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As a distinct genre, the film musical refers to movies that include singing and/or dancing as an important element and also involves the performance of song and/or dance by the main characters. Movies that include an occasional musical interlude, such as Dooley Wilson's famous rendition of "As Time Goes By" in Casablanca (1942), generally are not considered film musicals. By this definition neither would American Graffiti (1973), which, while featuring a continuous soundtrack of rock oldies coming from car radios in the nostalgic world of the story, has no performances by its ensemble cast.

The movie musical exploits more fully than any other genre the two basic elements of the film medium—movement and sound. In melodrama, although the characters' intense emotions are expressed through stylistic means (mise-en-scène, lighting, music), their feelings are often repressed; by contrast, in film musicals characters are uninhibited and outwardly express emotion through song and dance. Gene Kelly's (1912–1996) famous refrain in Singin' in the Rain (1952), "Gotta dance," refers not only to his own inclination in that specific film but to the genre as a whole. Classical musicals depict a utopian integration of mental and physical life, of mind and body, where intangible feeling is given form as concrete yet gracious physical action. Whether the characters in musicals are feeling up or down, whether they are alone or in public, they are always able to fulfill their desire or to feel better by dancing or singing. In his influential discussion of entertainment, Richard Dyer cites the film musical specifically for its utopian sensibility, which he defines as its ability to present complex and unpleasant feelings in simple, direct, and vivid ways (Altman, 1981).

With the exception of some comedies, the musical is the only genre that violates the otherwise rigid tenets of classic narrative cinema. Just as Groucho Marx addresses some of his wisecracks directly to the camera, so characters sing and dance to the camera, for the benefit of the film viewer, rather than any ostensible audience within the film's story. As well, often the music accompanying singing stars conventionally comes from "no where"—outside the world of the film—another violation of the rules of realism that govern almost all other genres. The scene in Singin' in the Rain where Kelly adjusts the lighting and switches on a romantic wind machine on an empty soundstage to set the mood before proclaiming his love for Debbie Reynolds in the song "You Were Meant for Me," acknowledges the conventions of artificiality that characterize performance in musical films.


In the United States the film musical, with its combination of song and dance numbers woven into a narrative context, evolved from the non-narrative entertainment forms of minstrelsy, vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, British music hall, and musical theater. Many of the composers of musicals wrote popular tunes for sheet music published by the numerous music companies located on the block of 29th Street between Broadway and Fifth Avenue in New York City, commonly known as Tin Pan Alley. Minstrel shows, the most popular form of music and comedy in the nineteenth century, featured white actors performing in blackface. Minstrelsy, which lasted well into the twentieth century, was built on comic racial stereotypes, and its influence may be seen directly in early film musicals starring Al Jolson (1886–1950) andEddie Cantor (1892–1964), both of whom performed in blackface on the stage and then carried their "burnt cork" personas into film. The last of three parts in any minstrel show was a short comedy sketch with music, often a parody of a contemporary hit, and it was also a clear predecessor of what would evolve into musical theater as epitomized by Broadway in New York City and then in Hollywood cinema. Minstrelsy's practice of racial segregation (there were both all-white and all-black minstrel shows) was mirrored by the practice of producing segregated film musicals featuring all-black casts, like Hallelujah (1929), Cabin in the Sky (1943), Carmen Jones (1954), and The Wiz (1978).

The film musical has always borrowed from musical theater. Many film adaptations drew on theatrical musicals, or contain songs borrowed from them, and many performers, choreographers, composers, lyricists, and directors moved from musical theater to film musicals. Jerome Kern (1885–1945) and Oscar Hammerstein II's (1895–1960) Show Boat was adapted for the screen no less than three times—in 1929, 1936, and 1951.

When synchronized sound was introduced in 1927, the musical immediately became one of the most popular film genres. Opening in October 1927, The Jazz Singer, often cited as the first feature-length sound film and the first film musical, was a sensational hit. The movie, which featured established Broadway star Al Jolson, was in fact mostly a silent film with seven musical sequences added, including such signature Jolson tunes as "Mammy" and "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee." The story of a young Jewish man who abandons his future as a cantor and, against his father's wishes, becomes a popular singer was the stuff of melodrama; it was the talking and singing that audiences remembered.

