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Time Out to Music

Posted by keith1942 on February 16, 2016

Sing As We Go back to creating surplus value.

Sing As We Go back to creating surplus value.

In a key article, `Entertainment and Utopia’, Richard Dyer (1977) offers an examination of the ideological function of the film musical. His argument is that, like entertainment as a larger category, musicals offer an alternative world, a sort of emotional utopia for the spectator.

 “Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfilment’ point to its central thrust, namely utopianism … the utopia is contained in the feelings it embodies. it presents, head-on as it were, what utopia would fell like rather than how it would be organised. It thus works at the level of sensibility.”

He provides a series of `categories of entertainment’s utopian sensibilities’ and their oppositions; the latter being actual inadequacies:

Utopian Oppositional Categories Categories

Energy/Exhaustion – Abundance/Scarcity – Intensity/Dreariness – Transparency/Manipulation  – Community/Fragmentation

He also provides some discussion of examples from the classic Hollywood musical which show these sensibilities at work. He is careful to point out that these categories are present not just at the representational level – i.e. plot, characters, lyrics – but also at the non-­representational level; setting, costume, colour, movement and so on. He says less about the content of these utopias. Even if they are about feelings, one would expect them to be concretised in settings and situations. I want to examine how these categories can be seen operating in a number of British film musicals, and to suggest some strands of utopian content this reveals. My thoughts about how these musicals offered an alternative and an escape from `reality’ for British spectators were crystallised in the pithy remark of a colleague, Mike Hammond, at a BFI seminar (`What is British Cinema?’, 1989). After watching Sing as We Go (Britain 1934) he remarked that

“Gracie Fields was taking the working class on holiday whilst capitalism recouped itself.”

sing as we go

This is an apt summary of the film’s ideological project, [the set of values and interests that it privileges]. Gracie Platt (Fields) is thrown out of work by the closure of Greybeck Mills. Undaunted, she cycles to Blackpool to seek work. There she provides a catalyst to the romance of Hugh (John Loder – son of the Mill owner) and Phyllis (Dorothy Hyson – an office worker), and brings together the capital of a tycoon, Sir William Upton (Lawrence Grossmith) and the productive forces of the factory. Thus the film can end with Gracie, newly-appointed welfare officer, leading the workers back into the re-opened mill.

Blackpool offers an opposition of conspicuous consumption to the scarcity of work and money in Greybeck. Everything in Blackpool is excess. Excess of fun, of sweets and goodies, even an excess of song, as Gracie sings and sings again a number being plugged at a sheet music stall. Because Blackpool is essentially a working class resort, we are not presented with affluence, the abundance is relative (i.e. relative to the scarcity of Greybeck). One example; Gracie, her uncle and his friend, have their evening in Greybeck abruptly halted by the return of the aunt. She represents a strand of repressive older women found particularly in 1930 films. Her return stifles their lively fun, re- emphasising drabness and exhaustion.

Their opposites, energy and intensity, figure both in the character of Gracie, but also in the activities of the holidaymakers. The resort has `oomph’ and `pow’, two characteristics Dyer associates with this category. The intensity, `not holding back; can be seen both in Gracie’s involvement in the various jobs at the resort, and in the manner in which spectators indulge the resort’s pleasures.

Transparency, what you see is what you get, is an essential characteristic of the Fields persona. She offers an open and honest contrast to some of the manipulative characters at the resort, to the exploitative guest house owner, to the hucksters at the funfair.

This transparency is contagious. Gracie’s activities show to the cinema audience the manipulation behind fairground shows owned by petty bourgeois. Then, in a key scene, Gracie sings “Love fools you ..:” and a series of vignettes show characters embracing sincere relationships. For example, Madame Osiris, the fortune teller, reveals herself as a one-time mill hand and factory-worker’s wife.

This sequence also re-inforces the cross-class impetus of the script, (written by J.B. Priestley), as one of the manipulative song salesmen appears in a romantic (i.e. transparent) role here. The class structure of the film is fairly clear, proletarians, petty bourgeois, bourgeoisie. In keeping with British traditions the actual `marriage’ is between the bourgeoisie, in the shape of Sir William’s capital and proletarians, represented by Gracie. The Hugh/Phyllis union offers a romantic coupling between bourgeoisie and that ambiguous state, the middle classes. [Footnote 1]. This is mainly a plot device necessitated by Gracie’s persona, which is not made for romance. Attempts in later films to move her up the class ladder and add romance failed.

Most of the utopian categories appear in Blackpool in the form of the commodities, everywhere people buying and selling the attributes of pleasure. The closure of the film depends crucially on commodification. [Footnote 2]. Early in the film Hugh, son of the factory owner, learns of a new cheap process that can save the factory, but this only becomes viable when they find the capital of Sir William. The spectators are not expected to believe in the miraculous transformation of the film. But it offers an oppositional sensibility to the depression of the 1930s.

“Sing as we go … I never miss Gracie Fields. She lifts me to a high plane as well as entertains me with her thorough affinity with human joys and sorrow.” – Housewife in Lincoln from Richardson and Sheridan (eds) 1987, p261)

The use of the holiday seaside is apt. Capitalism and industrialisation had formed a working class whose lives were organised by the calendar, the timetable and the clock. An oppositional note is provided by Gracie’s Uncle Murgatroyd, with his house full of clocks that don’t work, “even the clocks have gone on strike” : The growth of both public holidays, and holidays away, had grown up in the nineteenth century.

One of the classic dramas of working class life is the play Hindle Wakes (filmed four times with sound versions in 1932 and 1952), which depicts the sexual freedom found in seaside Blackpool in the traditional holiday week. Like Sing as We Go the play details cross-class romance. However, Hindle Wakes substitutes working class realism for cinematic utopianism; at the play’s end the heroine declines the bourgeois lover for her own world.

What musicals like Sing as We Go offer are resolutely alternative worlds to the experience of organised and controlled time for the majority audience. Other examples would be George Formby, always leaving working life for sport, the TT … or Jessie Matthews variously away from the working world, in Paris or even, miraculously, out of the world of time altogether in Evergreen (Britain, 1934).

The Good Companions

Good Companions

Matthews is one of the stars of an earlier film musical, The Good Companions (Britain, 1933). This is taken from the novel by J. B. Priestley, the scriptwriter of Sing as We Go. The story displays not only Priestley’s tendency to build cross class alliances but his liking for a tone that echoes Chaucer. The voice-over for the prologue runs,

“a story of the roads and wandering places of mother England:”

A group of varied individuals set off on a journey by road. Their meeting provides an alternative to the unsatisfactory state of their present lives. Appropriately, the paean to middle England starts in Rawsley, a fictional town placed in the centre of the country. The bourgeois, Miss Trant (Mary Glynne), has remained a spinster from caring for an aged and ill father. The petty bourgeois, Inigo (John Gielgud), is fleeing from the travails of public school. And the proletarian, Jess (Edmund Gwenn), from the confines of his work and his home. This trio meet up with the Dinky Doos, a currently unemployed concert party. Together they build a successful show, funded by Miss Trant’s legacy and crowned by stardom for the leading light, Susie (Jessie Matthews).

