The Dawn of the Hollywood Musical: The 1920's
"Hollywood Singing and Dancing" is a thirteen-part series that takes you on the set of some of the most beloved movie musicals of all time. Memorable interviews with stars and people behind the scenes bring tinseltown to life. Starting in the silent era, the series moves through Hollywood's toe-tapping golden years, the iconoclastic 70s and 80s, and ends at the start of the 21st century.
Jones: The Hollywood musical has undergone many transformations.
It has been adored and ignored.
It would dominate movie screens, then fade away,
but whenever it was given up for dead,
it would arise anew, resurrected,
always changing with the times.
Filmmakers today struggle with the challenge
of making movies sing and dance in a way
that will appeal to the moviegoing public.
It is the same challenge faced by filmmakers 80 years ago.
Start with a great story,
weave in songs with captivating melodies and lyrics,
sprinkle in a few amazing dance numbers,
bring in some creative geniuses
to pull the whole thing together,
and you just might wind up
creating the magic called a movie musical.
Motion pictures have been entertaining audiences
since the late 1800s,
but in the 1920s,
they began to sing and dance their way
into the hearts of moviegoers.
A glorious new genre was born.
Once upon a time, there was a magical place called Hollywood.
It was the domain of ethereal gods and goddesses
who cast their silvery shadows on cinema screens
all over the world.
But they reigned in silence,
holding sway over their audiences
without ever uttering a word.
Well, silent movies, of course, were never silent.
From the first screenings back in 1895 and 1896,
there was always musical accompaniment.
To begin with, it was just a piano.
Then you'd have an organ, and, eventually, by the 1920s,
the really sort of major movie theaters had full orchestras.
[ Orchestra playing dramatic music ]
My mother and father, as musicians,
played for these silent movies.
The studios would send special music
because there was different queues where,
say on the screen, they'd open a door.
My father, with his drum, he'd make the sound.
And Mother would play the melody of whatever the song.
And right then, I was in love with movies.
In the 1920s, you start to get more and more theme songs
written for films.
For example, for "Ramona," you had the title song "Ramona."
Birchard: "Diane" for "7th Heaven,"
"Charmaine" for "What Price Glory"
were songs that became very much identified with the film
and popular standards, as well.
♪ I wonder why you keep me waiting ♪
♪ Charmaine ♪
♪ My Charmaine ♪
And the orchestra played it all the way through
any showings of "What Price Glory,"
which was a World War I picture.
And the song became a hit, and the film became a hit.
Jones: Furthermore, dance was also evident
from the start of cinema.
Dancers demonstrated their abilities
in earliest peep show devices.
These films preserved the dancing fads of a century ago.
You know, they had older stars that did a lot of dancing
that we don't know, you know, today
that were just great, just brilliant.
Jones: Most of these early dancers have faded into obscurity,
but one acquired fame that could be made into a movie
more than a half a century later.
Fleming: Little Egypt was a big star of that era
and, you know, a belly dancer, kind of big, big name
and famous for her famous dance.
♪ Da da di da di, da da da da da da da ♪
On occasion, there would be a film
that would be based entirely on dancing,
like "The Whirl of Life," which starred Vernon and Irene Castle,
who were very famous ballroom dancers.
And it showed off their dance routines to good advantage.
[ Piano playing ]
Jones: The Castles were the superstars of dance of their era,
so it followed that Hollywood's most famous dance team,
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, would portray them in 1939.
Don't forget Rudolph Valentino popularizing the tango,
making it a nationwide sensation.
Jones: Rudolph Valentino danced the tango
in the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,"
released in 1921.
Before turning to acting,
he had been a professional exhibition dancer,
performing the tango in nightclubs.
Valentino captivated movie audiences
with his dancing and poise, not to mention his good looks.
My late grandmother always boasted of the time
when she was a young single girl in Philadelphia
and she won a competition and got to tango
with Rudolph Valentino.
She celebrated that day to the end of her life.
[ Applause ]
Jones: As America entered the Jazz Age,
a trend-following Hollywood
picked up on the fad of the Charleston.
Soon, stars performed it in flapper films,
such as Joan Crawford in "Our Dancing Daughters."
Masuyama: And in it, she had that famous --
the balloon thing in the back,
and she's just going crazy flapper girl.
Silent films being silent,
there wasn't much call for dancing,
although there were tempts through the years
to bring dance to the screen.
They were usually isolated to brief interludes.
So it was possible to convey the power of dance on film,
but it wasn't done very often.
Jones: So movies already had music and dance.
What they lacked was the spoken voice and the singing voice,
and sometimes the latter was sorely missed.
Inventors had been experimenting with sound films
since the early days of cinema, but the first major breakthrough
was in the early 1920s with Lee de Forest
and his Phonofilm sound system.
From 1922 until the mid-'20s
de Forest produced a series of short films
to show off the Phonofilm sound system.
[ Sings indistinctly ]
♪ It's when he holds them in his arms ♪
Jones: De Forest invited a couple of jazz greats,
Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle,
to perform in one of his experimental shorts
shot in his New York studio.
[ Both singing indistinctly ]
Birchard: De Forest got some major stars to work in some of these things,
Broadway stars like Eddie Cantor.
Jones: Born into poverty in New York's Lower East Side,
entertainer Eddie Cantor was bitten by the desire
at an early age to perform on the stage.
Abel: He was starving most of the time
and, I think, got the urge to entertain
when he found that it could mean a couple of nickels
and some food in your belly.
Jones: In 1916, Cantor rocketed to stardom in Broadway shows
for producer Florenz Ziegfeld.
Malik: For a typical Cantor show,
there were lines around the block to get in
and a huge marquee, and he was at the top of the marquee.
