by Jane Feuer
Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 23-25
The concept "ideology" has figured prominently in recent film theory. Unfortunately, many have used the term so ambiguously and at such a high level of abstraction that its relevance to actual texts has been obscured. Although there is a great deal of debate over the term in Marxist theory, recent British film theory has evolved a relatively definable notion of "ideology," which I shall label the "structuralist" definition (even though many whom I place in this camp would hotly deny it).  British film theory has followed Althusser in viewing ideology as a practical "lived" world view, which is opposed to the theoretical nature of "science."
"Structuralist" definitions have in common a notion of bourgeois ideology as naturalizing, as dehistoricizing, and as largely unconscious in its operation. Since the text does not "speak" its ideology on the surface, the critic needs to "read" ideology in the text's silences, its absences, its omissions. The following essay details a concrete instance of the operation of ideology in one entertainment form — the Hollywood musical — in which ideology acts to make the cultural seam natural, to mask the transforming material forces of history, and to do so in such a way that neither the producers of entertainment nor its consumers need interrogate what they are doing at a conscious level. I hope to give concrete evidence for the position that ideology is not a conspiracy on the part of evil capitalists to dupe the masses, but rather it is a logical, coherent system of thought, which is effective precisely because it seems entirely natural.
In the Hollywood musical, the naturalization of certain mass entertainment practices may be seen in a particularly clear form. This is because musicals not only are entertainment but are also frequently about the production of entertainment as well. The musical is thus "self-reflexive" as well as reflexive regarding Hollywood and mass entertainment in general. Ideology operates in the musical to make mass entertainment (a product of capitalism) appear entertainment (a product of pre-industrial societies). The musical does this through a process I shall label "creation and erasure."
In "creation and erasure" an affect or practice is cancelled out through the operation of another effect or practice. "Creation and erasure" may be seen to operate in the musical at many levels encompassing both form and expression.  At the "micro" level, an effect may be created in order that we may view the very process of cancellation of that effect by another ("erasure"). The example of the way in which rehearsals are given as finished products will illustrate this "micro" level of creation for erasure. However, in terms of the naturalization of mass entertainment practices, creation and erasure appears to operate at a "macro" level as well (see chart at end). In each generic practice that I shall examine, the creation of "folk" relations in the texts serves to "erase" the mass entertainment substance of the texts. The following essay attempts to document the operation of ideology as "creation and erasure" on this broad level.
In a discussion of the evolution of British music hall, Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel suggest that the emergence of individual performers or "stars" marked the transition from "folk" art to "popular" art. The result of this shift, they claim, is that
As Hall and Whannel describe it, popular art nay have many things in common with folk art — in particular the direct contact between audience and performer — but it differs from folk art in that
The Hollywood musical is one degree farther removed from "folk" art in that it involves mechanical reproduction and mass distribution. As such, alienation between performer and audience is far greater than in a live entertainment format, whether folk or popular. On the phenomenological level, alienation means that the performer's "aura" is absent.  On the economic level, relations of production are alienated from those of consumption: the performers do not consume the product and the consumers do not produce the product.
The musical as a genre perceives the gap between producer and consumer, the breakdown of community designated by the very distinction between "performer" and "audience" as a breach which it must heal. The musical seeks to bridge the gap through a valorization of "community" as an ideal concept. In basing its value system on community, the producing and consuming functions severed by the passage of musical entertainment from folk to popular to mass status are rejoined in the aesthetic work of the texts. In this way, the material forces of history which produced changes in entertainment are elided as well. Entertainment comes to exist in a perpetual past which is also a perpetual present.
At every level, human values and relations associated with folk art are substituted for the economic values and relations associated with mass-produced art. Through this system of exchange, the economic relations are erased as the human relations are created. The result is that the mode of production of the Hollywood musical itself is suppressed in and through the genre's structuring discourse. The Hollywood musical becomes a mass art which aspires to the condition of a folk art: produced and consumed by the same integrated community.
