Thursday, February 16, 2006


Why I Simply Adore the Hollywood Musical

It’s Thursday and I’m vacuuming. It could just as easily be any other day of the week. And for no apparent reason I suddenly find myself humming “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” – that shamelessly sexist little ditty that Irving Berlin penned for MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld back in 1936. The song has since been thoroughly exploited in umpteenth screen reincarnations – but never to more opulent effect. In my mind’s eye I recall the spiral staircase with its baroque architecture and draped silk bunting; its fifty watt candles; its dapper Dan’s playing faux Gershwin while sassy cat women prance about with sleek sophistication. The kitsch menagerie gives way to Dennis Morgan – dubbed by Allen Jones – doing a fine job of lip syncing Berlin’s lyrics as Virginia Bruce tops out in her Elizabethan collar and frills; then, that dizzying crane pull back, framing the whole excruciating spectacle in one mind-blowing master shot. It’s all there, jutting like the tower of Babylon up into the kilowatt heavens.

Sublime nirvana overtakes me right there in the living room – recalling the symmetry and incomprehensible perfection of the whole fine mess. The first time I beheld that magnificent spectacle I was a student in film discourses at Western University. I had to blink twice and pinch myself at least once as reminder; that the strange dichotomous relationship between fantasy and reality is awe-inspiring and dumb-founding at the same time. I am certain that since this spectacle had such a profound visceral effect on me it must have generated veritable goose pimples for audiences in 1936. And in a nutshell I have my answer; why I love the Hollywood musical. Because, I too believe that a relationship between suspended disbelief and reality is entirely plausible. Nothing or no one that has confronted me before or since has been able to shake that belief out of my head. And I don’t just like the idea – I love it.

If judging only by the film output of the 1930s one would never guess that the country was going through the Great Depression. The 30s were mythical in their escapist kitsch and ultra high glamour; both coping mechanisms for an impoverished age pretending that nothing was wrong. While I am constantly reminded by more refined critical and scholastic minds, that this sort of hollow sheen and prissy allure ought not inspire anything more than superficial praise, I find myself hypnotically returning to the splendor of that scene – each time falling further under its spell.

“But what does it all mean?” I am often challenged to defend my position; that there is something more than surface grace to behold. And therein I repeatedly find myself at a loss, for people and places like this do not exist in real life. So where is their social relevancy to ours? What is there that I can take from the celebratory experience and carry over into pragmatic applied living?

What I’d really like to say when challenged is something like “Don’t think. Just smile.” But instead I mutter the more congenial, “Well, nothing. You’re not supposed to glean anything but sheer enjoyment.”

This simple resolution to minds more affected and mired in complex thinking usual affords me no respect. So, I move further into musical lore in my feeble attempt to explain to those who refuse to believe as I do, in the suspended goodness of mankind as he bursts into song and dance under the most implausible circumstances.

“Well”, I continue, “if you recall, Oz’s Dorothy was quite right; those who look for their own heart’s desire beyond their backyard are sure to never find it.”

And now I have really done myself in – I’ve hit the pragmatist where it never hurts – in the heart - and proceed to get paint-balled with a litany of criticism about Dorothy, Ziegfeld and that funny little tune that continues to play like a broken music box inside my head.

“Musicals have no plot.”
“Yes they do.”
“What is it?”
“Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy sings song and gets girl.”

(slight pause and mild huff)

“Fine – then very little.”
“They’re stupid.”
“No they’re not.”
“Who just bursts into song out of the clear blue?”
“Whenever – but mostly in the shower when no one’s around to hear, just in case I’m off key.”

I find that it is usually at this point in the conversation the person I am speaking to starts to get mildly agitated. Damned if I know why. I am still as cool and reserved as before.
“Answer me this,” I say, “When you’re all alone and busy at some work about the place, or driving with the radio turned off, don’t you ever suddenly think “Get Happy” and then have visions of Judy Garland dancing about your head?”

“What are you…gay?”

Decidedly not, though I am aware of Judy’s considerable influence over admirers of that persuasion.

Critic Richard Brandt has written that Hollywood was “a manufactured business, and the parts were the actors and actresses.” This is perhaps never more truthful a statement than when applied to the Hollywood musical. For in those extravaganzas one finds a devious conflict occurring between complete spontaneity and total structure. Imagine Gene Kelly suffering from the flu and squeezed into a shrinking woolen suit, yet bounding about the rain soaked pavement on the studio backlot for Singin’ in the Rain (1952) as though he were made of air. Cold or no cold, the hours of rehearsal and immediate agitation from his itchy wool suit shrinking and sticking to him; these real circumstances are strangely absent from the moment at hand. Instead what is represented on screen is absolute freedom in self expression, quelled only after cynicism and plausibility – in the form of a suspicious cop – intrude.

“What about Julie Andrews?” I suggest.
“What about her?”
“Spinning on that hill top. Popping into chalk pavement pictures. Don’t you get it?”
“Get what?”

And now I calmly quote author and critic, Robert Towne, “You have to coat the pill with candy.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I genuinely feel for this person who does not “get” my meaning behind Hollywood musicals, because there is so much there to enrich and stimulate from the mundane structure of modern life. Whenever I am down, or tired, or bereft of a single positive word left to say, I simply mutter a “Supercalafragalisticexpiala…” oh, you know the rest, and find, oddly enough, that whatever was lacking only moments before has miraculously been accounted for. I have indeed been paying attention to “that man behind the curtain” for a goodly number of years. What is behind the curtain has not stayed behind the curtain. Rather, it is just as relevant and satisfying today as it was sixty years ago.

That is why I continue to fix my star to Jiminey Cricket instead of Roger Rabbit; the former knew the power of blind wish fulfillment – the latter merely thought the whole concept a colossal joke. Times have changed, but the fundamental principles of love, peace, honor and inner tranquility – the blue prints for happy times if you like - have not, and these, in the very best vein of film tradition are amply represented in the Hollywood musical.

So, with my stored set of quotations at an end, and in quiet exhaustion, I stumble out with a belated submission to the discussion at hand.

“Fine. Ever seen The Song of Bernadette?”

It’s not a musical, but usually the answer is ‘No’. So I shrug my shoulders and paraphrase from the film’s prologue, “To those who believe, no explanation is necessary. To those who do not believe, no explanation is possible”, and then happily go on my way.

Surely I’m not a flaxen bubblehead for having gleaned and applied that positive mental outlook on life, and if musicals have helped to maintain that even keel then I will take the base, but timeless, allure of ‘shallow’ glamour over ‘stark’ realism in my cinema experience any day of the week. For as a great philosopher once said, “the road is for journeys”…or is it that Ford Envoy commercial that I’m thinking of now?

@ Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).