The film ends with the promise of romance for Susie and Inigo but also, crucially, with Jess Oakroyd emigrating to Canada to be re-united with his daughter and her family. Presumably by the end of his voyage capitalism will be re-invigorated in that area. And, of course, the colonies had long provided an escape from the travails of the mother country. Miss Trant finds romance and embarks on a lengthy cruise. The Dinky Doos take up an offer in Bournemouth, the pinnacle of genteel entertainment.

In terms of utopian sensibilities the remake of the film in 1956, in CinemaScope and Technicolor, is instructive. Despite the technical improvements, the 1950s version lacks the élan of the 1930s. Whilst the story remains remarkably similar, Priestley’s narrative of overcoming economic adversity does not quite suit the more affluent fifties. Despite retaining all the main characters, there are significant changes. Jess Oakroyd is now played by Eric Porter, a very different type from the earlier Edmund Gwenn. Though he starts out as proletarian as the 1940s Jess, by the film’s end a subtle transformation has occurred. The migration to Canada has gone, and he sits in the auditorium alongside the Dinky Doos in a smart, new suit, as seemingly as bourgeois as Miss Trant (Celia Johnson). The film has also dropped the romance for Miss Trant and the continuing concert  career of the Dinky Doos.

This is a rather different closure that rests all on the stardom of Susie (Jeanette Scott) and relates to changes in the way the film handles the utopian categories. The abundance of the earlier version, achieved by displaying the world of stardom that Susie can enter at the film’s finale, is gone. Abundance in this version is displayed in the final big musical number, `Round the World’, performed by Susie. It is a series of sketches about the pleasures of travel and holidays, starting and finishing in the that modern Mecca, an airline terminal. It is a prime example of what Marx termed commodity fetishism. [Footnote 3]. The underlying labour and productive relations that enable us to fly off hither and thither are disguised in the surface appearances. We merely need to purchase the tickets to purchase the pleasure.

Cliff Richard musicals

CR movies


The mystification of work and leisure continues in a key musical of the 1960s, The Young Ones (Britain, 1961). Whilst the film is very British, in its stars, its story and its lyrics, it is also partly transatlantic. This follows from the clear borrowing from the successful Hollywood musical West Side Story (USA, 1961 – even referenced in one of the lyrics). The influence is apparent from the opening crane shot, and clearly continues in the narrative oppositions, choreography and mise en scène.

Simply put, a youth club is under threat because it stands in the way of a property developer. Working class youth must move on while capital re-invests. The film develops as a struggle between youth and age, the club members versus the property developer. However, crossing this divide in true Gracie Fields fashion is Nick/Nicky (Cliff Richard), club member, but also the son of the manipulative developer. As the hero he is able to negotiate these conflicts to a satisfactory conclusion. Whilst the abundance in the film would seem to be with the developer, Hamilton Black (Robert Morley), youth displays an abundance of colour, dress, movement… They are also able to display energy and intensity, notably in the set piece dance numbers and the two `putting on a show’ sequences that fill out the narrative.

Nicky’s romance provides moment of transparency, but this category is most noticeable at the finale. Here, Nicky confesses his real relationship to the club members, but also goes to rescue his father from an assault by rougher members of the club. Father and son both figure in the final show finale which closes the film and re-emphasises the sense of community represented by the club. But, the final community is rather problematic. The club has both middle class and working class members. And, in keeping with the 1950s moral panics, the working class members are `rough’. They have to be disciplined for the community to be re-established. This is achieved by the fight in which Nicky comes to the rescue of his father.

More problematic are other exclusions. The finale of the film, `What d’you know, you’ve got a show’, provides a feast of energy, intensity and abundance. The audience is composed mainly of young people, but includes older members, as do the scenes of idolatry of Nicky/Cliff as pop idol. The audience is also both male and female, and it appears to include both middle and working classes. The site of this community is a refurbished theatre, rather than the doomed club building. This move is significant because it represents a world apart from the real world. What is missing is the newest element in the real British society, black people. There are only two representations of black people in the film. One is the drawings of North American jazz musicians on the club bandstand. The other is a black male in a wanted poster outside a police station, part of the background for a Richard song and dance number. Both have been left behind in the old world. Cliff Richard continued in a series of film musicals that opted out of the world of work.

The 'wanted poster' appears in this sequence - visible in 35mm prints.

The ‘wanted poster’ appears in this sequence – visible in 35mm prints.

Summer Holiday (Britain, 1963), literally a `busman’s holiday; takes in both Europe and transatlantic romance and It’s a Wonderful Life (Britain, 1964) sees Cliff and his Shadows leave ship work for a desert island. Both these films also produce alliances that cross class and age boundaries. The gender boundaries are crossed in the traditional manner of romance. But again, the films fail to cross what we now term ethnic barriers.

All these musicals offer an utopian world of feelings and all can be deconstructed in terms of Dyer’s categories. The 1930s films offer a depression background, with its immediate sense of scarcity, drabness and lack. The 1950 and 1960 variants do not feature general unemployment, but in each case the characters’ work is both drab and unfulfilling. The Good Companions shows all the characters dissatisfied and restless. In The Young Ones work, as so often the case in mainstream film, never appears on screen. We only see people knocking off, or if found at work, they are not working but avoiding it. Labour, by implication, is necessary, but unexciting and unfulfilling. These almost dystopian worlds of work are exchanged for one that offers all the utopian qualities. And in each case it is the world of entertainment, be it holiday pleasures in Blackpool, the West End Stage, or the world of pop success.

Dyer quotes Hans Magnus Enzensberger:

“Consumption as spectacle contains the promise that want will disappear… (but) so long as scarcity holds sway, use value remains a decisive category which can only be abolished by trickery. (Dyer, 1997, p6).”

The rise of organised leisure, a concomitant of capitalism, produces entertainment; organised and commercialised entertainment. Dyer discusses this aspect in some detail and notes,

“entertainment provides alternatives to capitalism which will be provided by capitalism:”

And in these films, each group of characters take time out from the real world of scarcity, exhaustion and fragmentation to go `over a rainbow’ to a world where all these lacks are banished. The finale of each film then works to remove the divide between the two worlds. In Sing as We Go, Gracie leads the workers back into the mill. However, in The Good Companions and The Young Ones return is eschewed in favour of a new site which contains the virtues missing in the old world. In the former the West End Theatre, or possibly Canada; in the latter a converted theatre. What they all share is the nature of the community that occupies these sites.

