How do the Hollywood musicals of the 1930s respond to the economic conditions in America during this period？
From 1930 to 1945, the Great Depression exploded in the United States had brought down the catastrophic industrialization. Most of the civilians dismissed and the stock market hit rock bottom. However, the prosperity of the movie industry forms a great contrary to the other downfall industrialization. This period of films provide temporary relaxing space for those irritated people who were messed up by the depressed reality. In this way, the Great Depression made the dual achievement of the movie industry for the creation and the booking office. So that, this era is called as the golden age of Hollywood.
Based on the economic background, in this essay, I would like to stand for the statement that, based on historical experience, the economic depression tend to stimulate the unusual flourishing of the film industry. Different from the western films, comedy and the criminal films, the musical film, as a special type of film, made a great contribution to the movie industry in the United States. The reasons why the musical movie can achieve such success attract my attention and deserve to explore. How does the musical movie portrait the main characters and build the relax atmosphere? What’s the relationship between the musical movie and the audience? This essay is mainly to study the Hollywood musicals in 1930s respond to the economic depression in the United States; discuss the psychological condition of the audience, investigate and find out the relationship between these musicals and the spectatorship.
The musical movie, undoubtedly, is composed of the song and the dance. These two major elements can be compared as the soul and the spirit of the musicals; they embodied the emotion and the ideology of the musicals and stress the key point the director aims to convey. The song and the dance are not only the main artistic expression for the content, but also main narrative means for the movie. On one hand, the song actually includes all kinds of music. During the musical movie, the narrative and lyric of the film both need the some musical elements to achieve but the dance performance need more music to perform and cooperate. Most of the film director varied the musical processing technique with narration, lyric, symbolization, hint, rendering and other artistic function. But the most important function for the music refers to the highly integration of the lens of the film, the narrative content and the theme with the music. As the dual configuration of the music and the lens, the music can render the character image in the context so as through the artist performance to reflect the emotion, topic and the theme. On the other hand, being an important element to express emotion and in narration, the dance element is crucial for the effect of the musical films. The large section of gorgeous dance scene will appear great contrast and render the musicals for more appealing and expressive force, the visual impact and the artistic aesthetic which also makes the expression of the musical theme more vivid and effective.
Musicals, different from other type of films, usually employ dynamic and splendor form to appeal the visual effect, usually employ beautiful music to satisfy the hearing enjoyment of the audience. The pursuit of aesthetic by the musicals, compare with other types of film, can be said as the most thorough. Musicals firstly attract the audience attention with the extraordinary sense of beauty, to eliminate the social difference cased by economic, cultural and other factors so that the aesthetic information can directly immerse into the audience’s heart. The beauty of the music rhythm, the graceful dancing, the luxuriant scene make the different nationalities, different races, different religious audience more easily have common sense of beauty, enjoyment and relaxation. Thus, the theme can be more easily to be understood and accepted that the neural pleasure produce.
This essay is going to analyze the two musicals for exploring the relationship between the film and the audience. One is the Footlight Parade (1934), the other is the Top Hat (1935).
The Footlight Parade (1934) mainly describes the Chester Kent, a Broadway producer, creates a short musical prologues before the live performance. However, his rivals steal his ideas at the same time, he always needs new unit. He always receives stress with fierce competition. But his capable secretary, Nan, always help him under great pressure who later fallen in love with Kent. This film introduces the main characters chase perfection, spectacular movie scene and struggle against stealing and other evil things. The Top Hat (1935) describes a couple in the mid of 1930s. The dancer Jerry Travers, dances with his friend Horace Hardwick in Horace’s room one night while disturb the below room where Dale Tremont lives. Dale is annoyed and goes upstairs to complain about the noise. Dale happens to meet Jerry and they flirt with each other. But after that night, Dale is upset with Jerry for the married Horace. Later Dale finds out it is a mistake. These two movies both end in comedy which has positive influence for the audience at that time of the Great Depression.
The following part will going to analyze these two films to illustrate the reflection of the economic conditions in the United States during the Depression.
