The musical has often been described as one of the most typical Hollywood genres, the epitome of the spectacle that classical Hollywood cinema tried to achieve. However with this project the classical film musical and its spectacular features will be seen in their specific cultural and media context: their roots in the Broadway musical theatre, but also in radio, television, and the record industry.
Since the history of the film musical seems to match that of classical Hollywood cinema – from the rise of the talkies to the struggles and relative decline of the industry as a whole in the forties and fifties –, the musical has been studied, in the United States and in France, as a reflection of Hollywood genres, even though it exhibits unique semantic and syntactic features within the classical genre system (Altman, 1987). Yet the titles, plotlines and spectacular numbers of the first musicals – starting with The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont, 1929) – often point out their constant reference to the cultural traditions of the Broadway musical theatre, to its choreographic and musical forms, as well as its imaginary.
Our starting point will be the hypothesis that musical shows connected to Broadway are akin to what André Gaudreault calls « a cultural series » in the context of early cinema: a spectacular form which is not linked to one specific medium but rather built through several media (Gaudreault, 2008). Although it was born in New York theatres as a stage form, the Broadway musical show was gradually appropriated by other American media (cinema, radio, television). Since the field of American musicals is quite broad, the project will focus on analyzing classical films in context, from the mid-1920s to the beginning of the 1970s.
In this period, the links between Hollywood cinema and the theatre were extremely complex: even before the talkies, Hollywood studios began to buy shows, rights for musical scores and hire competent staff. The movie industry had a dual relationship with this major source and constantly referred to the musical theatre, while trying to assert its own identity. Our project will try to tackle this paradox: on the one hand both cultural industries are closely connected and the movie industry tried to make the best of the artistic and commercial reputation of the musical theatre, relying on Broadway’s very name as a token of quality. On the other hand, this close relationship sometimes became fierce competition, and the film musical often tried to present its own attractions as innovative, compared to the theatre, especially regarding the use of technological devices. Furthermore, radio and television – as means of promoting and broadcasting many shows –also shaped the relationship between Broadway and Hollywood.
Our scientific program aims at renewing the understanding of the film musical by exploring its relationship to the musical theatre and its « cultural series », and examining how Broadway’s productions provided both a model and an anti-model for the film musical to fashion itself through various contemporary media. Our goal will be to shed light on the ideological, technical, cultural and industrial determinations of this relationship.