In all the films there is a conscious effort to cross the divides of class, gender and age. Gracie bring together both capital and labour, and the petty bourgeois is sandwiched between. The Good Companions achieves the re-unification, with a greater emphasis on age and gender. The Young Ones highlights the age gap, but again works to unify all three categories. Whilst it ignores an equally important category of `race’, it works by denying its existence rather than recognising the exclusion.

Absolute Beginners

absolute beginners

A rather different slant on these issues is given by the more recent and much maligned Absolute Beginners (Britain, 1986). Shot in colour and widescreen, this musical presents the romance of Colin (Eddie O’Connell) and Suzette (Patsy Kensit) against the background of the 1958 Notting Hill Riots and the Notting Hill Carnival which arose out of this. Colin takes photographs, Suzette is in the world of design.

Moving between the film’s W 11 interracial slum of Napoli and Soho, this musical presents the world of pornography, pop and politics in a heady mixture. The disruption to this world comes (as with The Young Ones) from a proposed property development. Its development is hazy as the narrative tends at time to incoherence, a likely factor in its failure at the box office. But the set dances, the vibrant score (by Gil Evans) and the stylish camera work and mise en scène exude the energy and intensity somewhat lacking in the 1950s and 1960s musicals discussed earlier. Some of this vibrancy is enjoyed by the ethnic sequences, which depict Afro-Caribbeans receiving and responding to covert and overt racism. But the most vibrant depicts the seedy world of 1950s Soho. Absolute Beginners celebrates the lumpen-proletarians that are erased or avoided by the other musicals. Soho has the abundance and energy that the characters in the film are seeking. The transparency in the film is mainly offered by Colin, an innocent who learns about life, but retains some innocence.

The weakest of Dyer’s categories here is community. The film’s different worlds are all fragmenting at an amazing rate. The post-riot Carnival section does suggest a new community which overcomes racist divisions. However, Colin and Suzette leave this for their own private world of love and sex, a retreat that echoes Matthew Arnold’s `Dover Beach’. So what the film eventually offers the viewer is an immensely vital and attractive dystopia, rather than the utopia tabled by Dyer.

Wild West

Another musical in which ethnicity has a particular impact on its utopia is Wild West (Britain, 1992). Three Pakistani brothers, Zaf, Ali and Kay, live in west London and, in between various jobs, run a country band. The opening shot of Zaf (Naveen Andrews) cycling passed a huge Marlborough poster sets up cross-generic currents.

The film continues to play with genres, notably in a contrast between British realism and Bollywood style fantasy. The trio of brothers suffer the social prejudice and economic hardship familiar from Absolute Beginners. Whilst these hardships arise from the social context, much of their oppression is directly motivated by whites. Zaf suffers this directly. He also has a romance with Rifat (Saita Choudhury), who suffers from an oppressive white husband. The film avoids both predictable romantic and economic closure; Rifat gets a recording contract and their paths diverge. Unlike Colin and Susette, Zaf and his brothers do not withdraw into a private world, we see them last as they embark for the USA and Nashville. Utopia is obviously across the Atlantic. 



An Afro-Caribbean utopia is to be found in Babymother (Britain, 1998),’a reggae musical’. The heroine, Anita (Anjela Lauren Smith), battles the pressures of child rearing and male power in her bid to become a `dancehall queen: She leads a female trio in overcoming the male dominance of the club and record recording world. Her final triumph is in beating boyfriend Byron in a promoter’s contest and there we leave her enjoying the acclaim of fans.

Babymother suffers from what appears to be generic confusions, with partly realist representation of everyday life and the more glam world of musical spectacle. The later provides the utopian categories of the film:

…dancehall represents the thin, shapely, aggressively stylised and eroticised black body of Hot Britain… (Hall, 1998).

It is vibrant, energetic, colourful, postulating transparent relationships as Anita sings, “Babymother! Be a Mother to Your Child” : The black dancehall utopia at the close is more accessible than the emigration required by Wild West more community based than the closed world of Absolute Beginners’ Colin and Susette.

It thus appears to obtain some of the conviction that accompanied the closure of the earlier musicals. Left outside are the oppositional categories, the scarcity, drabness, exhaustion and fragmentation endured in the world of work and domesticity. Closure is, in this sense, as escapist as the retreat of Colin and Susette, or that of Zaf and his brothers.


The abiding image of Sing as We Go is the final shot of Gracie leading the workers back to the factory waving Union Jacks. The film’s utopian feeling was able to embrace both the entertainment world of Blackpool and, by closure, the reconstructed world of Greybeck’s Mills. By the 1950s and 60s the re-make of The Good Companions and The Young Ones eschew a return and leave the characters firmly in the embrace of the world of entertainment. The latter does hold out the promise of a property development with a new youth club. By Absolute Beginners even that unseen promise is gone, Colin’s and Suzette’s private world leaves outside what appears to be rapidly fragmenting communities. Wild West offers emigration and Babymother the enclosed world of dancehall – both are also alternatives to the fragmented worlds outside. It would appear that, both generically and ideologically, the musical has to bridge an increasing divide between its utopian world and the actual world of the viewer.


Richard Dyer (1977) `Entertainment and Utopia; in Movie No 24, reprinted in Only Entertainment (Richard Dyer, Routledge 1992).

Stuart Hall (1998) `A Rage in Harlesden’ in Sight & Sound, September 1998.

Andrew Higson (1995) Waving the Flag Clarendon Press. This has an extended discussion of Sing as We Go and its context.

Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (Eds) (1987) Mass Observation at the Movies, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul


Sing as We Go 1934, Associated Talking Pictures, produced and directed by Basil Dean.

The Good Companions 1933, Gaumont­-Welsh-Pearson, directed by Victor Saville.

The Good Companions 1956, Associated British, produced and directed by J. Lee Thompson.

The Young Ones 1961, Associated British Pictures, directed by Sydney J. Furie.

Absolute Beginners 1986, Palace Pictures, directed by Julian Temple.

Wild West 1992, First Independent, directed by David Attwood.

Babymother 1998, colour, Channel 4, directed by Julian Henriques.


1. The Marxist terms for class are more exact than the vague British usage of `working’, `middle’ and `upper’ classes. Bourgeoisie- own capital and hence the means of producing goods and are able to employ the labour power of the: Proletariat, who own no property and can only sell their ability to work. Petty bourgeoisie – own their own property and hence do not need to work for the bourgeoisie: however, they do not own enough to employ labour on any scale. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat wage class war over the value produced by labour, the petty bourgeoisie vacillate in between.

