The Hollywood Musical
Peel away the tinsel

by Jeremy Butler

from Jump Cut, no. 31, March 1986, pp. 17-18
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1986, 2006

Jane Feuer. The Hollywood Musical (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982) 131 pages.

"We need a key to open the shimmering glass door musicals place between themselves and any form of intellectual inquiry. Musicals seem particularly resistant to analysis; peel away the tinsel and you find the real tinsel underneath." (Feuer, p. vii)

The musical film remains a slippery topic for serious study, as Jane Feuer indicates above, because it seems shot through with frivolousness. How can one analyze songs such as "She Was Kicked in the Head by a Butterfly"[1][open notes in new window] and keep a straight face?

Students of film should know by now, however, that questions of dignity and taste — involving high/low art distinctions — only impede the interpretation of mass media. Film study came to realize this simple truth in the 1960s when intellectual curiosity turned to U.S. popular cinema. For better or worse, director and genre studies have since proliferated, but the musical has indeed been neglected. The few non-coffee table books on the subject that have been published in the past twenty years stand out in sharp contrast to the purple prose regularly gushed over Fred Astaire or Judy Garland, among others.[2] Why has this been the case?

Feuer stresses one reason why: the musical's structural "tinsel-ness." But I believe an even more substantive cause is the inability of film analysis to deal effectively with cinematic style. The common-sense understanding of the term, "musical," is that it is a story told in a singing and dancing style. The "how" of the musical concerns and entertains the viewer much more than the "what." This emphasis on style discouraged early writers on genre. Instead, they were drawn to films whose clear-cut thematic and narrative structures linked easily with certain sociological themes and narrative structures. Thus, the gangster film became a metaphor for the dark side of the capitalist myth of "getting ahead." The Western became the ritual working out of the conflict between wilderness and civilization. It wasn't until the mid-1970's flood of books on film noir that genre critics began to pay sustained — though still tentative — attention to style, visual style, that is. (In many cases they approach style only as a metaphor for certain overarching themes — e.g., chiaroscuro lighting = metaphysical angst. Interpretation of musicals, specifically, has suffered from critics' hesitance to analyze dance movement, rhythm, melody and other stylistic aspects of the genre. Consequently, the musical currently languishes in a critical limbo.

Jane Feuer's short monograph goes a long way toward bringing analysis of the musical film into the 1980s — not just updating it to current methods of genre analysis, but providing intriguing insights about the musical that she has culled from recent ideological, spectatorial and structuralist analyses of the cinema. Her points of reference include Claude Lévi-Strauss, Bertolt Brecht, Peter Wollen, Sigmund Freud and others who would look more familiar in an exegesis of Jean-Luc Godard than Gene Kelly,

Feuer writes,

"I hope to argue that not only backstage musicals, but others as well, in being about entertainment are also about themselves" (p. vii).

This, the main thrust of her argument, appeared earlier in the article, "The Self-reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment," and it was also the subject of her dissertation (University of Iowa).[3] Feuer says that all musicals, to one degree or another, are about musicals themselves. Initially, one would doubt that a form as diverse as the musical could hold up to broad generalizations such as this:

"… the narrative resolution of every musical involves bringing together the forces of entertainment with forces opposed to entertainment" (p. 71).

Exceptions do come to mind: for example, WEST SIDE STORY (1961), THE GIRL MOST LIKELY (1957), and the highly influential OKLAHOMA! (1955). Still, any encyclopedic listing of musicals does contain a startling amount of "entertainment" or song-and-dance related titles — from THE JAZZ SINGER (1927) to BEAT STREET (1984).

Entertainment and its impediments may not be the only topics of the musical, but they far outnumber anything else, including love and romance. Refreshingly, Feuer refuses to fall into certain definitional traps that have often ensnared the musical film analyst. She manages to develop a plausible position regarding the musical's thematic structure, yet she does not ignore musical style. Further, she spends a chapter detailing the positioning of the musical film viewer — indicating the influence of recent writings on cinematic spectatorship. Despite the short length of The Hollywood Musical, it ambitiously attempts to construct a much needed theory of the genre.

What, then, constitutes the myth of entertainment that so concerns Feuer? Central to her argument is that the Hollywood musical, a technological, "mass" art form, aspires to the condition of a "folk" art — defining the latter as a communal form of entertainment that is "produced" by the same persons who "consume" it. Folk art is participatory; mass art is not. Consider, for example, the not-so-simple difference between participating in a square dance and watching professionals square dance on the screen in, say, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954). Feuer sees this mass art aspiration to folk art worked out in at least four aspects of the musical:

"… the enshrining of spontaneous over-engineered effects, the masking of choreography and rehearsals, the creation of amateur entertainment to cancel professionalism, and the creation of communities both offstage and backstage" (p, 3).