Firstly, the musicals display the Utopia dreamland for the masses with the escapism and the spectacular angle. The movie Footlight Parade, during the movie dance show named By a Waterfall, the director employs both the cheerful and light-hearted music, and songs show at first so as to produce a merry mood for the audience. Moreover, the beautiful lady dancers later present a spectacular stage and those erotic bodies present a visual grand banquet for the audience. The attractive and beautiful people dancing and singing with beautiful love which can make the audience happier and temporary forget the distress in the realized world. As Richard Dyer explains that, entertainment, including the musicals, reflect to needs that what movies show are real, at the same time, the musicals show the true needs of people in the society which is quite different from the realized world. The musicals Footlight Parade, reflects the essence of the people’s need which is also the Utopia. Since the musicals is quite inspiring that the young people unite wholeheartedly for one act, struggling for the success of a program that tells the audience which success cannot be achieved without making effort thus people should come together and fight for the downfall period as the graceful world will come in the end. The luxurious carnal attraction during the movie present the main view of the visual entertainment that people can forget the world which they are reluctant to face and willing to immerge into the musicals. The musical dance By a waterfall which is a typical scene in the movie for that employ light and wonderful music, free and joyful dance. The Shanghai Lil, the last dancing show in the Footlight Parade, shining star Chester Kent and his companion, Bea, wants to fly to America in order to dream for beautiful life. This scene shows an important theme as Escapism. Because they are dissatisfy for the current poverty and dismay so that they are seeking to find out another world. The popular music and leisure time during the musicals provided in the cinema originally reinforce the distraction and inattention which the audience can be distracted from the reality. The distraction, directly or indirectly, according to Theodor opinion, aims to decrease the fears and anxiety for the audience about the dismal issue such as unemployment, loss of income, the Second World War at that time, instead, the distraction can offer the entertainment mood and relaxation for the audience by both the music and dance. The dual desire provides a way for people to escape psychological and spiritual pressure and enjoy the entertainment musicals. At the same time, the audience can image themselves on the screen and have a fantasy whatever he or she likes. The musical movie is a way for people in that period to give vent to emotion and release their dismal and gloomy mind. The musicals have the specific feature which is different from the other types of film for it is so distinctive and inspiring that it became a piece of comfort soul medicine for the Great Depression period. Thus, although the musicals always present event with the Utopia, people are still willing to spend pennies on them.
Secondly, compare to these two films, they both are inspiring and show a spirit of persistence which encourage people at that economic condition to strengthen their minds and keep on moving. With different modes of description, the two musicals present cheerful mood. The Footlight Parade (1934) employs a spectacular method while the Top Hat (1935) employs a narrative method. As the spectacular method especially in the By a waterfall show, beautiful young ladies dance with different form and action. The director employ diverse lens to depict the formation of the dancers such as the dancers form an image which is the America Eagle as it symbolizes the national bird. The light turns over from the underwater to the upper which shows the different pictures of ballet ladies with the water magic prints. The spectacular method is the primary task to satisfy the visual demand for the audience which also illustrates the inequality of the female that most of the audience wants to see. As Rick Altman once explains that, every American musicals describe two sexes with the division at first and together again in matrimony while certainly, the female ranks secondary compare to male. The female characters, usually act as the carnal perspective alongside. The female is treated as the object to be observed while the male is the active one to observe. The spectacular, can be regarded as to satisfy the visual desire in maximum. At the same time, the spectacular replaces the logic and cohesion of the narrative mode which have a more logical plot to describe. But the spectacular provides the awesome view from different angle. The spectacular provide the magnificent scenery, elegant music, romantic plot provide a dreamful space for people at that time. Thus, the spectacular mode can be employed widely among the musicals so as to maximize the effect of the movie.
The Top Hat (1935), employs the narrative mode that taken the one scene as an example. When Dale and Jerry dance together, Jerry cannot control his feelings and sing songs naturally. While through the singing song, Jerry still shows his happiness to Dale for he is in the Heaven when being with Dale through the lyric and words. The plot is obvious and the narrative mode is throughout the whole movie. But the narrative mode doesn’t impact the effect of the musicals the director aims to express with relax and happy mood. The dancing of Dale and Jerry produces romantic scene as well as displays the talented skills of them.
The two different mode of description in the musicals displays different perspectives. But both of them naturally combine with the main plot of the movie in order to maximize the movie effect in the end.
In conclusion, for the musicals of Hollywood, they design a fantastic dreamful world which is far from the reality with great success and nice love as well as the enchanted stage let the audience forget the experiences. It can be said that, the musicals is the most typical movie for the golden age of Hollywood. From the historical perspective, it helps most people at that time see through the sufferings and losses in the United States. Those characters and dancers and singers give warm to the people during the economic downturn.
Richard Dyer, “I seem to find the Happiness I seek”: Hetrosexuality and dance in the Musical’ in Dyer, In the Space of a Song (London: Routledge, 2012)
Rick Altman, ‘The American Film Musical as Dual-Focus Narrative’, in Cohan Hollywood Musicals
Theodor W. Adorno, ‘On Popular Music’ in John Story (ed) Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (London: Prentice Hall, 1998)