Notes on Musicals
The wonderfully strange Depression-era musical Hallelujah, I’m A Bum (Lewis Milestone, 1933) reminds me that there was a time in mainstream Hollywood cinema when you could have a character who was a self-proclaimed socialist and revolutionary, one treated with affection and sympathy by the film. (He’s played here by silent film comedian Harry Langdon.) A further anti-Americanism: the film centers on a community of “hobos” who live in Central Park, and vigorously extol in song the values of not working. Al Jolson is their leader, a pal of the Mayor of New York played by Frank Morgan who utters here the line “There’s no place like home” — a full six years before The Wizard of Oz! Much of the film’s dialogue is in rhyming couplets, which, along with the songs, were written by Rodgers and Hart. (Both have cameos in the film.)
Richard Dyer, in his classic and influential essay on musicals, “Entertainment and Utopia,” divides musicals into three broad tendencies: (1) A clear separation of narrative and songs (e.g. a backstage musical like 42nd Street in which the songs occur in rehearsal or performance within the story); (2) Transitions from story to numbers, often cued, when characters 'unrealistically' break into song or dance (e.g. Funny Face); and (3) An attempt to dissolve the very distinction between narrative and numbers by means of something that strongly unites and binds them both together. He gives the example of On The Town, in which a transforming energy runs through every scene, every shot, linking up the story with the songs, the musical and the non-musical moments alike. This energy transforms the city — New York City — into a utopia.
In most musicals, we find two distinct worlds: a ‘real’ world of the ‘here and now’ and a ‘utopia’ into which to escape through song and dance. But films in the above third category don’t permit such easy differentiation. They give us the real world (the weary dock-worker’s refrain at the beginning of On The Town: “I feel like I’m not out of bed yet!”) and simultaneously an emotional utopia that pervades the entire film (the sailors’ limitless “energy of leisure” as they plunge into the city to explore it).
Jonathan Rosenbaum has also remarked on this quality of certain musicals. In explaining the co-existence of “strangeness and intensity” in Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, he identifies two Rodgers and Hart films, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and Love Me Tonight, as displaying a related impulse — “to perceive the musical form as a continuous state of delirious being rather than a traditional story with musical eruptions.”
The blurring or outright erasure of the distinction between the tone, mood and atmosphere of the ‘story’ world and that of the ‘song and dance’ world can result in a complex and ambiguous impact on the viewer. Rosenbaum’s response to Rochefort is one of “powerful, deeply felt emotions — an exuberance combined with a sublime sense of absurdity, shot through with an almost constant sense of loss, yearning and even tragedy.”
If it’s the idea of energy that suffuses On the Town and determines the tone of the film, it is community that does this for Hallelujah, I’m A Bum. Bumper (Al Jolson) and his hobo pals live together in a common space (Central Park), share equally their discoveries (like the $1000 bill Bumper finds), interrogate each other’s decisions and moral positions, and, in every way, make each other’s business their own. Individualism is suspect; the individual is accountable at every turn to the community.
Lewis Milestone’s style finds witty, startling devices to convey this theme. An example: Twice in the film, an army of hobos sets out with great urgency to see Bumper, their leader. But instead of chaotically swarming en masse across the park to get to him, they approach him in geometric formations in four groups — one each from south, north, east and west! — in musical fashion, their steps in time, the editing participating equally in the musical performance. It’s one of many moments in this film when the reality of the homeless during the Depression becomes inextricably linked with their representation — stylized, musically joyous, and utopian in feeling. It’s a poignant, bittersweet touch in a film full of them.
Your thoughts on musicals? Any particular favorites in the genre, and why you like them so? I’d love to hear them.
A few links:
-- "Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-narrative," with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Durgnat and David Ehrenstein (originally published in Film Comment in 1978).
-- A lengthy profile of Raúl Ruiz by A.O. Scott in the NYT.
-- Catherine Grant has a video essay that uses Gilda to offer a primer on gender, sexuality and movement. Also: Catherine rounds up for us the new issue of Jump Cut.
-- Adrian Martin and Conall Cash interview Eve Heller and Peter Tscherkassky at the Melbourne Film Festival.
-- Here are some interesting posts at Jon Jost's blog on avant-garde filmmakers: Leighton Pierce; James Benning; Nathaniel Dorsky; Letters from Dorsky to Jost (part 1, part 2).
-- An interview with Shelly Kraicer about Chinese independent cinema.
-- The BFI's "Most Wanted" list of missing British films.
-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Mysteries of Lisbon at MUBI.
-- At Moving Image Source: Richard Porton defends the "talking-head" documentary.
-- Male Archetypes in the Movies," by A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis in the NYT.