Despite the utopian optimism of the genre, the musical began to founder later in the 1950s. Beginning in the second half of the decade, the genre began to suffer a surprising decline in production, quality, and popularity. In 1943, Hollywood studios released 65 musicals, but a decade later the number was down to 38, and in 1963, only 4. It is true that by the late 1930s, rising costs were making the production of lavish musicals prohibitive; yet it was not this economic constraint that threatened the musical's existence. After he left Warner Bros., Berkeley made musicals at MGM, beginning in 1939 with Babes in Arms , showing that even with greatly reduced budgets musicals could still be both innovative and commercially
Rather, the rapid decline of musicals in the late 1950s was at least partly the result of an ever-widening gap between the music used in the movies the studios were making and the music an increasing percentage of the nation was actually enjoying, namely, the new rock 'n' roll. After World War II, the big bands became economically unfeasible, and small combos began electrifying their instruments and playing uptempo rhythm and blues, which white artists such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley popularized with mainstream white audiences. The 1950s witnessed the invention of the teenager, a demographic that for the first time was the targeted audience of movies, as suggested by developments in other genres during the period, such as the cycle of horror films that included I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), Teenage Monster (1958), Teenage Cave Man (1958), and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1959). By the 1960s, the youth audience—the same group that constituted rock's primary audience—accounted for the majority of the commercial film audience. Obviously Hollywood needed to incorporate rock music into its films in order to attract the majority of its potential audience. In addition, by the 1970s Hollywood studios were being bought by entertainment conglomerates that also owned record labels. Within less than twenty years, rock came to dominate the genre's big-budget glossy releases, either in terms of the music or of the stars. As a result, the genre changed drastically from the classic musicals of the 1930s and 1950s.
In the late 1960s, after the British invasion had made rock music even more popular, such musicals as Doctor Dolittle (1967), Hello, Dolly! (1969), Paint Your Wagon (1969), and Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1969) were commercially unsuccessful while, by contrast, the two Beatles films directed by Richard Lester, A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965), brought an invigorating freshness to the genre and were huge box-office successes. In the early 1970s, with the exception of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), most other musicals in the classical mold, such as 1776 (1972) and The Little Prince (1974), did not fare well commercially. Conversely, Woodstock (1970), a documentary about the legendary 1969 rock concert, and American Graffiti , with its soundtrack of rock oldies, were big hits at the box-office.
Busby Berkeley was an innovative choreographer who freed dance in the cinema from the constraints of theatrical space. In Berkeley's musical numbers, the confining proscenium of the stage gives way to the fluid frame of the motion picture image, and dances are choreographed for the ideal, changing point of view of a film spectator, rather than for the static position of a traditional theatergoer.
Berkeley conducted drills for the army during World War I and trained as an aerial observer—two experiences that clearly shaped his approach to dance on film, in which the chorines are deployed in symmetrical patterns and manipulate props rather than execute traditional dance steps. After the war Berkeley gained a reputation as a Broadway choreographer, which in1930 led to an invitation from Sam Goldwyn to direct the musical sequences of Whoopee! , starring Eddie Cantor. In "The Indian Dance" sequence of the film, Berkeley shot the Goldwyn Girls from overhead, creating an abstract, kaleidoscopic effect—a technique that would become his most famous trademark.
Several more musicals for MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) with Eddie Cantor followed, as well as a few dramatic films, before Berkeley moved to Warner Bros., where over a period of six years from 1933 to 1939 he choreographed and/or directed 19 musicals, including 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), and Dames (1934). After returning to MGM in 1939, Berkeley made another string of inventive hit musicals, beginning with Broadway Serenade (1939) and including three films starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. The plots of Berkeley's musicals are relatively slight, little more than pretexts for the dance numbers wherein Berkeley allows his visual imagination to soar.
Feminist reviewers have criticized Berkeley's choreography for making women the objects of erotic voyeurism. For example, Gold Diggers of 1933 opens with the chorines, including a young Ginger Rogers, singing "We're in the Money" clad in nothing but large coins. The "Pettin' in the Park" number in the same film features Dick Powell using a can opener to gain access to Ruby Keeler's metal-clad body. The famous sequence from The Gang's All Here (1943), featuring Carmen Miranda as "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" and a line of chorus girls waving giant bananas, may be the essential Berkeley sequence, combining his surreal visual style with an overblown Freudian symbolism that prefigured camp. Nevertheless, in a commercial cinema dominated by narrative and the conventions of realism, Berkeley managed to free the camera from the mere recording of surface reality to create a lyrical vision of musical plenitude that has never been equaled.