In 1924, Lee de Forest made a film
called "A Few Moments" with Eddie Cantor.
There was no scenery. It was very bleak-looking.
It was all about Eddie and the camera.
♪ Georgie Porgie is a guy who is very bashful and so shy ♪
♪ The ladies prize him, they idolize him ♪
Malik: It was very funny, and it was effective,
and you really could hear him.
They didn't really pay any attention to the visuals,
but, you know, at least you could kind of see him
and see what a typical stage act was
when he was on Broadway in the '20s.
♪ Oh, the dumber they come, the better I like 'em ♪
♪ 'Cause the dumb ones know how to make love ♪
As Warner Bros. was experimenting with sound,
they recorded much of Lee de Forest had done --
a number of vaudeville shorts.
♪ All the time in the tropical clime ♪
[ Both singing indistinctly ]
[ Sings indistinctly ]
I did that when I was 4 years old,
and they called it "Baby Rose Marie, the Child Wonder."
[ Scatting ]
Jones: All the movie musicals that were to follow had their origins
in early experimental sound shorts like this.
♪ Oh, Ma ♪
♪ He is making eyes at me ♪
[ Quacks ]
♪ He is awful nice to me ♪
Oh. [ Quacks ]
♪ He is almost breaking my heart ♪
Jones: And so, the glorious era of the movie musical was born.
"Variety" dubbed these films canned vaudeville.
By 1927, there were more than 200 theaters in America
showing musical shorts like these.
But the first musical feature would not star a singing duck.
[ Quacks ]
Let them sing -- sing about the moon.
But as long as I can croon a little tune-a...
Jones: Forget Elvis, forget Sinatra.
Diehard fans insist Al Jolson was the greatest entertainer
of the 20th century.
Al Jolson was one of the people
that I just absolutely worshipped.
Jolie, as his legions of fans called him,
inspired the likes of Bing Crosby,
Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland.
Grey: Jolson made a sound that was irresistible.
And then his presentation of himself
and the way he was so cocky...
♪ I love to sing-a ♪
Grey: ...and so sure of himself.
I always liked the story that Ruby Keeler told me once.
Ruby Keeler was married to Al Jolson.
And years later, after Jolson's death,
an Al Jolson fan asked her, "Do you realize that Al Jolson
was the greatest entertainer in the world,"
to which Ruby Keeler responded, "Yes,
he told me himself every morning at breakfast."
These rumors about Jolson having a great ego,
yes, he had one, but he had the talent to back it up.
He would interrupt the continuity of a stage play
and draw the other cast members out onstage
and yell out to the audience, "Do you want to see them, or do you want to see me?"
And, of course, they'd shout, "We want to see you, Al."
It was very typical of him to stop a show
and then go on and do a concert for two hours,
until the wee hours of the morning.
Whitcomb: Everybody who ever saw him always said
that he was one of the most dynamic performers of all time.
I mean, as Harry Warren has said,
"Only a bullet could stop him."
♪ When the red, red robin starts bob, bob, bobbing along ♪
Man: In '26, at the urging of Sam Warner of the Warner Brothers,
they put Jolson into a short called "Plantation Act."
I just love Al Jolson. I always did.
Many people don't.
Today, he's looked on rather dubiously
because he wore blackface,
but, of course, blackface was very, very common at that time.
Jones: Modern audiences wince on viewing whites
performing in blackface,
but blackface was a tradition in American entertainment,
going back a century before.
It was a theatrical convention
rather than intending to be a racial slur.
didn't much care for it then, either.
Wait a minute, wait a minute. Give me a chance, folks.
Greim: "Plantation Act" was a very successful short
and spurned on Harry Warner to want to take the plunge
to make a feature film with Jolson
to use the not only synchronized music and sound effects
but also to use some dialogue.
♪ G-G-G-Goodbye ♪
They had "The Jazz Singer." I saw it later in life.
It was wonderful -- Al Jolson.
♪ You don't know just how sad it makes me ♪
The response to "The Jazz Singer" was quite incredible.
Audiences really were captivated by the film.
Liebman: It was an absolute smash success.
It just created total chaos in the whole industry
because the major studios had no intention
of going to talking films,
and they did not want this to succeed.
Why did the Warner Brothers turn to Al Jolson?
Because they wanted the most popular entertainer
in the American show business world,
the man whose presence could guarantee
that a song would become a hit.
Greim: Because of his popularity and his immense charisma,
he was able to sell "The Jazz Singer."
Consequently, he was able to sell
the new innovation of talking pictures.
His second film was a film called "The Singing Fool."
It was a year later, in 1928.
And he introduced a song called "Sonny Boy."
Within the film, his young son,
who we call Sonny Boy, is seriously ill and dying.
Whitcomb: DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson,
the song team who'd written "It All Depends On You"
and lots of other songs, were called up by Jolson,
and Jolson said, "I got to have a song, got to have a song.
The boy in the film dies. We got to have a song.
We're gonna have a song about a boy, sonny boy or something."
They said, "Okay, we're gonna write something
that is so corny, that is so smarmy,
that is so repulsive that even Jolson won't touch it."
Whitcomb: And wrote what they thought was the most sappy
and soppy and sentimental bit of mush they could think of.
And he came in to hear what they'd written, and they played...
♪ Climb up on my knees, Sonny Boy ♪
♪ Though you're only 3, Sonny Boy ♪
♪ And the angels grew lonely ♪
♪ Took you because they were lonely ♪
♪ Now I'm lonely, too, Sonny Boy ♪
They thought it was a joke,
and they sat there waiting for him to start laughing,
but, instead, they watched as his little mental calculator
went to work.
And he said, "It's great, great. It's what I want."
"You're gonna sing that thing?
We're going to publish that with our names on it?"
