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(A personal view by Reg Reeve, Honorary Member & UK Publicity Director of the International Al Jolson Society)
I saw my first movie musical in 1950, at the age of 15, when I started going out with my first girl friend. Readily conceding to her preference, I discovered, in her company, an exciting new area of entertainment. Among the films we saw together was The Jolson Story, based on the life and times of Al Jolson, an entertainer whose career in the musical theatre, in Hollywood and on radio, spanned most of the first half of the twentieth century. I became a Jolson fan from the moment I heard his deep, rich singing voice. His glamorous story and the dynamic energy of his performances awakened in me an interest in that golden era of American popular entertainment that has kept me enthralled to the present day.
The history of most aspects of American show business has been nowhere better preserved than in Hollywood musical films, and in the memoirs of those involved in making them. Nowadays, more than fifty years after I saw my first Hollywood musical film, the abundance of material available facilitates research into the origin and development of the genre. As well as the wealth of literature available - including biographies of many of the talented people involved in their creation - recordings of most Hollywood film musicals can be purchased, or hired, for a few pounds, simplifying the task of piecing together the fascinating story of the artistic endeavours of the librettists, songwriters, choreographers, performers and technicians who combined to create the tremendous body of work that kept the world entertained during some of the bleakest years of the century. That body of work still provides, today, a fascinating diversion for those with the time and perspicacity to explore its delights. Like an enormous jigsaw puzzle, the films and the individual accounts fit together to provide a fascinating picture of an era of popular entertainment, now, alas, long gone.
The Hollywood musical film dates back to 1927, when Warner Brothers developed the Vitaphone sound-on-disc system that gave a voice to the movies. The first singing voice introduced on film was that of Al Jolson, who gave up his top starring Broadway career to take the leading role in The Jazz Singer, essentially a silent film with several sequences of songs and spoken dialogue synchronised with the action on screen. Premiered at the Wamer Brothers flagship theatre in New York, The Jazz Singer caused a sensation among cinemagoers, changing the face of the film making industry forever. Bizarrely, The Jazz Singer was frequently shown as a silent film because very few cinemas were wired for sound at that time. By 1928, when Jolson's second film, The Singing Fool, was released, most cinemas were equipped with sound systems, and the film set a record for box-office takings that stood for eleven years until it was overtaken in 1939 by Gone With The Wind.
Other studios had caught up with Warner Brothers by 1929, when MGM won the first Oscar awarded to a musical with The Broadway Melody, a story of life in the popular musical theatre. Variations on this 'back-stage' theme were used for many of the early film musicals in order to provide a plausible reason for members of the cast to sing or dance. It wasn't until some years later that film producers, encouraged by the success of early film versions of European operettas such as The Merry Widow and Naughty Marietta, came to realise that movie audiences would readily accept the 'integrated' musical film, in which song and dance were used to advance the story line, comment on the action or throw light on the personalities of the protagonists.
Before that degree of sophistication was reached, the movie industry relied largely upon the glamour and personal appeal of the performers to retain the interest of audiences rapidly becoming disenchanted with the repetitious story-lines of the early backstage musical films. In the period of depression following the 1929 Wall Street crash, which saw the closure of many New York theatres, stage stars such as Fred & Adele Astaire, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Maurice Chevalier, Marilyn Miller, Helen Morgan, Nelson Eddy & Jeanette MacDonald, among others, soon followed Al Jolson to Hollywood. Lucrative contracts tempted Broadway songwriters and librettists, too, into the new medium, and Broadway producers were easily persuaded to sell to Hollywood the film rights to their shows.
Stage shows found a wider audience when they were given a new lease of life on film. One of the earliest Broadway musicals to be screened was Whoopee. Filmed in two-tone colour, in 1930, and starring Eddie Cantor, Whoopee introduced dance director Busby Berkeley, who helped to reshape the film musical. By the use of a revolving stage, mirrors, close-up and overhead shots, unusual camera angles and clever editing, he wove exotic, and often covertly erotic, fantasies that kept audiences flocking to the cinemas In that decade of depression, the movies offered an inexpensive means of escaping briefly from the daily struggle for existence that characterised the lives of most people.
