The movie musical is a relic of ages past, more defunct even than the Western, which has been pronounced dead and packed off to Boot Hill many times over. In stroboscopic music videos on MTV, posturing thugs with purple hair are dancing on the grave of a form of entertainment that used to be one of Hollywood‘s staple products. Only one of the two major strains of the musical, the backstage variety (in which the characters are performers who occasionally take time out to ply their trade) has survived in dribs and drabs, in hybrids such as Flashdance and Dirty Dancing, and in a few flat-footed rock-star biographies. The dramatic musical, in which song and dance are built in to advance the storyline (the subset to which everything from the Astaire-Rogers films to My Fair Lady belongs) has been roundly rejected by modern audiences when stubborn auteurs like Woody Allen (in Everyone Says I Love You) have attempted to revive it. James Brooks was actually forced to snip the songs out of his 1994 musical I’ll Do Anything when preview audiences turned thumbs down. Perhaps we are all simply too blunt and literal-minded now to accept the stylized conventions of music as a vehicle for storytelling.
At regular intervals, however, Americans have rediscovered the vanished popular forms of their own culture when it has been handed back to them, mutated into bizarre new shapes by foreign imitators. It worked for the Western in the 1960s, when the Italians borrowed Clint Eastwood and returned him to us as the Man With No Name, and it could work again. Although it‘s hard to imagine a commercial revival of the full-blown musical, a sense of delight and rediscovery would not be too much to hope for from a monumental new series being launched this week by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, ”Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance,“ a yearlong showcase for musicals from all corners of the globe. Curator Andrea Alsberg spearheaded this massive programming effort, which ropes together 80 tuneful films from 20 nations: black-and-white filmi melodramas from India, giddy nightclub comedies from Egypt, lederhosen operettas from the dark heart of Nazi Germany. We are disarmed, perhaps, by the surface novelties of these films, and for an hour or two we simply forget to be jaded and blase as something slips past our defenses.
In the months ahead, we can be disarmed by productions from two film cultures of enormous historical resonance: the doomed Yiddish cinema of Poland in the ’30s, and the Shanghai-exile Mandarin-language cinema of Hong Kong, from the immediate post-revolution period of the late ‘40s and early ’50s. Most of the people who made films in those crisis zones (or in Nazi Germany in the ‘30s and early ’40s, or Communist Hungary in the mid-‘50s) had no intention of documenting their situation for posterity. If anything, they were offering their audience a haven of escape, a refuge from the forces pressing in on them. But for us, the atmosphere of those environments seems to have soaked into every frame. We absorb the atmosphere as if by osmosis, as all our interest is focused upon a legendary star like the limpid Shanghai ”songstress“ Zhou Xuan, pouring out masochistic heartache in the 1948 Orioles Banished From the Flowers. Or the Yiddish cutup Molly Picon, warbling the klezmer drinking song ”Let’s Tie One On“ in the 1936 comedy Yiddle With His Fiddle. Movie musicals capture our affections so easily that we tend to let our guard down, and when seemingly peripheral issues do intrude, the impact can be devastating. Yiddle contains some unbearably sad footage of life in a Polish shtetl that was shot on location just a few months before the German tanks rolled in.
The series‘ opening-night offering, Edmond Greville’s Princess Tam Tam (1935), does appear to be a conscious attempt to wrestle with social issues, and its floundering awkwardness speaks volumes about the state of racial awareness during that period. This is one of four pictures that the loose-limbed American dancing marvel Josephine Baker made in France, after transplanting herself from Harlem to Paris where she became a major star. But even the French tied themselves into anxious knots trying to come to terms with this frankly sexy African-American performer. Tam Tam expends so much energy figuring out how to safely define Baker for the audience that it never allows her to cut loose. Baker does not play a professional entertainer in this film, as she does in her other major French star vehicle, Zouzou (1934). Here, she is an illiterate street person in Tunisia taken in and laboriously ”civilized“ by a visiting French novelist who drags her home with him to Paris and fobs her off as a Middle-Eastern princess (the story is an uncredited reworking of Pygmalion).
Baker is deployed as an icon of the ”noble savage“ in Tam Tam, depicted with reverence but also with unmistakable condescension. When she finally uncorks her wild dancing gyrations in a Paris nightclub, the implication isn‘t that she’s a gifted artist but that her savage nature just can‘t be suppressed any longer. Within minutes she is shipped back to Africa to run barefoot and raise babies under the palm trees. A similar issue arises in comments published in the Archives calendar from filmmaker Carlos Diegues (Bye Bye Brazil), who selected a Busby Berkeley classic, The Gang’s All Here (1943), as his contribution to the series-within-the-series, ”Director‘s Choice.“ Diegues intended the booking as a showcase for the talents of his home-girl Carmen Miranda, the Portuguese entertainer turned Rio star, who does her infamous ”Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat“ number in this film. Diegues deplores the fact that when Miranda emigrated to Hollywood, she was quickly transformed into ”a hyperbolic and . . . stereotypical image of what Brazil was supposed to be.“ Her foreign-accented sexiness was bowdlerized into camp.
Of course, it could be argued that all musicals are hyperbolic by definition. That seems to be exactly the problem that a lot of modern moviegoers have with them. Even more than most forms of popular entertainment, musicals boil down national characteristics into digestible stereotypes, even for home consumption, from Guys and Dolls to Paint Your Wagon. But because musicals are syntheses of so many different kinds of cultural activity, and affect us in so many different ways at once, they, surprisingly, often convey far more than the people who made them ever consciously intended — even when (or perhaps especially when) the moviemakers wanted nothing more than to become a perfect Czechoslovakian equivalent of Busby Berkeley.