2. Commodities are produced by labour power and, importantly, this means they are produced for exchange. They therefore become the property of somebody, first the capitalist and then the consumer. Exchange value does not depend on the use value, i.e. what we can do with the commodity.

3. Fetishism arises when we see commodities only in terms of exchange value – their actual usage goes unnoticed. Hence lumps of hardened earth or animal skins can be very costly, especially when exhibited in an art gallery.

The original article appeared in itp Film Reader 2, 2000.

Posted in British films, Musicals | Leave a Comment »

The Silent Voices of Hollywood

Posted by keith1942 on October 2, 2013

Marni Nixon as Sister Sophie - second from left - in The Sound of Music

Marni Nixon as Sister Sophia – second from left – in The Sound of Music

Over the last couple of weeks the BBC has been celebrating the great music of cinema on both television and radio. The key series has been Sound of Cinema on BBC 4: an excellent trio of programmes written and presented by Neil Brand. Over the three programmes focussing on Hollywood he discussed and illustrated the orchestral style of the 1930s and 1940s: the influence of jazz and pop from the 1950s: and the use in more recent decades of electronic music.

Sunday night [September 29th] saw [besides a repeat of the last Sound of Cinema] a stand-alone programme, The Silent Voices of Hollywood. This was a RDF West Television / Zodiak Media Company production for the BBC. Despite a very interesting subject this TV documentary rather let the standards slip. The ‘silent voices’ were those of the singers who dubbed songs for the stars, mainly in Hollywood musicals, from the 1930s to the 1970s. This was known as ‘ghosting’. These ‘ghost singers’ usually their own concert and recording careers, in most cases they were denied credits, royalties and any acknowledgement at the Oscar Ceremony.

A fascinating history, and there were occasional highlights as when the programme used a split screen to show both the Natalie Wood version and the Marni Nixon dubbed version of a song from West Side Story (1961). There was India Adams dubbing two version of the same song ‘Two-faced Woman’ – one for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1951), [but not used in the final version] and one for Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953). Rita Hayworth was seen in three different films, Cover Girl (1944), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and An Affair in Trinidad (1952) – each with the dubbing by a different vocalist. And then we saw the Christopher Plummer’s version of ‘Edelweiss’ and the version used in The Sound of Music (1965) by Bill Lee. Finally there was a British example, Oliver! (1968) with the Musical Director Johnny Green’s daughter Kathe dubbing for Mark Lester.

However the programme suffered from two major vices of television documentaries: a long series of ‘‘talking heads’’ often onscreen for just a line or two. And a lack of respect for archive material from the past. The programme was screened in the television ratio of 16:9. And a lot of archive material, which was produced in other ratios, was cropped into this frame. This was particularly true of footage from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s used early in the programme, including Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). Most of the footage from recent films was treated better, though there were occasional oddities, in part due to the use of stills, trailers and an actual video of the film. West Side Story was at various points seen in 1.37:1, 16:9 and the full widescreen of 2.35:1 [from a 35mm anamorphic print]. Both The King and I (1956) and My Fair Lady (1964) appeared at different points in 16:9 and in 2.35:1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) appeared briefly in 16:9 and then properly in 1.37:1. The latter, of course, provided a poetic comment. The film’s plot revolves around Debbie Reynolds dubbing for Jean Hagen, whilst at one point the film had Betty Noyes [uncredited] dubbing for Debbie Reynolds. This film does actually get the aspect ratio of the 1920s nearly right, [1.37:1 rather than 1.33:1].

There were other oddities. The programme used a variety of stills and photographs. These were in the right ratio most of the time, but a number had the leader logo from the opening of a film reel flickering in the background! There was a parallel problem with the editing. There were [given the talking heads] frequent cuts: but on many occasions what looked like the tail of a film projection reel or of a video tape running briefly between the two different frames. And late in the programme a couple of clips set in the Moulin Rouge (2001) auditorium were sandwiched around a brief clip from elsewhere in the film.  I did wonder if all of this was the result of a rush in the final stages of post-production, but it recurred right through the programme. I suspect it was some sort of signifier supposedly highlighting the production process? I just found it distracting.

There were similar problems with the rostrum camera which was often shaky and cropped images in an obvious fashion. And the footage was often of poor quality. Some of this seemed justified: for example some footage of Rex Harrison in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. But a lot of this was stock footage used to fill out the visuals. Since it was often not exactly uninformative or contextual I am sure they could have found better examples. At one point footage of the Vietnam War and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was offered as a bizarre context to The Sound of Music. And a recurring piece of footage seemed to be a tracking shot through what I assumed was Beverley Hills. It looked as if shot from a car, and was often washed out by the sunlight: and it looked like it may have been speeded up.

All this was a shame as there was some interesting and informative commentary. And there were frequent interviews with the dubbing stars. These included Marni Nixon dubbed ‘Ghost with the mostest’ by Time Magazine. We actually saw her appearance on screen as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music. We also saw the aforementioned India Adams. And we saw Rita Moreno who appeared in quite a few of the featured films, often singing her own character. The exhibits in this investigation into Hollywood made a pertinent point. Questions were asked as to how much the Studio policy of secrecy mattered. My memory is that on many occasions it was fairly obvious that stars were being dubbed. West Side Story, a musical I really liked, suffered from the disparity between the youthful and naïve stars and the concert trained voices of the songs they presented. I have to admit though that this was not always the case. I was surprised to find out that Rita Moreno had one song dubbed in the same film: even today she was rightly peeved about this indignity.

There was also a recurring problematic in the overall approach of the television programmes. The term ‘playback’ occurred at one point describing the technique of ‘ghosting’. Where this term does apply of course is in the great popular cinema of Mumbai [‘Bollywood’] and in the other regional Indian Cinemas. On the sub-Continent ‘playback singers’ are stars in their own right: with avid fans for their concerts, recordings and television appearances. And this is the great gap in the BBC television programmes. Neil Brand’s series concentrated on Hollywood, and to lesser degree British composers. The latter were mainly those who worked successfully in Hollywood as well. I think the only major figure working in Europe was Ennio Morricone, who is also a Hollywood composer. It would have been good if we could have enjoyed programmes that ventured further afield: not just Europe but India, Latin America and, of course, Japan.

This was where the radio scored over the television. There have been three series of Composer of the Week on Radio 3: the Hollywood Studio era, the British Studio era, and the major contemporary Hollywood composer John William. There were programmes on Silent Film Music on Radio 3 and Radio 2: and Radio 1 hosted a profile of the great Indian film composer A. R. Rahman. Besides which there were a whole rash of concerts on Radio 3.

I enjoyed the whole season, and I am grateful for the high points. I just think the BBC could have invested more.  Still, I may be in for pleasant surprise; future programmes on the music of these other cinemas?

