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Emergence of Musical Film and Its Influence on Society

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Essay Question: Critically discuss and describe the emergence of musical film and its influence on society.

"The musical is one of the most popular film genres among both audiences and film scholars, probably for many of the same reasons - the spectacle, the music and the enjoyable predictability of the outcome weighed against the pleasure of the varied details."

Bill Marshall and Robynn Stilwell

A proverb once claimed that "in life, you are either being entertained or educated. If you aren't having fun, you're probably learning something." Taken from the purest form, this statement explains that in common day occurrences, the people in society are challenged with opportunities that will either help them grow as a person or keep themselves occupied and happy about life. Film directors and writers seem to keep this in mind when creating cinematic representation. They want to constantly integrate the concepts of living and learning in innovative, unconventional ways; developing the dimension of media entertainment of musical films.

For the first time in film history, directors and writers showcase a new type of convention, transgressing from spoken language ("talkies") into song and dance numbers. Through the discipline of academic research, I will explore the issues of emotions being brought into life, turning fantasy into reality, popularity and audience 'pull', political and social controversy and the 'new' generation of musical films and will critically discuss and describe the emergence of the musical film phenomenon, and how these subjects combine to shape cinematic representation and the society that views it.

Emotions Brought to Life

Channeling emotions is what films generally do best, standing in as a key way in which the audience connects with the actors on the silver screen. Without a conventional approach to emotions, the actors' intentions and motivations may not be understood very well. The emergence of sound in 1929 meant that films suddenly had abundant amounts of talking, noise, singing, and dancing. This is what truly brought the audience to the showings, because it was something that had never been seen before.

Another explanation of why the films integrated sound is that "music in film uses the conventional Romantic composition style, allowing the story to suffuse the story with a deeper emotional content" (Laing 2000: 7). People had a much greater desire to connect with the actors if they channeled not only their visual senses but also their aural senses.

At this time, it was known by almost all film critics that Hollywood had become the leader in film development, and watched as popular writers switched gears and played into the popularity of musical film.

"Hollywood has a recourse to song, [allowing] characters to celebrate the capacity of music to express their most deeply-felt emotions" (Laing 2000: 5). Commonly quoted in several musical film studies (Feuer 1982; Laing 2000), the musical Summer Stock has actor Gene Kelly proclaiming to actress Judy Garland that in a musical show, 'if a boy tells a girl that he loves her, he doesn't just say it, he sings it,' just because 'it's kinda nice' (Laing 2000: 5). This meant that the actors essentially tried to tell stories with music, song and dance, and not just with words. There was no real need to explain why they did it, they just did.

Two 'languages' used by musical film writers include spoken dialogue and sung-verse, switching back and forth smoothly without much turbulence. This means that speech can slide into song without much regard to what is being said, but by how it is being said. This convention is one of the most important steps of musical film, paired with the physical nature of dance.

This is further analyzed by Michael Wood (1975), stating that "great musicals are always making connections [with the real world]. These are the continuities they insist on; our speech nudged into music, and our way of walking edged into a dance" (156). Musical films engineer everyday life activities as if they were all part of a master plan of events molded by the director and writer.

Examples of this are Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who believe that "props must not appear as props. Rather they must give the impression of being actual objects in the environment" (Feuer 1982: 5). In films in which they star, they may use coat racks and picture frames standing in as women, "elastic bands of a chair for a harp, and even a pillow for an accordion" (Feuer 1982: 6). Which ever the case, the audience is able to better relate to these inanimate objects and personify them as 'something' that is recognizable in the 'animate' world.

In terms of non-choreographed and non-rehearsed dances, it seems as if film actors used these conventions more often than staged versions of the productions, which tend to have obviously rehearsed dance routines. Fred Astaire is considered prime for being "folk" in a sense that his on-screen dances are more natural and spontaneous rather than classical ballet dancing (Feuer 1982: 7). Feuer calls these dance routines as "ordinary movements rather than 'steps', [implying] non-choreographed natural actions" (9).

The dances even sometimes seem amateurish, despite the technique involved. Movies with carefree men, dancing on the street may give off the impression that they are border-line horsing around rather than actually performing technically challenging dance combinations(9).

With the combination of speaking, singing and dancing, the overall emotions portrayed by the actors are made possible, and are conveyed in a way in which the audience can feel as if they understand the direction of the film. The actors' emotions are felt, empathy is universalized and the audience can feel very much part of the action.

From Fantasy to Reality

If the human voice had been a drug in 1929, Hollywood would have been hellbent on taking a monumental overdose (Barrios 1995: 309). With the introduction of full sound into film, the year's bill had loads of talk, noise, and song. Unfortunately, some films made the mistake of adding in music to many dramas that often felt "unnecessary, contributing nothing to the mood, detract[ing] from the action and hardly further[ing] characterization" (309). But even if was a little quirky, the studios still tried it out to see how it worked.

The main responsibility of film studios was to present the musical film in a way that would



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