BRICOLAGE VS. ENGINEERING
In "Moses Supposes" from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952), Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor make use of the room furnishings and tools of the elocution teacher to create a dance. This is typical of an entire category of numbers in which performers make use of props-at-hand, things perhaps intended for other ends, to create the imaginary world of the musical number. In "Moses," the room furnishings and tools were not put there for Kelly and O'Connor to dance with (though of course we know they were), yet they form the finite material stratum out of which the number may be created. If no props are at hand, the performer will simulate props using his/her body as a tool; whence the inclusion of mime in such dances. The body-as-prop notion defines the naturalized narrative dancing favored at MGM.
The impression of spontaneity in these numbers stems from an effect of bricolage or tinkering. Claude Lévi-Strauss has used the term bricolage to describe the cognitive processes of "folk" cultures, cultures which are pre-scientific. For Lévi-Strauss, primitive thought is a kind of intellectual bricolage. In creating their cultural and intellectual artifacts, primitive people make use of materials-at-hand, which may not bear any relation to the intended project but which appear to be all they have to work with.
Lévi-Strauss contrasts the bricoleur of folk cultures to the engineer of modern scientific thought, whose tasks are subordinated to "the availability of raw material and tools conceived and procured for the purposes of the project."  In applying this distinction to the discourse of the musical, one might say that Kelly and O'Connor's number is carefully engineered to give an effect of bricolage. Engineering is a prerequisite for the creation of effects of "tinkering," of utter spontaneity in the Hollywood musical. The bricolage number represents an attempt to erase engineering (a characteristic of mass life) by substituting bricolage (a characteristic of folk life).
The hallmark of the prop dance for both Astaire and Kelly is that props must not appear as "props." Rather they must give the impression of being actual objects in the environment. Indeed Kelly has referred to an environmental conception for choreography as his "hobby horse." Environmental choreography abounds in the Kelly-Donen collaborations. "Prehistoric Man" in ON THE TOWN (1949) uses an anthropological museum. Most of the numbers in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN use props-at-hand. In IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955), garbage-can lids become part of a dance in the streets. Of all Kelly's environmental conceptions, the one which gives the greatest impression of spontaneity makes use of a newspaper and squeaky floorboard (SUMMER STOCK, 1950). However, it is a number whose ostensible function is to satirize the Kelly prop number which, ironically, makes the most elaborate use of props at hand.
In "Someone at Last" (A STAR IS BORN, Warner Brothers, 1954), Judy Garland (Vicki Lester) recreates at home a production number from a Hollywood musical in which she is starring. Garland uses only the props available in her living room to simulate the elaborate number: she turns on the lamp ("lights"), positions a table ("camera") and begins the "action." She uses the elastic banks of a chair for a harp, a pillow for an accordion, a lampshade for a coolie's hat, a leopard skin rug for an African costume. Her surprise at discovering each object at exactly the needed time makes us forget that these objects were carefully positioned there for her use. Thus she is constantly erasing the work of production through a pretense of spontaneity. Perhaps more than in any other number of this type, the audience receives the impression that the number is actually being developed on the spot, that Judy Garland is rebuilding the phony, calculated studio production number around her own intimate environment. And yet this number is actually the most calculated of all. The more it appears as bricolage, the more it erases its own creation through engineering.
Although they nay appear polar opposites, the bricolage and the engineered number are actually closely related. We frequently see both practices within the scope of a single number. In "Shoes With Wings On," Fred Astaire's animated number in THE BARKLEYS Of BROADWAY, elaborate process-photography is needed to create the effect of spontaneous dancing with the shoes/objects in the immediate environment of the shoemaker he portrays. Even Kelly's apparently simple and spontaneous dance with the newspaper and floorboard could not have been achieved on a stage.
What would seem to be antithetical practices become instead twin images of a paradox. That paradox consists in the need for the most calculated engineering to produce effects of spontaneous evolution. And, as a corollary, there's a need to foreground not the technology but rather the dance itself in all its seeming transparency. An economic contradiction — between industrially produced and handcrafted "products" — underlies the aesthetic paradox. The musicals solution to both the paradox and the contradiction is provided by a discourse appropriated from folk relations. Bricolage and engineering stand in a relationship of creation and erasure to each other. Engineering, as the mode of production of the Hollywood musical, is replaced by a discourse foregrounding bricolage. In this substitution, the calculation behind the numbers is erased but their spontaneous quality is recuperated. The spontaneous creation of numbers in the films masks the calculated creation of the film.
