with the exception that there is nothing in the Russell film as funny as the dancing bananas number in the Berkeley. To the extent that outrageous taste and failed seriousness are constituents of camp, Berkeley is the essence of camp; he is the melodramatist of the movie musical, and it is, in great measure, his utter humorlessness which makes him seem so ridiculous. But, though I wasn’t around at the time, I doubt, Ken Russell’s smug assumption to the contrary, that the audience of the early 30’s took Berkeley any more seriously than one does today—that is, other than the kind of people in it who now find Russell’s film the epitome of wit and style. And the depressing thing about being in the audience now laughing in condescension at The Gang’s All Here (condescension not only toward Berkeley but toward the audience imagined once to have taken him seriously) is that the laughter is so thoroughly an instance of herd response. Individually, most of these people would probably tune out the film for the tedium it mainly is if they happened to come across it on television; collectively, the derisive acknowledgment of that tedium offers an occasion for self-congratulation. Watching The Gang’s All Here in this ambience, I had the unpleasant sensation of finding myself once again in a 1950’s college audience, whose members could always be counted on to laugh at every film except for a handful of bad ones (as contrasted with a college audience of today, whose members can be counted on to sit with solemn film-cult reverence through every film except for a handful of good ones).

But the tedium of The Gang’s All Here (which, apart from the banana number, is far from Berkeley’s best work, lacking, as it does, his best work’s fantastic energy and manic precision, and the mad splendor these things can occasionally attain) is nothing compared to the tedium of The Boy Friend. At the least, The Gang’s All Here has two nostalgia-drenched, 40’s-vintage pop tunes in “Journey to a Star” and “No Love, No Nothin’,” and room for Eugene Pallette, Edward Everett Horton, and Charlotte Greenwood to do their turns. The Boy Friend has a sweet, nebulous score (the witty arrangement of which, by Peter Maxwell Davies, is the best thing in the movie), a sweet, nebulous leading lady in Twiggy, and a rubber-legged, comic dancer in the Ray Bolger tradition in Tommy Tune, but these small attractions are so nearly buried beneath the weight of the director’s ponderous touches as to be all but canceled out. Yet, even had they survived this, it’s doubtful they could have escaped the work’s prevailing rancidness. Singin’ in the Rain, as have other musicals, sharply satirized the vanity of show folk, but Jean Hagen’s dumb movie star is treated with an exemplary generosity compared with the characters in The Boy Friend, almost all of whom are seen as positively steeped in malicious pettiness. Russell may think he’s making Singin’ in the Rain—at the end, De Thrill announces Singin’ in the Rain will be his next work rather than The Boy Friend—but The Boy Friend, in Ken Russell’s busy hands, is less the kin of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds than of Malcolm McDowell performing “Singin’ in the Rain” as he ostentatiously bashes another victim in A Clock-work Orange.



Probably, a fondness for musicals is impossible to argue objectively; either you like them, or you don’t, and people whose tastes I share on almost everything else will still part company with me when a movie erupts into song and dance. I suppose there is some correlation between one’s responsiveness to musicals and to fantasy in general. But though successful works of fantasy—in films, works such as Ugetsu and Beauty and the Beast—create a world which, at least for the work’s duration, absorbs us and compels belief, musicals, while at their best creating a world, create a world to which, far from losing ourselves in it, we are never quite admitted. It’s not merely by random choice that, when Brecht wished to achieve his famous “alienation” effect, he would have one of his characters sing a song.

The Boy Friend is a musical by and for people who don’t like musicals, who find them silly. (As if in acknowledgment of that fact, a Mario Lanza film was brought in as a co-feature once business started to sag at the San Francisco theater where The Boy Friend opened.) There is something almost always at least on the verge of being silly about a character in a play or movie suddenly breaking into dance or song, as I who was dragged as a child through the Golden Age of Broadway musicals know only too well. (“Gee, Curly, it sure is a beautiful morning”/“It sure is, Laurie; it sorta kinda makes ya wanta sing, don’t it?”—will stand as a composite memory of the experience.) But the musical theater that gave birth to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics of Broadway Americana also saw the creation of Pal Joey, Guys and Dolls, and Wonderful Town. And, in the movies, during roughly the same period as that in which Nelson Eddy was bellowing at Jeanette MacDonald and Busby Berkeley was staging those exercises in astro-geometry which The Boy Friend spoofs, there were also made, in the best of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films, musical comedies which in their un-pretentiousness and mellifluous grace have arguably never been surpassed, on the stage or in the movies. And later, during the period of backstage biographies of assorted vaudeville stars and Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths (The Dolly Sisters, I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now, etc.), and, somewhat later still, while Mario Lanza was bellowing at Kathryn Grayson, a different strain of movie musicals was eventuating in works as imaginative and delightful as Singin’ in the Rain and The Band Wagon.

