In the 1930s, musicals proved to be a particularly amenable genre both for addressing and escaping the urgent problems of the Great Depression, into which America had plunged only two years after the appearance of The Jazz Singer . The very nature of dance itself suggests a sense of social harmony, for dancing partners move in step with each other, and in film musicals (unlike live theater) dances are always done perfectly and with apparent spontaneity. Yet while dance was a useful metaphor of communal order, the lavish spectacles created by Hollywood musicals also took audiences' thoughts away from the deprivations in their own lives.
The backstage musicals offered optimistic stories of disparate characters working together for the common good that served as timely social fables. In these musicals, the narrative problems encountered in putting on the show become a metaphor for the necessary national effort and sacrifice required to turn around the troubled economy. In 42nd Street , for example, as the show's opening approaches, everyone sacrifices in the interest of the collective goal. The ambitious chorus girl (Ginger Rogers) declines her golden opportunity to play the lead part because she knows Ruby Keeler is better suited for the job, and the intended star (Bebe Daniels), now sidelined with a broken ankle, overcomes her jealousy and resentment toward Keeler and sends her onstage with a stirring speech. This pro-social thrust of the Depressionera musical is explicit in the climatic "Shanghai Lil" number of Footlight Parade (1933) when the chorines, like a college football cheering section, turn over cards to reveal first the Blue Eagle of the National Recovery Administration, and then the face of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
At the same time, musicals are entertaining fantasies that tend to deal with social issues metaphorically, through the dynamics and musical performance, rather than directly. The climactic number of Gold Diggers of 1933 , "Remember My Forgotten Man," about jobless veterans of World War I and featuring a parade of tired and wounded soldiers as part of Busby Berkeley's (1895–1976) choreography, is a startling exception that proves the rule. By contrast, during World War II Betty Grable (1916–1973) lifted the morale of American servicemen with such charming, nostalgic musicals as Tin Pan Alley (1940) and Coney Island (1943), while Bob Hope and Bing Crosby starred in a series of musical comedy "road" pictures, beginning with The Road to Singapore (1940), that tacitly endorsed American imperialism around the world. It is no coincidence that, during the height of the war in 1943, 40 percent of the films produced in Hollywood were musicals.
In 1957 Silk Stockings managed to reduce the contemporary political tensions of the Cold War to the play of heterosexual seduction and conquest. "Music will dissolve the Iron Curtain," asserts the confident, redblooded American (Fred Astaire [1899–1987]) as he sets out to woo the cold-blooded commissar (Cyd Charisse [b. 1921]). But the image in Swing Time (1936) of Astaire riding a freight train in top hat and tails graphically suggests the extent to which social reality in the film musical was pushed aside in favor of upbeat fantasy. It is precisely in such romantic fantasies, rather than in social consciousness, that the film musical discovered its essential charm and appeal.