And he's like, "Boys, you're going to make a fortune."
♪ I still have you ♪
♪ Sonny Boy ♪
For some reason, the audiences of that era just took to it,
and it was the first song to sell a million copies.
Kenrick: And made a truly dreadful semi-silent film
into the biggest moneymaker
Hollywood had had up until that time.
[ Applause ]
I would say that was the watershed.
When that succeeded so wildly and was so profitable,
I think every studio realized where the future lie.
As the silent era faded away,
the all-talking, all-singing all-dancing films
became the top box office draw.
Although Hollywood studios struggled
to learn the new technology of sound,
Tinseltown produced dozens of these new musicals
to meet the demand.
[ All talking ]
Kenrick: No one knew what to do, how to do it.
No one had a clue how to make musicals.
So, there were a lot of charlatans
who were able to stand up and say,
"I know what to do here. I can do this."
And, as a result, some truly ghastly films were made.
Jones: Hollywood thought it had a winning formula --
build a movie musical around the talents of a big stage star.
Birchard: Several of the top stars of the day --
Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Ted Lewis, Belle Baker --
were hired to appear in dramatic films
that would also feature their music.
Osborne: Fanny Brice was such a great star on the Broadway stage,
a popular star, and one of the great, great comedians,
and she made her first film, "My Man"...
[ Singing in foreign language ]
Osborne: ...which, the title, of course, her signature song.
Fanny Brice was always funny.
And then she would come out and sing "My Man" seriously
and just break everybody's heart.
Brice: ♪ It's my man ♪
Osborne: She never really caught on in film,
but probably the reason was she wasn't pretty.
And, you know, in film,
people will only accept you so far if you're not pretty.
♪ Some of these days, you'll miss me, honey ♪
Jones: Warner Bros. also tried out the bawdy,
irrepressible Sophie Tucker.
♪ When you leave me ♪
♪ You know it's gonna grieve me ♪
Jones: Known as the Jazz Age "hot mama,"
she became a star of vaudeville, burlesque, nightclubs,
Broadway, and, later, radio.
In 1929, Sophie made her film debut
as a nightclub singer in "Honky Tonk."
The film, now lost, proved another hit for Warners.
Masuyama: She was everyone's favorite hot mama, basically.
She was big. She was lovable.
She made a few films. Didn't photograph well, either.
Whitcomb: They're wonderful when they're in the right environment.
When you set them in a nightclub or a theater
and they're doing their thing, they're fine.
Once you take him out of that and try and get them
to interact with actors, then it doesn't work.
Because they're not actors, they're personalities.
Masuyama: And that is what Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice,
all them gave onstage,
which did not translate on the screen.
Whitcomb: So, sadly, they would make one film,
basically a record of their act, and then return to New York.
Jones: Broadway not only supplied talent for talking pictures
but musical productions, as well.
Kenrick: As sound film came into vogue in the late 1920s,
they had just finished filming a silent version of "Show Boat"
and, suddenly, had to impose some sound in there
in order to keep the film commercial.
The results are not very entertaining today,
but it's still part of what was the beginning of musical film.
There were a number of attempts to bring Broadway theater
to the screen.
Osborne: Operettas became very popular because they had been done on the stage,
and they already had a story, they had a score,
so a studio could just buy the rights and do it.
It was all done for them.
Whitcomb: They would just take a successful show like "Rio Rita"
and film it.
And it's really a quite delightful Technicolor musical
starring Bebe Daniels and John Boles.
Slide: "Rio Rita" is one example of a Broadway musical
transferred to the screen.
There are other examples.
"The Desert Song" made by Warner Bros.
stars John Boles as The Red Shadow,
just as John Boles had been the male lead in RKO's "Rio Rita."
Jones: Silent star John Boles made an easy transition to sound
thanks to his magnificent voice,
much in demand in early musicals.
♪ Dawn is breaking ♪
♪ And a new day is born ♪
Slide: "The Desert Song" is sort of interesting
because they took all the musical numbers
from the stage production and put them into the film.
Masuyama: It's long. It's two hours long.
It's a long feature.
And it's like pulling teeth to watch.
Osborne: They just kind of took all these stage musicals,
and they'd film them as if they were stage plays.
That was the downside.
They weren't creative, again, with the camera
and how they were doing them.
When you see a movie musical that's onscreen
that is literally the stage version exactly,
that rarely works
because it lacks a cinematic sensibility.
Jones: In addition to operettas, Hollywood ransacked Broadway
for popular musical comedy shows.
Some productions were hauled off to Hollywood
with the original stage stars attached.
I think one example, of course, is Marilyn Miller,
who had two major successes on Broadway
with Jerome Kern's shows,
"Sally" in 1920 and "Sunny" in 1925.
They brought her to Hollywood, and they starred her
in movie versions of these shows.
She was a great dancer.
She had great legs, you know, to dance,
but she couldn't play a screen characterization.
Therefore, she made very few films,
her last one actually being in support of W.C. Fields,
which I don't think she ever envisioned
when she came out to California.
[ All talking ]
Jones: But other Broadway productions turned into movies
with their original stars made a more lasting impression.
♪ I wanted to play a dramatic part ♪
♪ The kind that touches a woman's heart ♪
♪ To make a cry, for me to die ♪
♪ Did you ever get hit with a coconut pie? ♪
There's my argument -- restrict immigration.
The Marx Brothers really didn't get an actual show
until 1925 with "The Cocoanuts,"
written by George S. Kaufman and songs by Irving Berlin.
Their third Broadway show was "Animal crackers,"
which opened in 1928 on Broadway.
Jones: Paramount bought the rights to "The Cocoanuts"
and "Animal Crackers" and filmed them at its New York studio.
[ Piano plays ]
Stoliar: Music was always apart of their shows
and always apart of their films.
