The Film Musical
By the early 1900s, film had been synchronized with sound by Cameraphone, and, in 1923, Phonofilms, Inc. made its debut at the Rivoli Theater with a short program of musical selections by Weber and Fields, Sissle and Blake, and Eddie Cantor. Most movie producers dismissed the new-fangled nonsense. But William Fox and the Warner brothers took interest. Fox rented some Swiss sound equipment, and produced a short feature with his new company, Movietone. Sam, Harry, Albert, and Jack Warner immediately formed the Vitaphone Company, and entered an agreement with Western Electric.
Finally, on October 6, 1927, the Warner brothers presented The Jazz Singer, the story of a cantor's son who rejects the synagogue to become a jazz (popular) singer, but substitutes for his dying father at the Day of Atonement services. Only partly in sound, the picture was still a huge success, and Al Jolson has been known ever since as the Father of the Film Musical. The first all-talking (but not singing) movie was Lights of New York (1928); the first all talking, all singing, all dancing screen musical was Broadway Melody (1928). A new art form had been born (Ewen 1977, 380-381).
It is estimated that eighty-five million people went to the movies at least once a week during the 1930s. With admission prices that were usually twenty-five cents for adults and ten cents for children, many flocked to the movies as an escape from the weariness of the Great Depression.
The film musical, sometimes called a screen musical or a Hollywood musical, comes in seven basic categories, with mixtures.
The most durable of the film musicals is the musical within a musical, a story about show business – the backstage musical. Dozens of variations can be found, but the story line of the basic show concerns the problems of creating and presenting a show. Such a format means that there are ample opportunities for musical numbers which do not have to be related whatsoever to the central plot of the basic story. And, of course, the final scene of the film is successful opening night of the musical within a musical.
The backstage musical gave the Hollywood studios a good reason to offer short appearances of new and untried talent, as preparation for more demanding roles, later on. Examples are Close Harmony (1929), 42nd Street (1933), On the Avenue (1937), Babes in Arms (1939), White Christmas (1954) and many, many more. The greatest of all was a film musical about the making of a film musical, Singing in the Rain (1952), with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds.
With the barest flimsy plot, the big studios would present a string of their talented "property." The singers, dancers, and comedians were under contract to the studios, and the studio moguls had to pay them, work or no work, so every now and then a big revue would appear.
The film revues were celluloid versions of stage revues: Hollywood Revue of 1929, Paramount on Parade (1930), Universal's King of Jazz (1930), Warner Brothers' Show of Shows (1929) and On with the Show (the first all-color film musical), right up through Paramount's Variety Girl (1947) and MGM's Hootenanny Hoot (1963), by which time the studio system was beginning to die out.
Film versions of the great operettas by Rudolf Friml (1879-1972), Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951), Victor Herbert (1859-1924), Reginald de Koven (1859-1920), and others brought great joy to Depression audiences. Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald did eight operettas, beginning with Naughty Marietta in 1935. Some operettas were done several times with different stars, and with new tunes interpolated as the producers and directors saw fit.
Like its stage model, the film operetta occurred in a foreign land, with princes, potentates, bureaucrats, and innocent maidens. Many of the great stage operettas were done in the 1930s and then again in the 1950s and 1960s: Babes in Toyland (1934 and 1961), The Merry Widow (1925 [silent], 1934, and 1952), Rose Marie (1936 and 1954), The Vagabond King (1930 and 1956), The Desert Song (1929, 1943, and 1953), and others.
The dean is going to discontinue football because the college is in financial trouble, but the quarterback has a nice voice, so the dean's wife suggests to one of the cheerleaders that they put on a musical to raise money for the college, except the chairman of the history department opposes the idea because he thinks any money raised should go to repair the library, so he gives the history class an unusually difficult test which the quarterback fails, making him ineligible for football AND for any extracurricular events, like a campus musical, but the girl who works in the school library is a brilliant history major, and she persuades the professor to put the test scores on a curve, and when she takes off her glasses, the quarterback realizes that she is... Gosh!... beautiful, and she can sing, too, so guess what happens.
Rework that theme forty times with a changing parade of twenty-something and thirty-something movie stars made up to look like teenagers, and the result is pure joy for many years in Hollywood. Some of the best were Good News (1930), Old Man Rhythm (1935), Life Begins in College (1937), Swing It, Professor! (1937), Sweetheart of the Campus (1941), and, with Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and the Tommy Dorsey Band, Girl Crazy (1943).
