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The Migration of Musical Film

The Migration of Musical Film: From Ethnic Margins to American Mainstream

Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    The Migration of Musical Film
    Book Description:

    Movie musicals are among the most quintessentially American art forms, often celebrating mobility, self-expression, and the pursuit of one's dreams. But like America itself, the Hollywood musical draws from many distinct ethnic traditions. In this illuminating new study, Desirée J. Garcia examines the lesser-known folk musicals from early African American, Yiddish, and Mexican filmmakers, revealing how these were essential ingredients in the melting pot of the Hollywood musical.The Migration of Musical Filmshows how the folk musical was rooted in the challenges faced by immigrants and migrants who had to adapt to new environments, balancing American individualism with family values and cultural traditions. Uncovering fresh material from film industry archives, Garcia considers how folk musicals were initially marginal productions, designed to appeal to specific minority audiences, and yet introduced themes that were gradually assimilated into the Hollywood mainstream.No other book offers a comparative historical study of the folk musical, from the first sound films in the 1920s to the genre's resurgence in the 1970s and 1980s. Using an illustrative rather than comprehensive approach, Garcia focuses on significant moments in the sub-genre and rarely studied films such asAllá en el Rancho Grandealong with familiar favorites that drew inspiration from earlier folk musicals-everything fromThe Wizard of OztoZoot Suit.If you think of movie musicals simply as escapist mainstream entertainment,The Migration of Musical Filmis sure to leave you singing a different tune.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-6866-9
    Subjects: Film Studies, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction: Thereʹs No Place Like Home
    (pp. 1-17)

    On the surface, there would appear to be little in common betweenThe Wizard of Oz(1939) andCabin in the Sky(1943), two musical productions by MGM. The first film is based on a classic work of American children’s literature that charts a young girl’s journey from Kansas to the fantastical world of Oz.Cabin in the Sky, by contrast, has its origins in a popular Broadway show and features an all-black cast in a parable of sin and salvation.

    In spite of their differences, the films’ final scenes bear a striking resemblance. In both, the lead characters, Dorothy...

  5. 1 The Shtetls, Shund, and Shows of Musicals
    (pp. 18-44)

    In its publicity forThe Jazz Singer(1927), Warner Bros. described the film as “a play for all the young who dream of far fields—and for the old, who remember!” Based on Samuel Raphaelson’s short story, itself largely drawn from the life of entertainer Al Jolson, the film tells of an immigrant son who dreams of being a success on the American stage. The narrative moves through two seemingly opposed worlds. The first is the Jewish immigrant ghetto of the Lower East Side and the Rabinowitz family home, wherein religion and tradition reign supreme. The second is the world...

  6. 2 The Musicals of Black Folk: Race Cinema and the Black-Cast Musicals of 1929
    (pp. 45-71)

    Hearts in Dixie, one of the two black-cast musicals from Hollywood in 1929, begins with an initial address to the audience: “My friends—I trust that in this theatre you are forgetting for a brief hour the cares and troubles of everyday life. If the motion picture which follows helps you to forget and to relax and to enjoy yourselves, it will have served its purpose.” The lengthy prologue does not explicitly reference the novelty of an all-black cast, but instead insists on the film’s universal relevance and appeal. “Our manners and our civilizations change,” it explains, “but our emotions...

  7. 3 “Not a Musical in Any Sense of the Word”: Allá en el Rancho Grande Crosses the Border
    (pp. 72-98)

    As a successful exhibitor of Spanish-language films in Los Angeles, Francisco Fouce reported regularly on the status of Mexican film in the local press. On January 1, 1938, he proudly declared that the Mexican film industry was producing more feature films of “Class A designation than ever before in the cinema history of that country.” But he saw a looming threat to the industry: “The unfortunate thing, is that Hollywood continues to swallow up the Mexican stars just as rapidly as they score successes in their native land.”¹

    Hollywood’s focus on Mexican talent was in large part due to the...

  8. 4 “Our Home Town”: The Hollywood Folk Musical
    (pp. 99-124)

    Over the course of his career at MGM in the 1940s and 1950s, producer Arthur Freed consistently praised the merits of the “period musical.” This type of film, he insisted, “can capture a charm that many people long for today.” Commenting to theNew York Timesin 1959, Freed explained that the period musical “lets us enjoy, for a while, a more easy and more gracious way of life than exists in our now everyday life.” The lives of Americans are driven by speed, he argued. “I think many of us want to go back and see the world as...

  9. 5 “Tahiti, Rome, and Mason City, Iowa”: Musical Migrants in the Postwar Era
    (pp. 125-151)

    After moviegoing audiences reached a peak in 1946, the Hollywood studios experienced serious challenges. The Paramount Decree of 1948, the result of a Supreme Court antitrust case, dismantled the vertical integration of the studios and separated them from their exhibition units. Three years later, Louis B. Mayer, the long-time head of MGM, was fired and replaced by Dore Schary. As described by Lela Simone, the former music coordinator for the Arthur Freed unit at MGM, the change was significant: “Louis B. Mayer was an intimate friend of Arthur Freed’s. Intimate friend. And therefore, the whole operation manner at MGM could...

  10. 6 “Ease on Down the Road”: Folk Musicals of the Ethnic Revival
    (pp. 152-184)

    When Edward R. Murrow assumed the role of chief of the United States Information Agency (USIA) in 1961, he took the opportunity to speak to Hollywood moviemakers about the depiction of the nation in American film. Since the early 1950s, the USIA had worked to bolster public diplomacy through various media outlets, including radio, print, and film. A well-respected journalist, Murrow implored moviemakers to stop making films that gave a negative impression of the United States to foreign powers. Rather, he insisted, the movies should depict a “healthy image” of American life.¹

    At the height of the cold war, Murrow’s...

  11. 7 Home Is Where the Audience Is: The Sing-Along
    (pp. 185-201)

    The musical film has proven to be a durable genre that continues to entertain audiences today. Recent film adaptations of Broadway shows that feature young casts, contemporary music, and fast-paced editing have been successful with younger moviegoers. As Jane Feuer has argued, however, films likeChicago(2002) andHairspray(2007) offer little innovation in assessing the place of song and dance in our lives. By contrast, some filmmakers and exhibitors are using older musicals as inspiration for redefining the role of entertainment. We see this trend in two areas of production and exhibition. The first is the international art house...

  12. Conclusion: Beyond the Rainbow
    (pp. 202-208)

    “A small town girl and a city boy meet on the Sunset Strip.” So reads the tagline for the musicalRock of Ages(2012). The opening scene introduces us to the girl, Sherri Christian (Julianne Hough), sitting on a bus headed west. She casually sings along with the song “Sister Christian” on her headphones. Gradually, the bus driver and other passengers, including men, women, and children, join her: “Where you going / What you looking for….” All express the sentiment of the song, the search for happiness and love. Like Dorothy inThe Wizard of Oz(1939), Sherri eagerly anticipates...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 209-240)
    (pp. 241-250)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 251-260)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 261-262)