When we think of the American movie musical, we think of its perfect moments. Gene Kelly singin’ in the rain. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing cheek to cheek. Busby Berkeley’s insane terpsichorean fractals.
ArtsEmerson’s five-month film series “Gotta Dance: A Survey of the American Film Musical’’ has those moments and more, and if you’ve never seen “Singin’ in the Rain’’ on a big screen, you owe it to yourself to get down to the Paramount Center’s Bright Family Screening Room when the MGM classic opens the series this Friday night and Saturday afternoon. But “Gotta Dance,’’ like most of ArtsEmerson’s adventurous programming, is more welcome for rescuing a number of rarely seen and hardly ever seen early film musicals and bringing them to the Bright in restored prints. They’re not all great films - in some cases they’re instructively bad - but they fill in the blanks of Hollywood musical history in a way the perfect ones don’t. They’re not the apex of the form but the building blocks that got it there.
The series makes its mission clear with its opening salvo, a double bill of 1929’s “The Broadway Melody’’ and 1952’s “Singin’ in the Rain’’ - the first movie musical and the greatest. Billed as the first all-singing, all-talking entry in the genre, “Broadway Melody’’ won the best picture Oscar at the second Academy Awards; it was a technical and musical marvel of its time. Today it’s a marvelous time capsule, a rough-and-ready backstage melodrama that shows how many kinks the genre had to work out of its system.
It also may capture the sweat of vaudeville and the New York stage better than any movie that came after it. Star Charles King was an established song-and-dance man with little movie-star elegance to him, and Anita Page and Bessie Love, playing a sister act that gets split up by romantic complications, have the desperate energy of hoofers seeking their big break. Too much of “Broadway Melody’’ is given over to fuzzily-recorded dramatic scenes and not enough to production numbers like “The Wedding of the Painted Doll.’’ But you can easily see where the genre will go from here.
The Hollywood studios looked at the grosses and awards for “Broadway Melody’’ and started cranking out musicals by the dozen, almost all of them crudely made and now forgotten. Some studios got better at it than others. Warner Brothers eventually stumbled onto its winning formula of early-’30s backstagers with “42nd Street,’’ the “Gold Diggers’’ series, and “Footlight Parade.’’ Only the latter is playing at the Bright, on Friday, March 2, but it’s a chance to revel in James Cagney’s manic overdrive as Broadway director Chester Kent and Busby Berkeley’s pile-on of three climactic production numbers, each more outrageously surreal than the last.
Twentieth Century Fox, on the other hand, struggled with the genre. Eventually they lucked onto singer Alice Faye and, more important to the company’s bottom line, child star Shirley Temple, whose “Bright Eyes’’ comes to the series on March 16. Initially, though, the studio tried to turn their hit silent lovebirds Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell (“Seventh Heaven’’) into musical stars. Later this month, the Bright screens 1929’s “Sunnyside Up’’ and 1931’s “Delicious,’’ neither available on DVD and both of which show Fox throwing every idea against the wall to see what sticks.
“Sunnyside Up’’ stars Gaynor as a tenement girl who falls in love with a Hamptons heir (Farrell), and it features big production numbers (“Turn on the Heat,’’ with saucy Eskimo showgirls melting their igloos through oomph alone), let’s-put-on-a-show routines (Gaynor singing the title number during a Lower East Side block party), and plaintive ballads (“I’m a Dreamer, Aren’t We All’’) sung directly to the audience in close-up.
“Delicious’’ is even more eccentric, with Gaynor playing a Scottish immigrant (with the least believable Scottish accent in film history) who arrives at Ellis Island hoping to meet “Mr. Ellis’’ and dreams up a George Gershwin-penned production number featuring multiple Uncle Sams and lyrics like “We welcome the Chinese and the Heinies and the sons of Araby.’’ Just one problem: Gaynor can barely sing and Farrell doesn’t even try. Her elfin prettiness and his youthful manliness still strike sparks, but this was clearly a screen couple living on borrowed time.