One of the 1952 campus musicals, She's Working Her Way through College, involves a burlesque star (Virginia Mayo) who wants to be a serious actress. She enrolls in a drama course in a small college. One of the professors (Ronald Reagan – yes, the man who would later become President of the United States) befriends her, and gets into trouble with his suspicious wife. The burlesque star turns out to be a nice girl, with genuine dramatic talent, of course, so it all works out well in the end.
Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, Roy Rogers, and several others gave shape and substance to cowboy musicals, "horse operas" as some critics called them. See page 180 for the discussion of Gene Autry's career.
Most of the famous composers and performers in popular music have had musical film biographies done on their lives – what Hollywood insiders call a "biopic" – Benny Goodman, Florenz Ziegfeld, Sigmund Romberg, Stephen Foster, Jane Froman, Gus Kahn, Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, Ruth Etting, Cole Porter, and others. Among the early best were Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), depicting the life and times of Jerome Kern, with twenty-five of his great tunes sung by a galaxy of stars, and The Jolson Story (1946), with Jolson himself, still in good voice, dubbing in the vocals for actor Larry Parks.
More difficult to do is a musical biography about a classical composer-musician. Song of Love (1947), the life and times of the brilliant classical pianist, Clara Wieck Schumann (1819-1896), turned out to be a mixture of beautiful music and unintended humorous banality. The same kind of kitsch resulted in Song of Scheherazade (1947), about the famous Russian composer, Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908).
More successful and convincing were Song to Remember (1945) about Frederic Chopin, Song without End (1960) about Franz Liszt, and The Great Caruso (1951) featuring Mario Lanza as the legendary operatic tenor, Enrico Caruso.
Although they had done animated shorts (such as 1928's Steamboat Willie, the third Mickey Mouse cartoon, but the first to have synchronized sound), the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White (1937) marked the true beginning of the Walt Disney empire. The success of that film led to Pinocchio (1940), which won Oscars for Best Original Song (the beautiful "When You Wish Upon a Star") and Best Original Score. Other animated musicals followed, including Fantasia (also in 1940) and Dumbo (1941). After a decline in box-office returns through the 1950s through the 1980s, many thought that the magic of the Disney animated musical had faded, but 1989's The Little Mermaid started the so-called Disney Renaissance that includes Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), and many other features, all the way up to Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013).
Movie stars are usually photogenic, but their singing voices may not be of sufficient beauty and strength to meet the demands of a musical. It would often happen, therefore, that a professional singer would "dub in" the songs for an attractive leading lady. In My Gal Sal (1942), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and Gilda (1944), Rita Hayworth's vocals were dubbed in by Nan Wynn.
Vocalist Marni Nixon sang for Deborah Kerr in The King and I (1956), for Natalie Wood in West Side Story (1961), and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (1964). Anita Ellis sang for Vera-Ellen in Three Little Words (1950); Jane Froman sang when Susan Hayward did her [Froman's] life story, With a Song in My Heart (1952); pop singer Gogi Grant was dubbed in for Ann Blyth in The Helen Morgan Story (1958).
Bill Lee was busy, too, singing for John Kerr in South Pacific (1958) and for Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music (1965). Trudi Erwin and Jo Ann Greer sang for Kim Novak and Rita Hayworth in Pal Joey (1957).
Opera singers got dubbing jobs, also. Marilyn Horne dubbed for Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones (1954), and Giorgio Tozzi for Rossano Brazzi in South Pacific (1958). Then in Samuel Goldwyn's lavish production of Porgy and Bess (1959), Adele Addison sang for Dorothy Dandridge, Inez Matthews for Ruth Attaway, and the great operatic voice of Robert McFerrin (Bobby McFerrin's father) was heard for Sidney Poitier (Ewen 1977, 583).
The practice of dubbing came back into the spotlight in late 1990 after it was discovered that R&B duo Milli Vanilli, who had won the "Best New Artist" Grammy in early 1990, didn't actually sing their songs as listed. The award was revoked, numerous lawsuits were filed citing fraud, and refunds were given to consumers who purchased Milli Vanilli's album or attended one of their concerts.