42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Babes on Broadway (1941), The Gang's All Here (1943), Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949)
Pike, Bob, and Dave Martin. The Genius of Busby Berkeley . Reseda, CA: Creative Film Society Books, 1973.
Rubin, Martin. Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle . New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Thomas, Tony, and Jim Terry, with Busby Berkeley. The Busby Berkeley Book . Greenwich, CT: New York Graphic Society, 1973.
Barry Keith Grant
The romantic ideology shared by the classic musical and traditional pop music was threatened by the more straightforward eroticism of both rock music and
contemporary dance. The first rock song to appear in a movie was Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" in The Blackboard Jungle (1955), where it is associated with juvenile delinquency rather than romance, and in its day was considered shocking. Certainly by the time of Dirty Dancing (1987), dancing "cheek to cheek" meant something entirely different than when Astaire sang it to Rogers in Top Hat . Even so, eventually rock was made more acceptable by the romantic vision of the musical genre, as shown in nostalgic rock musicals like Grease (1978).
Because of their race, black rock musicians did not appear in mainstream musicals as leads. In the musicals in which they appear, Chuck Berry and Little Richard portray themselves, not unlike Louis Armstrong did in High Society (1956). White rock star Presley played fiery, rebellious characters that spoke to his real-life persona in his first films, Loving You (1957), Jailhouse Rock (1957), and King Creole (1958); but in time Presley was transformed into a nice all-American boy in a series of largely indistinguishable and innocuous musicals with tepid pop music, the best of which are G. I. Blues (1960) and Blue Hawaii (1961). In Presley's final film, Change of Habit (1969), he is cast as a crusading ghetto doctor, socially acceptable enough that Mary Tyler Moore can contemplate leaving the convent for a secular marriage with him without alienating the movie audience. Teen idol Frankie Avalon appeared with former Musketeer Annette Funicello in a series of beach musical comedies like Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) that were similarly inoffensive.
With the exception of The Girl Can't Help It (1956), which featured established Hollywood stars and excellent production values, early rock musicals were for the most part low-budget affairs that betrayed the film industry's condescending attitude toward rock music. Most of these films fell back on the old backstage formula, featuring several rock acts built around a story of a rock concert being mounted at the local high school. In Don't Knock the Rock (1956), for example, rock 'n' roll has been banned because adults distrust it. Alan Freed arrives to host "A Pageant of Art and Culture" by the town's teenagers, displaying classic paintings and then performing a series of traditional dances, concluding with a demonstration of the Charleston. The old squares see the folly of their ways and come to accept rock 'n' roll, which is depicted as harmless fun. In these rock musicals, reminiscent of earlier backstage musicals, people of different generations and with different values come together, closing the generation gap through the binding power of musical performance.
Some rock musicals were adapted from the stage, such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Hair (1979), while a few sought to achieve a unified experience of music and visuals, most notably Ken Russell's Tommy (1975), adapted from the rock opera by The Who, and Alan Parker's Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982). The psychedelic style of these films influenced the postmodern style of music videos that in turn has influenced contemporary film musicals. Whereas the dancers in earlier musicals are presented in long takes and full shots that displayed their performances in real time, dance numbers in such musicals as Flashdance (1983), Moulin Rouge (2001), and Chicago (2002) tend to be built from numerous short shots combined with dizzy montage effects and peripatetic camera movement. Flashdance , which stars Jennifer Beales as an improbable dancer and steel welder, thus was able to substitute a body double for Beales in the dance sequences. In case viewers might suspect trickery because of its editing, the film Chicago includes a note in the end credits that explicitly states that all the actors, including normally dramatic performers such as Richard Gere, sang and danced for themselves. This more dynamic visual style seems a suitable accompaniment for the more frenetic types of contemporary dance that have replaced the older styles of tap and ballroom dancing represented by Astaire and even by the more modern dance of Kelly.