Film in Oxford: A Short History of the Film Musical

This week’s column gives a brief history of musicals created for the silver screen, ahead of the Ultimate Picture Palace’s screenings of Sunshine on Leith (dir. Dexter Fletcher, 2013) over the next week. This column focuses on Anglophone musicals, but there are of course strong traditions elsewhere that developed independently from Hollywood.

The film musical is as old as the synchronised sound film itself, ushered in with the huge success of Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer (1927), with Al Jolson in the lead role. The film made Jolson an instant star and Warner Bros. instantly rich, ensuring the presence of diegetic sung performances onscreen for years to come. Clamouring to equal The Jazz Singer’s phenomenal commercial performance, studios in the late 1920s saturated the marketplace with musicals, mostly in Technicolor. Singers that had previously made a living on the stage transferred to Hollywood, capitalising upon the sudden demand for their services. Even dramatic talkies included songs, albeit primarily for commercial reasons, both to attract larger audiences and to supplement their takings through the sale of sheet music. The first ‘all-talking’ film, crime drama Lights of New York (dir. Bryan Foy, 1928) typifies this practice.

The most successful of the flood of Technicolor musicals were The Broadway Melody (dir. Harry Beaumont, 1929), which initiated the trend, and Gold Diggers of Broadway (dir. Roy Del Ruth, 1929), which broke countless box office records. The presence of ‘Broadway’ in many of these films’ titles clearly marked the arrival of the backstage musical, developed in response to concerns about realism. Troubled by the thought of characters suddenly and inexplicably bursting into song, studio producers shaped narratives around backstage settings, and song-and-dance routines could now take place as if they were stage musical performances.

This flurry of backstage musicals proved incredibly short-lived, and by 1931 there was a reversal in the genre’s popularity. In an inversion of procedures from just a few years previously, songs were now removed from films before release, betraying Hollywood’s fickle and mercilessly commercial approach in the years immediately following the sound film’s inception. The influence of the backstage musical genre can still be seen in recent films such as Pitch Perfect (dir. Jason Moore, 2012) and the television series Glee. Although the plot and settings are far less limited in terms of location and action, diegetic performances – and their rehearsals – nevertheless shape and propel the narrative.

Besides the backstage musicals, other onscreen genres were also created to justify the presence of diegetic song, from fairy-tale musicals (e.g. The Desert Song, dir. Roy Del Ruth, 1929) to folk musicals (e.g. Show Boat, dir. Harry A. Pollard, 1929). Later film musicals developed certain stock techniques, such as the dream sequence, for a similar purpose. The Wizard of Oz (dir. Victor Fleming, 1939), the first film musical that fully embraced fantasy, exemplifies this eschewing of realism and, consequently, the compounding of the musical genre’s escapist tendencies. More recently, Lars von Trier’s Palme d’Or winning film Dancer in the Dark (2000) has toyed knowingly with the fantastical dream sequence trope. In the film, Hollywood musical enthusiast Selma (played by Björk) uses songs as a distraction from the traumatic events she experiences in her everyday life, appropriating surrounding noises and individuals into her imaginary routines.

Despite its flop around 1931, the musical was to be revived again shortly after with films such as 42nd Street (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (dir. Mervyn Le Roy, 1933). Both of these films – and many others – included extravagant and elaborately choreographed military drill-inspired dance routines by Busby Berkeley. Around the same time, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers popularised solo and duet dance routines in films such as Flying Down to Rio (dir. Thornton Freeland, 1933). In doing so the pair proved that dance, just like song, could perform an expressive and narrative function, rather than being confined to use as a solely visual spectacle.

Throughout the 1930s the film musical took shape as a genre in its own right, becoming increasingly formulaic as other films continued to distance themselves from songs. This change was representative of the transformations that the film industry as a whole was undergoing in this decade: after all production studios had attempted musicals during the early sound film phase, they began to specialise in particular genres. Warner Bros., who had made the first tentative steps into film musical terrain, now turned their focus to gangster and adventure films, while MGM and especially RKO made the musical their own.

The 1940s and 1950s saw many innovations in the film musical at the hands of MGM’s ‘Freed Unit’, led by Arthur Freed, including the classics On The Town (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1949), An American in Paris (dir. Vincente Minnelli, 1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952). The fifteen-minute ballet sequence of An American in Paris, inspired by Gershwin’s symphonic tone poem, offers a suitable example of Freed pushing the limits of the previously formulaic genre. The 1950s also saw the birth – and subsequently, the immense success – of the rock and roll musical, inaugurated by Rock Around the Clock (dir. Fred F. Sears, 1956), featuring Bill Haley & the Comets, and continued with commercial vigour by Elvis Presley. The use of film musicals as promotion vehicles for musicians – crystallised the following decade with The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night (dir. Richard Lester, 1964) – has lasted into the twenty-first century, from Eminem’s 8 Mile (dir. Curtis Hanson, 2002) to Outkast’s Idlewild (dir. Bryan Barber, 2006).

In the 1960s the musical was no longer a reliable genre commercially, but several classics of the genre were nonetheless created over the course of the decade, including Mary Poppins (1964) and adaptations of West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965). In contrast to these film musicals’ fairly conventional emphasis on spectacle, the 1970s saw the integration of other film genres and the emergence of a newfound realism. The cult phenomenon of The Rocky Horror Picture Show borrowed elements of horror and sci-fi, while films such as Saturday Night Fever (dir. John Badham, 1977) and New York, New York (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1977) paired musical performances – be it song, dance, or both – with everyday settings and often gritty drama. A recent example of this naturalistic approach, albeit in a very different setting, is Once (2007), which follows the friendship formed between an Irish street busker and a Czech immigrant flower seller.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in animated musical films, spearheaded by the so-called ‘Disney Renaissance’ which marked a return to the classic animation format of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), with traditional musical numbers. These films, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas (1995), boasted highly polished songs by Alan Menken and an embracing of all things fantastical, impulsive singing and dancing above all. Recent Disney films such as Tangled (2010) and the live action film Enchanted (2007) have addressed this lack of realism through light-hearted self-parody, typified by the latter’s extended ‘How Does She Know’ scene, in which a mass song-and-dance routine causes the male lead much bemusement.

The musical returned to the triumph of its heyday with 2002’s Academy Award winning Chicago (dir. Rob Marshall), and several other stage adaptations followed soon after, including Sweeney Todd (dir. Tim Burton, 2007), Mamma Mia! (dir. Phyllida Lloyd, 2008), and Les Misérables (dir. Tom Hooper, 2012). The success of Mamma Mia!, both onstage (1999) and onscreen, also revived the jukebox musical, a form in which songs by a particular artist (or artists) are contextualised and performed within a dramatic plot. Jukebox musicals can take the form of compilations, such as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! (2001), or focus on the repertoire of a particular act, be it ABBA (Mamma Mia!) or The Proclaimers (Sunshine on Leith). The Ultimate Picture Palace will be screening Sunshine on Leith on Friday 15th November at 6.45pm, Saturday 16th Nov at 9.30pm, Monday 18th Nov at 9pm, Wednesday 20th Nov at 6.45pm, and Thursday 21st Nov at 12.30pm and 6.45pm.

J. Wadsworth

For up-to-date cinema listings and to book tickets for any other films currently showing please follow these links: Phoenix PicturehouseUltimate Picture PalaceOdeon George StOdeon Magdalen St. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at

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