Puttin' On the Ritz: The Appealing Classicism of the Hollywood Musical


No genre stands as a better testament to the decadent heights and nostalgic appeal of the Golden Age of Hollywood than the musical. At the time, musicals wowed viewers with their opulent sets, glamorous costumes, and gorgeous stars belting out showtunes written by the best Broadway writers of the era. In the early thirties sound was still a new cinematic tool, fresh and invigorating to audiences who had never expected to hear a movie star speak in a movie, much less sing. Gaining popularity in the midst of the Great Depression, the musical also offered a chance for less-wealthy viewers to experience the glitz of a Broadway show without the pricetag. The musical became theatre for the masses: a democratic manner of spectacle. 

Nowadays, the Golden Age musical remains a nostalgic institution. Musicals of the era appeal to our fondness for a blockbuster cinema devoid of the shallowness and cynicism of the current climate. They entertain us with the frothiness of the lyrics, the charm of their choreography, and the effortless talents of their stars. Musicals capture the glamour and optimism of the studio system at its height. They might not be as visually sophisticated as the films of Orson Welles and John Ford, nor do they boast themes as rich as the work of William Wyler, but they embody something essential about the time period, acting as a time capsule of the era’s charms.

Cinema of the thirties and forties was filled with musicals of all sorts starring performers who were no more than a flash in the pan. However, amidst all the tap-dancing ingenues and B-list crooners that time has forgotten, some stars and films still capture what made this era so important, personifying the glamour and optimism of the period. While most of the stars of the Golden Age musical were the singers and dancers in front of the cameras, one of the most significant influencers of the era was a man behind the camera: the choreographer and director Busby Berkeley.

Originally a choreographer on Broadway, Busby Berkeley was significant for liberating musical film choreography from the theatrical proscenium stage. Instead of envisioning the camera as a stand in for a theatrical audience, Berkeley instead used the freedom of the camera to create elaborate musical numbers where the performers became visual abstractions on screen, mere elements that—when viewed together from the impossible angles cameras were capable of shooting from—produced a fabulous visual effect. His most popular technique was the kaleidoscope, where masses of showgirls, when shot from above, would create elaborate shapes like flowers or starbursts. In other moments, like the climactic numbers of 42nd Street, Berkeley would guide the camera through the legs of dancers, turning their limbs into mere geometrical shapes to drive the number’s momentum.

Berkeley was also known for slipping sexually-provocative numbers past the censors, using suggestion and silhouette to titillate without attracting the ire of the Production Code. For instance, “Pettin’ in the Park” from Gold Diggers of 1933 has a stage full of women changing their wet clothes behind a large dark canvas, their naked bodies clearly visible through silhouette. Berkeley’s films appealed to the glamour of the musical. They were deliberately shallow, and yet, despite the overt sexiness of his dances and the ludicrousness of his films’ titles, his pictures boast interesting female characters. The men in his films are usually dolts—either rich old snobs lecherously chasing ingenues or anti-art bankers, incapable of supporting artistic endeavours. Conversely, the women in them are sharp, cunning, and complex. They’re quick with a witty repartee, supportive of each other, but not above making selfish mistakes. They’re attractive, but their character is not limited to their beauty or their physical abilities, be it dancing or singing, which are considerable. His films also appealed to the poverty-stricken masses of the thirties as they portrayed bankers as villains and championed down-on-their-luck folks on their quest for stardom.

If Berkeley’s films represented the visual glamour of the musical in the thirties, the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers captured their effortless appeal. Astaire and Rogers comprised the most talented dancing duo of their generation. Astaire was the more talented dancer of the two of them, demonstrating the fleetest feet in all of cinema, but it’s key to remember that, as the famous quote (incorrectly attributed to Faith Whittlesey) says, “Ginger Rogers did everything he did, but backwards and in high heels.”

Rogers and Astaire starred together in 10 films at RKO, including The Gay Divorcee, Shall We Dance, and Swing Time. Their 1935 film, Top Hat, remains one of their best. Boasting a musical score and lyrics by Irving Berlin, the film plays as a Shakespearean comedy of sorts, with a plot full of mistaken identities and star-crossed love. Astaire plays a theatrical star in London for a show who falls in love with the girl staying in the suite downstairs. While the film’s plot is high farce, it’s the dance numbers that make it so essential. 