Pauline Kael has described musicals as “at their best . . . an apotheosis of romance,” and, while this characterization of them is true enough, it seems to me not quite to define or exhaust all there is to be said about the uniqueness of the genre. When Ginger Rogers, who has been invulnerably resistant to the attentions of Fred Astaire until then, suddenly collapses in a state of rapt amazement at the conclusion of their first dance (to “Night and Day”) in The Gay Divorcee, one does feel it to be (though neither dance nor film is at the level of its best) a true romantic apotheosis: a summation and distillation of what it means to “fall in love.” Yet if such moments are rarely attained, it’s not for lack of being sought after by non-musical movie genres, most of which revolve no less fixedly than musicals around the drama of will-or-won’t the hero and heroine get together. Arlene Croce, in a piece on the Astaire-Rogers films which appeared in Ballet Review several years ago and which probably remains the best essay that has been written on movie musicals, has argued for the supremacy among their films (and, implicitly, among musical films generally) of Swing Time because of the primacy in it of the dance: its total propulsion by a series of situations in which the chief issue is, will-or-won’t conditions enable hero and heroine to dance. If I persist in preferring Miss Croce’s acknowledged runner-up, Top Hat (which never goes dead, as Swing Time occasionally does, between the dances), it’s not for rejecting her criterion of dance as the lifeblood of movie musicals. A musical either soars or it is earthbound, and musicals in which the principals don’t dance are untranscendingly earthbound from the start. It follows, then, that the question of will-they-or-won’t-they get together inevitably translates into will-they-or-won’t-they dance in Top Hat no less than in Swing Time, and in every other fulfilled musical no less than in these. We fervently wish to see them get together just so we may watch them dance; and their dancing, the magic they make together, is at once the magnet of their union and its celebration.



When Astaire and Rogers aren’t dancing in Top Hat or Swing Time or any of their other 30’s films, the films become straight comedies. What happened in the best of movie musicals in the 40’s and early 50’s was an evolution of the genre into one in which all elements were touched by that sense of lyric flight which theretofore had attached itself only to the moments of actual dance. If this meant that the musical increasingly became a director’s medium with its greater emphasis on a totality of style (a director’s medium, one should add, virtually all of whose finest achievements are the work of either Vincente Minnelli or the team of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly), it was not for any diminution in it of the prominence of the dancer. Of the musicals of the 40’s and 50’s I cherish most, I can think of only one—Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland—which doesn’t star either Astaire or Gene Kelly, and Meet Me in St. Louis is probably unique among musical films in being able to stand as a wholly achieved work even without its musical sequences. (One might say the same of Cukor’s A Star is Born of a decade later, if the Cukor didn’t seem really to be a dramatic film with songs added.) But a film like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, despite all the vigor of Michael Kidd’s choreography, seems fundamentally to founder in the fact of its stars, Jane Powell and Howard Keel, not dancing but being essentially the stodgy center of the dancing that takes place around them; though the film, likable as it is, falters elsewhere as well. In fact, the masterpieces of the genre are almost as few as its masters: Top Hat, Meet Me in St. Louis, the Donen-Kelly On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain, and Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, with Minnelli’s An American in Paris, despite its tendency to bog down in pastiche, probably heading up the short list of near-misses.