Simplifying, one could say that Feuer feels that the musical is a very carefully rehearsed/ choreographed (to the point of viewer manipulation), technological, professional product of a large industry during its most successful era. But this product masquerades as the spontaneous expression of amateur (folk) performers who sing/dance for the pure joy of life.

"We are never allowed to realize that musical entertainment is an industrial product and that putting on a show (or putting on a Hollywood musical) is a matter of a labor force producing a product for consumption" (p. 13).

She here echoes contemporary writings on film and ideology, which contend that the classical narrative cinema conceals its signification process (the "cinematic apparatus") as a function of bourgeois ideology. That ideology remains unquestioned because it passes itself off as the natural order of things rather than a constructed system of assumptions and attitudes toward the world.

A strange patina of self-reflexivity covers the musical's "masquerade" as folk art. On the surface, the backstage musical (and all musicals, argues Feuer) seems to be about life backstage and the process involved in musical production. It thus appears to "demystify" its mass art underpinnings. Further, the musical shares many techniques with modernist films that are said to "deconstruct" the classical narrative cinema. Enter Brecht, Godard, and Wollen:

"The goals of musicals and those of Godard must surely be opposed. But — as in the case of direct address — their methods are identical. How can this be?" (p. 36).[4]

How can the musical, the apotheosis of Hollywood filmmaking, incorporate normally disruptive techniques of self-reflexivity and modernism? Feuer answers that the musical may momentarily demystify some select elements of musical production — acknowledging the proscenium with a shot into the wings or the audience with a wink into the camera. But each demystification is quickly

"followed by a new mystification, the celebration of the seamless final show or placing back on her pedestal of a disgraced performer" (p. 44).

In THE BAND WAGON (1953), for example, a bad entertainment (the first, pretentious production of The Band Wagon musical revue) is demystified so that the final, good entertainment (the revised The Band Wagon) may be presented without any deconstruction of the magic. By the THE BAND WAGON's conclusion, the film "sutures" the viewer into the entertainment, manipulating him/ her through the cinematic apparatus which has once again submerged beneath the text's surface. The classical Hollywood musical thus conceals itself within a cloak of modernism. Feuer concludes,

"Unless we put the Hollywood musical in its proper place in the history of entertainment, we may mistake it for a modernist film, or, worse, we may never see what its revelations are trying to conceal" (p. 47).

Could there be such a phenomenon as a truly modernist musical, one which demystifies its cinematic/musical apparatus and then does not remystify it with a rousing "Let's Go Fly a Kite" finale that sends the viewer out singing a bourgeois refrain? Although Feuer does spend a short, three-and-a-half page segment of a later chapter considering negative, "critical reflexivity" in musicals during the genre's declining years, I feel disappointed that she does not devote more time to the possibility of a deconstructive, demystifying musical. She dismisses the notion largely because (false) demystification has been such a large part of the genre from its very inception. I wonder, however, if a Hollywood musical could indeed be deconstructed if its harmony were ruptured with radically discordant elements. True, the Hollywood musical recuperates deconstructive techniques such as direct address, but what if material more violently heterogeneous to the musical were used — elements contrary to the concept of "entertainment"? Could a Hollywood musical recuperate documentary footage of Dachau or a Godardian quotation from Brecht? These are issues that Feuer addresses, but too briefly and inconclusively.

Feuer is not only concerned with the pseudo-modernism of the musical. The genre's complicated narrative structure also draws her attention. Specifically, she charts the working of the entertainment theme through the musical's interconnected fictional worlds: the stage, the dream, and the "real" world. The stage and the dream exist as arenas for the free play of emotions — emotions that must be repressed in the real world. Musicals initially distinguish these three fields so that they may later blur those distinctions. The workaday world thus becomes both dreamlike and aesthetic. Most importantly, the release that the musical protagonist achieves in dream or on the stage can imbue his/her everyday life:

"Musicals are unparalleled in presenting a vision of human liberation which is profoundly aesthetic" (p. 84)

Feur does not want the reader to assume, however, that this liberation necessarily generates progressive results:

"… the musical presents its vision of the unfettered human spirit in a way that forecloses a desire to translate that vision into reality. The Hollywood version of Utopia is entirely solipsistic. In its endless reflexivity the musical can offer only itself, only entertainment as its picture of Utopia" (p. 84).

Since the Hollywood musical contends only with "entertainment" issues, it cannot impel the viewer toward genuine liberation. Feuer unpacks the Chinese box that is the musical and finds nothing at the center.

Feuer's comments on liberation strike me as incomplete. In specific, I believe this section could have profited from recent feminist work. Considering her references to many contemporary film writers, The Hollywood Musical makes surprisingly little use of feminist film criticism. The lack of overt feminism leaves unanswered certain important questions about the position of women in musicals — work as yet barely begun.[5] Moreover, it creates a gap in Feuer's comments on liberation. She notes that the musical, a politically conservative genre, elicits no desire for true societal liberation.

