‘The Movie Musical!’ dances through the heyday of Hollywood ‘tuners’

Jeanine Basinger‘s sweeping history casts an insightful, and affectionate, eye over decades of films that defined their eras.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“The Movie Musical!” by Jeanine Basinger, Knopf, 656 pp.

Movie musicals are a central part of the Hollywood story. Some, like “An American in Paris,” “West Side Story,” and the “Sound of Music,” have become cultural icons. Many others have faded into obscurity. While the golden age of movie musicals is past, the unexpected success of 2016’s “La La Land” is a reminder of their enduring appeal.

Jeanine Basinger, the founder of the film studies department at Wesleyan University, is a careful and thoughtful observer of American cinema. Her latest book, “The Movie Musical!,” is a history of the genre from its birth in the late 1920s through its glory days in the 1950s to its uncertain future. It is insightful and irresistibly readable.

A good musical, Basinger argues, is one that convinces viewers to accept music and dancing as a natural part of a story. For directors, “the key task is to reconcile those two opposites into a happy coexistence” and create a “carefully juggled mixture of musical and nonmusical sequences.” 

Having established her working definition, Basinger proceeds – largely chronologically – to assemble a sprawling taxonomy of the genre. She considers the first true musical to be “The Broadway Melody” from 1929, which became the first of its kind to win an Academy Award for best picture.

Basinger believes that the real American musical emerged in 1933 thanks to five events: the cinematic experiments of directors Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian; the choreographic efforts of the incomparable Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley; and the release of the genre-reviving “42nd Street.”

From this catalyzing year, movie musicals became a central feature of Hollywood production for decades. Basinger provides an encyclopedic overview of virtually everyone and everything that followed. We meet all the legendary stars – Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Julie Andrews, and John Travolta, to name just a few – and get a review of their works.

Basinger also moves beyond legends. She pays equal attention to the women creatives who are often slighted in Hollywood histories, as well as lesser-known – but still influential – actors, directors, and choreographers who thrived in the “studio system” of Hollywood’s golden era.

Musicals flourished in those years because five major studios controlled the entire production process, from filming to distribution. But in 1948, the Supreme Court outlawed this monopoly, which undermined the studio system.

Basinger finds that after the end of the studio system, “the history of the musical film becomes a bit of a jumble.” But she also argues that the genre lives on in an evolved state. She considers Disney’s “Frozen” and live performance documentaries like “The Last Waltz” as examples of the new movie musical. 

Still, she does not write about recent musicals with the love and enthusiasm she has for the old ones. Her assessment of the works of the last 30 years leads this reader to believe that if musicals are not dead, they are seriously ailing.

“The Movie Musical!” is the rare history that is both deeply researched and wittily written. If you enjoy big-screen musicals, this book is for you. But fans beware: You will find yourself making long lists of performers to research, classic musicals to revisit, and unseen gems to discover.

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