THE MASKING OF CHOREOGRAPHY AND REHEARSALS
In discussing the work of the bricolaqe number I referred to choreographic conception without analyzing the choreography itself. In fact, dance style is an integral part of the effect of such numbers. In "prop" numbers and elsewhere, Hollywood musicals employ choreography which could only by a great stretch of the imagination be referred to as "dancing." Such "non-choreography" implies that choreography is erased, precisely the effect this dance style gives.
By erasing choreography as a calculated dance strategy, non-choreography implies that dancing is utterly natural and that dancing is easy. Both the group folk dance and the bricolage number reflect this view of the dance. Michael Wood remarks of Astaire and Kelly that "walking could become dancing at any minute," and indeed such a continuity is always stressed.  Dances which employ completely ordinary movements rather than "steps" (for example, Bobby Van's jumping number from THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT) aim for an effect of natural body movements within a choreographed narrative framework.
Perhaps the best example of non-choreography as the erasure of choreography is a dance performed by Michael Kidd, Dan Dailey and Gene Kelly on the streets of New York early in IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955). Given three professional dancers to work with (unlike ON THE TOWN in which the choreography had to be adjusted to non-dancers), Kelly and Donen's choreography is nevertheless resolutely amateurish. It is ultra-spontaneous, bordering on ordinary horsing around. One segment consists of the everyday movement of running down streets. Another segment foregrounds clumsiness, the very opposite of that quality most closely associated with choreographed ballet and with Astaire: grace. Choreography is erased as the three buddies gracelessly stomp around on garbage can lids. By masking the fact that numbers are choreographed, the Hollywood musical denies that work is involved in producing dance routines. Rather, dance in the musical is seen as having the spontaneous and effortless quality of folk dance.
The nature of the recuperation from folk dance is particularly clear in group dances which are presented as actual folk or community rituals, notably the young people's segment of the Fourth of July sequence in SUMMER HOLIDAY (1946) and "Skip to My Lou" from MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), both choreographed by Charles Walters. The pure "folk" performance represents the zero degree of audience manipulation in that performer and audience are one and the same. In the group folk dance, for example, the choreographer is the community; in the MGM group "folk" dance however, the choreographer is Charles Walters masquerading as the community.
If non-choreography erases the work behind dancing, another common deception of the Hollywood musical — the presentation of finished numbers as rehearsals — masks the fact that, to quote Gene Kelly in SUMMER STOCK (1950), "putting on a show is hard work." By passing off a rehearsal as a final show, however, the spontaneity and casualness of the rehearsal environment is retained without having to expose the labor expended in creating the number. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would perform their most dazzling footwork in the context of rehearsal numbers (e.g.," I'll Be Hard to Handle" from ROBERTA (1934) and "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" from FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936). In these "bogus" rehearsal numbers, the work-in-progress effect is given without needing to demystify the rehearsal process.
The masking of choreography and the masking of rehearsals are closely related in function. Both serve to erase the work that goes into producing musical entertainment. This in turn erases the work of production of the texts themselves. Valorizing spontaneity ultimately disguises the fact that musical entertainment is an industry, and that putting on a show (or putting on a Hollywood musical) is a matter of a labor force producing a product for consumption.
THE VALORIZATION OF THE AMATEUR
When Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers do a number more dependent on virtuosity than romance, it is presented in the context of an amateur ballroom dancing competition ("Let Yourself Go" in FOLLOW THE FLEET). When Judy Garland stands up to sing in MGM musicals, more likely than not she is performing on an amateur basis at a party or in a barn rather than "playing the Palace." When Gene Kelly is not dancing with Cyd Charisse or Leslie Caron, he is likely to be dancing with children (in LIVING IN A BIG WAY, ANCHORS AWAY, and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS). For a genre which not only represents professional entertainment but also is frequently about professional entertainment, there is a remarkable emphasis on the joys of being an amateur. When viewed in the context of the appropriation of relations of folk art, however, the need to erase professionalism by valorizing amateur performance becomes understandable.