Despite some notable failures, quickly consigned to oblivion, the musical film made steady progress during the 1930s. Among the outstanding fins of this period were Dames, Top Hat, 42nd Street and, in 1937, the first animated musical, Walt Disney's Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs. MGM's The Wizard of Oz, released in 1939, is generally accepted to be the first Technicolor film musical masterpiece. Although by no means the first integrated musical film, it set a standard by which others would be judged.
Successful Broadway shows continued to provide material for the film makers during the 1940s, a decade that also saw a return to the back-stage musical with the beginning of a proliferation of film biographies of songwriters and musical theatre performers. Among the composers honoured in this way were George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Jerome Kern, as well as the song-writing team of composer Richard Rodgers & lyricist Lorenz Hart. Songwriter/showman George M. Cohan received a similar tribute. Performers receiving the accolade of a 'biopic' included Nora Bayes, Marilyn Miller, The Dolly Sisters and bandleaders Tommy & Jimmy Dorsey. Al Jolson featured twice in this nostalgic look back at the golden days of American popular musical theatre, with Jolson Sings Again, in 1949, following the phenomenal success of The Jolson Story. As it moved into the decade that saw the genre reach its peak in the 1950s, the Hollywood musical was in good shape.
The 50s opened on a high note with the filming of songwriter Irving Berlin's Broadway hit, Annie Get Your Gun. Film versions of other successful stage musicals, including Rodgers & Hart's Pal Joey, dominated the Hollywood scene. Among other successful transitions to the movie screen were Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam, Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate and Silk Stockings, and Richard Rodgers' Oklahoma!, Carousel, The King & I and South Pacific, all four written with his new partner, librettist and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein 2nd. Hammerstein's 1926 success, Show Boat, written with an earlier collaborator, Jerome Kern, was filmed for the third time, and songwriter Frank Loesser enjoyed spectacular success with Guys & Dolls. Among a plethora of great movie musicals were three more Broadway imports, Li'l Abner, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees The decade also saw the release of Singin' In The Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Calamity Jane, High Society, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, The Great Caruso and Royal Wedding.
By the mid-fifties, however, the advent of rock and roll had revolutionised tastes in popular music, heralding the end of the golden era of the musical film. Rock Around The Clock, released in 1956, and Jailhouse Rock, the following year, were early harbingers of a new era. Hollywood continued to make musicals in the old tradition but fewer were made as production costs spiralled and television took its toll on cinema audiences.
Although fewer in number, some of the best of the Hollywood musicals were made after 1960, including probably the greatest of them all, Broadway songwriting team Alan Jay Lerner & Frederick Loewe's My Fair Lady, following upon their success in the 50s with Brigadoon and Gigi Lerner & Loewe, one of the great musical partnerships of Broadway and Hollywood, scored further hits in the 60s with Camelot and Paint Your Wagon.
In 1974 MGM finally acknowledged the demise of the Hollywood musical when they released That's Entertainment, a compilation of extracts from the studio's archive of great musicals. That's Entertainment, Part Two followed a year later. So, in little more than forty years, the Hollywood musical had run its course. For me, however, and for many of my generation, the performances and songs that brightened our lives, through good times and bad, continue to entertain and delight us still today when we slip a treasured tape into the video recorder, watch a DVD or an off-peak TV screening of an old musical film. Although some are showing their age, due to changing fashions and the regrettable deterioration of the film stock, they provide a priceless record of a shining age of show business that, sadly, will never return. To quote Frank Sinatra: "You can hang around for as long as you care to, waiting and hoping, but you're never going to see their like again."
FILM MUSICAL MILESTONES
Reproduced from The Jolson Journal,
by permission of the publishers,
Life and Career of Al Jolson - dates and details.
Al Jolson - the first superstar.
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