Jolson's famous ad-libbed line, "You ain't heard nothin' yet," seemed to announce not only The Jazz Singer, but the arrival of the musical genre itself. In the 1930s numerous Broadway composers, including Irving Berlin (1888–1989), Cole Porter (1891–1964), Richard Rodgers (1902–1979), Lorenz Hart (1895–1943), and George (1898–1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896–1983), happily came to work in Hollywood on the many musicals suddenly being churned out by the studios. Hollywood pundits observed that Greta Garbo and Rin Tin Tin were the only stars who were not taking singing lessons. The rush of the studios to convert to sound and to produce musicals to exploit the new technology is treated humorously in the plot of Singin' in the Rain: when the attempt to make a sound film with silent film star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) results in disaster because of her thick Brooklyn accent, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) save the film by changing the romantic adventure they were making, "The Dueling Cavalier," into a musical titled The Dancing Cavalier and dubbing Lamont's voice with that of Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Ironically, Reynolds's own voice was in actuality dubbed by another singer, Betty Royce.

As the industry quickly converted to sound, several distinct subgenres of the musical emerged. Revue musicals, containing a loosely joined series of acts with a minimal plot, carried over the variety format of vaudeville. The King of Jazz (1930), for example, is structured around a series of songs, dances, and comedy sketches by popular stars of the day introduced by bandleader Paul Whiteman; the various numbers and acts have no relationship or connection apart from Whiteman's claim that many of the disparate performances have combined in the great "melting pot of music" to create the new sound of jazz. The Hollywood Revue of 1929 featured almost every star in MGM's famed lineup (as well as the debut of Nacio Herb Brown's "Singin' in the Rain"), while Warner Bros. trotted out many of its stars for Show of Shows (1929) and Paramount did the same with Paramount on Parade (1930). Operettas also were popular, with Sigmund Romberg (1887–1951) and Oscar Hammerstein II's The Desert Song (1929), starring John Boles and Myrna Loy, the first to be filmed. By 1934, the operetta was already the target of parody in Babes in Toyland, with comic duo Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Later came musical biographies such as MGM's lavish The Great Ziegfeld (1936), starring William Powell as legendary American impresario Florenz Ziegfield, Jr. (1867–1932); Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), with James Cagney cast against type as songwriter George M. Cohan (1878–1942); Night and Day (1946), with Cary Grant as composer Cole Porter; and Love Me or Leave Me (1955), starring Doris Day as singer Ruth Etting.

The first film director to distinguish himself in the musical genre was Ernest Lubitsch (1892–1947), a Jewish-German director who came to Hollywood in 1923. Lubitsch made a series of musicals and comedies that combined sophistication and sex. The Love Parade (1929), set in the imaginary European kingdom of Sylvania, paired French star Maurice Chevalier (1888–1972) and Jeanette MacDonald (1903–1965). In 1932, Lubitsch reunited Chevalier and MacDonald in One Hour with You (co-directed by George Cukor), a remake of his own earlier hit comedy, The Marriage Circle (1924). Another of Lubitsch's comedies, Ninotchka (1939), was remade as Silk Stockings (1957) by Rouben Mamoulian, who in the 1930s had followed Lubitsch's lead and paired Chevalier and MacDonald in Love Me Tonight (1932).

The backstage musical, in which the story is set in a theatrical context involving the mounting of a show, has proven the most durable type of film musical. The premise provides a convenient pretext for the inclusion of the production numbers that, after all, constitute the film musical's primary appeal. MGM's Broadway Melody (1929), the first genuine film musical, was a backstage musical about two sisters seeking fame in the theater. The film won the Academy Award® for Best Picture in 1929 and established the formula for the many backstage musicals to follow, including such memorable Warner Bros. musicals as 42nd Street (1933), and Golddiggers of 1933 (1933). Although the backstage format declined with the rise of the "integrated musicals" in the 1950s, it continued through the war years and informed such later and otherwise different musicals as Baz Luhrmann's (b. 1962) Moulin Rouge (2001), starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, and 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson, 2003), starring rap singer Eminem and Kim Basinger.