Posted in Hollywood, Hollywood stars, Musicals, Television documentary | Leave a Comment »

Gene Kelly – dancer, choreographer, director.

Posted by keith1942 on September 3, 2012

Kelly was born in Pittsburgh on August 23rd 1912: he died in Beverley Hills in 1996. His parents were Irish-American Catholic immigrants.  He took dance classes in his teens and then started performing in clubs with his brother Fred. He studied at the University of Pittsburgh where he was awarded a BA in the Arts. He also became involved in the University Cap and Gown club, which staged musical comedies: and he develops his sporting interests and his athleticism.

The family became involved in a Dance Studio in the late 1920s and in 1932 it became the Gene Kelly Studio of Dance. Kelly’s work as a teacher was an important skill, which served him well later in his career. He had a part in a musical revue at a Pittsburgh Theatre and in 1937 he moved to New York to seek work as choreographer. In New York Kelly met the choreographer John Alton who was to be a major influence: he also studied ballet and with an African-American dancer/teacher. There he met the first of his three wives, Betsy Blair. Kelly was a liberal and democratic supporter; Blair was a supporter of popular left causes. Both were to suffer later from the attentions of HUAC: Blair herself was blacklisted and had to move to Europe to work.

Kelly’s first major part was in the show The Time of Your Life in 1939. His big break came when he played Joey Evans in the musical Pal Joey from the pens of Rodgers and Hart. The part seems to have set Kelly with a character type: you can gauge what this was by the fact that the later film version had Joey played by Frank Sinatra.

David O. Selznick made one of several Hollywood offers to Kelly. Having signed a contract Kelly was then loaned out to MGM. His first appearance was in For Me and My Girl (1942), opposite Judy Garland and with director Busby Berkeley. The film, which celebrates Vaudeville and its contribution of the World War I efforts, was relatively successful. Arthur Freed then bought up the whole of Kelly’s contract. From his earliest days at the Studio Kelly alternated musicals with dramatic features. The persona suggested in For Me and My Girl [and preceded by Pal Joey} of a character caught between ambition and integrity and between flirtation and commitment was to become the regular character that Kelly projected on screen.

His musical breakthrough on the big screen came with a film made on loan for Columbia, Cover Girl (1944) opposite Rita Hayworth. Kelly now started his increasing tendency to control and choreograph his own dancing. The film is notable for a sequence in a night-time street where Kelly dances with his reflection in a shop window. His input as both choreographer and dancer, with a hint of director was even more notable in the following film, Anchors Aweigh (1945). Here he was teamed for the first time with Frank Sinatra, as sailors on shore leave. And he played opposite Kathryn Grayson, not the most appropriate style of leading actress for Kelly. What made the film stand out was Kelly’s interest in cinematic innovation, in this case a sequence where he dances with animated characters.

Following His appearance in Ziegfeld Follies Kelly enlisted in the US Naval Air Service where he mainly worked on documentaries for the Service. The experience increased his interest in the workings and possibilities of the film medium. After a B-movie drama Kelly returned to working with Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli in The Pirate (1948) with music and lyrics by Cole Porter. This is an extravagant costume musicals and was not especially successful at the time, but which has gained in reputation since. It displays Minnelli interest in pastiche and occasional camp presentation. It also offers a rare appearance of African-American star dancers on the screen, the Nicholas Brothers. One of Kelly’s more memorable dramatic roles followed: an adaptation of The Three Musketeers, with Kelly as D’Artagnan. His athleticism, so obvious in his dancing, was also apparent in his agility in the various fights and sword fights. He contributed another musical sequence to a biopic-cum-review musical, Words and Music (1948, the subjects were Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart]. This was the memorable Slaughter on Tenth Avenue with Vera-Ellen.

He was teamed again with Sinatra in Take Me out to the Ball Game (1949). This film set the scene for On the Town (1949), one of Kelly’s outstanding contributions to the film musical. On both films he worked closely with Stanley Donen. They had already worked together on Broadway. It was Kelly who brought Donen out to Hollywood. They team effort benefited both: Donen developing his directorial talents, whilst Kelly concentrated on choreography. On the Town was also innovative in using the actual New York locations for the film: part of a wider trend to take the camera out into town and cities for real locations.

Frank Sinatra, Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly and New York

An American in Paris (1951) has the memorable 17-minute ballet set to the music of George Gershwin. The represents the most notable example of the way that Kelly, [probably more than anyone else], brought ballet, as opposed to Tap, into centre of the Hollywood musical. This developed out of the arrival of modern dance on Broadway, notably in the stage productions of Oklahoma and the choreography of Agnes de Mille.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is the most famous example of Hollywood musical comedy and contains the iconic song and dance sequence … in the rain [studio manufactured]. This latter film depends very much on the partnership between Kelly and Donen. The sequence was carefully prepared and choreographed, right down to the position of the puddles in which Kelly tramples exuberantly.

Both these famous films use a different leading lady: one aspect of Kelly’s persona was that he never developed the long-running partnership that characterised Fred Astaire films with [for example] Ginger Rogers. Kelly did dance in the later film with Cyd Charisse. And he partnered her again in Brigadoon (1954). The problems of the Studio system in the 1950s and the declining popularity of the musical meant that this film was entirely a studio production. It did, however, give Minnelli the opportunity to use the new widescreen process of CinemaScope very effectively.

In between Kelly had spent nearly two years in Europe, partly it would seem to avoid the attentions of HUAC: [he had joined in the lobby of The Committee for the First Amendment, which supported the ‘Hollywood ten’]. It was also useful for MGM who could use profits that they were prohibited from exporting back to the USA. The project, Invitation to the Dance (1956) was Kelly’s boldest experiment in dance and innovation onscreen, but it was flop when finally released.

However, the declining fortunes of Hollywood and the Musical are also apparent in It’s Always Fair Weather (1956). The trio of buddies from On the Town are reunited ten years on [using more or less the same production personnel but with different stars apart from Kelly]. However, life has soured them and their situations. The film is only able to salvage their friendship by an over-the-top plot mechanism, which offers Hollywood the chance to take a swipe at its younger rival television. The film does contain a brilliant sequence where Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kydd dance on dustbin lids. And there is a terrific dance number by Cyd Charisse in a boxing gym, but the film never achieves the elan of On the Town. Kelly’s last musical at MGM was Les Girls (1957}: it featured three leading ladies, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendal and Taina Elg and Kelly in his most overt portrayal of the philanderer since Pal Joey.

