A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film

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Oxford University Press, 1995 - Musical films - 493 pages
It was the most chaotic era in the history of American entertainment, possibly its most dynamic, and in some ways its least understood. In a stunningly brief time, as the Jazz Age roared to a close, the art of the silent film became extinct, thrown over in favor of the unknown, virtually untested medium of talking pictures. Leading the way was a brand new American art form: the movie musical. Taking off like a shot from day one, this new genre instantly became the a quintessential form of American entertainment. Here for the first time is the story of this fabulous, forgotten age when the movies learned to sing and dance.
Chronicling the early musical film years from 1926 to 1934, A Song in the Dark offers a fascinating look at these innovative films, the product of much of the major experimentation that went on during the development of sound technology. Illuminating the entire evolution of this new sound medium, Richard Barrios shows how Hollywood, seeking to outdo Broadway and vaudeville, recruited both the famous and the unknown, the newest stars and the has-beens, the geniuses and the hustlers. The results were unlike anything the world had seen or heard: backstage yarns, all-star revues, grandiose operettas, outlandish hybrids--some wonderful, many innovative, a few ghastly. He recalls, for example, such monumental films as the 1927 hit The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, the first feature film to include both talk and song. Corney, hokey, and repellently manipulative, it was by most accounts, even by 1927 standards, a poor film. Yet, showcasing the spectacular and extremely popular Jolson, it created a new dimension of intensity that silent films could not duplicate, playing to over one million people per week across the country only three weeks after its release. He discusses such memorable releases as The Broadway Melody (winner of the Academy Award for best film in 1929), the first true musical film that established movie musicals as potent and viable entertainment. Barrios goes on the offer in-depth discussions of innovative films such as The Desert Song, and On With the Show , the first all-color talkie, as well as the more mature musicals of the 1930s including the Warner Brothers' "backstage" musicals of 1933-34 that started with 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers films. And, of course, he talks about the famed Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire collaborations, such as Flying Down to Rio, which, with their sophisticated style and technique, established them as the premier film musical team.
Throughout, Barrios highlights the careers of the original great musical stars like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Busby Berkeley, and Maurice Chevalier, and presents the films of newcomers such as Jeanette MacDonald, Bing Crosby, and Ruby Keeler. The fickle public rushed to see these stars--talking and singing and dancing across the screen--then suddenly turned away. It took the Depression to bring back musicals, bigger and brassier than ever. The triumphs, disasters, and offscreen intrigue are all here in a fascinating story told with a blend of scholarly research, engaging writing, and cogent criticism. With more than fifty photos, extensive annotations, and a discography, A Song in the Dark memorably recovers this vital and unique film heritage.


Just Imagine
The Cuckoos
Of Viennese Nights and Golden Dawns
Is It a Musical?
The March of Time
Voices in the Wilderness
Notes on Lost Films
Selected Bibliography

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About the author (1995)

Richard Barrios is a film historian, musician, and freelance writer. He live in New York City.

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