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.


Just as the primary subject of popular music is love, so the great theme of the film musical, like Shakespearean comedy, is romance, which it tends to depict according to the honeyed clichés of pop music. Typically, love in the musical from Flying Down to Rio (1933) to Moulin Rouge is of the wonderful "some-enchanted-evening" variety, where lovers are depicted as destined for each other, and after an inevitable series of delays and obstacles, they get together and presumably live happily ever after. In An American in Paris (1951), Gene Kelly is inexplicably blind to the obvious charms of Nina Foch but irredeemably smitten with Leslie Caron upon his first view of her.

The film musical allows dance to work as a sexual metaphor, for when a couple dances well—as they always do in musicals—two bodies move in graceful harmony. As a sexual metaphor, dance offers an appealing fantasy, for it suggests that making love is always as smooth as, say, dancing is for Astaire and Rogers. Also, the dance metaphor neatly solved the problem of censorship for Hollywood better than the discreet but more obvious and cumbersome cliché of a kiss and a fade-out.

Beginning with the cycle of nine musicals starring Astaire and Ginger Rogers (1911–1995) made by RKO in the 1930s, the genre offered a series of model romantic relationships. Typically in the Astaire–Rogers films, the two stars are initially attracted to each other but unable to come together due to some comic misunderstanding. The narrative conflict is resolved when the couple's differences are reconciled, generally through the mediating power of musical performance, resulting in the couple's union. Rogers makes this clear enough to Astaire in the first film of their series, The Gay Divorcee (1934), when she sings to him about "The Continental," in which "You tell of your love while you dance." In Top Hat (1935) Astaire and Rogers play out their courtship through dance in the "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?" number, where the pair tests each other out through dance steps and then finally dance together on an empty bandstand, where they are waiting out a thunderstorm. The Astaire–Rogers films worked so well because the two performers were equal partners in the dance numbers, neither one dominating the screen when they danced together.

In the Astaire–Rogers films, as in many musicals, the male character represents unchanelled sexual desire, but inevitably he becomes monogamous and romantic in the end. In Top Hat Astaire is a ladies' man who proclaims, in response to comic foil Edward Everett Horton's suggestion that he get married, that he has "No Strings," that "I'm fancy free and free for anything fancy." Later, his aggressive dancing in his hotel room disturbs Rogers in the room below, and when she comes up to protest, he immediately falls in love with her. After she leaves, he sprinkles some sand on the floor and does a soft-shoe that soothes her to sleep, his initially aggressive and indiscriminate desire literally softened by her femininity. Similarly, when Astaire sings "They Can't Take That Away from Me" in the climax of Shall We Dance (1937) amid a sea of women all wearing identical Ginger Rogers masks ("If he couldn't dance with you, he'd dance with images of you," she is told), Rogers joins the crowd, momentarily reveals her true self, and then makes Astaire search her out by unmasking and rejecting the others before they can dance alone.

In The Pirate (1948) Serafin (Gene Kelly) is initially depicted as sexually active and indiscriminate. His first song, "Niña," expresses his desire for all beautiful women, whom he refers to with the Spanish word for the generic "girl." Kelly's athletic dance in this number gives a choreographed shape to his robust masculinity as he climbs poles and trellises. By the end of the film Manuela (Judy Garland) tames Serafin with romantic love, so that they can come together and joyously perform the finale, claiming, "The best is yet to come." If the western hero rides off into the sunset and the detective hero walks alone down those mean streets, in the film musical characters are almost always united in the end. The genre's vision of romance is nothing less than, to quote the title of one film musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).


In musicals the energy and effort put into the musical numbers have always tended to outweigh the requirements of the narrative or "book." Already in 1933 the choreography of Flying Down to Rio, featuring a musical climax wherein the "dancers" perform with their waists and feet anchored to the wings of swooping airplanes, clearly exceeded any sense of narrative realism and, as such, paved the way for Berkeley's more elaborate choreography. In Berkeley's musicals, the scale of the production numbers could not possibly be mounted in the constricted space of the theater stage on which they are supposedly taking place, and his giddy overhead shots do not disguise the fact that the production numbers are designed for the cinema, not the audience within the film.

