The Musical Film: The Umbelievable Genre

Ramón Paredes
(Film Genres: The Musical)


            Of all the film genres, the musical is the less believable
            —in term of comparison to reality.

            I. Introduction

            II. Film and Reality
                 a. Reality
                 b. Acceptability

            III. Genres and Reality
                 a. Westerns
                 b. Comedy
                 c. Screwball comedy

            IV. Musical and sub-genres
                 a. Operas
                 c. “All-Sung Musical”
                 d. Integrated Musical
                 d. Unintegrated Musical

            V. Musical and Motivation

            VI. Six Flaws in a Musical

            V. Conclusion

      “The conflict that often exists between truth and film style is usually resolved in favor of truth by movie-goers partly because most of them wouldn’t recognize style if it came up and shook hands with them; partly because, as somebody once said, film is truth twenty-four times a second. That is, it is as a collection of photographs strung together. And photographs don’t, or at least shouldn’t, lie.
       I happen to share everybody’s preference for truth in movies. But I should have to point out that there is always style (though it is not always asertive; great movies especially seem to tend, as if by natural instinct, toward a remarkably plain style) and that the distintion between style and truth is, like the distinction between forms and content, worth holding in mind. When actually seeing a movie the distinction may or may mot matter much. In the best movies it is supposed to disappear, at least accor­ding to that organic metaphor of the wholeness of the work of art in which I was trained, and which is still largely current, but which begins to look less and less useful—at least as an aid to actually saying something about the poem or the picture or the play or the song or the movie that happens to be at hand.”

            Roger Greenspun, Rolling Stone magazine, 1971[1]

      Here, however (following the Greenspun quote), it’s not a movie that happens to be at hand—it’s not even a group of movies; actually it’s a genre, the musicals. And the conflict is not only between film truth and film style, but between film and reality.
      During the last thirty years or so, a couple of critics have written books, published articles in newspapers and magazines, and taught courses in colleges “proving” the direct connection between reality (or surfaces of reality, as Michael Roemer[2] would say it) and cinema. Many others however, have done the same —us­ing the same examples of the first group— to prove the “unreality” of the film.[3]
      Critics and historians of cinema, such as Ralph Stephenson and Jean R. Debrix (in their book The Cinema as Art), Belá Balázs (in Theory of Film), Michael Roemer (in articles published in film magazines during the 60s, and Siegfried Kracauer (in his book Theory of Film), have established that, in one way or another, the proper role of film is the presentation of physical reality.
      According to Kracaucer, film “is uniquely equipped to record and reveal physical reality and, hence, gravitates toward it.” Even when the film reflects the irregularities of life, he adds, it’s accepted as a representation of reality.
      Although some films may have visual distortions, Balázs wrote, most of the well-made films are “representation of reality.”
      For Roemer, there is no medium closer to reality than cinema. Film, he argues, is meticulously planned to archieve the effect of reality.
      However, Stephenson and Debrix’s book seem to be the most specific and clear study on the direct relationship between reality and cinema. They argue, first, that film arises “out of artist’s experience of reali­ty,” and secondly, it gives us more of physical reality than any other art. Excepting “taste, touch and smell,” they add, everything that we do in reality can be done in a film. Even more, they say, we “believe” that everything we see on the screen may or have actually happened in real life. Although, in a film, “space and time” are modified, selected and arranged by the artist, they conclude, the viewers usually accept it as reality.
      Although those critics and historians of cinema write or speak of reality and cinema, one may take out a secondary point: the public’s acceptability (often mentioned by Balázs) of a scene, a sequence or even the whole movie—that is, the reaction of the public toward the film. Did they believe in its story? Did they find the characters “believable”?, and so on.
      Even though there haven’t been many critics who have faced directly the question of believability in cinema, some have pointed out that the believability sometimes changes from genre to genre.[4] A western, some say, is less believable than even a screwball comedy.
      Thus, most agree that out of all the genres, the musicals, westerns, horror and cartoons are the less belieavable, the less closer to reality.[5]
      However, the less believable genre, the less closer to reality, is the musical. No wonder, hence, as mention David Bordweell, Janet Straiger and Kristin Thompson in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 that the Hollywood industry usually used its new technology with family­ oriented films, as the musical. Thus, Technicolor was first introduced through the musicals first and later with the adventure story (pp.355). Like Technicolor, widescreen was initiated with musicals and westerns (pp.361.)
      Basically, there are four kinds of musicals: a) operas[6]; b) “all-sung musicals”; c) unintegrated musicals (that is, it deals with a singer or a dancer, and the audience or viewer is forced to see sequences of his or her work); and d) integrated musicals (that is, the singing and/or dancing are “part” of the dialogue). In the first case, Carmen is the best example; in the second case, Kent Russel’s Tommy; in the third case, Richard Thorpe’s Jailhouse Rock and Walter Lang’s With a Song in my Heart; and in the last case, Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat and David Buttler’s Calamity Jane.
      Here, however, we shall examine the unintegated and the integrated musicals, because they are (and have been), we may say, the goldmine of Hollywood musical genre.
      But, why is it that musicals are unbelievable? The fact is tha the film musical, since its beginning, has always been an unbelievable genre. In a western, for example, the unbelievable part is usually the non­believable character —who is able to do things that even the most devoted fans know are impossible to do. In an integrated musical, however, the whole plot is unbelievable. Because, who —in reality—, live his or her life always singing songs?
      It’s at this point that one has to consider motivation. According to David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, motivation “is the process by which a narrative justifies its story material and the plot’s presentation of that story material.” They then name the three kinds of motivation: compositional (“cer­tain elements must be present if the story is to proceed”), realistic (“what we... consider, plausible about the narrative action,” and “ narrative elements [must be] justified on grounds of verisimilitude”), and in­tertextual (the story “is justified on the grounds of the convictions of certain classes of art works”).
      If musicals are considered films, then we have to conclude that they don’t have or have little composi­tional motivation. How to justify the singing and dancing, and the people joining the hero, on the streets, for example? How to justify that in Richard Thorpe’s Jailhouse Rock, Peggy (Judy Taylor) is never a conving character? How to explain the films “leading to nowhere” structure? How to explain that With a Song in my Heart is told and narrated from three points of view?
      Well, some (including the three critics quoted above) argue that those movies are “justified by the conventions of the genre.” Others argue that they are justified by “artistic” motivation.
      Whatever the Hollywood critics say, moreover, the structure of the musical by itself is so unbelievable that most of the foreign critics, for example, don’t even consider musicals a genre but a video—taped spectacle.
      “I recognize the fact that other people [screenwriters] don’t consider musicals as a worthy task,” said Ernest Lehman (who wrote or co-wrote the screenplays for the “classical” musicals The King and I, West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Hello, Dolly!”), in an interview published in The Craft of the Screen­writer. “As a writer,” he added, “you are associated with something that is not good artistically... I’m aware of the fact that if I had written Midnight Cowboy or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Network, the admiration would be much greater, including self-admiration.”