These days, many artists still lip sync to their own pre-recorded vocals, especially while on tour or during a performance that requires complicated choreography or other staging.
STAGE AND FILM MUSICALS
First, film loses that electrifying exchange between performer and audience. All the great stage stars have spoken eloquently about that magical and mysterious energy which comes to them from an actively engaged audience. They need it to achieve their highest levels of artistic delivery.
Second, the social ritual. Going to a movie is just not the same as "going to the theater". An elegant dinner followed by an evening at the theater is a unique experience. The film moguls knew this, so they first converted the existing grandiose theaters into movie houses, then they built their own opulent theaters which the journalists immediately, and accurately, called "movie palaces". Today, going to one of the twelve theaters in a shopping mall complex is just not the same kind of social ritual.
Third, in the old days, the "live sound" of the songs, orchestral support, and spoken exchanges was favored over the squeaky sounds of the early film tracks. Audio technology has so advanced, however, that live shows are today "miked up" in an effort to achieve the richly enhanced sounds of modern movie audio systems.
Fourth, the "close-up" is surely the most important difference. Some of the big stars of 1920s stage musicals moved easily into the new film industry, but others just could not make the change. Al Jolson is the classic example. His huge talent was just not captured on the screen. Film is "a powerful medium for understatement, with stunning emotional climaxes built on carefully accelerating, subtly observed minutiae". Eddie Cantor and Mae West understood this, but Jolson didn't. He simply assaulted the sensitive, probing camera lens, swinging from one extreme to another, and gave the camera no chance to focus on the man within and no time to assimilate his contribution to the whole" (Kobal 1983, 91).
The problem is still around, of course, and some highly talented stage performers have yet to develop a persuasive film technique.
IMPORTANT FIGURES IN FILM MUSICALS
If Al Jolson earned the title "Father" of the Hollywood musical, the King and Queen would have to be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the Prince and Princess would be Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. These titles are arbitrary, of course, since hundreds of talented performers were involved – Ann Miller, Howard Keel, Shirley Jones, Gordon MacRae, Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell, Mickey Rooney, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Donald O'Connor, Buddy Ebsen (later, a TV star on The Beverly Hillbillies), Danny Kaye, Doris Day, and so many, many more.
Child dance prodigies Frederick and Adele Austerlitz were propelled into show business by their Austrian immigrant mother when she moved them from Omaha, Nebraska, to New York where they immediately captured the world of Broadway musicals. Adele married into wealth early, and retired from the grinding schedule. Fred Astaire (1899-1987) went on alone to become the most important dancer in entertainment history.
Slim and trim, 145 lbs. at 5'10" or so, Fred Astaire was a model of sophistication and elegance. With long-time adviser, Hermes Pan, Astaire invented all his own remarkable dance routines, and then taught those routines to his partners. He worked himself and everyone else mercilessly, often demanding thirty to forty re-takes until each detail was perfect.
He mastered every aspect of the art, and made a specialty out of dance routines with inanimate objects. In Top Hat (1935), his cane became a machine gun while his feet tapped out the rhythms of gun fire. In Shall We Dance (1937), he performed a drum dance, playing on assorted drums not only with sticks, but also with his agile toes. In Carefree (1938) he devised a golf dance, skillfully coordinating golf swings, tap dancing, and harmonica playing. In Follow the Fleet (1936), his solo tap dance imitated a series of close order military drills.
He danced on top of seven pianos in Flying Down to Rio (1933); he danced with a coat rack and then up the walls and across the ceiling in Royal Wedding (1951). And he always presented himself in full view, with very few close-ups of his arms, legs, or feet. His acting and vocal skills grew and developed until he was the complete Hollywood star, an absolute master of everything necessary for the art form.
Fred Astaire had come a long way from his first RKO screen test report in the 1920s: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Dances a little" (Ewen 1977, 403).
Virginia Katherine McMath, born in Independence, Missouri, took her stepfather's last name, Rogers, to go with the "Ginger" her manager coined because of her red hair and freckles. Still in her teens, Ginger Rogers (1911-1995) sang with the Paul Ash Orchestra in Chicago, then moved to New York to try the big time. She won sufficient attention to get a movie contract. Her big moment came back on Broadway, however, when she appeared in Gershwin's Girl Crazy (1930).