[ Harp plays ]
Jones: Harpo and Chico especially liked to show off
their musical talents in the movies,
even at the risk of the comedy grinding to a halt.
Stoliar: Groucho would become famous
for songs like "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It"
in "Horse Feathers,"
"Wait Till I Get Through With It" in "Duck Soup,"
and "Hooray for Captain Spaulding" in "Animal Crackers,"
which became his theme song.
♪ Hooray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer ♪
♪ Did someone call me schnorrer? ♪
♪ Hooray, hooray, hooray ♪
Jones: Other Broadway productions were raided by Hollywood.
Based on the 1928 Broadway hit,
"Paris" kept star Irene Bordoni from the stage version
but dropped all of the Cole Porter songs.
First National took the hit Broadway show
"No, No, Nanette," dumped the popular musical numbers,
and replaced them with new songs written for the film version.
In hindsight, you wonder, "Why the hell did they do this?
These numbers were so good."
Stoliar: The film versions would jettison songs written for the stage show
and add new songs,
in part because they thought it would work better,
in part because they could get the revenue from the new songs
and not give it to the producers of the stage show.
Take, for example, the 1930 musical from Paramount.
"Follow Thru," which had been a big hit on Broadway.
But strangely enough, when they transferred it to film,
they really only kept a couple of the musical numbers.
Happily, they kept "Button Up Your Overcoat"
sung by Jack Haley and Zelma O'Neal.
♪ Button up your overcoat ♪
Slide: But, all too often, they seemed to decide,
"Oh, well, what worked on Broadway
doesn't necessarily work in Hollywood."
Jones: Movies from Broadway sources were popular,
but so are movies about Broadway,
and nothing was more Broadway than the Universal Pictures
imaginatively titled "Broadway,"
naturally based on the Broadway hit.
♪ Hey, hey, what do you say? ♪
♪ Let's make whoopee ♪
Birchard: There was also, you know,
not just bringing Broadway shows to the movies
but also creating original musicals
based on original scripts, original ideas
rather than translations from Broadway.
Jones: One of these early films with "Syncopation."
It told the soon-to-be-familiar tale of a performing couple
whose relationship is torn apart by the strains of their careers.
Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians
provided the musical background and served as musical backdrop.
It was shot in the immobile single-camera setups
typical of early musicals,
as if the camera was sitting in the audience.
With sound editing in its infancy,
studios often film musical sequences in long, static shots.
Pianist, songwriter, and singer Morton Downey
was nicknamed the Irish Nightingale.
Belting out peppy songs in his tenor voice,
Downey helped make even the clunky "Syncopation"
a hit with audiences.
♪ Jericho ♪
♪ Jericho ♪
♪ Was a jazzy old town ♪
"Syncopation" was the first commercial test
of RCA's Photophone sound system,
the driving reason behind RCA's backing of a new studio in town.
Birchard: The radio Corporation of America, RCA,
created a company called Radio Pictures
and a distributing company called RKO.
Their original idea was to combine their radio stars
with talking pictures,
and to that end, they brought Rudy Vallee to the screen.
I began as a saxophonist playing in bands
and then a leader of a dance band
at the Heigh-Ho Club in New York in 1928.
And it was radio that made me famous.
Everybody in the country
at like 6:00 or 7:00 way back in the '30s
or what have you turned their radio on to...
♪ My time is your time ♪
Or the Rudy Vallee hour, whatever it was called.
And everybody in the country listened to Rudy Vallee,
so he must have been something.
And then when I met him, hewas something.
I loved Rudy Vallee.
Vallee: ♪ Who cares if hard luck may be ahead? ♪
♪ An empty cupboard, a crust of bread ♪
Whitcomb: I very much admire Rudy Vallee,
and I enjoy his singing, and he's very important
because he really helped launch crooning.
I showed that Americans wanted a simple,
natural singing voice untrained,
in contrast to the trained voices
that preceded me in radio.
And I paved the way for Crosby and Sinatra and all the rest,
Ozzie Nelson, all the others who became what we call crooners.
Masuyama: Crooning is a very sexy form of singing
because it's like someone singing
right in front of your ear.
Whitcomb: Radio is very, very important in spreading the crooner voice
because of the microphone, because before that, of course,
like Al Jolson, you're onstage, you had to belt.
That's why he has this great big voice.
You had to hit the back of the theater with your voice.
♪ And that's why he's sings "Mammy" ♪
That's why he looks a bit over-the-top.
Masuyama: The microphone you can draw close
and make the audience feel like
he or she is singing to you personally.
Here he comes now.
Jones: In 1929,
Rudy made his film debut in "The Vagabond Lover."
I like "The Vagabond Lover because you get to see
Rudy Vallee and his Connecticut Yankees playing,
and you could hear him sing.
♪ I love you, believe me ♪
♪ I love you ♪
It's so stage-y to us today, with all we've seen
in movies and everything
that, back then, it was, you know, it was hot stuff.
♪ You changed my whole life ♪
Jones: As much as his singing wowed audiences,
Vallee couldn't overcome his limited acting ability.
It would deny him leading roles in films.
Throw him out, will you? Throw him out.
Come on. Come on.
Nevertheless, "The Vagabond Lover" proved successful,
as legions of loyal fans packed the theaters again and again
to hear him croon even on the primitive sound systems.
One of the problems confronting filmmakers making musicals
was that audiences were perplexed
when people in a movie abruptly burst into song
with musical accompaniment.
Birchard: The Lubitsch films at Paramount, for example,
the characters sang.
They would just periodically break out into song,
and some found that rather bizarre.
People would say, "Wait, they're in a garden.
Where's that music coming from?"
I mean, people didn't just accept that.
