Nothing much to say about the current abysmal state of our American theater this week (although for signs of life, check out the sidebar and all those great shows you should go see–and keep the notices coming!). I spent the week plugging away at El Paso and planning a journey to America’s Oldest Outdoor Drama (keep your eyes open for Monday’s road trip report!).
More compelling this week were the movies I watched, in my continuing obsession with musicals. Early film musicals seem to be about themselves–about theater or movies or vaudeville. One senses that it seemed inconceivable for those performers that their style of popular entertainment could actually disappear–films of musicals simply attempted to deliver the same goods in a different form, one which was cheaper and more easily reproducible.
Let me say that I’m tempted to watch Three Kings as a documentary about Iraq. Also, to watch Singin’ in the Rain as a documentary about the transition of Hollywood from silent film to talkies. If that gives you an idea my perception of “reality” w/r/t storytelling, or my feelings about the place of documentary in art-making.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, screenwriters for Singin’ in the Rain, had been hired to write a script around songs they were delivered. The songs in no way further the plot; they do, however, provide breaks for entertainment. The logic behind that entertainment is straight vaudeville, straight early American theater. Songs, massive monologues, even character portrayals, didn’t assist to further a plot in unified Aristotelian fashion, but instead provided the opportunity for a performer to show off in a certain way, to do his or her schtick. That’s often what would draw an audience–a performer’s ability to DO something live onstage. Not the story.
Comden and Green knew that, and so, those clever devils, they created a story that reflected the style they were working in. They, and Gene Kelly as well, interviewed many former silent screen stars (themselves former vaudeville troupers), and used the collected stories to create one of the all-time great movies, a movie about Hollywood’s tricky transition into talkies.
So I followed my screening of Singin’ in the Rain with Broadway Melody of 1929, an early talkie musical about a couple of hoofin’ sisters trying to make it big, see, in New York. Parts of Singing in the Rain were ripped from Broadway Melody; the former, a love story set during the time and around the set of circumstances that created the latter.
A lot of racy pre-code stuff in Broadway Melody–gratuitous shots of women in their skimpy knickers preparing to take baths, or close-ups of showgirl legs in rehearsal rags, or changing in and out of costumes (they all seem to eschew brassieres) with some hot backstage smooches (with men) thrown in for good measure (although the sisters’ snuggling ain’t innocent). Luckily, since they were telling a story about vaudeville performers, those dirty rascals, it could be somewhat part of the mise en scene.
In the earlier musicals I’m watching, there’s both an homage to and dependence on on the tricks of vaudeville (The Big Broadcast of 1938, for instance, which seems nothing more than a thin ‘story’ holding together songs, dances, comedy routines, and scenes that seem to come straight out of burlesque). Early Hollywood actors were v-ville troupers or children of same, well into the 1950s.
The appeal of these movies to me–stuffed with bad over-acting, really obvious plot twists, and
a style of performance which they innocently didn’t see translating badly to film–is less the movies–they weren’t great movies–but the fact that they document the form of live performance that came before it–the skits, the language, the dance moves, the songs. Also, in their portrayal of the business itself–they document the culture, sometimes in generalized cliches, sometimes with artless, touching specificity.
Rogers & Hammerstein’s great innovation was to integrate plot and lyrics, so that all the songs had to do with all of the story. After that, musicals didn’t have to be about musicals, you didn’t need an excuse like that for a production number anymore.
And that’s about the same time Singin’ in the Rain came out, a nostalgic goodbye and thank you for what came before it.