Jeanine Basinger wrote the brilliant World War II Combat Film, the much less brilliant I Do and I Don’t (about marriage in the movies) and provided an excellent commentary track on my DVD of The Philadelphia Story (among other accomplishments). Her THE MOVIE MUSICAL falls in the middle, not as good as the combat-film book but better than I Do and I Don’t. It’s an informative book and I mostly enjoyed reading it, but I kept feeling I should have enjoyed it more.
Basinger is a musical fangirl (she says so in the intro) and it shows: she’s happy to write about not only the great musicals but failures, experiments and low-budget knockoffs. She opens discussing the birth of sound and the success of the musical The Jazz Singer (contrary to legend, neither the first sound film or first musical film) and how the movies developed musicals as a genre. She also discusses the question of what makes a musical (e.g., Casablanca isn’t a musical even though “As Time Goes By” is a major part of the story [the key is that the movie would be 90 percent there without it, which isn’t the same with Brigadoon or Top Hat) and how musicals work: given that people spontaneously singing and dancing together is inherently unrealistic, how do movies sell us that it’s plausible. The answers are various: all the music occurs onstage in performances, or the music starts on stage then continues off stage, or it’s a dream sequence, an animated film, a concert film … Though I must admit, I’m not sure this is such a serious issue: anyone who has issues with the absurdity probably isn’t going to attend a musical anyway (TYG thinks it’s silly, so she doesn’t watch).
Then we switch from chronology to an overview of the musical stars, the kind for whom “star vehicles” were filmed. A star vehicle is one made to showcase the star’s persona: an Elvis Presley film for example, was primarily an excuse to put Elvis onscreen singing, nothing else really mattered (and the quality suffered for it). She also looks at star duos (e.g. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers) and what makes them work, then we move on to subgenres (the B-movie, the musical biopic, operettas, singing cowboy films), then the different studios. Then we’re back to chronology: the 1950s when Gene Kelly and director Vincenté Minnelli helped elevate musicals to an art form Then on into the 1960s when things went wrong (big successes such as The Sound of Music followed by a long list of flops such as Doctor Dolittle), the grimdark musicals of the 1970s (e.g. Cabaret, set in Nazi Germany) and then a long ongoing decline. The audience likes musicals, filmmakers like making musicals, but they can’t make them profitably and in Basinger’s opinion can’t make them good enough. She suggests part of the problem is that upbeat musicals run against our more cynical age, which I don’t entirely buy (the 1940s had musicals and film noir, after all) and (more plausibly) that it takes a shit ton of skilled talent to make a good one; with the studio system gone, it’s much harder to assemble a good team than it used to be. Basinger also dismisses most post-studio movies for not being innovative, which is not a standard she applies as much to the musicals of the 1930s and 1940s — but then she made the same argument against recent films in I Do and I Don’t (contemporary movies about marriage aren’t doing anything new, so who cares?).
There’s a lot of interesting stuff and a ton of musicals I’d Netflix if Alien Visitors wasn’t sucking up so much viewing time. But I also finished it feeling unsatisfied. Part of that is the occasional error: Basinger’s version of the genesis of Singing in the Rain differs from the one on the DVD commentary track I have, and the commentary is more persuasive; the “you’ll come back a star” line in 42nd Street is not, in context “cornball” (the point is Ruby Keeler must be a star or everyone working on the show is suddenly unemployed).
Another problem is that the structure is kind of structureless: start with chronology, bounce to stars and studios, then back to chronology felt very off. A third issue is the selection: why devote so much space to Belita, a B-movie knockoff of skating musical star Sonja Henie rather than a more significant player (in fairness, that’s always an issue with a book like this)? I also wish she’d done something to parallel film development with stage more — stage musicals also got darker in the late 20th century, for instance.
And in fairness, part of the problem was me. Basinger went into more detail on specific films or actors than I needed to know; part of that may be the lack of structure but it’s also simply that she gave me more information than I wanted, which is never the author’s fault.
If you’re interested in the subject, it’s definitely worth checking out, despite my demurrals.
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