The Velvet Light Trap 52 (2003) 64-66
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Steven Cohan. Hollywood Musicals: The Film Reader. New York: Routledge, 2002. 240 pp., $23.95 paper.
The critical and financial success of Moulin Rouge! (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) and Chicago (Rob Marshall, 2002) has generated discussion of the returning relevance of the musical, together with a renewed attention toward the genre in the classroom. Sure to capitalize on this resurgence of interest is Hollywood Musicals: The Film Reader, another anthology in the In Focus: Routledge Film Readers series. Hollywood Musicals offers a Reader's Digest style of packaging: a collection of important articles on the genre. All articles here have already been published elsewhere, and most have been condensed for length considerations. Scholarship on the history of the genre, including the impact of the development of sound technology and the genre's mode of production within the studio system (Tino Balio, Donald Crafton, Douglas Gomery, et al.), is summarized in a clear and quick introduction. The remainder of Hollywood Musicals is divided into four parts, "Generic Forms," "Gendered Spectacles," "Camp Interventions," and "Racial Displacements." These section labels obviously refer to the thematic clustering of articles therein, but the focus of individual articles often overlaps considerably with other sections.
The articles of part 1, "Generic Forms," draw correlations between the narrative structures and ideological content found within musicals. The first two essays, Richard Dyer's "Entertainment and Utopia" and Jane Feuer's "The Self-Reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment," both aim to reveal the workings of ideology within the seemingly uncomplicated, blatant theme of entertainment in the musical. Dyer charts how various societal inadequacies are addressed or ignored within the musical's depiction of utopia. He then details the contradictions arising from the tension between musical numbers and narrative in three categories of musicals, groups based on degrees of integration or separation of musical numbers and narrative. Feuer examines how self-reflective musicals present a veneer of self-conscious criticism of the genre yet actively strive to perpetuate three myths functioning together as the myth of entertainment: the myth of spontaneity (that performances are spontaneous rather than forced or rehearsed), the myth of integration (that success is predicated on unions of heterosexual couples, of individuals and society, and of differing art forms), and the myth of the audience (that the audience participates in the performance).
Rick Altman's well-known essay "The American Film Musical as Dual-Focus Narrative" finds that musicals often employ a narrative model different from the standard linear narrative of classical Hollywood films. Altman contends that sexual difference allows for a principle of duality to structure the narrative in musicals. In place of a strong cause-and-effect chain, alternating parallel scenes structure the narrative. The male and female stars are assigned thematic oppositions that are played against each other in these parallel scenes. Typically, the resolution of these oppositions occurs through the union of sexual difference—the union of the male and female stars.
In "Busby Berkeley and the Backstage Musical" Martin Rubin argues that the recognized distinction between Warner Bros./Busby Berkeley and RKO/Fred Astaire musicals can be further refined in terms of narrative and spatial discursive believability (or realism). The majority of Busby Berkeley's Warner Bros. films are backstage musicals, the setting for which provides an element of narrative justification for characters [End Page 64] breaking out in song and dance. Interestingly, though, the realism of the space of the backstage musical is often violated by the elaborate staging and set design of the musical numbers. Rubin argues that the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals at RKO worked for greater spatial and narrative homogeneity by reining in artificiality of the grand set design while stylizing the narrative.
Part 2, "Gendered Spectacles," complicates our general understanding of sexual difference as what structures the relationship between spectacle (female) and spectator (male). In "Sexual Economics: Gold Diggers of 1933," Patricia Mellencamp argues that while the Busby Berkeley-directed musical numbers of Gold Diggers of 1933 address a male voyeur or fetishist, the Mervyn LeRoy narrative sections address women. The...