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Escape With Me Into the Trippy World of 1930s Musicals

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We all could use some laughs as well as beauty, joy, another reality. Recently, musicals have become my great escape, because, well, they’re s’wonderful, filled with affairs of the heart and body, toe-tapping rhythms, witty lyrics and syncopated motion. The stories invariably turn on couples (or matchmakers) and play like courtships: Guy and gal meet, they dance, sing, kiss, argue. Then they dance again, beautifully, because it is always fair weather in the musical even when it’s storming outside. Here are five from the 1930s, the decade when movies went from all talking to all singing and dancing.

1931

Best known for exquisite romantic comedies, Ernst Lubitsch was also instrumental in developing the musical as a genre. “The Smiling Lieutenant” follows Niki (Maurice Chevalier), a rakish Viennese officer. One night at a beer garden (where else?), he meets Franzi (Claudette Colbert), a violinist, and they’re soon cooing over breakfast. “You put kisses in the coffee,” he sings.

There aren’t many songs and scarcely any dancing, but it’s funny, sexy and thoroughly charming. During a waltz, Franzi asks Niki if the other woman in his life, Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), is a blonde or a brunette. He says that he doesn’t know and Franzi laughs, because she now realizes that Niki hasn’t seen Anna in the buff. The moment is naughty in a film suffused with adult knowing and melancholic longing.

The cleverest, zingiest song is “Jazz Up Your Lingerie,” which Franzi and Anna perform together. After slaps and tears, the worldly Franzi suggests that Anna ditch her bloomers for something flirtier. The women are rivals, but as they play a piano trilling about lace and melodies — and everything else unmentionable — they form a rueful sisterhood that’s as emotionally persuasive as it is narratively dubious. The film doesn’t end the way you want. “A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments,” Andrew Sarris once observed — but that’s Lubitsch, whose touch, “is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety.”

Available to stream on Flix Fling.

“You’re going out there as a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” Marsh (Warner Baxter), the director in the backstage musical “42nd Street,” is talking to Peggy (Ruby Keeler), the untested hoofer and singer who’s suddenly become the lead in his splashy show. She’s gotta be a success, Marsh insists, because so much — “200 people, 200 jobs” — is at stake. She’s gotta be a star because it’s the middle of the Depression, and the film’s audience could use a break, too, as well as reason to smile.

Keeler is a period curiosity, with a girlish voice and tiny feet that jackhammer the floor. The greater attraction here, though, is Busby Berkeley, the dance director and creator of sui generis spectacles. This was Berkeley’s first film at Warner Bros., and he was already waving his freak flag, as is evident in the number built around the song “Young and Healthy.” “If I could hate yuh, I’d keep away,” Dick Powell croons to a Jean Harlow type with a fox stole over her breasts. “But that ain’t my nature/I’m full of vitamin A.”

It’s funny and maddeningly catchy and you don’t really have time to think what it means, because suddenly this Harlow look-alike is part of a cavalcade of peroxide blondes who begin gliding past Powell on a revolving platform. (The third to pass by is the pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers.) Powell sings to each chorine with affable leers, arm squeezes and a suggestive tug of his bow tie. Then he and his smiling partner kiss, and the camera pushes in close, as if to get in on the action. When they unlock lips, the screen explodes in an orgiastic Berkeley bonanza with dozens of dancers forming geometric patterns on a glossy black stage. It’s de-lovely, demented cine-surrealism.

Available to rent or buy on Amazon, FandangoNow, Flix Fling, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.

1935

The setting is an absurdly palatial Italianate hotel — a perfect Depression-era fantasy — with a soundstage canal and extras swanked up like toffs. Here, Jerry (Fred Astaire), a dancer, has pursued Dale (Ginger Rogers), a model. She thinks he’s married, which he doesn’t know, misunderstanding being a routine Astaire and Rogers stratagem, but she’s as drawn to him as he is to her. There’s been some silly drama, and now, after a lot banter and a few fabulous numbers, Dale appears in a gown trimmed in ostrich feathers and Jerry shows up in white tie and tails.