The most famous number in the film is “Cheek to Cheek,” the climactic song that sees Astaire and Rogers waltz across a ballroom, Astaire demonstrating his impeccable timing and Rogers her impossible flexibility. However, the film’s best number is “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)?” The musical number acts as Astaire and Rogers’ courtship in miniature, with Astaire singing of his excitement at being alone with her. No other dance number in film manages to capture so well the tentative excitement of a romance in its first stages, while also being obviously (even aggressively) perfect in technique.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers represent the classical musical at its most aesthetically appealing—its most beautiful. Judy Garland, on the other hand, represents the inherent optimism of the musical—its corniness even. Garland became famous for her work with Mickey Rooney in the 1930s before starring in The Wizard of Oz in 1939, which catapulted her to superstardom, and later musicals like 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis. The Wizard of Oz encapsulates the appeal of Garland as a performer. In the role of Dorothy Gale, the Kansas girl swept up in a whirlwind and transported to the magical world of Oz, Garland embodies the innocent naivety of the musical. Musicals are all about open emotionalism—the characters literally sing their feelings, opening up their emotions to the world. Musicals can be clever and sassy, and even satirical, but they can never be cynical as cynicism works counter to the naked emotionalism at a musical’s heart. Garland’s optimism best comes through in the famous number “Over the Rainbow,” where her heart (and the film’s) is laid bare.

Much of the appeal of classical musicals today is also in seeing famous music stars of the past show off their performing chops. While crooners like Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are best remembered today as the musical giants who sung your grandmother’s favourite songs, they were actually immensely charismatic performers in their own right. Watching their old musicals demonstrates their range as actors. They also show that their voices have never been matched on radio or on screen. Bing Crosby won an Oscar for Going My Way and created a bonafide Christmas classic with White Christmas. Sinatra played second fiddle to the likes of Gene Kelly in the late forties before becoming a leading man in his own right, starring in musical classics like Guys and Dolls, which also featured a singing Marlon Brando.

The musical of the Golden Age reached its peak with the films of Gene Kelly. If Fred Astaire made his dancing look effortless, drifting across the floor with impossible speed and precision, Gene Kelly wore the physical effort plainly on his face and body. He didn’t dance because he could. He dance because he had to. It was if his entire soul forced his body into motion, thrust him into furious dance because not even song could express the feelings coursing through his body. Kelly was the musical everyman, often playing the simple-natured, wide-eyed optimist who saw the best in life and the world. In An American in Paris and On the Town, he delivers his particular brand of musical optimism, creating fantasy visions of Paris and New York and filling them with enthusiastic song and dance. However, the gently satirical Singin’ in the Rain is his best film. 

In the famous “Singin’ in the Rain” number, where Kelly dances through a downpour, swinging on lamp posts and soft-shoeing across sidewalks, we get the best image of Kelly’s unbridled appetite for song and dance. Kelly was apparently suffering from a dreadful fever when performing the number, which is fitting because the dance puts his feverish enthusiasm on full display. Kelly might not have been a better singer than Bing Crosby, or a better dancer than Fred Astaire, but he was ultimately a more appealing performer. He left everything he had up on the screen. He embodied the unmodulated emotion of the classical musical.

The musical continued to be popular beyond the work of Kelly, with films like Fiddler on the Roof, Oliver!, The Sound of Music and West Side Story winning Oscars and scoring at the box office, but already by 1960 the Golden Age of Hollywood was on its last legs. These later technicolour extravaganzas were the last hurrahs of the musical genre, which has only resurfaced sporadically in the decades since. There’s a reason for this. When the studio system crumbled, the power to leverage the amount of talent necessary to create a successful musical dissolved as well. 

Musicals defined the appeal of the studio system. They were possible because the studio had the resources necessary to attract Broadway’s best songwriters, choreographers and performers. Nowadays, the classic musical embodies the nostalgic view of this bygone era when the Hollywood studio’s interests in commerce and entertainment combined to create rigorous, beautiful, and enthusiastic art.

This article was originally published on the now-defunct Toronto Film Scene.