His later career included extensive work on stage and for Television. He appeared in the French film musical Les Demoiselles du Rochefort (1967), a very French take on the Hollywood musical by Jacques Demy. Kelly’s other film work was mainly dramatic, or as a director or producer. His most notable dramatic role was in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind (1960) where he played the cynical journalist Hornbeck, up against Spencer Tracy’s magisterial Clive Darrow, the embodiment of integrity and commitment. Kelly’s most notable directorial achievement was working with Barbara Streisand on Hello Dolly (1969). This was shot in deluxe colour and Todd AO: surviving prints has faded badly, though it would still be a great screening to be able to enjoy.

Then in the 1980s MGM cashed in their back catalogue of great music, great stars and great performances – That’s Entertainment I and II (1974 and 1976), followed by That’s Dancing

(1985) and finally That’s Entertainment III (1994). Kelly was both a narrative host and a featured artist in these compilations: then an executive producer. They were surprisingly popular, demonstrating the lasting pleasures that survived from the studio musical era.

Kelly’s great contribution to the film musical was in the years he spent at MGM. He was a fine and athletic dancer but also a skilled choreographer who brought a range of influences to his work. In terms of the film medium he was both an experimenter and an innovator. From the mid-40s to the mid-50s he was a leading force in transforming the Hollywood musical.

Kelly’s character in the musicals is a world away from the man-about-town established by Fred Astaire. Kelly is the ‘ordinary Joe’, a character central to Hollywood’s value system. In the studio he almost always wore a T-shirt, slacks, and sneakers; and his on-screen costumes mainly mirror this. So Kelly is a far more proletarian character than Astaire is and most of the other male musical stars. He himself talked about any sort of man being able to express himself in dance, giving as an example a plumber. Even when Kelly has a more elite career it has that ordinary man angle: in An American in Paris he is a painter, but also an ex-GI: in It’s Always Fair Weather his is a promoter, but of boxing bouts.

The settings for Kelly’s major dance performances mirror this. Whilst Astaire is most at home in clubs, theatres and hotels Kelly is found most frequently in the street. There are several street numbers in Cover Girl, New York city is central to On the Town, and It’s Always Fair Weather has two great sequences, involving dustbin lids and then roller-skates in the street.

The later is another of his famous solo dances. Kelly, more than any other male dance star, chose to frequently dance alone, though often uses props like a mop (Thousand Cheers. 1943) or newspapers [Summer Stock). Whilst most of the musical plots are constructed around a romance, in a film like It’s Always Fair Weather there is actually no great romantic number between the male and female lead. This film unusually has a great performance with Cyd Charisse performing alone in front of a male chorus of boxers. Few women were allowed this accolade, Judy Garland in singing numbers, and notably Ann Miller with a dance like ‘Pre-historic man’ in On the Town.

In retrospect it is interesting to examine Kelly through the prism Richard’s Dyer’s Utopian categories.

Energy and Intensity – there is no doubting these qualities in Kelly’s performances. One of the most remarkable would be the Macoco pirate dance from The Pirate. The energy and intensity is there in Kelly’s dancing, in the music, in the mise en scène and in the dynamic camerawork. Romantic numbers, like the final ballet in An American in Paris, show far less energy but greater intensity. Intensity and energy also seems to have been an aspect of Kelly’s professional character. There is perfectionism and an insistent quality about the preparation and construction of the many famous sequences. And his co-stars also felt this: Leslie Caron recalls how Kelly worked with her ‘to get it right’!

Abundance is an essential part of the MGM musical. It is there quite clearly in the production values of the films. A film like Ziegfeld Follies, in which Kelly makes his only appearance partnering Fred Astaire, drips opulence in every scene, even when that scene is downtown, downmarket Chinatown. On the Town offers audiences domestically and overseas the abundance of the victorious post-war USA. Intriguingly, ten years on, It’s Always Fair Weather also offers an abundance but one that has developed a sour taste in the mouth.

Transparency is a much more problematic value in the world of Gene Kelly. His typical character has a Manichean split. In An American in Paris he is torn between his worldly wise ambition, represented by an older rich female patron Milo  (Nina Foch)and romance in the shape of sweet, innocent Lise – (Leslie Caron). These contradictory impulses fuel most of the plots of his film musicals. Kelly has to reform, represented in An American in Paris, in the final impressive ballet sequence. One of the few musicals where he lacks this cynical tendency is Brigadoon. However, in this film the negative character values appear to have been all loaded onto his friend and sidekick Jeff (Van Johnson), who is probably the most negative character in any Hollywood musical.

Gene kelly and Van Johnson – Tommy and Jeff.

Community is an important trait in the Hollywood musical. However, the scripts have to work hard to achieve this in Kelly vehicles. There is his strong tendency to solo performance as against pairings or group dances: so in It’s Always Fair Weather he and Cyd Charisse do not actually dance together at all. The films work to counteract this by providing Kelly with sidekicks, the most famous being Frank Sinatra in Anchors Away, Take Me Out to the Ball Game and On the Town. And indeed in the later two films we actually get a trio of buddies centre screen.

Another plot device frequently used in Kelly films is to have a performance that involves groups of children. This works well because it taps into Kelly’s experience and skills as a dance teacher. It is a major plot line in Anchors Aweigh and recurs in Living in a Big Way (1947) and in An American in Paris where he introduces French kids to Gershwin.

Community is often a major problem in Kelly’s straight film roles. In Inherit the Wind his cyclical journalist Hornbeck is the outsider. He makes cracks both about the sincere but bigoted (Fredrick March) and also about the liberal Clive Darrow (Spencer Tracy). Marjorie Morningstar (1958) handles the problem in an interesting manner: Kelly finally relinquishes both his musical ambitions and the love of Marjorie (Natalie Wood) to return to the Summer Camp theatricals where they first met. But this is clearly an artificial community, which is divorced from life and the real world.

All these contradictions would seem to feed into Kelly’s distinctive character. But over and above this his drive and ambition meant that he experimented and innovated all through his career. The increased presence of balletic dance, the idea that men can dance and remain masculine, the willingness to site dance in any setting and to use any location or prop fed into the musicals that followed. Unfortunately dance became less central as the Hollywood musical slipped from being a mainstream genre to an occasional event film: there is not a lot of dance in Gigi (1958), The Sound of Music (1963) and My Fair Lady (1964). But Hello Dolly has great dancing sequences; the movie fails through miscasting. And when Hollywood does return to the musical from the 1970s onwards the legacy of Kelly is there: Saturday Night Fever (1977) is prepared like Kelly’s films to treat the male dancer as an object of admiration and even erotic pleasure: Fame (1980) finally emerges triumphantly into a large-scale street dancing celebration: and Mamma Mia is able to choreograph a dance around a clothes line.

These notes are taken from a course that accompanied a season of Gene Kelly films at the National Media Museum in Bradford: a student’s take on the course can be found on too.