Of these, On the Town might be called the avant-garde musical in the sense that Ford’s Wagon-master is an avant-garde Western: a work pressing out to the formal limits of its genre, and becoming, in the case of On the Town, virtually one extended dance with comic-romantic interludes (it’s the uninspired comedy which is the film’s chief blemish; that, and the largely uninspired score which adds new songs to Leonard Bernstein’s original, and inexplicably drops, in “Lucky to Be Me” and “Some Other Time,” what are probably Bernstein’s best and next-best popular songs). (On the Town is probably also the least sentimental of musicals: at the end, the three sailors leave their girls and return from their day’s shore leave to their ship, having formed no lasting attachments, while a new trio of sailors arrives to take their place.) On the Town was made in 1949; Singin’ in the Rain followed in 1952 and The Band Wagon in 1953; and, if neither of the latter films seems quite as formally audacious as the earlier one, both exceed it, I think, in the consistency of their inventiveness. But four years after On the Town’s adventurous extension of the genre, with The Band Wagon’s rich fulfillment of it, the movie musical as an original form in effect simply ceased to exist, leaving, apart from the few films mentioned, mainly an anthology of bits and pieces: the “Coffee Time” dance in Yolanda and the Thief; the “Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” number from The Harvey Girls; the kitschy but irresistible chinoiserie of the “Limehouse Blues” dance in Ziegfeld Follies; the musical numbers, title “ballet” excepted, from The Pirate; and musical numbers from Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway (an oddly sour reunion in 1949 of Astaire with Ginger Rogers), Royal Wedding, and some but not much more. When one speaks of the American Western, one thinks of a rich tradition; when one speaks of the musical, a few masterworks and a miscellany of privileged moments.



And yet the camera gravitates to the dance with a natural affinity, an affinity of media which find their expression in physical movement. Why the genre of the movie musical should have so thoroughly dried up is in part attributable to high finance: musicals are expensive to make and erratic at the box office, and, with the competition from television, it became safer to invest in mammoth adaptations of proven Broadway hits; the question is no longer, will- they-or-won’t-they get to dance, but will each new musical sink or save such-and-such studio. But the extinction of the original musical, always the work of a few gifted individuals, is surely owed also to the loss of those individuals’ gifts, whether through their retirement, decline, diminished interest, or distraction elsewhere. Musicals are an aristocratic creation; De Sica and others have demonstrated that everyone is a potential film actor, but no one has gone very far with the democratic proposition that anyone can sing and dance (and it is largely this consciousness of its performers’ special gifts which accounts, I think, for the exclusion one feels from the world of musicals, and, for me, the faint letdown I always experience at their conclusion on being thrust from contemplation of so appealing but self-contained a fantasy world out into the prosaic streets). Indeed, the film of Guys and Dolls falling flat on its face with Brando, Sinatra, and Jean Simmons under Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s direction only goes to show how far good musicals are beyond the reach of even the most gifted, if inappositely gifted, performers. For all the talent involved in the effort, a Guys and Dolls can’t even begin to take flight: to convey that sense of poetry in motion which characterizes musicals at their best. And if the “poetry” of even the best musicals is only frivolous light verse, it is this with a perfect sense of its own proportions, and its frivolity of a kind which only a considerable refinement of taste has made possible.



The Band Wagon, in which some performers make a mess of staging a production of Oedipus Rex which they finally scrap in favor of a musical, is a case in point, since what is mocked is not Oedipus Rex and high culture, but the pretensions of theater people who don’t know the limits of their capabilities. (A film like Funny Face, on the other hand, turns unpleasant in large part because of its derision, from the perspective of haute couture, of bohemian-ism, existentialism, and intellect generally, which seems inimical to the civilized spirit of its genre, unearned and philistine.) The Band Wagon is exemplary also in its concern, like that of Swing Time, The Pirate, Singin’ in the Rain, etc., with entertainers and putting on a show; for, if it is the performers’ magic that the musicals celebrate, what they ultimately celebrate is that seemingly effortless art through which, as if by magic, the commonplace is transformed; what they celebrate ultimately is the transformational magic of art itself. Though this is implicit throughout most of the best musicals, it is concentrated into what is almost a fable of the dancer’s ability to transform the mundane into the lyrical in a brief sequence from the MGM revue, Ziegfeld Follies, that has nothing whatever to do with romantic apotheosis, and is as beautiful as anything in musicals on film. In it, while the director, Vincente Minnelli, does almost nothing but what is indispensable—that is to say, while he unfailingly respects the integrity of the dancer’s space—Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly sing and dance to the Gershwins’ “The Babbit and the Bromide”—two men, who have nothing to say, danced by two men, who don’t need to say anything. Apart from the delight it provides in itself, the sequence offers now the additional excitement of seeing dance together, under the direction of the genre’s most talented director, the two men who virtually divided the movie musical between them, with the irresistible opportunity given to compare them. Yet even to notice how much looser and more “conversational” is the older dancer’s style does nothing to detract from the joy of the moment. Gene Kelly, after all, is only a movie star; Fred Astaire, in his own way as fully expressive a kinetic object as Chaplin or Keaton, is in himself a movie.



