This course introduces students to the history and evolution of the musical film. From the beginnings of sound cinema, the musical has entertained diverse audiences. While its popularity has at times waned, the musical continues to appear on 21st century movie screens. What accounts for the musical’s popularity in different moments in the past? What have been its central themes and cultural preoccupations? How have filmmakers developed a cinematic language in order to lend musicals expression? And what kinds of theoretical paradigms have scholars employed in order to better understand the genre’s evolution?
An internationally popular film genre, featuring music, song, and dance in varying combinations, often intertwined with a romance plot with a happy ending. Film versions of operas and stage musicals made in the silent era were usually screened with live musical accompaniment, often as part of theatrical entertainments featuring musical acts (see music). Some scholars contend that it was the popularity of these shows with audiences that prompted the development of synchronized sound after the mid 1920s. Early sound musicals like The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, US, 1927) and The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont, US, 1929) had hardly any synch-sound dialogue but did include several songs. By the 1930s, musicals were a core element of film production in Hollywood and around the world. Locally-produced films featuring music and dance—like the Brazilian chanchada and the Argentine tanguero, for example—were popular with audiences throughout Latin America, while the film operetta was significant in the outputs of several film industries in Europe. Musicals continue to be a staple of international film production, and Bollywood’s musical output—particularly its speciality, the ‘melodramatic musical’—has long outstripped Hollywood’s. In Hollywood alone, the genre has generated a number of subtypes and hybrids over the decades, including the musical comedy (for example Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)) and the backstage musical (for example 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933)). In terms of the relationship between story and musical numbers, three basic types of musical have been identified: the fairytale musical (for example The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965)); the show musical (for example Cabaret (Bob Fosse, 1972)); and the folk musical (for example Grease (Randal Kleiser, 1978)). The animated musical, pioneered by Disney Studios with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (David Hand, 1937), now rivals the live-action Hollywood musical in production output and popularity: successful titles include The Nightmare Before Christmas (Henry Selick, 1993); Tangled (Nathan Greno, 2010); and Moana (Ron Clements and others, 2016).
In film studies, the Hollywood musical has long been the subject of analysis and investigation across a range of topics: these include the various ways in which plot and musical numbers are integrated in a film’s narrative; issues of gender, sexuality, and spectacle; questions of studio style (MGM’s lavish Technicolor musicals of the 1950s are a case in point); the contributions of key creative personnel (such as directors Ernst Lubitsch and Vincente Minnelli, choreographer Busby Berkeley, and performers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers); and investigations of the genre’s industrial, social, and cultural contexts. Musicals made outside Hollywood tend to be studied in terms of their links with local popular and folk musical forms, and in the context of their wider national cinemas. See also entertainment; excess.
To find musical films in the Library's collections, you can click on the subject headings below.