Jones: In "The Vagabond Lover," Rudy Vallee
solved the problem by taking his orchestra wherever he went
so they would be nearby to play whenever he started singing.
But there was another solution.
To get a musical, you say, "Well, where do we set it?"
"Well, we'll set it -- ah -- in a theater."
Slide: There seemed to be a time in early talkies
when all the studios thought
that any sort of musical had to have a backstage theme.
And I suppose the most famous example of this
is "The Broadway Melody" from MGM,
which was MGM's first musical and also the first musical
to win an Academy Award for Best Picture.
And it also had what all great musicals really do have
in that it had a good story.
Two sisters both in love with the same man.
Two sisters trying to succeed on Broadway.
And it was a very emotional story -- well told.
Jones: The Broadway Melody star Charles King from stage
and to Hollywood starlets -- Anita Page and Bessie Love --
Bessie opened movies a lot more and longer than I had,
but we both did our part
so that I stood out as well as she did.
♪ I'll say that he's debonair ♪
♪ He's cute he's kind ♪
♪ He's our boyfriend ♪
So we worked out very well together, and I liked her a lot.
Whitcomb: She's really quite delightful.
She has a vibrant, perky personality
and it really works in talkies.
♪ At last I've got a man of my own ♪
[ Laughter ]
Whitcomb: The songs for "Broadway Melody"
were specially written by Nacio Herb Brown
and Arthur Freed.
♪ You were meant ♪
♪ For me ♪
Osborne: "Broadway Melody" was a very important film
because it was an MGM film --
that made it important in itself --
and it really knocked people out at that time.
Birchard: It was a tremendous success.
The picture cost $379,000
and the profit to the studio
was $1.6 million.
"Broadway Melody's" a wonderful film
and it established the backstage story.
Saddler: It started the trend
because people, for the first time, saw how a dancer
and their personal lives,
and I think that's what caught the audience.
It didn't matter to me. I loved it
because there was a lot of dancing in it.
Osborne: For the first, say, five years of movie musicals,
"Broadway Melody" was kind of the landmark.
People all grabbed onto this backstage story
and they all started copying that.
Jones: Hollywood let loose a horde of imitations
on the movie-going public.
Studios built backstage musicals
around their leading ingénues
in hopes they would become singing-dancing stars.
Like comedienne Alice White showed off her musical talents
in her full talky debut,
First Nationals' "Broadway Babies"
in the "Broadway Melody" style.
Columbia's "Broadway Scandals" featured more heartache
on the Great White Way.
MGM's "Chasing Rainbows"
reunited "Broadway Melody" stars Charles King and Bessie Love
for additional backstage romance.
The all-technicolor "Gold Diggers of Broadway"
became the first of Warner Bros.'
famous gold-digger musicals.
[ Singing indistinctly ]
"The Great Gabbo" was perhaps the most unusual
backstage musical drama
telling a dark tale of the rise and fall
of an egotistical ventriloquist.
[ Laughing maniacally ]
I think it's a really good film.
It's got a strong plot.
Erich von Stroheim plays the ventriloquist
and does extremely well.
[ Singing indistinctly ]
It also has a plethora of songs in the film
and they're really good songs
written by King Zany and Don McNamee,
and I say those names precisely and loudly
because like Harry Warren, they should be better known.
There's a terrific scene on a stage in the show itself,
and there's a song called "Every Now and Then."
It's sung by Don Douglas and Babe Kane.
♪ Every now and then ♪
♪ When you go away ♪
♪ I'm want you back again ♪
♪ Every now and then ♪
♪ Yes, I'm lonesome, too ♪
♪ Just because of you ♪
♪ Every now and then ♪
And then the tap dancers come in and the girls come in
and do a wonderfully leggy dance.
And there's some really interesting art deco backdrops
that they've got in the film.
And I just think it's a very, very good film.
[ Applause ]
Jones: First National's "Show Girl in Hollywood"
starred Alice White as Dixie Dugan.
Whitcomb: This is a very interesting film directed by Mervyn LeRoy
because you get to see the Vitaphone process at work.
[ Singing indistinctly ]
You'll see the three encased cameras
in their prisons grinding away,
and then you see the man watching that Vitaphone disc
'cause it's being cut.
In Hollywood, they didn't move the camera
because they were being ruled by these sound men
who were very snooty and they said, "You can't do this!
You can't do that!" And for many years,
the microphone men ruled
and they wouldn't allow the camera to move.
It was a mistake of the powers-that-be
to think that they couldn't move the cameras
because you only have to watch "Applause,"
which is almost the same year.
Rouben Mamoulian, he breaks all the rules
and the camera moves around.
Jones: Director Rouben Mamoulian liberated the camera
and gave the musical more dramatic depth.
[ Cheers and applause ]
"Applause," the tragic tale
of a burlesque queen in rapid decline
was made by Paramount.
Also among Paramount's output
was the dance of life.
Man: [ Singing indistinctly ]
Jones: Like many other big musical films of the period,
it featured scenes shot in early technicolor process.
Man: ♪ This could never be ♪
Whitcomb: Another backstage story,
but it's about burlesque and it's really a companion piece
In some ways it's better than "Applause."
It's grittier than "Applause."
Jones: Based on the play "Burlesque," "The Dance of Life"
starred Hal Skelly as a self-destructive comic.
♪ Look at these arms ♪
♪ Look at these lips ♪
♪ Longing for company ♪
The female lead of "The Dance of Life"
was Nancy Carroll,
one of Paramount's brightest stars
of the backstage musical.
Masuyama: Nancy Carroll was a product of talking pictures, basically.
She was a singer-dancer-actress
who made a lot of these nondescript musicals
in the early talkies days.
[ Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home" plays ]
She was a very popular girl at one time.