He invites her to dance, but she’s reluctant, expressing the push-pull that characterizes the Astaire-Rogers romance here and in other films. She relents and they begin dancing. “All I know is that it’s,” says Jerry, who starts singing: “heaven … I’m in heaven.” The transition from talk to song is satiny smooth and heralds the moment that shifts the scene from familiar fiction (where characters are mortals, almost) to the exalted, magical kingdom of the musical (where they’re Astaire & Rogers).

Eventually, there’s a cut that initiates the number’s second half, an orchestrated passage in long (and wide) shot that shows you Dale and Jerry’s bodies, head to toe. The whole thing is hypnotically beautiful, an expression of desire conveyed through harmonious flow. Finally, the dance ends and the lovers — because now we know they’re in love — pause. Rogers is panting ever so gently, and her breathing gives the moment an erotic grace note. Katharine Hepburn said that Astaire gave Rogers class and Rogers gave him sex, but it was their dancing together that brought the heat.

Available to rent or buy on Amazon, FandangoNow iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.

1935

For the second half of the 1930s, Shirley Temple was a box-office sensation, a fact that’s at once understandable and baffling. She was an excellent professional cutie pie, but while some of her films are amusing and a few are better than most, others can make you gag because of their treacle and wincing representations. Despite my qualms, there’s a very good reason to watch “The Little Colonel,” and his name is Bill Robinson.

He was one of the most famous dancers of the early 20th century; when he died in 1948, 32,000 mourners paid their respects. Nicknamed Bojangles, he came out of vaudeville and made his screen debut in “Dixiana” (1930), performing a dance that was cut when the film played in the South. Fox soon tapped him to appear with Temple in “The Little Colonel,” a queasy post-bellum fantasy about a relentlessly upbeat tot, Lloyd, who’s a peacemaker for her estranged Southern grandfather and her mother, who’s married a Northerner.

It’s a rich tangle of contradictions partly because of Lloyd’s guileless if pointed role as an intermediary between the black world and the white. Crucial to that is her relationship with her grandfather’s servant, Walker (Robinson). They perform two dances together, the most important on the symbolically freighted plantation staircase (shades of “Gone With the Wind”!). Walker teachers Lloyd how to dance up the stairs, with him leading the way or, as the film historian Donald Bogle put it: “Robinson became the master in their relationship when he taught her the staircase dance routines.”

Available to rent or buy on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and YouTube.

1938

In 1936, Fox hired Ralph Cooper to choreograph another Temple vehicle. Cooper had founded Amateur Night at the Apollo, where he was working when studio executives persuaded him to go to Hollywood. Fox signed him but didn’t know what to do with him. Hollywood, as Cooper later wrote in a memoir, “wasn’t really interested in a black leading man.” So he enrolled in Fox’s film school. “I decided that instead of appearing in pictures that demeaned blacks, I would try to make pictures that glorified blacks.”

He did just that, creating hits like “The Duke Is Tops,” an amusing, creaky backstage musical with an all-black cast that was shot in 10 days on a shoestring. Cooper snared Lena Horne to play Ethel, a singer and the love interest of his character, Duke, a theater impresario. When Ethel is lured away by promises of stardom, Duke bombs out of show business and begins peddling a cure-all elixir for a grifter. It’s easy to see why Fox signed Cooper, who was nicknamed the “Dark Gable”: He’s all charisma.

This was Horne’s screen debut and her line readings are stiff, but she was born to be adored by a camera, and her singing is dreamy. The music was arranged by Phil Moore, who worked at the major studios (Disney’s “Dumbo”), often without credit. His gets his due in “The Duke Is Tops,” which includes brief, tantalizing turns from other notables, like Willie Covan, for years the head dance instructor for M.G.M., and the singer-dancer Marie Bryant, who went from the Cotton Club to Hollywood, where she worked for Gene Kelly and helped teach white stars how to move like immortals.

Available to stream on Amazon.


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