Among the several good reasons I could think of for not seeing Cabaret was Liza Minnelli. My feelings about Judy Garland, Miss Minnelli’s mother and the obvious influence on her style, are extremely schizoid: in her movie musicals through the 50’s, I always loved her; in her later, Miss Show Business or Judy-at-the-Palace role, she turned into something I couldn’t stand. Miss Minnelli is already a more proficient dramatic actress than her mother probably would have ever been, though I doubt she will ever be capable of a performance of the emotional intensity of her mother’s in A Star Is Born: a performance which draws, one feels, in an unrepeatable way on a nervous energy that has very little to do with the controlled art of the actor (Miss Garland’s subsequent dramatic performances in Judgment at Nuremberg and A Child Is Waiting convey nothing of that power). Miss Minnelli’s first dramatic performance in the lead role of a movie (in The Sterile Cuckoo) already seemed more accomplished than her mother’s last ones, but in a way I found myself slightly disliking. I remember watching during, I believe, the early 50’s Judy Garland doing a TV version of her Palace act, at the end of which she sat at the edge of the stage, and tearfully thanked the audience for its applause; the next morning, I read that the show had been done without a live audience. Miss Minnelli’s acting reminds me of that; I feel similarly manipulated, similarly the victim of what seems always to verge on tear-jerking.

Miss Minnelli’s singing, however, is something about which my feelings are entirely unmixed. Like her mother in her Palace role, and the interim heir to Garland’s mantle, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, singing, is, not to put too fine a point on it, the ne plus ultra of tastelessness, a load of loud-mouthed, show-biz schmaltz. Like her predecessors in the tradition, Miss Minnelli isn’t a singer but a belter; she doesn’t sing a song, she sells it; and, whenever she opens her mouth to sing, in Cabaret or out, it’s strictly Las Vegas. To say that a little of Garland (outside her movies) or Streisand or Minnelli sends me rushing for the antidote of some Ernestine Anderson or Sarah Vaughan or Billie Holiday is unfairly to load the comparison; one need hardly go to jazz to find a musical style and level of musicianship to use as a stick to beat Miss Streisand and Minnelli with. The fact is their muse isn’t musical at all, but histrionic: every song becomes either a big, get-happy production number or a miniature tragedy. Nor is it a question of unfairly judging one style by the standards of another. The Garland-Streisand-Minnelli style, trading as it does in trumped-up emotion, is in itself an artistically corrupt one.

There was, however, one good reason for me to see Cabaret, and that was its director and choreographer, Bob Fosse. My affection for Fosse stems from his work as choreographer and dancer in the 1955 musical version of My Sister Eileen, an amiable film with two numbers, a dance of two rival suitors in an alley and an elaborate conga, that are among the wittiest sequences in movie musicals I know. That affection wasn’t quite strong enough to bring me to see Fosse’s one previous film as a director, Sweet Charity, since my feeling about remakes of Broadway shows applies a fortiori to shows that are themselves, as they increasingly are, remakes of old movies (Sweet Charity being a musical version of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria; as I write, plans have been announced for a stage version of An American in Paris). But, on the strength of Cabaret, I regret that I missed Sweet Charity, for it must be said that Cabaret is, for only the second work of its director, an enormously impressive accomplishment. (I assume here what I cannot know: that the accomplishment is the director’s. I’ve had occasion to admire the work of the film’s photographer, Geoffrey Unsworth, before.) Fluently paced and cut together, firm in its command of composition and color, above all, stylistically controlled, Cabaret is virtually a showpiece of what, at its smoothly professional best, a conventionally well-made film might be.