Such musicals as Broadway Revue of 1929, The Great Ziegfeld, and The Goldwyn Follies (1938) pushed the musical more toward spectacle than story. By contrast, producer Arthur Freed (1894–1973), who produced more than thirty quality musicals between 1939 and 1960, mostly for MGM (and who also wrote many of the lyrics, including those for "Singin' in the Rain"), tended to approach the film musical instead as an organically integrated whole. In Freed's musicals, beginning with his first, The Wizard of Oz (1939), the book and the musical numbers have strong connections; songs, often initiated by a character's strong emotions, arise out of the story and even advance the plot, rather than merely interrupt it, as was too frequently the case in the genre. In The Bandwagon (1953), for example, Astaire's performance of "A Shine on Your Shoes" enables him to acknowledge the loneliness he feels upon his return to Broadway, which he thinks has passed him by, while in It's Always Fair Weather (1955), an advertising executive (Dan Dailey), disgruntled about the superficial banter in the advertising agency where he works, finds rhythms in his colleagues' jargon ("Situation-wise and saturation-wise") and turns it into a cathartic song and dance.

According to critical consensus, the musicals produced by Freed represent the height of the genre's Golden Age, roughly from the end of World War II through the 1950s. Freed's unit at MGM included, among others, performers Kelly and Judy Garland, directors Stanley Donen (b. 1924) and Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986), choreographer Michael Kidd (b. 1919), and screen-writing duo Betty Comden (b. 1919) and Adolph Green (1914–2002). These artists, along with many others, were collectively responsible for such recognized classics as The Wizard of Oz, Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, The Bandwagon, It's Always Fair Weather, and Silk Stockings, among others.

Television, which was introduced commercially in the United States in 1947, had by the 1950s become serious entertainment competition for Hollywood. Partly in response, Hollywood embraced technology as yet unavailable to film, particularly color and wide-screen format, both of which became more common. The wider image was particularly appropriate for the lavish scale of many film musicals, as were the exaggerated hues of Technicolor for the idealized fantasies of the musical's production numbers. An American in Paris exploits color in its production design inspired by French Impressionist paintings, while the climactic twelve-minute "Girl Hunt" ballet in The Bandwagon, a homage to hard-boiled detective fiction, is rendered in appropriately garish colors that accent the pulp quality of the novels.


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 successful. People may have had more reason to sing in the rain in the immediate postwar period than during the tensions of the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s, but the difficulties of the Depression and the war years had stimulated the musical rather than stifled it.

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 DoctorDolittle (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.

b. William Berkeley Enos, Los Angeles, California, 29 November 1895, d. 14 March 1976

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.


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.

b. Eugene Curran Kelly, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 23 August 1912, d. 2 February 1996

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.

SEE ALSO Choreography;Dance;Genre;India;Music;Romantic Comedy


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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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Barry Keith Grant


views updated Jun 11 2018

musical Genre of popular dramatic light entertainment exemplified by firm plot, strong songs and vivacious dance numbers. It developed at the end of the 19th century from elements of light opera, revue and burlesque. The most popular musicals originated in the USA with the work of George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Stephen Sondheim. Audiences in the 1970s responded to the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, such as Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) and Evita (1978). Lloyd Webber was extremely successful in the 1980s with Cats (1981) and The Phantom of the Opera (1986). Successful film musicals, such as West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), are generally based on stage originals. Original film musicals include Forty-Second Street (1933), Meet Me in St Louis (1944), and Singin' in the Rain (1952).


views updated May 29 2018

mu·si·cal / ˈmyoōzikəl/ • adj. 1. of or relating to music: they shared similar musical tastes. ∎  set to or accompanied by music: an evening of musical entertainment. ∎  fond of or skilled in music: Henry was very musical, but his wife was tone-deaf.2. having a pleasant sound; melodious; tuneful: they burst out into rich, musical laughter.• n. a play or movie in which singing and dancing play an essential part. Musicals developed from light opera in the early 20th century.DERIVATIVES: mu·si·cal·ly / -ik(ə)lē/ adv.