She was teamed up with Fred Astaire for the Vincent Youmans screen musical, Flying Down to Rio (1933), into which "The Carioca" was inserted to give them at least one good dance number. They hit pay dirt, and went on to become Hollywood's favorite dancing team, doing eight delightful film musicals together in the 1930s.
Ginger Rogers was the ideal partner for Fred Astaire, following his lyric and poetic moves like a shadow. And her girl-next-door charm served as the right contrast to his European air. She handled his perfectionist needs with good-natured perseverance, and was always ready to do the number again after Fred had made some minor adjustments. The chemistry between them brought the Hollywood musical to one of its several high peaks of perfection.
The child was stage-mothered into stardom. Veteran song-and-dance man Georgie Jessel saw her with her sisters in Chicago. She was about five years old at the time, and he said she was pretty as "a garland of flowers." When asked what her favorite tune was, she responded "Judy" (a Hoagy Carmichael tune, popular at the time). Thus Ethel Frances Gumm, from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, became the legendary Judy Garland (1922-1969).
Louis B. Mayer heard her sing, and signed her to a contract without a screen test. She went on to become MGM's most valuable property, appearing in seven films with Mickey Rooney and in dozens of musicals from the late 1930s to the early 1950s with a variety of other stars. She and Mickey Rooney became America's favorite sweethearts as they acted, sang, and danced their way through a host of classic teenage dilemmas.
A pudgy child without the shapely figure of the other movie starlets, she was put through a cruel program of study, practice, and rehearsals. To keep her weight down, the studio doctors used amphetamines, and to calm her when she couldn't sleep, they prescribed a variety of sleeping pills and other sedatives. "The stage was set for the later tragic years of dope and alcohol addiction, nervous breakdowns, attempted suicides, broken romances and marriages, and a conglomeration of emotional problems that brought about her premature death at the age of forty-seven" (Ewen 1977, 388).
As a small child in a strange hotel, her mother continually threatened to leave her – stranded alone – if she didn't do well in the next show. Her life was an endless string of pressure commitments, yet there is no hint of this in her screen personality. When the cameras started to roll, she instantly became the darling teenage beauty with the beautiful voice and the cutest pug nose in all filmdom.
Her great historical moment came when MGM couldn't get Shirley Temple to do the role of Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Judy Garland was sixteen at the time, and too old for the part, but the studio officials strapped her chest, designed dresses with a high waistline, put her hair in pig-tails, and surrounded her with tall co-stars. The result was, of course, one of the best film musicals ever, and the centerpiece of her illustrious career.
The Wizard of Oz. In his home office one early evening in May, 1898, Lyman Frank Baum was entertaining the neighborhood children with one of his charming ad-lib stories. Searching to name the wondrous land over the rainbow he had begun to describe, his eyes fell upon the filing cabinets labeled "A-N," which he rejected, and "O-Z," which he seized. Two years later, Baum was the best known author of children's literature in America, and The Wizard of Oz was about to alter the history of American popular music.
The show had been made into a stage musical back in 1903, but MGM producer Arthur Freed felt the need for different music, so he hired Broadway composer Harold Arlen to write a new score. Arlen's collaborator, E. Y. "Yip" Harburg, was engaged to provide lyrics, and in no time at all twelve songs were ready, among them "Over the Rainbow". Nearly everyone agreed that "Over the Rainbow" was a bad tune, including the publisher who thought that the octave leap on the opening word, "somewhere", was like some kind of "child's exercise", and that the center section, the bridge, was just simplistic (Ewen 1977, 399).
So "Over the Rainbow" was cut three different times from the final version, and each time producer Arthur Freed stormed into the front office to argue it back into the film. When the show was finally released, the tune won an Academy Award. It also became Judy Garland's signature, the tune that seemed resonant with all the longing and melancholy in her personal life.
While Fred Astaire had an air of European elegance, Gene Kelly (1912-1996) looked like a typical American college boy. No top hat and tails for him. He often danced in a short-sleeved sport shirt, casual light-colored slacks, and plain loafers. More muscular and athletic in appearance and in dancing style, Gene Kelly touched a different nerve in the minds and hearts of musical film audiences.
