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A Glut of Trash
The original sheet music
cover for "Singin' in the Rain," which was introduced in MGM's all-star
Hollywood Revue of 1929. This song by lyricist Arthur Freed and composer
Nacio Herb Brown would be used in many future MGM films.
The stock market collapse of 1929 had a tremendous impact
on every aspect of American culture. Several smaller studios were forced to
close down, most of the majors came close, and by 1933 almost a third of all
movie theatres in the U.S. were forced to shut down. However, the industry
survived the Great Depression by meeting a very real need.
True, the movie business would never
again enjoy the figures of 1929, when 23,000 theatres were visited by an
average of 95 million people a week. By 1936 the number of screens would be
shaved by a third. . . The number of weekly filmgoers would also decline
permanently, slashed by radio . . . Still, never was escapist entertainment
needed more than during the Depression. Hollywood rose to the occasion. As
the wolf settled in for a lengthy stay, entertainment provided solace and
balm. But reduced prices and varied giveaways were not enough to lure people
into trading hard earned pennies for filmed vaudeville. They wanted magic
and romance and novelty; stories with happy endings and a chastened wolf.
- Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, The Early Years
1903-1940 (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2001), p. 205.
Screen musicals inherently require a substantial investment
of time, talent and money, so keeping this genre alive proved a tricky
proposition during the economic crash of the early 1930s. The commercial
success of Love Parade and Broadway Melody spawned a glut of musical
spectacles, each bigger and clunkier than the last. Every major studio attempted at
least one lavish musical revue, most to disastrous effect. The best of the bunch, MGM's
Hollywood Revue of 1929, mixed weak production numbers with such oddities
as Joan Crawford performing a Charleston -- and silent stars Norma Shearer and John
Gilbert offering an amateurish "jived up" balcony scene from
Romeo and Juliet.
Hollywood's book musicals of the early 1930s were equally bizarre. Director Cecil B.
DeMille offered the only musical of his long career, Madam Satan (1930),
which included a madcap costume party on a zeppelin anything for a visual thrill.
Small wonder that the public soon became disenchanted with these brain-dead spectacles.
Cut the Music!
Big Pond was part of the glut that made audiences wary of musical films,
but it gave Maurice Chevalier the chance to introduce "You Brought a
New Kind of Love to Me."
Thanks to rigid studio distribution systems, movie theatres were stuck showing these
unappealing musicals for weeks at a time. Exhausted audiences started staying home. Combined with
the onset of the Great Depression, this drop in business drove most Hollywood
the brink of financial extinction. In a sudden twist, movie
musicals were written off. Theatre managers began putting up signs to assure
potential ticket buyers that their latest feature was not a musical!
The figures tell the story. According to the Internet Movie
Database, Hollywood released more than 100 screen musicals in 1930 -- only
14 in 1931. Studios went so far as to cut the songs from several musicals,
turning Cole Porter's Fifty Million Frenchmen (1931) and Irving
Berlin's Reaching for the Moon (1931) into awkward comedies.
The few filmmakers who tried to swim against this commercial current made
some fascinating, innovative films.
"Falling In Love Again"
As musicals faded from the screen, a unique star appeared with enough talent and sex
appeal to soar above shifts in public taste. Marlene Dietrich's smoldering
rendition of the hit song "Falling in Love Again" (the original German
lyric literally translates as
"From Head to Foot I'm Built for Love") in the German film The Blue Angel
(1930) fascinated audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Paramount Studios
recognized her potential, and had this multi-talented beauty under contract
before the film opened in the US. Months later, Dietrich caused an
even greater furor making her Paramount debut in Morocco (1930). Clad
in a man's tuxedo, she finished an on-screen performance of a ballad by
kissing a female admirer on the lips. Classy, exotic, daring, and always one
of kind, this husky-voiced blonde became one of the most
iconographic screen stars of all time.
Dietrich's appeared in few full-scale musicals, preferring
to interpolate a song or two in her films. For example, as a
frontier saloon singer in the comic western Destry Rides Again (1939), she
titillated a screen full of cowboys (and a few million fans) by crooning "See
What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have." An early and vehement opponent of the
Nazis, Dietrich proudly performed for Allied troops during World War II.
Maintaining her unique sex symbol persona into her senior years, she remained
a nightclub superstar until her self-imposed retirement in the 1970s.
Rodgers & Hart: "Isn't It
Paramount lured Broadways songwriters Richard Rodgers and
Lorenz Hart to Hollywood,
offering lucrative contracts and urging them to continue the innovative
approach to musical comedy that had marked their stage works. After
The Hot Heiress (1931), they collaborated with ground-breaking director
Rouben Mamoulian on a film which most buffs
consider a masterpiece Love Me Tonight
One of this film's most memorable sequences uses a song to travel
across time and space. A Parisian tailor (Maurice
Chevalier) sings the catchy "Isnít It Romantic?" to a customer
with a lyric gently spoofing the old-fashioned romantic view of love and
marriage. The customer merrily hums the tune to a taxi driver,
and the driver then "la-da-da's" it to a composer who soon
after is seen singing the tune to soldiers on a train. These troops are then
seen singing the song as they march along a country road. A passing violinist picks
up the melody and plays it for his fellow gypsies by a campfire. He is overheard by
melancholy noblewoman (Jeanette MacDonald)
on a nearby palace balcony, where she takes up the tune and sings about finding
old-fashioned romance with a prince in shining armor.
A similar sense of inventiveness runs through most of Love
Me Tonight. Each song propels the plot and/or develops character,
sometimes in surprising ways. For example, the hit waltz "Lover"
has the imperious MacDonald interspersing a love song with terse orders to
her misbehaving horse. But Mamoulian's exacting methods forced the film's production
costs into the million dollar range, making it impossible for the film to turn
a mid-Depression profit. As a consequence, Love Me Tonight's innovations
were ignored by Hollywood.
Rodgers and Hart worked on other ambitious film projects, with
disappointing commercial results. The Phantom President (1932) starred
stage legend George M. Cohan in a dual role as a boring
presidential candidate and a charismatic look-alike who is paid to campaign in his
place. Cohan's only screen musical suffered from poorly focused political satire
and fared poorly at the box office.
For Hallelujah, Iím a Bum (1933) Rodgers & Hart
provided another integrated score and wrote rhythmic lyrical dialogue
for several scenes. Al Jolson
starred as a tramp who tries to reform himself in order to please the girl he
loves. Several film historians have championed this picture, but most viewers today
find it a noble experiment that failed -- preachy, overwritten, and miscast. The dynamic
Jolson as a lazy tramp? Although the use of rhyming dialog was innovative, it served no
clear purpose. After this film did poorly with critics and audiences,
Hollywood made meager use of Rodgers and Hart. Their only hit song during this period
was "Blue Moon," which studio executives had cut from its intended picture! The duo left
Hollywood in 1935, realizing that their best creative options were back on Broadway.
By this time, another Broadway veteran was reshaping the musical film
into a genre the Depression-era public could not get enough of. Think big,
kaleidoscopic ensembles in settings that were "naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty . . ."
Next: Film 1930s II