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The Wizard of Oz

Posted by keith1942 on December 29, 2010

This was the second of two MGM musicals discussed on a recent course. It too seems to be illuminated by Richard Dyer’s  ideas around ‘utopian entertainment’ and the categories of feeling that he identified.

Of course, The Wizard of Oz is utopian in the basic plot, as it is in the original novel by L. Frank Baum. The heroine, Dorothy, seeks happiness ‘where the grass is greener on the far side of the hill.’  But she is finally happy to return home: though the idealisation of home is certainly stronger in the film than in the book. The film’s device of having the same actors play both characters in the Kansas and in Oz gives Dorothy’s final return an added potency.

What is common to both book and film is the idea that the ‘wonderful world of Oz’ turns out to be less magical and less desirable than at first seems. The land is divided between two [or four in the book] witches: two are good, two are evil. The paramount Wizard turns out to be a fraud with far less sorcery at his disposal than the witches. And added twist [not in the film though] is that the Emerald City is a con. All the inhabitants, and visitors like Dorothy and her companions, have to wear special spectacles, supposedly to protect their eyes from the dazzling views. But we learn that the spectacles are actually part of the illusion created of the city.

There has been a critical argument relating L Frank Baum’s book to nineteenth century populism. The film has received a similar analysis, in this case relating it to F. D. Roosevelt and the New Deal. Certainly the film’s production and release co-incided with the USA’s slow emergence out of the Great Depression, as re-armament fired up the economy.

One of the most brilliant devices in this extremely well designed and produced film is the use of sepia for Kansas and Technicolor for Oz. The opening sepia farm and landscape conjure up the world of the Great Depression. The images are reminiscent of the famous photos in Let us Now Praise Famous Men, and the setting redolent of Steinbeck’s memorable depiction in The Grapes of Wrath.

The categories of feeling apparent in the non-representational aspects of the film, like the mise en scène, serve to strengthen and reinforce this effect. Technicolor Oz clearly offers abundance apparently lacking in Kansas. Its apogee is the Emerald City, which on the surface is a surfeit of colour and happiness: and surrounded by a landscape with an abundance of floral beauty.

As with most musicals much of the energy inn the music and dance, notably in the celebratory actions of the Munchkins. But an important source of energy is also the ‘twister’ which acts as a disruption, whirling Dorothy and Toto [her dog] away to the adventures in Oz: adventures which cause Dorothy to realise ‘that home is what matters most’.

Intensity resides firstly in the songs, and as always in the persona of Garland herself. This would seem to be one of the major factors in the long-lasting popularity of ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’.

Transparency resides in certain characters, in the good witch in Oz, but also in the larger farm family that greets Dorothy’s return. Here we also encounter community as a crucial component of the final home. In some ways Dorothy’s comrades on her journey to the Emerald City and in the battle against the wicked witch also embody these feelings. All three characters, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, seem to offer a transparent persona: and it as a newly formed community that they are able to complete their journey and achieve their goals.

But there is also a conflict between the values represented by the different categories of feeling. I think this is quite common in the musical genre. For example, Gene Kelly’s films usually embody a conflict between his desire for abundance and the need for transparency in his relationships. The conflict in The Wizard of Oz seems to be partly about the conflict between abundance and transparency, but equally between abundance and community. Part of the problem of Oz is the lack of transparency. This is clearest round the Wizard character, exposed as a charlatan. The film resists exposing the sham of The Emerald City itself, perhaps that seemed to dystopian. Oz’s communities are equally problematic. The Munchkins are terrorised by the wicked witch until their salvation by Dorothy. And the citizens in The Emerald City are the victims of a sham. Again Dorothy’s arrival leads to a change in their situation.

Both the situations presage the final return to Kansas. Dorothy appears to be working out the contradictions of her world in the troubled dream she experiences. Thus her three companions who participate in the salvation of the inhabitants of Oz surround her bedside when she awakes at home. He joy at her return is cemented by the news that Miss Gulch, the teacher and local misery, has gone away. The ‘wicked witch’ of repression and depression has been banished.

The Wizard of Oz shows that the utopia of the musical has its darker shadow, a dystopia. In this film the dystopia is provided by the memories of depression USA. In overtly romantic musicals, like An American in Paris, the dystopia is the absence of the love figure, e.g. Lise. One of the more intriguing examples is from the dying days of the MGM musical; It’s Always Fair Weather. Here the reunion of the trio of friends from On the Town discovers its dystopian aspect in the soured friendship and alienation of the three companions. The Wizard of Oz occurs at the start of the golden period of the MGM musical, which two decades later appears to have exhausted its utopian visions. Presumably a reflection of changes at MGM, in Hollywood but most of all in the wider culture. 

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Corp.; 1939; Technicolor, 35mm, opening and closing sequences in black and white; running time: 101 minutes. Released 25 August 1939. Re-released 1948.

Produced by Mervyn LeRoy; screenplay by Noel Langley, Flor­ence Ryerson, and Edgar Allen Woolf; from the novel by L. Frank Baum; directed by Victor Fleming; photography by Harold Rosson; edited by Blanche Sewell; sound recording directed by Douglas Shearer; production designer: Edwin B. Willis. art director: Cedric Gibbons. music: Harold Arlen. lyrics: E. Y. Yarburg. special effects: Arnold Gillespie. costume design: Adrian. assistant to Mervyn LeRoy: Arthur Freed. makeup: Jack Dawn.


Awards: Oscars for Best Song (“Over the rainbow”), Best Original Score, and Special Award for Judy Garland.


Cast: Judy Garland (Dorothy); Ray Bolger (Hunk; the Scarecrow); Bert Lahr (Zeke; the cowardly Lion); Jack Haley (Hickory; the Tin Woodsman); Billie Burke (Glinda); Margaret Hamilton (Miss Gulch; the Wicked Witch); Charles Grapewin (Uncle Henry); Clara Blandick (Auntie Em); Pat Walsh (Nikko); Frank Morgan (Professor Marvel; the Wizard); the Singer Midgets (Munchkins).



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An American in Paris

Posted by keith1942 on December 21, 2010


Production: Metro-Goldwyn-­Mayer Picture Corp.; 1950; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 113 minutes. Released 1950.

Produced by Arthur Freed; screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner; directed by Vincente Minnelli; photography by Al Gilks, final ballet by John Alton; edited by Adrienne Fazan; art direction by Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons, set decoration by Keogh Gleason and Edwin B. Willis; music by George and Ira Gersh­win, music direction by Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin; cos­tumes designed by Orry-Kelly, the Beaux-Arts Ball costumed by Walter Plunkett, and the final ballet costumed by Irene Sharaff; choreography by Gene Kelly. 

