restricted access 2 Preludes to the Noir Musical
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Even before the heyday of film noir, “preludes” to noir musicals had been produced almost from the very beginning of filmmaking. Experimental variations on silent pictures and early talkies, for example, fused gangster crime with a lowdown jazz music environment. D. W. Griffith’s The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) featured a backroom bar, a dance hall, and a struggling musician who is mugged by gangsters. Joseph von Sternberg’s atmospheric Underworld from 1927 included mobsters, molls, and a dance hall speakeasy. That same year, the height of the Jazz Age and Prohibition, was significant for Hollywood, musicals, and gangsters in more ways than one. Warner Bros. musical drama The Jazz Singer (starring Al Jolson) ushered in the sound era. In it, Jolson’s character rises to Broadway fame despite his rabbi father’s objections to sacrilegious jazz music and performing on stage.1 Following Warner Bros.’ success with The Jazz Singer, talkies and musicals became the motion picture rage. In 1928, Warner Bros. released the first alldialogue talking feature, The Lights of New York, the first sound-era gangster film, and Jolson’s The Singing Fool. MGM’s backstage musical Broadway Melody won Best Picture in 1928–29. Universal adapted Show Boat, the pioneering 1927 dramatic musical play, as “part-talkie” (partially silent with talking-musical sequences ) in 1929. MGM’s King Vidor directed the Irving Berlin musical about African Americans, Hallelujah! (1929), which was promoted as a “smashing sex drama” that “haunts” and “thrills,” a “never to be forgotten song of a people . . . [a] beautiful, tragic, sad . . . singing picture . . . of the colored race” with its “New Orleans cabarets” and “gambling hells.” Ethnicity was sensationalized as illicit chapter two Preludes to the Noir Musical p r e lu de s to t h e noi r m us ic a l 11 and taboo in gangster films set in speakeasies and live jazz venues like Harlem’s Cotton Club, where Duke Ellington and Jimmy Lunceford played jazz music and barely dressed (light-skinned black) dancers performed risqué dance numbers for (white) customers.2 EARLY PRELUDES: GANG WAR, MOULIN ROUGE, AND SADIE THOMPSON In Bert Glennon’s Gang War (1928), a saxophone player falls for a taxi dancer who is entangled with a possessive bootlegger who is murdered in a gang war. Gang War contained suggestive songs: “Low Down,” “My Suppressed Desire,” “I Love Me,” and “Ya Comin’ Up Tonight—Huh?” Although one critic reviewing it sighed, “More gang fights. When earth’s last gangster picture fades from the screen, it may . . . be a relief to more than one person,”3 Gang War nevertheless demonstrated how early sound-era crime films combined musical numbers with gangster stories. The star-is-born theme also shows up early in preludes to the noir musical. Ewald André Dupont’s 1928 silent British melodrama Moulin Rouge cast UFA’s Olga Tschechowa as the exotic star of the famed nightclub and object of desire of her daughter’s self-destructive aristocratic fiancé. Moulin Rouge’s love triangle and risqué multiethnic jazz musical performances anticipate later dramatic musicals , such as Applause, Dancing Lady, Salón México, and Moulin Rouge remakes. Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey’s experimental 1928 silent short, Life and Death of 9413—A Hollywood Extra, partially shot by cinematographer Gregg Toland (for $97 in Vorkapich’s living room), explored a dark, dehumanizing side of Hollywood that influenced later downbeat films about performers, as we’ll see with George Cukor’s What Price Hollywood? (1932) and William Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937) (and, in turn, Cukor’s subsequent 1954 remake of A Star Is Born, our exemplar of the noir musical form). Another example of precursors that began to incorporate elements of the form are adaptations of W. Somerset Maugham’s 1921 story “Miss Thompson.” Achieving its noir musical iteration in Miss Sadie Thompson, starring Rita Hayworth in 1954, it was first produced in 1928 when Raoul Walsh adapted and directed silent film Sadie Thompson for United Artists. Starring Gloria Swanson (screen diva in Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir classic Sunset Boulevard), the story centers on flapper fallen woman, Sadie, who carouses with GIs while stranded on a South Pacific island as a zealous missionary lusts after her and then is found dead. Lewis Milestone ’s Rain, based on the same story, came along in 1932 and also incorporated music and dancing with Joan Crawford as a jazz-dancing diva. 12 m us ic i n t...


Subject Headings

  • Musical films -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Film noir -- United States -- History and criticism.
  • Jazz in motion pictures.
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