Six Flatnesses in the Musical Genre
      Basically, there are six flaws that make the musical genre umbelievable
      1. In integrated musicals, there are usually “on stage production numbers”—as wrote Stanley J. Solomon in Beyond Formula: American Film Genres— that have nothing to do with the plot of the film. For example, one can ask, how do the lyrics of the song “It’s Harry I’m Planning to Marry!” advance the plot of Calamity Jane? Solomon uses another example, the song “Top Hat” in the movie Top Hat.[8]
      2. Most of the musicals do not have a “developed” (not to mention “well-developed”) plot. “Apparent­ly,” writes Solomon, “the plot patterns that developed in musicals were not intended to be truly distinguishing marks of the genre. The studio felt... that the public’s perception of the genre had more to do with the stars than with the plot.” Thus, the screenwriters were always supposed to write a “plot” for the “stars,” not for the film.[9]
      3. Usually, the musical sequences in the integated and unintegrated musicals obtrude on the development of the film’s plot. Often, the musical sequences in the unintegrated musical, for example, do not have relation to the story; thus when the musical sequence begins, the story stops, and it doesn’t continue until the musical sequence ends.
      4. Most of the musicals usually have two plots, one provided by the dialogue and the other provided by the musical numbers. Solomon uses the example of An American in Paris. “For much of the film we perceive the two conflicting characterizations of the hero Jerry (played by Gene Kelly) —one provided by the dialogue and the other by the musical numbers.”
      5. Most of the time, the musical sequences in an unintegrated musical appear, as wrote Balázs in Theory of the Film, “unnatural.” In a musical, for example, if a dancer wants to dance, the Heaven always provides the music. To make the point, Balázs cites the example of operas —we are accustomed see a visible orchestra at the stage, along with the singer, and we know it’s there. In integrated musicals, this proves how far away musicals are from reality. Thus, when we see the movie, what we guess is that the singer or dancer always carries the orchestra along with him or her.
      6. Sometimes, opposite to the integrated musicals, the dialogues between numbers in the unintegrated musicals are, as writes Solomon, “frequently tedious or insipid.” In fact, in the early unintegrated musicals, the dialogue tedious that it impossible to listen to it. “Film scholars who want to sit through these films... surely must find such dialogues slow going,” writes Solomon. “In musicals created by somewhat less talented men than [Busby] Barkeley [choreographer of most of the “classic” musicals of the 30s, including Gold Diggers of 1933], it must be recognized that the unintegrated musical often cannot draw its disparate elements together with any convincing sense of unity.”
      One may ask, oc ourse, if the musicals have those flaws, how come most of the musicals make a lot of money? After all, three musicals are in the list of the ten top moneymaking films of all time —Grease ( (1978), 4; The Sound of Music (1965), 6; and Saturday Night Fever (1977), 10.[11] But that certainly makes them popular and a form of escaping reality, not believable. Moreover, that also proves another fact: the musical movie audience is not the film audience.
      One thing is historically true: musicals are not forever —they are not, like a good film, timeless. A musical can be popular only until its music stays with following generations. Thus, when a new generation comes and brinda new type of music, those musical movies of the past generation are only “history.”


