Friday, 13 January 2006

The Collapse of the Hollywood Musical

Tonight my mind is on the Hollywood musical. Here I should perhaps define what I mean by "Hollywood musical." For me a Hollywood musical is any movie musical which originated with the American studios and doesn't derive from a stage play or teleplay. Using this definiton, examples of Hollywood musicals are Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Cover Girl. Musical films which are not "Hollywood musicals" using this definition are Oklahoma and My Fair Lady. While American studios had a hand in both of these movies, both of them were also based on stage plays. To me a Hollywood musical must owe nearly all of its origins to, well, Hollywood.

The Hollywood musical developed almost as soon as the talkies were born. Indeed, The Jazz Singer, the first full length feature film to use sound, featured a few songs. Despite its use of sound, The Jazz Singer was still mostly silent, but it would not be long before an all singing, all dancing movie would emerge. Released by MGM (who else?), The Broadway Melody of 1929 was the first Hollywood musical. With a score by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (part of whose catalog would be used for a movie called Singin' in the Rain years later....), The Broadway Melody of 1929 was a smash hit. It raked in $1.6 million at the box office. It would not be The Broadway Melody of 1929 that would establish the Hollywood musical, but instead two films released in 1933. 42nd Street would establish Busby Berkley as the screen musical choreographer par excellence, not to mention create many Hollywood musical cliches. Flying Down to Rio would introduce the world to the dance team of Astaire and Rogers. With the success of these two musicals, Hollywood went to work churning out dozens of musicals every year. And while MGM is best known for its musicals, nearly every studio would make them (indeed, the early Busby Berkley musicals were produced by Warner Brothers, while the Astaire and Rogers movies were made by RKO).

Arguably, the genre started to go into decline just as it reached its peak. On the one hand, what is considered by some to be the four greatest Hollywood musicals were all released in a space of four years in the early Fifties: An American in Paris in 1951, Singin' in the Rain in 1952, The Band Wagon in 1953, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (possibly my favourite musical of all time) in 1954. An American in Paris would even win the Oscar for Best Picture. Unfortunately, just as the Hollywood musical had reached its peak in quality, it also seemed to be losing steam. While An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers all did reasonably well at the box office, others did not fair so well. Indeed, one need look no further than the career of Gene Kelly for a measure of the decline of the Hollywood musical. At the height of his career with the back to back triumphs of An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, it was not long before two of Kelly's films would fail at the box office--Brigadoon in 1954 and It's Always Fair Weather in 1955. It does not seem to have been the case that audiences were no longer interested in musicals. For the next twenty years Hollywood would produce several big budget adaptations of stage musicals, among them Oklahoma, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and Fiddler on the Roof. Given the fact that audiences would still attend musical movies, one has to wonder why Hollywood stopped making musical originals of its own.

I rather suspect that there were multiple reasons. Primary amongst these was the advent of regular network television broadcasts in the United States. During World War II 90 million Americans went to the movies every week. In the years following the Korean War this number dropped to 16 million. Quite simply, people preferred to stay home and watch television rather than spend money to go the cinema. The drastic hit that television delivered to the movie industry may also have affected the sorts of musicals that were being made. Competing with television for viewers, the American studios increasingly moved towards big budget spectacles. This was the age of The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Naturally, the studios may have chosen to go with "big," lavish musicals such as Oklahoma and My Fair Lady as opposed to "smaller" musicals such as Singin' in the Rain. It must also be noted that the vast majority of musicals after 1955 were based on existing properties adapted from the stage rather than original musical screenplays. I suspect there is a simple reason for this. With an existing property such as South Pacific or The King and I, there is less of a risk than there is with an original movie such as An American in Paris. Audiences have already heard of the play, so it is reasonable to assume that they will go see the movie (of course, this isn't actually true--look at the success of Brigadoon and, more recently, Rent).

Another factor in the decline of the Hollywood musical may have been the changing tastes of music in America. From 1929 to around 1955, American music actually changed very little. Oh, there was the rise and decline of the swing bands and various other musical fads, but the works of such composers as Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, and so on were still widely popular. All of this changed in the mid-Fifties with the rise of rock 'n' roll. The new music swept the youth of America, making the old standards passe. With young people listening to Elvis Presley and Little Richard, I rather suspect that the audience for musicals became older than it once had been. And, for better or worse, the biggest audience for going to the cinema has usually been the youth.

Yet another factor in the collapse of the Hollywood musical was the collapse of the Hollywood studio system. With the studio system in place, American movie makers had a ready made team with which to generate original projects. They had the directors. They had the stars. They even had the composers at times. Unforutnately for the major movie makers, the studio system was in danger even at its height. As early as 1938, the Roosevelt administration had decided to put an end to the practice of "block booking," wherein the studios required theatre owners to take a number of films together (hence, a "block"). By 1949 the Supreme Court handed down the "Paramount Consent Decree," which ended block booking. The studios were also forced to divest themselves of the theatres they owned. Seriously weakened by the court's decision and weakened further by the advent of television, the studio system started to crumble. Most of the studios would eventually release their contract players. MGM even disbanded the fabled Freed unit (the unit at MGM headed by songwriter Arthur Freed responsible for their legendary musicals). Without the studio system in place, original musicals bcame less attractive to the studios. It is perhaps notable that from the late Fifties into the Seventies, the only major, original musical was Disney's Mary Poppins (even The Rocky Horror Picture Show was based on a stage play).

At any rate, the decline of the Hollywood musical would have an immediate effect on those who worked on them. Legendary hoofer Gene Kelly turned increasingly to directing and non-musical roles (one of the most memorable of which was as one of Shirley Maclaine's ill fated husband in What a Way to Go). Fred Astaire moved onto dramatic roles. Cyd Charisse, blessed with what may have been the best figure in the history of film, continued to work in movies and television in non-musical roles. Until her untimely death, Judy Garland appeared on television and in concert appearances. Individuals who were once stars had suddenly become anachronisms.

Given my love for the Hollywood musical, it is no surprise that I wished the genre would never have declined. Hollywood continued to make musicals into the Seventies, but, with few exceptions, most of them were adaptations of stage plays. And while many of these musicals number among my favourites (My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and Fiddler on the Roof), for me most of them do not match the energy and sparkle of the Hollywood musicals. Most of them feature nothing of the kind of the complex dance sequences for which Gene Kelly was known. And many of them do not feature the sort of incredibly beautiful women, such as Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller, that populated the Hollywood musical. And while Rogers and Hammerstein were a fine writing team, their songs do not seem as appealing to me as those of Cole Porter or the Gershwins or Irving Berlin.

Of course, the good news is that musicals may be on a comeback. The adaptions of Chicago and Phantom of the Opera were successful. And while the original musical De-Lovely (based on Cole Porter's life) did not do terribly well at the box office, it could signal a willingness on the studios' parts to make original musicals as well as adaptions. It could then be possible that the Hollywood musical could return.

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