Archive for October, 2021

27
Oct
21

100 Movie Musicals #5: Love Me Tonight (1932)

Hugely influential and endlessly charming movie about a tailor and a princess who fall in love. Catchy, clever songs by Rodgers and Hart, and a stylish presentation by director Rouben Mamoulian. Maurice Chevalier’s whole persona can be a tough pill to swallow, but being on the wrong end of the class stick smoothes out some of the rough edges.

22
Oct
21

100 Movie Musicals #4: The Great Gabbo (1929)

The ur-text of the surprisingly extensive ventriloquist subgenre, this is both a lush backstage musical and also a fairly gritty drama about an abusive performer trying and failing to win back his former victim. Recommended!

20
Oct
21

100 Movie Musicals #3: Rio Rita (1929)

The musical in full flower: all-singing, all-dancing, lots of elaborate gowns, and a full-color ending startling for 1929. Plotwise, it’s some dire nonsense about a love triangle between a cop, a rich girl, and a jerkass. But it’s all here!

The rest of the movie isn’t nearly as gorgeous as this gown, alas
13
Oct
21

100 Movie Musicals #2: So This Is College (1929)

Fairly stock plot about two best friends who fall out because of *gasp!* a girl, interrupted by some reaaaaal lackluster musical numbers, but it’s fizzy enough and lightyears beyond The Jazz Singer in technique and tone. A shocking technological leap forward in just two years; otherwise harmless.

Can’t sing, can’t dance, can’t play the ukulele, but at least the gowns are nice
08
Oct
21

100 Movie Musicals #1: The Jazz Singer (1929)

Racist garbage, and I regret putting it on here. Not even worth watching as a historical curiosity.

Fraught.

No, okay, let’s expand on that a little bit, because for as racist as this film is — and it’s pervasively, casually, offhandedly racist — it’s an important starting place for the cinematic musical as an art form, and the fact that The Jazz Singer is a movie about a blackface performer that has nothing at all to say about race is such a snapshot of the problems with the genre as a whole for decades to come that it’s worth unpacking a little.

See, the thing about The Jazz Singer is that for 90% of its runtime, there’s no indication that you’re watching a blackface performer. Sure, he’s co-opting Black music and performance as a way to rise to fame and fortune, but you don’t actually see his act until the very end of the movie. Coming to this in 2021, you maybe know that Al Jolson was a famous blackface performer, and you might know that the movie retains that, but blacking up doesn’t serve as a plot point in the movie, and isn’t something that any of the characters struggle with or even consider; the tension comes from Jolson’s leaving home to perform secular music, not from his explicitly racist performance — that’s just the dominant secular musical form in the US, so that’s the kind of performance he does.

It’s that very casualness that gives the movie any worth at all beyond its technological breakthroughs; coming in to this, I was prepared for the movie to either (a) dig into what it means to change race artistically or socially, with the act of performing in blackface reflecting in some way on the immigrant experience of assimilating (or not) to whiteness or (b) use the blackface to express some overtly racist stereotypes, the way Birth of a Nation does, for example, but instead it does neither. The blackface is invisible and neutral, not even worth commenting on or depicting, and that sheer carelessness is horrifying.

Horror, as a genre, ages better than a lot of other genre because its pleasures come from transgressing social norms, even if those norms are upheld at the end of the film; our sympathies are with the outsider, the monster, the ostracized victim, all of whom reject society’s constraints in one way or another, and so those films seem more or less revolutionary as the audience agrees or disagrees with society. Musicals, especially at this early period, are big budget, mass market blockbusters, and therefore much more inherently conservative. Characters don’t break from society so much as move from one acceptable role to another, equally acceptable role; narrative conflict notwithstanding, being a famous blackface performer that packs Broadway audiences in isn’t less socially acceptable than being a quiet cantor’s son.

08
Oct
21

100 Movie Musicals

An All Singing, All Dancing Technicolor Extravaganza

We’re going to start the #100MovieMusicals list tonight, maybe, and I’m both excited and filled with dread.

These are going to be a lot more offensive than the horror movies, I think; specifically because they’re not trying to transgress norms in the same way. Intentional transgression helps futureproof things, in some ways. Musicals are a lot of things and have a lot of modes in a way that horror doesn’t, but many of them — particularly the classics — are aiming to be BIG and CROWD-PLEASING in a way that horror doesn’t have to be.

As a case in point, the first movie on our horror list was The Phantom Carriage, which had its problems but was startling modern in a lot of ways, both technically and socially. The first movie on our musical list is The Jazz Singer, which is an entire movie about doing blackface.

We went back and forth on that a lot and I’m still not sure that we made the right choice to include it. Ultimately we did decide to include it, because it’s hard to overstate its influence. It’s *the* ur-musical in a lot of ways, with narrative beats that continue to crop up in musicals a century later. The rationale — or at least my rationale, I can’t speak for Vicky — is that it’s a movie *about* doing blackface, not one that just includes blackface. You’re not supposed to think Al Jolson is black at any point. Is that enough distance? Man, I don’t know. I absolutely wouldn’t argue with someone who thinks The Jazz Singer should be buried and forgotten.

Anyway. Full list after the jump. I’ll link in our reviews as we get them added to the blog.

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