Jeanine Basinger is founder of The Department of Film Studies at Wesleyan University. The educator has written eleven other books on film, including the companion volume to a 10-part PBS series. She’s passionate, knowledgeable, thorough, articulate and witty; in some ways, a scholarly romantic.
Apparently the cinophile began writing to Hollywood in the fourth grade. Her first missive, to Frank Capra, (an easier address to secure than that of a star), asked what a director did. The icon answered and introduced her to others in the community. Joan Crawford (?!) in particular, opened many doors. Eventually Basinger’s parents were convinced to accompany her from South Dakota for a visit. And so it began.
Birthing this all encompassing, 599 page (liberally illustrated) history was a five year labor of love. Basinger begins by telling us why she undertook the challenge. “I fell totally in love with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I’d’ve run away with either one of them.”
The book is chronological. Basinger corrects popular belief that 1927’s The Jazz Singer (with Al Jolson) was the first sound feature, reminding us Edison invented the phonograph years before and that Warner Brothers had created its Vibraphone Series. The issue was trying to sync sound with visuals.
In fact, she says, the 62 minute gangster film, Lights of New York, came first. Tough guys sat around a table at which a microphone was hidden, leaning in, slowly speaking stilted dialogue. The author drolly demonstrates. (Check Singin’ in The Rain for a similar take.)
Warner Brothers was on the verge of financial collapse when Sam Warner strong-armed his resistant brothers into making a feature with sound. The night before its premiere, he dropped dead leaving an inconsolable wife. “Suddenly there was a giant drama surrounding the film.” So, which is history going to remember? “This is one of the things that drives film historians crazy.”
The author dates first resurgence of movie musicals to 1933. “If you don’t like Fred Astaire, you can leave the room now… Never Gonna Dance…was characterization, conversation, love, sex, despair, depth, a form of suicide, plot, tragedy, emotional crisis, song and dance,” she writes. Animated Disney features also did a great deal to acclimate audiences. “You don’t get a better musical than Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs.”
Photographing the whole moving body started with Astaire. (There’s a wonderful section on the master.) Busby Berkeley’s contributing approach was the camera will dance under my control. He recognized that choreography on film is not the same as on stage, that an audience has to accept the musical as alternate universe in order for it to work.
The studio system made elaborate productions affordable. There were primary and B musicals (Basinger has a good time with the latter), bio-pics, operettas, Broadway adaptations, and musicalized plays…Each studio devised its own personal style. MGM had the famous Freed Unit at which Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and Stanley Donan excelled, but 20th Century Fox, Paramount, RKO (Astaire & Rogers), and Columbia worked in the genre.
Basinger writes about films that contain one or two numbers, but are otherwise not musicals (example: Going My Way with Bing Crosby); the difference in depicting a performance (example: Gilda/Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame”) and integrating songs that contain dialogue/plot. Most musicals, she notes, were escapist until Showboat and South Pacific.
Song placement, reason, and effect are observed. “When I teach my students, I like to show the original script (yes, she has one!) of Singin’ in the Rain (not my favorite). There’s a page when Gene Kelly says goodbye to Debbie Reynolds. The script says Don dances in the rain. Five words followed by five minutes of genius choreography, camera work, light, personality…I ushered for the original movie theater release and saw it 46 times.”
There’s a section on strategies behind presenting stars as diverse as Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and those concerning other, publicity-value-talents – Esther Williams’ swimming, Sonja Henie’s skating. “Magic” pairs are explored – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland – apparently each other’s all time favorites, Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald… “Eddy and MacDonald are really quite wonderful. I tie my students to chairs and give them cookies to watch those films. There’s a reason they were so popular.”
Not all research was pleasant. Basinger unearthed wonderful musical numbers by African Americans like The Berry Brothers and Ethel Waters which had been cut from selected versions. She saw extensive blackface and racism depicted. “It’s just sad.”
Musicals dropped off during the Vietnam era, but found their way back again through movies shown on television, series with music – The Monkees, The Partridge Family, and MTV videos. Films like Dirty Dancing and Saturday Night Fever followed.
“It’s an ironic truth that in 2016, one of the best musical numbers appeared in a spoof about Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! by Ethan and Joel Coen. In a full six-minute routine, the Coens managed to put on a full recreation of a 1950’s dance number…” Basinger writes.
Of La, La Land, she says, “I didn’t like it. Why would I? The people couldn’t sing or dance.” Of Renee Zellweger’s Judy, “I was dreading it. I have to say, I hated the flashbacks, but otherwise she was great. I actually cried. Of Cats, “No, people, it’s terrible.” Of Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story (she had to sign a non-disclosure), “You’ll like it.”
The Movie Musical is comprehensive, an unlikely read-through but a marvelous resource or grand for dipped-into entertainment. Basinger has met many of the people about whom she writes and been joyfully immersed in the medium, well, since fourth grade. She digs and delivers. Hopefully this will become the basis of a lecture series at New York’s 92nd Street Y where I heard her speak – in addition to reading. The author herself is a distinct pleasure, illuminating and fun.
All quotes Jeanine Basinger
Book cover courtesy of Knopf
Cover photo of the author Jay Fishback
The Movie Musical
Published by Knopf