Sunday 5 August 2012

Brother Can You Spare a Dime

I thought it was time to put my entry to the Film Classics writing competition. It wasn't my best effort, but it was in an area that I am most passionate about and was awarded in the top ten. If anyone has any opinions on it can they put them at the bottom.

Brother Can You Spare a Dime - Movie Musicals and American Turmoil

Where would we be without music? It creates national pride, brings people together and just makes us feel better. Therefore, it’s not strange that filmmakers have used this medium for decades to shape the entertainment which is the movies.
Even Edison’s – a scientist not an artist – first film was centred around music and its effect on his male friends. But then, poor Edison only had the power to create moving images and the beauty of the sound needed to be inferred rather than experienced. Decades later, brought the change that audiences needed – talking picture. This new type of movie experience meant a fan could hear as well as see their favourite star and the age of the great scriptwriters was born.
If it sounds like I’m glossing over years of cinema history and important technological and social change, you would be right. But, I am just getting to the best bit, because with the coming of the talkies came the even greater genre of the musical.
The allure of the sparkling sequined costumes, faced-paced dancing, gleaming smiles and dreamlike backdrops have fascinated both the movies contemporary audiences and those of today. The actors and actresses have profited from the new medium – Judy is instantly synonymous with the bird-like singing and child-like innocence of Dorothy in ‘Wizard of Oz’ and when the name Fred Astaire is mentioned people immediately think of his light feat and the complicated choreography of ‘Top Hat’ or ‘Funny Face’.
While watching a couple of my favourite musicals I noticed something extraordinary. Some, such as, the above mentioned ‘Funny Face’ or even ‘The Wizard of Oz’ were created simply for entertainment but others, some forgotten or some less commercial, speak to the audience on a deeper level. They do this by commenting on the social situation of the period, offering an escape or simply showing the living standards of the majority of Americans to create a kind of solidarity. In this filmmakers were using not only words and faces, but song and dance to communicate and persuade viewers to see their viewpoint on certain social issues. And this seemed to work. By removing the serious undertones of the problem, filmmakers were able to reach more people than before, mainly when discussing the two most serious events in American history – the Great Depression and World War II.      
Exhibit 1# Busby Berkley. Here was a director that not only had an opinion on the financial and political state of America in the early 1930’s but vivid imagination and the ability to produce stunning yet simple musical scenes. Also, it is interesting to note that his dance numbers showed a need to rebel, such as his a subtle contempt of the institutions that governed the making of his films, namely the Legion of Decency and the MPPDA. His great accomplishment was the depression era film, ‘Gold-digger’s of 1933’ (1933) in which nearly all the dance scenes have some political remark either explicit or implicit.  Indeed, within the first few minutes the viewer is bombarded by the beautiful Ginger Rogers and a line of scantily clad chorus girls singing, “We’re in the Money” a song glamorizing the ways of a ‘gold-digger’ and the poverty she faced after the stock market crash. And, to leave audiences astounded, the final minutes are filled by Joan Blondell singing (although I hear it was dubbed) the moving “Forgotten Man” number amongst a backdrop of poverty riddled streets and homeless men. The song comments on something slightly different from the problems with the depression but the treatment of army veterans who, when they returned from World War I, faced high unemployment and little welfare.
Although, these are blatant stabs at the wellbeing of ordinary people, the light-hearted song “Pettin’ in the Park” sung by Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell could also be interpreted as, in some ways, politically motivated more by the use of its chorography than its lyrics. It is well known that Busby hated the censors and the Hays Code that was meant to reduce indecent and violent behaviour from being shown. In this number, he deliberately goes against the organisation and depicts images of nude women covered only by a transparent shade and uses several unconcealed sexual innuendoes during the clip.   
Busby was no one hit wonder. As a director, film after film was filled with social comments, jabs at authority and jokes at the failing censorship system. I will never forget the strange image of Franklin D. Roosevelt flashed on the screen during the song ‘Shanghai Lil’ performed by James Cagney and Ruby Keeler in ‘Footlight Parade’ (1933). He was a pioneer but not the only director experimenting with the musical form.
Busby's great politcal statement in 'Footlight Parade' (1933)

Fast-forward to the early 40’s and America is again involved in a major world-wide event affecting more than just particular factions of society but all Americans, World War II.
But this time, instead of rebelling against authority like their depression-era comrades, these directors followed the governments lead and used their power to promote nationalism and the importance of the war to their audiences. Even dramatic stars wanted a piece of the musical action heading variety-based films made solely to boost the morale of the anxious nation. Bette Davis and John Garfield, were the leaders of this movement creating and starring in ‘Thank Your Lucky Stars’ (1943) where famous actors and actresses would contribute short clips later transformed into a film with most of the profits were donated to the cause. Most of the scenes were musical with Bette and even the dapper Errol Flynn singing for the enjoyment of audiences. After the success of Warner’s film, other studios soon followed with United Artists releasing its own edition, ‘Stage Door Canteen’ (1943) featuring Katherine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead and MGM’s fluffy ‘Thousand’s Cheer’ also made in 1943.
Thank Your Lucky Stars
Thousands Cheer (1943)
Viewing these films today they seem more propaganda than daring, political musicals. They seem to skim over the harsh realities of the war and attempt to enhance sentiments of nationalism and pride. But the musicals of the Precode and war era’s have more in common than just political undertones, they both appear to capture the emotions and needs of the country at those times. During the 30’s the people were rebelling, they wanted change and a loosening in the social strictures – that’s what Busby communicated. During the 40’s, Americans needed hope, an escape and reassurance that the war was worth the sacrifice and the musicals boosted and reinforced those desires.  Musicals will always be relied upon enliven the hearts of viewers. Their power lies not only with their beauty and joy but the uncanny way of speaking on a deeper, more political level without audiences even knowing it.

Footlight Parade's daring political statement, 'Forgotten Man'

Blink and you will miss it...


  1. In the Depression the people needed to dream and the musical ones were helping to it

    A good study that more of the seventh position was deserving

  2. Wasn't "Remember My Forgotten Man" at the end of "Gold Diggers Of 1933," not "Footlight Parade"?

  3. You're right!! Its seems strange, because I watch Gold Diggers at least once a week. Its taught not to write late at night. Thanks, I am going to change it now.