[1] The article was later published in Movie Comedy, edited by Stuart Byron and Elisabeth Weis. New York: Penguin Books, 1977, pp. 167-170.

[2] Mr. Roemer argues, in his article “The Surfaces of Reality” (published in Film Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Fall 1964, pp. 15-22), that although a camera cannot function like an X-ray machine, it really photographs the skin. [The same article was later published in Film: A Montage of Theories, edited by Richard Dyer MacCann. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc., 1966, pp. 255-268.]

[3] Rudolf Arnein: Film as Art. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1957, pp. 14. Mr. Arnhein’s argu­ment, however, was intended to prove that film is an art, arguing some people’s ideas that “film cannot be art, for it does nothing but reproduce reality mechanically” (p. 81).

[4] Besides Balázs and V.I. Pudovkin (in his book Film Technique) some linguists of cinema have discussed the accep­tability in cinema. For example, T.G. Bever, J. M. Carrol and R. Hurting’s essay “Analogy, or ungrammatical sequences that are utterable and comprehensible are the origins of new grammars in language acquisition and linguistic evolution,” in An Integrated Theory of Linguistic Ability edited by T. G. Bever, J.J. Katz and D. T. Langendoen (New York: Crowel, 1976). They argue that intuitions of acceptability are sometimes due to func­tional interactions of the separate mental systems of grammar and perception. Also, John M. Carroll discusses the acceptability in cinema (using a psychological and linguistic approach) in chapter 4 and 8 of his book Toward a Structural Psychology of Cinema (New York: Mounton Publishers, 1980.)

[5] For a comparison article on musical, western, horror and cartoon, please read Richard Thompson’s “Meep Meep” (December, Vol. 13, No. 2). The same article was published later in Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols. Berkeley, California: University Press, 1976, pp. 126-135.

[6] Many critics (including Thomas R. Atkins, in Ken Russell and Ken Hande Ken Russell’s Films) call operas to “all sung musical,” but others say that a musical where every word is sung but a soprano doesn’t sing the words, cannot be called an opera.

[8] Also, read Solomon’s commentary on the contradictions in George Cukor’s A Star is Born, with Judy Garland’s “Born in a Trunk” song (p. 75).

[9] Read Lehman’s commentaries (in The Craft of the Screenwriter, p. 210) on the problems he faced while writing Hello, Dolly! for Barbara Streisand.

[10] Many argue that the background music or music-over in a film is accepted as “natural,” while in a musical everyone calls it “unnatural.” But others (including Balázs) seem to have an explanation for it. Also, read Ralph Stephen­son and Jean R. Debrix’s The Cinema as Art (p. 174-200).

[11] Cobbett Steinberg, Editor: Film Facts. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1980.

Works Cited

Arnheim, Rudold. Film as Art. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1957.

Atkins, Thomas R. Ken Russell. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1976.

Balázs, Béla. Theory of the Film. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970.

Bordwell, David and Staiger, Janet and Thompson, Kristin. The Classical Hollywood Cinema (Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Brady, John. The Craft of the Screenwriter (Interview with Six Celebrated Screenwriter. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981.

Byron, Stuard and Weis, Elisabeth, editors. Movie Comedy. New York: Penguin Books, 1977.

Hanke, Ken. Ken Russell’s Films. Metuchen, N.J.: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1984.

MacCaan, Richard D. Film: A Montage of Theories. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co. Inc., 1966.

Nichols, Bill, editor. Movies and Methods. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1976.

Pudovkin, V. I. Film Tecnique. New York: Bonanza Books, 1947.

Solomon, Stanley J. Beyond Formula: America Film Genres. New York: Harcourt Brace Jonavich, Inc., 1976.

Spottiswoode, Raymond. A Grammar of the Film. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1950.

Stephenson, Ralp and Debrix, Jean R. The Cinema as Art. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965.

Selective bibliography

Affron, Charles. Cinema and Sentiment. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.

Atkins, Thomas H. Science Fiction Films. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1976.

Bazin, André. What is Cinema? (two volumes). London, England: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Bordman, Gerald. American Musical Comedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Dillard, R. H. W. Horror Films. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1976.

Earley, Steven C. An Introduction to American Movies. New York: New American Library, 1978.

French, Philip. Westerns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Huss, Roy and Ross, T. J. Focus on the Horror Film. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.

Johnson, William, editor. Focus on the Science Fiction Film. Englewood, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1972.

Lindergreen, Ernest. The Art of the Film. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963.

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotis of the Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Musterberg, H. The Film: A Psychological Study. New York: Dover publications, 1970.

Sarris, Andrew. The Primal Screen [The Musical: The Freed and Ginger Show]. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1973.

Scheurer, Timothy E. “The Aesthetics of Form and Convention in the Movie Musical.” Journal of Popular Film, Fall 1974, pp. 307-24

Shipman, David. The Story of Cinema. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982.

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