But for all the skillfulness with which it has been made, what is it? I’m not much concerned with the movie’s degree of faithfulness to Isherwood’s original Berlin Stories; who in his right mind would attempt to judge a Liza Minnelli musical brought to the screen via Broadway by its fidelity to some short stories in the distant past of a series of adaptations? (Nor am I really able, some twenty years after having read them, to make any such detailed judgment without rereading; for all I know, the movie’s maudlin sub-plot about an assimilated gigolo finding the courage to assert his Jewish identity in his true love for a Jewish girl may have its source in the original, though I rather doubt it.) But I do recall the stories well enough to be conscious of one large deviation from their spirit, which, original or no, is crushingly destructive to the present version, and that is its relentless moralizing. Continually played off against the private drama of Sally Bowles and her circle, and the world of the Kit Kat Klub where she works, is the rise of Nazism as seen in street beatings and murders, anti-Semitic persecution, and, in the heaviest touch of all, a proto-rally that begins with a close-up of the face of a blond, angelic boy from which the camera pans down to reveal the uniform of the Hitler Youth as he leads the crowd assembled in a beer garden in singing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.” Indeed, the scenes of Sally and the cabaret are at times intercut with these others so as to suggest that the former are somehow responsible for the latter, or at least partially culpable in its decadence and political apathy. There is, I suppose, some truth to the charge of culpability, but only insofar as it might be leveled at German society at large, decadent and otherwise, for which (not to say for Weimar culture) the synecdoche of the Kit Kat Klub makes a pretty flimsy stand-in. But what really makes the equation of private decadence and public totalitarianism insupportable is the fact of the film’s playing the Sally Bowles scenes for heartache and poignancy, with Liza Minnelli only intensifying the conception of Sally as decadent waif (who got that way because her father didn’t love her). It’s as though the film were trying to balance on some scale a bowl of mush and the phalanx of Hitler’s advancing army.



Of course, it’s only a musical, you can say, which might be all right if Cabaret didn’t have pretensions to being, in the words of its television advertisements, “more than a musical,” or at least, and on more internal evidence, an “adult” musical, in touch with reality. (In fact, the film’s one formal innovation—its restriction of its musical numbers to the stage of the cabaret while at the same time integrating them wholly with the non-musical drama—creates for me the effect of Cabaret‘s not being a musical at all, but I won’t press here for the exclusivity of my definitions.) The film’s actual distance from this is damningly suggested by the gestures toward Weill and Brecht in the scenes with Joel Grey in the cabaret, which only serve to remind one of the distance between The Threepenny Opera (not to say Mahagonny) and Cabaret‘s watered-down simulacrum. And, though Joel Grey does look like an acceptable facsimile in his white-face, death’s-head make-up, his voice is at once thin and lacking in a cutting edge, while the musical score, when not instantly unmemorable, has a tendency to stick in one’s mind in the rather hateful manner of “Hello, Dolly” and the jingles in some TV commercials. (Elsewhere, when it’s not tugging on your heartstrings or imitating Weill and Brecht, the film is recreating figures from George Grosz in the cabaret audience in the literalistic fashion of Moulin Rouge‘s recreations of Lautrec; not that such pastiche is unacceptable in a musical, Moulin Rouge itself having the effect of turning into a musical in one’s memory at this distance from it.)

In fact, Cabaret is an adult musical in the same way that High Noon is an adult Western: adult by virtue of its wholesale infusion into its genre of the most cherished of liberaloid pieties and a free-floating, generalized pessimism. I hate to think of the consequences were Cabaret‘s success, like High Noon‘s, to spawn a flock of imitations: blue skies into gray, and all the downbeat trappings of Hollywood-style maturity. There has, of course, always been in American films a flirtation with a pessimism as shallow as the optimism of the standard Hollywood happy ending: a conviction that unhappy endings are in themselves more honest and “true to life”; and the pessimism of Cabaret (whose ending is perhaps not unhappy but “ambiguous”) seems only the latest, if best dressed, embodiment of these things. I don’t mean to suggest that musicals, quite apart from those of Brecht and Weill, can’t of their nature cope successfully with emotions other than the high-spirited; Minnelli’s films, in particular, have often been touched by a sense of melancholy. What I mean is quite simply that Cabaret is only the counterfeit of such a musical: that the Weltschmerz of Cabaret is not more but less profound than the gaiety of Top Hat, Singin’ in the Rain, and (when it is gay) The Band Wagon.



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