In this context, it is instructive to recall the etymology of the word "amateur" (from the Latin, amator, lover). It is precisely the distinction between singing and dancing in a formalized arena for economic profit, and singing and dancing for the love of it, that distinguishes the professional from the amateur entertainer. All folk art is amateur entertainment in this sense. One of the reasons popular entertainment needs to be redefined as folk art is to soften the association with professionalism. The two factors separating the professional entertainer from his audience are the profit motive and his/her "talent," his/her stardom. Both are aspects of professionalism. Stardom is a product of the emergence of popular and mass entertainment out of communal folk art. The profit motive is a product of the same historical process at the economic level rather than the human level. The valorization of the amateur through the erasure of professionalism solves both dilemmas at once.
In the backstage musical, professionalism is alienating at two levels: between text and spectator and within the texts themselves. Many musicals solve this problem by eliminating the backstage context entirely. In this way, singing and dancing may emerge from the joys of ordinary life. An entire subgenre of Hollywood musicals taking place in small towns, the West or other "folk" community settings, permits the natural emergence of amateur forms of entertainment employing folk motifs.  Even so professional a singer as Judy Garland frequently portrayed an amateur entertainer in her early films with Mickey Rooney and in her later "folk" musicals (e.g., THE HARVEY GIRLS, IN THE GOOD OLD SUMMERTIME). The cakewalk number between Margaret O'Brien and Judy Garland in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS is perhaps the best example of the ideological gains of such amateurization. It might be said that Gene Kelly built a career around such nonprofessional roles. Yet even casting professional entertainers as amateurs does not give the spectator a sense of participation in the creation of his own entertainment. In order to do this, the Hollywood musical's alienated production and consumption must be erased through a valorization of community.
THE BACKSTAGE COMMUNITY
The title number in both stage and screen versions (1943 and 1955) of OKLAHOMA! celebrates simultaneously the union of the couple and the incipient statehood of the territory in which they reside. Thus in many folk musicals, the creation of the narrative through the couple parallels the creation of a stable community. The folk subgenre as a whole represents the most obvious means by which the Hollywood musical seeks to recapture a Utopian sense of communality even as the musical itself exemplifies the new, alienated mass art.
In addition to the folk dance, the folk musical commonly employs two musical techniques for linking community to entertainment: the singalong and the passed-along song (my term). The singalong, as an entertainment format in which the audience is both producer and consumer, has long been an authentic folk form in ordinary life, linking the concepts of community and entertainment. The passed-along song, a device whereby a diegetically performed song is started by one person and then taken up and "passed along" by others in the family or community, appears to be a specifically cinematic form. (A recent Coke commercial exemplifies this technique. Ideologically speaking, it is no accident that so many commercials use old musicals as a sourcebook.) Two well-known examples of passed-along songs are the title number performed at the beginning of MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and "Isn't it Romantic?" from LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932). Such numbers almost always employ film techniques such as the traveling shot and the montage sequence to illustrate the spread of music by the folk through the folk.
In LADY BE GOOD (1942), we are shown the familiar Gershwin tune, presumably just composed by the diegetic husband and wife songwriting team, spreads through various ethnic groups, languages and nationalities. Not only is "Lady Be Good" a contagious "folk" phenomenon, but it is also international in scope, making of the entire world a community through song. The fact that LADY BE GOOD is also the title of the film helps to make the analogy between the montage sequence within the film and the hoped-for effect of the film itself. In this example, entertainment products are "magically" communally produced and consumed yet diffused through "mass" media. The means of production of the Hollywood musical are erased as the means of diffusion of the Hollywood musical are re-created in symbolic fashion through the montage sequence.
In the backstage musical not only is community created between performer and audience, but also it is created within the realm of the the star, the world of the stage. The inscription of community into theater is accomplished in two major ways. Within the narratives, community is created through the cooperative effort of putting on the show, an effort achieved by substituting cooperation for competition at the human level. Within the numbers, community is asserted through the insertion of "folk" numbers and folk motifs into the diegetic show.