He was a director, too, and very good. With a partner, Stanley Donen, Kelly choreographed and co-directed three brilliant musicals, On the Town (1949), It's Always Fair Weather (1955), and his greatest achievement, Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Kelly created several of the most memorable moments in the history of the Hollywood musical – the famous dance through the wet streets with his umbrella in Singin' in the Rain, the stunning "Gotta Dance" number in the same show, and the marvelous twenty-minute ballet sequence with Leslie Caron in An American in Paris (1951). In his later years, Gene Kelly devoted more and more time to directing and teaching.
Two very important vocalists began their careers in the big bands, then went out on their own to become film musical stars, then superstars. They rose so high in the entertainment world as to deserve special treatment at this time.
Harry Lillis Crosby (1903-1977) was called "Bing" by his high-school friends, after a comic-strip character, Bingo, who had large ears. Fond of vaudeville, he chose a career in music. Vaudeville-style singing – bellowing out over the noisy crowd – was still common in the 1920s. Crosby changed all that. Instead, he sang to his audiences in a tender, personal way, through a new device called a microphone. His style was called "crooning".
Bing Crosby used the microphone as part of his professional technique, and reduced the volume of his voice in an intimate, conversational flow of musical ideas. He also shaped the phrases of the lyrics to heighten the meaning of the words, but kept it all casual, warm, and comfortable. It was as though the microphone was listening in as Bing leaned over the piano to sing a gentle tune just for you.
His laid-back manner, witty asides, and natural charm were deceptive, to be sure. Beneath that "Average Joe", nice guy, next-door-neighbor personality was a brilliant entertainer, who worked at his profession, and got better and better throughout his fifty years at the top.
After a brief career in a duo, then a trio, then with the Paul Whiteman orchestra, Bing Crosby stepped out on his own. He was almost immediately successful. Millions and millions in record sales, weekly radio shows, then television shows, nightclub appearances, and occasional concert dates – Bing Crosby did it all. He will long be remembered for his films – Holiday Inn, Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary's, and White Christmas.
Besides the above films where he sang half a dozen great old standards, Bing Crosby played the straight man in a series of light "road films" with his good friend, comedian Bob Hope. In these shows, Crosby and Hope always played a pair of off-beat characters who got into trouble in a foreign land – Singapore, Zanzibar, Morocco, Bali, Hong Kong, etc. In the midst of all the one-line zingers and clever bits of high camp, Bob Hope would make a pass at the ravishing beauty, Dorothy Lamour, but lose her to Bing Crosby, of course.
Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" is still the biggest selling single in history, with sales of over 50 million copies worldwide.
Francis Albert Sinatra (1915-1998), born in Hoboken, New Jersey, has had a colorful career, to say the least. Really, two careers.
First Period. His first career began when he dropped out of Demarest High School at age fifteen to sing in amateur shows and saloons. After a brief period with The Hoboken Four, he quit to try his luck in the roadhouse taverns in New Jersey. Trumpeter and band leader Harry James hired him, and took him on a six months tour.
Tommy Dorsey offered him more money, so with James' blessing and approval, Sinatra joined the Dorsey band in 1940 as featured soloist and baritone in the Pied Pipers. A keen musician and shrewd businessman, Tommy Dorsey signed Sinatra to a contract which guaranteed Dorsey thirty-three and one-third percent of all Sinatra's earnings – for life (Moldea 1987, 57-58)! If he had any second thoughts, Sinatra didn't express them, apparently. He was ambitious, and, at twenty-eight years old, knew he was on his way to the top.
Before long, his pleasant voice, good looks, and smooth phrasing made him Dorsey's most popular attraction. Sensing that he could be more than just a pretty boy singer in a big band, Sinatra decided to go it alone. When Dorsey refused, Sinatra called on some friends to help out. Willi Moretti, a New Jersey Mafia figure, persuaded Tommy Dorsey to release Sinatra from his contract.
After several respectable, but minor, recordings and personal appearances, Sinatra's star began to rise. He stole the show at New York's Paramount Theater in early 1943. The young audience cheered him wildly, and almost ignored the Benny Goodman band. Sinatra was held over for eight weeks, while the band moved on. Hundreds and hundreds of teenage girls sat through several repetitions of the feature film just to see Sinatra again and again. Extra ushers and guards were called in to control things.
