Partly because of the nature of their national cultures, some countries have produced almost no film musicals. Germany produced some operettas in the 1930s but largely avoided the genre subsequently. In France, René Clair (1898–1981) experimented with the musical early on with Sous le toits de Paris ( Under the Roofs of Paris , 1930) and À nous la liberté ( Liberty for Us , 1931), and Jacques Demy (1931–1990) updated the operetta with Les Parapluies de Cherbourg ( The Umbrellas of Cherbourg , 1964), in which all the dialogue is sung. Yet apart from the United States, the only other country to have produced a sustained tradition of film musicals is India, which is also the largest film-producing country in the world.
An actor, dancer, choreographer, and director, Gene Kelly was a key figure in the golden age of the Hollywood musical, particularly for the string of musicals he made in the 1940s and 1950s at MGM. Whereas Fred Astaire was the master of ballroom dancing, Kelly, with his background in sports, brought a more muscular style to dance in film.
Having established himself on Broadway starring in the stage musical Pal Joey , Kelly was brought to Hollywood by the producer David Selznick. His film debut was in Busby Berkeley's For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland in 1942. After appearing in several minor musicals, such as Thousands Cheer (1943); dramatic features, such as The Cross of Lorraine (1943); and the noirish Christmas Holiday (1944), in which he plays a murderer, Kelly was lent to Columbia to co-star with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (1944), in which he dances with his own reflection to visualize his character's inner conflict.
As a result of Cover Girl 's success, MGM cast Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945), for which he earned an Academy Award ® nomination for best actor. Subsequently he emerged with the producer Arthur Freed's unit as a leading man and star of some of the greatest American film musicals of all time. Some of Kelly's best dances were only possible on film. In Anchors Aweigh Kelly dances with an animated Mickey Mouse; in Singin' in the Rain (1952), which he co-directed with fellow choreographer Stanley Donen, he dances in a studio downpour, splashing his feet in holes arranged in advance to catch the rain in puddles; and in It's Always Fair Weather (1955, also co-directed with Donen), Kelly, Michael Kidd, and Dan Dailey dance on a studio street with metal garbage can lids on their feet. The location photography in the opening montage, accompanied by singing on the soundtrack, was also a first for a Hollywood musical.
For his work in An American in Paris (1951), Kelly received a Special Academy Award ® for his "extreme versatility as an actor, singer, director, and dancer, but specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film." In the latter part of his career, Kelly directed the big-budget musical Hello, Dolly! (1969), starring Barbra Streisand, and several specials for television, including a musical version of Jack and the Beanstalk (1967), as well as a number of nonmusicals, including The Tunnel of Love (1958); Gigot (1962), showcasing Jackie Gleason as a mute janitor; and the mild sex comedy A Guide for the Married Man (1967). In the 1970s Kelly became less active but was introduced to a new generation of moviegoers in the compilation films That's Entertainment (1974) and That's Entertainment II (1976).
For Me and My Gal (1942), Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Pirate (1948), On the Town (1949), Summer Stock (1950), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Brigadoon (1954), It's Always Fair Weather (1955)
Britton, Andrew, ed. Talking Films . London: Fourth Estate, 1991.
Hirschhorn, Clive. Gene Kelly: A Biography . Chicago: Regnery, 1974.
Thomas, Tony. The Films of Gene Kelly . New York: Citadel Press, 1991.
Wollen, Peter. Singin' in the Rain . London: British Film Institute, 1992.
Yudkoff, Alvin. Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams . New York: Back Stage Books, 1999.
Barry Keith Grant
Within Indian cinema, the idea of a film musical is rather different than in the Hollywood tradition, but the genre's cultural impact has been even greater. About 90 percent of commercial feature films made in India have incorporated musical production numbers. Indian films
typically have several song and dance sequences as part of their entertainment appeal, whether the genre is a romantic melodrama or a crime film. And just as the genres are disparate, so are the musical styles, mixing traditional Indian dance music, American jazz, or Caribbean rhythms. In Indian popular culture, film music holds a prominent place, dominating sales of discs and tapes. Indian movie stars lip-sync the songs, and the actual vocalists, known as "playback singers," such as Lata Mangeshkar have become recording stars in their own right.
In the United States, the similar centrality and importance of the film musical in American film history is clear when one considers the many stars who became famous primarily or initially through their roles in musicals, including Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney (b. 1920), Shirley Temple (b. 1928), Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Deanna Durbin (b. 1921), and Cyd Charisse, as well by the fact that a number of directors, particularly Vincente Minnelli, Stanely Donen, Busby Berkeley, Ernst Lubitsch, and Baz Luhrmann also became known for their work in the genre, the latter two producing important musicals after integrating into the Hollywood system. Many singers have crossed over from popular music to movies, from Frank Sinatra and Elvis to Madonna, Johnny Depp, and Eminem.
Despite the vast cultural changes that have taken place since the 1930s, when the film musical first appeared, the genre has remained popular. After Malcolm McDowell shockingly sang "Singin' in the Rain" while brutally raping and beating a defenseless couple in their home in Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971), some musicals such as Pennies from Heaven (Herbert Ross, 1981) and Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier, 2001) have sought to give the film musical a darker and more cynical vision of the world rather than the genre's traditional utopianism. Chicago , which shares with these two musicals a bitter view of the world as corrupt and brutal, won the Academy Award ® for Best Picture in 2003. While film musicals likely will never be as popular as they were during the 1930s through 1950s, the genre has continued to adapt to the demands of popular culture.
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——, ed. Genre: The Musical . London and Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981.
Astaire, Fred. Steps in Time . New York: Harper, 1959.
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Croce, Arlene. The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book . New York: Outerbridge and Lazard, 1972.
Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical , 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.
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Knight, Arthur. Disintegrating the Musical: Black Performance and American Musical Film . Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2002.
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Woll, L. Allen. The Hollywood Musical Goes to War . Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1983.
Barry Keith Grant