Warner Brothers' musicals of the early thirties place a premium on cooperation and group participation in the success of the final show. Collective endeavor is celebrated in the anonymous spectacle of the Busby Berkeley production number. The plots of these films stress the need for theatrical community in two directions. Within the community of the show, obstacles to the show's success stem from an internal struggle in which personal greed (usually embodied in a temperamental star) leads to undervaluation of the virtues of cooperative effort. Meanwhile, forces may be working from outside the show to undermine the collective endeavor. In FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933), a rival producer is stealing Cagney's ideas; in DAMES (1933), a falsely prudish moral society wants to censor the show; in GOLD DIGGERS OF 33, lack of funding cripples the production. In the ultimately successful effort to put on the final show, the theatrical community overcomes both the internal and the external, the human and the economic obstacles.
Paralleling the development of the folk musical proper in the forties and fifties was a related practice of inserting folk motifs into proscenium numbers in backstage musicals. Frequently such numbers feature country motifs in both costume and dance formations, as in "Hoe Down" in BABES ON BROADWAY (1941) or "Louisiana Hayride" in THE BAND WAGON (1953). Or they may feature low-life motifs in the form of tramps ("A Couple of Swells" in EASTER PARADE (1948)) or gangster and moll (in WORDS AND MUSIC (1948) and ROYAL WEDDING (1951)).
A third alternative is seen in numbers whose content refers to country life, as does Judy Garland's opening number in EASTER PARADE ("I Wish I Was Back in Michigan, Down on the Farm"). Proscenium numbers with folk motifs are related to an extremely common plot paradigm in the Hollywood musical: plots in which a country or small town girl comes to New York to try for her big break on Broadway. Both the "Broadway Ballet" in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and "Born in a Trunk" in A STAR IS BORN make fun of this conventional plot, as does the stage spoof of the backstage musical, DAMES AT SEA. The girl in the backstage musical need not come from Iowa, but she must be shown as having her roots in the provinces, thus retaining an association with community. If, in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, Eleanor Powell comes from Albany, then Albany comes to represent the small rural town, "back home." The entire rhetoric of ON THE TOWN (1949) is expended upon transforming New York City into Meadowville, Indiana. The relevance of this pervasive plot to community in the backstage musical is evident. Even after the girl becomes a star on Broadway (a professional entertainer), she retains an identity with a hypothetical "folk — that of rural Americana — which may be recuperated by the entertainment world. Such an exchange is insisted upon in EASTER PARADE, where the success of the show comes to depend upon it.
The same exchange may be accomplished by incorporating folk numbers into shows. SUMMER STOCK illustrates the use of the folk number in the final show of a backstage musical. In the opening number of a show entitled "Fall in Love," principals (Gene Kelly and Judy Garland) and chorus alike inform the diegetic audience that both the show and falling in love are "all for you." The opening number emphasizes conventions of professional entertainment in that cast and chorus are dressed in formal attire, with Kelly in the uncharacteristic Astaire uniform of top hat, white tie and tails. But the passed-along format of the number is folk-derived.
Between the first and second numbers, creation and erasure are even more apparent. Kelly and Garland reprise "You Wonderful You" as a comedy turn in front of the curtain, in candy-striped turn-of-the century garb reminiscent of MEET NE IN ST. LOUIS. The song has already played a significant role in the film. In its first performance, Kelly introduced Garland to the joys of professional entertainment. The first performance of the number valorized amateur entertainment through an assertion that even professionals do it for love. Kelly reprised the song himself, whistling it while he danced with the newspaper and squeaky floorboard. The first reprise valorized spontaneity, erasing the work of producing entertainment. The second reprise — the number in the final show — now associates the number with community, erasing the alienation of producer and consumer.