Filmed 1 August 1950 – fall 1950 at MGM studios, Culver City, California; also on location in Paris. Academy Awards for Best Picture, Story and Screenplay, Cinematography-Color, Art Direction-Color, Costume Design-Color, Best scoring of a musical, 1951. Academy Award Nomination Best Direction (Minnelli), Best Film Editing (Fazan).


Cast: Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan); Leslie Caron (Lise Borvier); Oscar Levant (Adam Cook); Georges Guetary (Henri Baurel); Nina Foch (Milo Roberts). 

Gershwin songs and music include: ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘By Strauss’, ‘Swonderful’, ‘Tra La La’ (new lyrics), ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’, ‘Stairway to Paradise’, ‘Concerto in F (abridged), ‘An American in Paris’ (ballet).


The film develops a story out of a number of Gershwin songs and compositions. And Kelly’s choreography provides him with an opportunity for an extended and impressive ballet sequence. The ballet music provides the title, a tone poem composed by Gershwin at the end of the 1920s. It picks up on the North American fascination with Paris, arguably then the cultural capital of [at least] the Western World. Gershwin visited Paris three times in this period. Other US citizens lived and worked there, including such notables as Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray and Josephine Baker. Jerry offers the artistic fame enjoyed by the French capital as his motivation. Paris also offered a space partly free from the censorship, aesthetic conventions and socials restrictions many of these artists faced across the Atlantic. This is one sort of Utopia that can be read into the film’s plot.

However, there is much more in the film’s use of the sensibilities identified by Dyer.

The energy and intensity is predominantly in the music and dance. Gershwin’s style is nearly always energetic and intense. Apart from the ballet itself the other notable performance is when Adam performs part of the Concerto in F.

Energy is also there in the character of Gene Kelly. Whilst he is often graceful and emotional, most frequently his dances strike a feeling of vitality. However, Kelly also has an ambiguous relationship with abundance. In many of his films his ambitions come into conflict with his personal relations. This is the case in Paris. Milo’s ‘interest’ in his paintings is clearly tempting for Jerry. And this both complicates and inhibits his relation with Lise. She herself is caught between romance and abundance in the person of Henri. His Stairway to Heaven number enjoys an excess of abundance.

Abundance also relates to the American dream. One of the students identified this as a utopian aspect of the film. The clearest example is Adam who dreams of success and a return to the USA. But Henri also envisages success in the USA, where he plans to take Lise. And aspects of US culture are everywhere in the film. It is part of the charm that Gerry exercises over the local French children.

Lise would seem to represent transparency. Even when she decides to marry Henri it is more about loyalty than his wealth or success. In this sense she is fairly typical of the heroines who play opposite Kelly. They provide an alternative to the temptation of abundance and offer him a way to achieve a greater sincerity.

However, the lead characters are all fairly individualistic. So that a sense of community relies on the local French people in the quarter where Jerry and Adam reside. This becomes most pointed when Gerry sings ‘I got…’ with the children. Intriguingly this is a rather traditional portrait of a Paris quarter, which was probably already changing in this period. It does seem to overlap slightly with the traditional quarter found in a Jacques Tati film like Mon Oncle (1956).

To varying degrees these sensibilities are all found in the final ballet. The ballet itself seems rather separate from the film’s plot. Just before it Jerry and Lise have parted, and the end they are reunited. The motivation, Henri’s realisation of their romance, is convenient rather than convincing. However, the ballet itself dramatises not only the romance of Jerry and Lise, who are leads in the succeeding sequences. It also dramatises French art, mainly through the personages of Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. In one sense the ballet can be seen to be working through Jerry’s conflicting emotions and ambitions about art and romance. As the ballet/reverie starts and again as it ends Jerry picks up a solitary rose: this would seem to express his choice.

Several students related the film to Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948, a film that Kelly mentioned to MGM executives). I had not thought much about this, but it is also an intriguing comparison. In both films a couple face separations due to a Svengali-type character. In the earlier film the object is the woman; in the latter it is the man. The former ends tragically, the latter happily. Which raises interesting issues around gender in film?


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Utopian Entertainment

Posted by keith1942 on December 20, 2010

Richard Dyer in an article titled Entertainment and Utopia [in Movie No 24, 1977] offered an intriguing model for reading Hollywood musicals. He suggested,

“Two of the taken-for-granted descriptions of entertainment, as ‘escape’ and as ‘wish-fulfilment’, point to its central thrust, namely, utopianism. Entertainment offers the image of ‘something better’ to escape into, or something we want deeply that our day-to-day lives don’t provide. “

He goes on to argue that,

“ … the utopianism is contained in the feelings it embodies. It presents, head-on, as it were, what utopia would feel like rather than how it would be organised.”

For the film musicals he identified five categories of feeling:

Energy              Abundance                   Intensity                        Transparency                Community

Dyer stressed that these feelings were most likely to be found in the non-representational elements of a film. They could be there in the character, dialogue and plot, but the most effective placement was in the music and in the film style, especially in the mise en scène.

He examined a number of musicals briefly and three in more detail, Gold Diggers of 1933 [Warner Bros.] On the Town [MGM 1949] and Funny Face [Paramount 1956]. In a recent film studies class I discussed these ideas with a group of students in relation to several MGM Musicals. One of the ideas bought up by a student was that in some films the utopia was embodied in what we tend to call ‘the American dream’. Fortuitously, this was the subject of a series of documentaries shown on BBC television in November 2010. The first programme addressed the 1950s and included film of an Industrial Musical. These were expensive shows, with dances and music, presented to the executives and sales staff at the larger motor companies, as morale boosters. The example offered was from the Chevrolet Motor Car Company and a1956 show that dramatised the launch of a new model. What we briefly saw of the show suggested a strong overlap between this ‘American dream’ and Dyer’s utopian categories of feeling.

The show was written and composed in the genre of contemporary Broadway and film musicals. Most of the energy was contained in the music and production numbers.

The abundance was everywhere, but especially in the plot’s young couple, married, home owning and now able to purchase a car. The surfeit of commodities they enjoyed paralleled images to be seen in contemporary Television adverts also screened in the programme.

The intensity reached a peak when the new Chevrolet model appeared, floating on a cloud of balloons, and accompanied by triumphant music and singing.

Transparency was possibly the weakest of Dyer’s categories in this example, but it was clearly intended in the style of presentation and publicising: ‘what you see is what you get.’

Community was plotted in the show, but most notably it occurred among the audience of executives and salespeople, who responded enthusiastically with a standing ovation.

Of course, not all was necessarily as it looked. Being observed by their colleagues/rivals and their bosses might well have motivated the response of the sales people at the end of the show. However, in the overt presentation this seemed a prime example of an ‘American dream’, a veritable utopian prospect for the 1950s.


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