However, her popularity waned
just as soon as she became a star.
The phrase "15 minutes of fame" --
well, she had her 15 minutes.
As the craze for all-talking, all-singing,
all-dancing pictures took over,
it seemed like each studio had its own big spectacular review.
Reviews became very popular. A review being a movie
that had no plot line,
just musical numbers and sketches,
and many studios did reviews.
Saddler: Paramount did "Paramount on Parade,"
which showcased all of its stars.
Fox did the "Fox Movietone Follies,"
MGM did the "Hollywood Review of 1929,"
which showcased its stars.
[ Singing indistinctly ]
Saddler: Universal did the "King of Jazz"
with the great bandleader Paul Whiteman.
Masuyama: The production value was just wonderful
with all the sets moving up and down.
Oh, my gosh, the set was so phenomenal --
They spent so much money on it --
and it was also shot in Technicolor.
You know, another expense.
Wow. Carl Laemmle, what were you thinking?
Slide: These are the musicals that are nothing more, really,
than sort of filmed examples of the sort of reviews
that were popular on the Broadway stage
in the teens and '20s.
Jones: These films imitated the popular stage reviews
produced by showman Florenz Ziegfeld.
Ziegfeld himself joined the movie musical gold rush
with "Glorifying the American Girl."
Ziegfeld hedged his bets by making his film
both backstage drama and front-stage review.
Osborne: "Glorifying the American Girl"
was another one of the big, lavish musicals --
But also what was great about movies like that
was that was literally like a Broadway show.
Masuyama: "Glorifying the American Girl," unfortunately,
was not a big moneymaker.
It's in the same formula,
but it did not have the movie stars.
It was all stage stars.
It was quite static.
For example, the curtain would open...
[ Indistinct singing ]
...and everyone was still -- just still.
[ Singing continues ]
It's a tableau of men
fetching girls from the ocean --
a still life.
Jones: "Glorifying the American Girl"
did boast a performance by Helen Morgan.
Morgan appeared in the film with her trademark singing
while sitting on a piano.
♪ And when he tells me ♪
♪ He can't live without me ♪
Whitcomb: I find these early talky musicals
much more exciting than later ones
because they hadn't discovered playback,
and so it's all live.
So what you're seeing in early musical talkies --
what they would've seen on Broadway.
You're seeing a real, live show.
Nobody is lip syncing.
♪ I hear the street car ♪
♪ Long for the sweetheart ♪
You have Ethel Waters, of course, who I think
is one of the greatest entertainers of all time.
When you watch her performing live in "On with the Show!"
singing "Am I blue?" and "Birmingham Bertha,"
she's just quite incredible.
♪ Am I blue ♪
She's so good there, and then you watch her
a few years later in "Cabin in the Sky,"
when she's singing to a playback,
and there's something missing.
She doesn't come across. She really needs to perform live
in front of the camera.
♪ He got a smile that make the lilac wanna grow ♪
I thank God that Warner Bros. did this
with "On with the Show"
because we really captured this great woman
at the height of her career.
I suppose also, this was a good way for the studios
to decide who was good in sound films and who wasn't.
Because you're not really losing too much money
if you have, say, Joan Crawford
in the "Hollywood Review of 1929"
and you just give her five minutes,
and if she proves she's good in talkies, fine.
It's been a good investment. But if she proved
that she was no good,
you've not wasted a lot of money.
Most of the studios, once it was apparent
that sound was coming in, they tested all their players.
It was really sort of scary for these people.
It was like that their careers were on the line.
There was some sound engineer they'd never heard of,
they'd never met before -- was making the decision.
Did they live or did they die?
We just went and did it, and we passed.
I suppose so. if we hadn't passed,
then they would've probably had to say,
you know, "Forget it for a while."
As far as good singing voices, there weren't really too many.
It really thinned the ranks
of a lot of stars from the silents.
Liebman: Actually, Gloria Swanson
was probably the silent actress
with the most beautiful, natural singing voice.
Masuyama: She made a film called indiscreet
in which she sang a few songs.
♪ What good's this, that or the other ♪
What's interesting in this particular picture
is that she breaks the fourth wall
and she sings to you through the camera.
♪ What good's this, that or the other ♪
♪ If you haven't got love ♪
Slide: She could've gone on for a longer career in sound
but she really didn't.
She sort of was relatively forgotten
when she made "Sunset Boulevard,"
playing Norma Desmond,
and suddenly became a star all over again.
♪ Each life is a card game ♪
♪ Each girl is a gambler ♪
Slide: Bebe Daniels had been a star at Paramount since the late teens.
But strangely enough, with the coming of sound,
they let her go.
They decided her voice wasn't good enough,
which is absolute nonsense.
So luckily, she was picked up by RKO,
and she really began a whole new career.
♪ Dixiana ♪
♪ Dixiana ♪
Jones: Hollywood also imported singing stars.
The German-American co-production "The Blue Angel"
told about a respected teacher
who falls for a seductive singer called Lola Lola.
[ Bell sounding ]
For the female lead,
American director Josef von Sternberg
found Marlene Dietrich singing in a Berlin cabaret
and gave her a screen test.
♪ You're the cream of my coffee ♪
♪ You're the sole to my shoe ♪
♪ You will always be my necessity ♪
♪ I'm lost without you ♪
Jones: Von Sternberg molded her into his vision
of the eternal femme fatal.
It's a very very dark film
but made a huge star out of Dietrich.
[ Singing in German ]
Jones: Von Sternberg took his discovery to Hollywood,
where Dietrich was signed by Paramount
to be a singing rival to MGM's
non-singing Euro diva, Greta Garbo.
Masuyama: She was sultry,
she was sexy, she was all that,
and the camera justadored her.