Such a "folk" motif is carried over into a hillbilly number reminiscent in style if not in quality of "A Couple of Swells." Professional entertainment is re-created in the penultimate number (Garland's well-known "Get Happy"), only to be erased in the finale. The finale consists of a diegetic folk number from earlier in the film reprised by full cast and chorus within the show. In the first performance of the song ("Howdy Neighbor, Happy Harvest"), Judy Garland had expressed her communal country rooms — at this point antithetical to the spirit of entertainment. The number included the neighboring farmers in the celebration of Garland's acquisition of a tractor. In the narrative, the tractor was destroyed and then restored by the entertainers. Its restoration represented a significant step in uniting community and entertainment through the union of farmer Garland and performer Kelly. Now, in the final number of the show, community is inscribed into entertainment, erasing professional entertainment but creating folk entertainment. The number is also addressed to the spectator of the film through the intermediary of the diegetic audience. It ends with the lines,
These lines are sung with Kelly and Garland united in front of the chorus with arms lifted up in address. We do not see the diegetic audience; rather, the spectator is included in the address to offscreen space. The spectator is invited to participate in a harvest ritual taking place in the finale of a "Broadway" show. In a sense "Oklahoma!" is inscribed into the final show of a backstage musical. In this way the ritual erasure of performer-audience alienation is accomplished.
At the same time and through the same discourse, the economic relation between spectator and entertainment institution is erased. Instead of working for MGM and getting paid by the spectator, the song asserts that performer and audience alike are working for "Mother Nature" and getting paid by "Father Time." The economic relations underlying professional entertainment and mess art are erased by the economic relations underlying pre-industrial communities and folk art. The final song of SUMMER STOCK says this loud and clear.
Although the ideology of entertainment is especially clear in a reflexive form such as the Hollywood musical, the operations described in this essay are by no means unique to the musical (as the example of the Coke commercial makes clear). Nostalgia for folk relations permeates our entertainment forms, finding its latest resting place on television. Shows such as LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, FAMILY, and THE WALTONS valorize community in their content. Other shows, for example GOOD MORNING, AMERICA and DONAHUE, appropriate folk relations in their format: the former with its butcher, its baker, and its Rona Barrett; the latter with its 19th century participatory "town meeting" format. In one sense, the valorization of community is Utopian, playing a significant role in progressive (NORMA RAE) or revolutionary (late Godard or Jansco) art as well. Although it is perfectly possible for individual audience members to read the valorization of community as progressive in mass entertainment forms as well, I believe that the evidence presented in this essay would render such a reading unusual and unlikely. For the thrust of the operation of ideology in mass entertainment is regressive rather than progressive. Moreover, it is regressive in such a way as to naturalize the relationship between mass art and its audience as one of community rather than alienation.
The structuralist view of ideology may provide a way out of this naturalized bind by its refusal to accept anything as natural. Structural analysis teaches us to look not at what media such as television say, nor even how they say it but rather to look for that which is written in the text's silence. In this way, a radical consciousness may emerge from the reading of what appears to be a text totally transparent in its bourgeois ideology; or a text, like that of the musical, which may seem to say nothing at all. Only by the critical rewriting of that which has been erased, may the operation of ideology in entertainment texts be rendered explicit.
MASS ART AS FOLK ART: A SYSTEM OF EXCHANGE
1. I am referring to the work of Louis Althusser and Pierre Macherey in France; and to the work of the journal Screen (whose project is justified in Coward and Ellis, Language and Materialism) and Terry Eagleton in Britain.
2. This article is excerpted from my dissertation, "The Hollywood Musical: The Aesthetics of Spectator Involvement in an Entertainment Form," University of Iowa, 1978, where I develop the theory of "creation and erasure" on a larger scale. The dissertation may also be consulted for more complete documentation from films and for a chapter treating specifically the process of erasing history.
3. The Popular Arts (New York: Pantheon Books, 1965), pp. 56-66,
4. See Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," reprinted in Mast and Cohen, eds., Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 622-23.
5. The Savage Mind, trans., George Weidenfeld (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966), p. 17.
6. America in the Movies (New York: Basic Books, 1975), p. 148.
7. The "folk" subgenre is the formulation of Charles F. Altman. Its development is traced in his article, "Pour une etude semantique/syntazique du genre hollywoodien: Le musical folklorique." Ça/cinéma, forthcoming.