I can't help wondering, however, if the Hollywood musical does, perhaps, provide liberation within the sphere of personal politics. What is the impact of "entertainment," as it is represented in the musical, upon interpersonal relations? How do male and female entertainers interact with one another? After all, entertainment goes far beyond singing and dancing; the musical and entertainment also involve sexuality, romance, jouissance, and even racial relations (white use of black musical forms and class conflict, often inscribed within the high/low art distinction: high/low = bourgeois/ working class). By assuming that the musical resides within a "self-imposed hermetic universe" (p. 84), Feuer neglects several issues which clearly deserve attention.

The fourth, final, and most lengthy chapter of The Hollywood Musical describes "The History of the Hollywood Musical: Innovation as Conservation." This highly selective and overall too-short history provides a provocative discussion of the genre, especially those years during which it transformed into its current attenuated state. The musical, Feuer believes, did not evolve the way most genres do:

"The overall pattern in most genres seems to develop from an early unselfconscious conveyance of cultural mythology to a twilight period of reflection and even self-criticism" (p. 88).

Instead, the musical reflected itself from the very beginning — consuming earlier popular culture forms (vaudeville, music hall, and so on). Later films would draw from those sources and also from film musicals in this on-going recycling of songs and musical styles. MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), for example, was directly or indirectly "quoted" by CENTENNIAL SUMMER (1946), STATE FAIR (1946, 1962), SUMMER HOLIDAY (1963), ON MOONLIGHT BAY (1951) and HAS ANYBODY SEEN MY GAL? (1952). "Innovation" in the musical, according to Feuer, can usually be attributed to textual recycling in one form or another. Hommages serve a deep-rooted, structural function.

IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955), one of the first musicals to take horrified note of the new and box-office threatening phenomenon of television, serves as a linchpin in Feuer's history, bringing together film and television. Over the past 30 years TV has, of course, usurped many of the cinema's entertainment functions, including musical entertainment. As Feuer points out, the musical didn't really die with the studio system:

"Instead we must see that the musical was transformed as the industry was transformed, with the positive reflexive function being transferred to the new mass medium, television" (p. 91).

Television parodies of film musicals — such as on The Carol Burnett Show and in many, many commercials — continue the genre's tradition of cannibalism and self-reflexivity. Though Feuer does not predict where this may lead, I found myself extending her position to the current glut of music "videos" — the 1980's contribution to the visual interpretation of song.[6] One example of popular culture recycling is the obvious debt of Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video to the street dancing of WEST SIDE STORY. In typical fashion, "Beat It" has since been recycled itself in a broad variety of forms: an anti-drunk driving commercial, "Eat It" (a parody by Weird Al Yankovic), and a dream segment in the soap opera, As the World Turns, in which a teenage woman is rescued from a stylized gang of hoods on a stylized street by the young man she desires (all presented without dialogue). As Feuer implies, the time is ripe for an interdisciplinary history/ theory of the musical — exploring the complicated relation between musical texts, including live performances, the cinema and television.

Some conspicuous gaps within The Hollywood Musical's pithy 131 pages — including filmography and photographs — make it less than the definitive theoretical explication of the musical for which one might have hoped. Nonetheless, Feuer's approach to her topic does stimulate thought in an area of film studies that is not particularly known for intellectual acumen. The Hollywood Musical, in sum, deserves to join another recent British Film Institute-sponsored book, Rick Altman's Genre: The Musical, as a necessary addition to the bookshelf of the thinking spectator of the Hollywood musical.



2. See Jane Feuer, "The Hollywood Musical: An Annotated Bibliography," in Genre: The Musical, ed. Rick Altman (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), pp. 208-215.

3. Jane Feuer, "The Self-reflective Musical and the Myth of Entertainment," Quarterly Review of Film Studies, August 1977, pp. 313-26, Reprinted in Rick Altman, Genre: The Musical, pp. 159-174. See also, Feuer's "Hollywood Musicals: Mass Art as Folk Art," JUMP CUT No. 23 (Oct. 1980), pp. 23-25.

4. Feuer here comes dangerously close to the intentional fallacy.

5. See Feuer's annotated bibliography. See also, Kathryn Kalinak, "FLASHDANCE: The Dead-End Kid," JUMP CUT, No. 29 (Feb. 1984), pp. 3-5,

6. A musical form recently assayed in JUMP CUT: Deborah H. Holdstein, "Music Video: Messages and Structures," JUMP CUT, No, 29 (Feb. 1984), pp. 1, 13-14.

7. Cf. Steve Martin's parody of Jackson's "Billy Jean" video on NBC's shortlived The New Show.