And she made love to the camera, as well.
And, you know, that's a quintessential movie star.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
Jones: Another European import didn't have to worry
about his accent.
It, too, is part of his screen character.
Born to a working class family,
Maurice Chevalier established himself as a singing star
in his native France
and appeared in his first movie there in 1908.
He became top-billed star of music reviews
in Paris and London in the 1920s.
Arriving in Hollywood in 1929,
Chevalier starred in Paramount's "Innocents of Paris,"
singing, among other songs, "Louise."
♪ Every little the breeze seems to whisper "Louise" ♪
♪ Birds in the trees seem to twitter "Louise" ♪
Kenrick: Maurice Chevalier showed Hollywood
that musical film could thrive
on the personality of its performers.
He had more personality than the law ever should've allowed.
Despite the limited technology
of the late '20s and early '30s,
the screen comes to life
as a result of his presence.
He was charming, he was talented,
he was French...
He was adorable.
Kenrick: From those earliest films like "Love Parade"
right up to the later musicals like "Gigi" and "Can-Can,"
audiences just light up when he walks out on screen.
Chevalier was very interesting
very much of a narcissist.
Very much of a...
"I am Mr. France."
He knew who he was.
Geez, he never forgot it.
♪ It was just one of those nights ♪
You didn't really mind because after all,
hewas Chevalier, and he knew it, too.
♪ I love you ♪
Jones: Chevalier's roguish, Gallic charm and permanent leer,
his aggressive sexuality and devil-may-care philosophy
made him entirely different
from all the clean-cut American types
that otherwise dominated male leads in Hollywood.
-[ Laughs ] -Audiences loved it.
I used to get out on the schoolyard
and do imitations of Maurice Chevalier singing --
[ Singing in French ]
♪ Please, can it be true ♪
♪ Someone like you ♪
♪ Could love me, Louise ♪
[ Exhales sharply ]
Kenrick: In the 1920s, Paramount was the leading film studio.
They had the best production value, the most success.
Slide: Paramount was very lucky, in a way,
that they had Ernst Lubitsch under contract
because he brought a sophistication
to these early talkies
that was lacking in other studios.
Kenrick: Paramount turns out "The Love Parade"
with Maurice Chevalier,
Jeanette MacDonald, directed by Ernst Lubitsch
and showed what a musical film could really do.
♪ Eyes of... ♪ ♪ Lisette ♪
♪ Smile of... ♪ ♪ Mignonette ♪
♪ The sweetness of... ♪ ♪ Suzette ♪
Slide: They had as Chevalier's leading lady Jeanette MacDonald.
I really think she's a total delight in these films.
Jones: Jeanette MacDonald started as a chorus girl on Broadway
and rose to stage stardom before going to Hollywood.
It's interesting about Jeanette MacDonald --
after all of these years -- she's been gone a long time --
there's still a very active Jeanette MacDonald fan club
all over the world.
Jones: Ernst Lubitsch molded her into a singing sexpot,
bursting into song with a golden voice
while wearing revealing lingerie.
♪ There's a glistening ring around the moon ♪
Lyles: She had a very compelling combination.
One of the greatest voices ever in films --
one of the most beautiful ladies ever in films.
She was a gorgeous lady
and the camera fell in love with Jeanette MacDonald.
Masuyama: People think the team of Jeanette MacDonald
and Nelson Eddy is the only thing that she ever did.
But, no, her first actual screen partner was Maurice Chevalier.
When I did "Gigi," I discovered he'd had a singing star career
with Jeanette MacDonald
and was very, very well-known in America.
Slide: Sort of fireworks between the two.
They're actually sort of sparking together.
Jones: Far removed from the music-laden palaces
of the Paramount operetta was "Hallelujah,"
set in the rural Deep South, depicting the lives
of impoverished black sharecroppers.
Slide: The film is directed by King Vidor,
a very naturalistic style.
I suppose in a way not only is it the first black musical,
but it's the first musical to take its story,
to take the camera outside into the cotton fields.
Jones: When MGM balked at the expense
of shooting such a commercially questionable picture,
Vidor offered to put up his entire salary
for its completion.
"Hallelujah" proved a critical and financial success.
Masuyama: They were supposed to make a star out of Nina Mae McKinney.
Unfortunately, she was black.
And back in those days, you couldn't become a huge star
if you're black, unfortunately.
Slide: Up to this time and actually later,
Hollywood didn't pay much attention
to African-American themes or African-American audiences.
There was only a limited market because the Southern theaters
generally would not play films featuring black entertainers.
[ Shoes tapping rhythmically ]
Jones: African-Americans were traditionally
given short shrift in Hollywood.
But the arrival of talkies enabled black musical performers
to get a foot in the door into mainstream cinema.
The premier tap dancer of his day,
Bill Robinson was making $6,500 a week on Broadway
when Hollywood beckoned.
He had a personality like nobody else.
And he was a showman. He knew how to sell his dance.
Jones: Nicknamed "Bojangles," Robinson is credited
with inventing the "tap-dancing on the staircase" routine,
which he performed in "Dixiana."
People loved to watch him. He was sensational.
Jones: Although the movie musical took many forms,
the far most common format was musical comedy.
In these, songs and dance numbers
competed with comic routines for screen time
amid whatever flimsy excuse of a plot
the screenwriters could contrive.
Fewer dramatic musicals with heavy themes,
such as "Hallelujah" and "Applause," were made,
as comedies laced with musical numbers
proved more popular.
Like the Marx Brothers,
the comedy team of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey
made comedies with a few songs tossed in.
And in these, they often spoofed the musical.
Their frequent leading lady was Dorothy Lee.
Dorothy Lee was one of the baby-voice singers
popular in the 1920s.