If Fox struggled with the musical, Universal Pictures had an even harder time of it, at least judging by 1933’s fascinating “Moonlight and Pretzels’’ (Feb. 24 through Feb. 26), a backstager featuring “fifty of New York’s famous showgirls.’’ Directed by Karl Freund fresh off “The Mummy,’’ it’s a conscious attempt to imitate the winning Warner Brothers musical formula, right down to the sub-Berkeley overhead shots of dancers in floral patterns and a Depression number (“Dusty Shoes’’) meant to ape “Remember My Forgotten Man’’ from Warner’s “Gold Diggers of 1933.’’
For all that, “Moonlight’’ has its felicities, including the unknown Roger Pryor in the Cagney role of stressed-out director-hero and a biergarten production number that must have been close to Universal founder Carl Laemmle’s big Bavarian heart. The studio would have to wait until it discovered singing sensation Deanna Durbin in the mid-’30s to strike musical paydirt, but “Moonlight and Pretzels’’ is a revealing example of creative photo-copying.
Paramount Pictures fared much better: The studio had directors like Ernst Lubitsch and performers like Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette Macdonald to put over lightly ribald and wholly enjoyable European-style musicals. Ironically, the series’ one Chevalier-Macdonald pairing made at Paramount is Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 classic “Love Me Tonight’’ (Feb. 11 and 12) and its one Lubitsch film with the duo was made at MGM: 1934’s underrated and hilarious “Merry Widow’’ (Feb. 17 and 19).
A more creative example of Paramount’s way with the genre is 1933’s little-known “Torch Singer’’ (Feb. 24 and 25). Made before the Motion Picture Code started enforcing screen morals, it stars Claudette Colbert as an unwed mother who gives up her child, becomes a blues singer (“A woman’s got to suffer a lot before she can sing a little,’’ she’s advised), then turns host of a radio children’s show in order to locate her daughter. The movie’s actually a woman’s weepie with musical trimmings, but Colbert can sing, and her performance is one of the strongest in her career. (Plus, we get a glimpse of “the dark side of the moon’’ - the rarely photographed right side of the star’s face.)
“Gotta Dance’’ includes gold-plated musical classics like the Astaire-Rogers pinnacle “Top Hat’’ (March 23 through 25), “An American in Paris,’’ “The Bandwagon,’’ and “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’’ (screening on as-yet unspecified dates in April and May), but the most unusual finds are from the ethnic fringes of the American melting pot - low-budget musicals made expressly for Jewish and African-American audiences. “Top Hat,’’ for instance, is paired with a restored print of “American Matchmaker’’ (1940), which stars Leo Fuchs, a.k.a. “the Yiddish Fred Astaire.’’
It’s an adorable New York-set musical comedy directed by Edgar Ulmer, and it lets Fuchs perform such William Mercur songs as “Oy, Oy, Oy, Spiel’’ and “Ich Bin Ein Shayne Bucher.’’ Bring your Nana, in other words. A more revelatory discovery is the Feb. 4 double bill of 1929’s “Hearts of Dixie’’ - the first all-black musical, starring that most culturally complicated of African-American stars, Stepin Fetchit - and “Swing!,’’ a rarely-screened 1938 film by pioneering director Oscar Micheaux.
“Swing!’’ is as crudely made as they come. After 20 minutes of a cheatin’-man comedy-drama set in Birmingham, Alabama, it switches choppily to a Harlem rehearsal hall for a Warner Brothers-style backstager done on the ultra-cheap. Hazel Diaz has the role of the egotistical diva who breaks her leg - after she’s had one too many at a neighborhood bar - and gives downtrodden Cora Green a chance to show what she can do with a blues song.
This isn’t the movie to make the case for Micheaux as a great filmmaker, but “Swing!’’ does provide glimpses of talents that never made it into white musicals: female trumpeter Doli Armena, wild-woman dancer Consuela Harris, the wonderful tap artist Ulysses “Slow Kid’’ Thompson. They’re the only remaining proof of how much of America was singing and dancing in the 1930s - and how little of it was captured on film.
Further information on the “Gotta Dance’’ series can be found at www.artsemerson.org.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.