♪ Don't be afraid, dear, for it'll be ♪
♪ Little me ♪
♪ Here we go, nice and slow ♪
♪ Now get busy, heel and toe ♪
Jones: Other Kewpie doll singers included Marjorie "Babe" Kane.
♪ First you glide, then you slide ♪
♪ Run a bit side by side ♪
Jones: But the most famous was singing sensation Helen Kane.
♪ But we still have history and reading ♪
Helen Kane had a real short career.
But she was extremely popular as the "poop-poop-pa-doop" girl.
♪ Is the poop-poop-poop-ba-doop ♪
Jones: Making her movie debut in 1929,
Helen Kane was soon stealing the movies out from under the leads,
such as in the campus musical "Sweetie"
and the backstage musical "Pointed Heels."
Kane graduated into starring roles
with "Dangerous Nan McGrew."
♪ Hotcha, chacha, vo-doe-de-oh ♪
♪ And poop-oop-poop-oop-a-doop ♪
Jones: Helen Kane also served as inspiration
for a cartoon character.
Lyles: Paramount had cartoons made by a man named Fleischer
called Betty Boop,
and it was all songs and dance.
The king in the palace and the princess, too
The turtle in the water and the lion in the zoo
♪ How do you poop-poop-ba-doop-poo ♪
Jones: Singing stars real and animated
relied on songwriters and composers
to make the melodies that would be hits with audiences.
Marie: Gershwin was my favorite.
But Harold Arlen and Ralph Rainger
and Leo Robin, those were my favorites.
Osborne: All those wonderful guys like the Cole Porters
and Irving Berlins, Jerome Kerns, Rodgers and Hart,
they all made trips out to California.
They couldn't resist the call of Hollywood.
Jones: But many songwriters arrived in Hollywood
only to find the movie-musical boom had gone bust.
[ Explosion ]
In 1929, there were something like 75 musicals released.
In 1930, the audiences had had enough,
in large part because these early musicals
were often very stage-bound,
and they just didn't have much cinematic appeal.
Whitcomb: And the public had got tired of it
because so many bad ones had been made.
Slide: I suppose in a way that audiences
simply got bored with these musicals
'cause they were very much the same.
They were all singing, all dancing,
all talking, all terrible.
Yes, sir, it rains every year that we play here.
Jones: As musicals fell out of favor,
so did movie-musical performers.
One of the victims was Al Jolson.
Whitcomb: His later films were total flops, you know.
That's not much mentioned.
I mean, really only "The Jazz Singer"
and "Singing Fool" were successes.
From then on, they made less and less and less money.
Jones: Once the vibrant newcomers of talking films,
musicals were suddenly passé.
Studios halted those in production
and cut musical numbers from completed films.
In 1931, Warner Bros. was busy
cutting musical numbers out of film
because audiences just didn't want to see them anymore.
Whitcomb: Irving Berlin was one of the songwriters, of course,
who was asked to write for Hollywood.
"Reaching for the Moon" was the first full score
that he wrote for a film, and he was horrified
when it was thrown out almost completely
except for one song which remains in the film.
It's called "There's No Lowdown Lower Than That."
It's set aboard an ocean liner, and there's this scene
which starts off in the ocean liner bar
where a young Bing Crosby sings to Bebe Daniels.
♪ Lenox Avenue is known ♪
♪ For doing the lowdown ♪
♪ But you'll find they're not alone ♪
♪ In doing a lowdown ♪
It's a very good sociological point Berlin's making
because he's saying that society doesn't really mind --
we don't mind when blacks or poorer people
fling themselves around and do sexual dances.
But, oh, my goodness, it's shocking
when high society does it.
Then it's seen as very dirty.
There's a terrific scene where a girl gets up
and she's swaying away to the song,
and her mother comes up and pulls her off the stage.
Anyway, it's a great song, but he was so chagrined
by the fact that they'd cut out his entire score.
For a long time, he wouldn't work Hollywood at all.
Jones: Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn was willing
to take a chance that musicals, if well-made,
could still bring in audiences.
He bought Ziegfeld's hit "Whoopee"
and made it into a movie,
with Eddie Cantor reprising his Broadway role.
On the surface, it was merely another film version
of a stage production.
But Eddie Cantor had what had proved elusive
to so many performers in early musicals --
the combination of talent and screen presence
that made him into a Hollywood star.
♪ I'm making whoopee ♪
Masuyama: In "Whoopee," Goldwyn production of 1930,
Busby Berkeley was brought in from Broadway to do the staging.
And this was the first time we'd seen Busby Berkeley,
certainly a rather primitive Busby Berkeley
in terms of the quality of the routines.
But I think Busby Berkeley was showing what could be done
with the Hollywood musical.
Masuyama: Not until 1932, when he signed up with Warner Bros.
to make a film called "42nd Street"
that Busby Berkeley really came into view
and he actually single-handedly
revived musical film in the '30s.
♪ It's the song I love, the melody of 42nd Street ♪
Jones: The star vehicles of Eddie Canter
and Maurice Chevalier would help keep movie musicals alive
during the doldrums of the early '30s.
Other talents, such as Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple,
Ginger Rogers, and Fred Astaire
would be ready when the genre revived in 1933.
The Hollywood musical was born in the 1920s.
It would be reborn in the 1930s.
More Episodes (13)
The Dawn of the Hollywood Musical: The 1920'sDecember 23, 2019
Dancing Away the Great Depression: The 1930sDecember 30, 2019
Dancing Away the Great Depression: The 1930s PT2January 06, 2020
Stars, Stripes and Singing: The 1940's PT. 2January 20, 2020
Stars, Stripes and Singing: The 1940'sJanuary 21, 2020
The Golden Era of the Musical: The 1950sJanuary 27, 2020