One author claims that it was all set up by publicist George B. Evans who hired the bobbysoxers, rehearsed them himself in the theater basement on how to scream and swoon, rented an ambulance to park outside, and notified the newspapers that the theater ushers were equipped with smelling salts (Tosches 1992, 145).
When Frank Sinatra came back to the Paramount Theater on Columbus Day in 1944, he had gained considerable fame and fortune. He was one of the leading singers on Your Hit Parade. He had a new recording agreement with Columbia Records, a movie contract with RKO Studios, a string of long and highly successful night club engagements, and he had replaced Bing Crosby in the news polls as America's best pop vocalist.
No one could have predicted the riot, though, on that October day in 1944. Before the movie theater box office opened at 8:30 a.m., "ten thousand youngsters lined up three abreast, while twenty thousand more milled around the streets in the Times Square area" (Ewen 1977, 465-466).
When the box office opened, the booth was destroyed by the onrush, windows of nearby shops were smashed, passers-by were trampled on, and some girls fainted. Times Square was impassable both for pedestrians and vehicles.
Four hundred twenty-one policemen, two hundred detectives, seventy patrolmen, twenty patrol cars, and fifty traffic cars were among the forces summoned to establish order. Fifty additional ushers were on duty. More than three thousand youngsters, mostly girls, remained glued to their seats throughout the day and evening, waving their undergarments at him, expressing their delirium, giving every indication of being under something akin to a hypnotic spell (Ewen 1977, 466).
Frank Sinatra had become the undisputed king of pop vocalists. The journalists called Bing Crosby a "crooner". They coined a new term, "swooner," for Sinatra.
By 1950, however, Sinatra's voice began to show signs of wear – small wonder, with sometimes as many as forty-five shows per week, averaging eighty to one hundred songs per day (Pleasants 1974, 185). Then too, his bobby-sox fans were growing out of their adolescence, his hair was getting thin, his marriage was on the skids, and his new girlfriend, the feisty, ravishing beauty, Ava Gardner, was driving him crazy. In 1952, he hit bottom when Columbia canceled his recording contract and his agent had no night club dates for him.
Second Period. Sinatra began his second period with the most remarkable comeback in entertainment history, with his non-singing movie role as Maggio in From Here to Eternity (1954). Hollywood insiders said that Sinatra's initial audition for the role was just average, and he was not called back. He needed a break, however, and he had influential Italian Mafia friends who got him a second audition.
After his Academy Award for Maggio, Sinatra appeared in Guys and Dolls (1955) and High Society (1956), then in The Man with the Golden Arm (1956), Pal Joey (1957), The Detective (1968), and many more, often in non-singing roles with his buddies, "The Rat Pack" – Peter Lawford, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin, and Joey Bishop.
Illustrious acting achievements aside, Sinatra's great gifts are musical. His urge was to just be the best, to work harder than anyone else to deliver the tune, but to do so in his own style. Inspired by Bing Crosby, he determined to find that style, on his own, with no teachers or coaches. In an article for Life magazine in 1965, Sinatra was quite clear about his intent.
It occurred to me that maybe the world didn't need another Bing Crosby. I decided to experiment a little and come up with something different. What I finally hit on was more the bel canto Italian school of singing, without making a point of it. That meant I had to stay in better shape because I had to sing more (quoted in Pleasants 1974, 189).
His instinct for singing long lines, on lovely vowel colors, with judicious emotional inflection and impeccable enunciation gave his slow ballads a special warmth and beauty. At the same time, his macho, street-level code of life gave his up-tempo tunes a rhythmic, jazz-tinged sexuality that was, and still is, absolutely unique. The result was a new school of singing.
From the very beginning "all the elements that subsequently combined to make him one of the great singers of the century – a seamless legato, an intuitive grasp of phrasing, a feeling for the meaning and music of the words, and the warmth and intimacy of the voice itself, conveying a sense of sympathy and sincerity – were present then and can be heard on the first records he made with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey" (Pleasants 1974, 187).
The voice revealed the complex man. For all the controversy surrounding his personal life and questionable friends, Frank Sinatra changed the history of pop singing, and goes down in the record books as one of the true giants of the pop music business.
Italian Pop Singers
Before, during, and after Frank Sinatra's peak years, the entertainment world had a large number of Italian singers. Some of this was probably due to the fact that many of the big night clubs and resorts in America were, at the time, owned by the Mafia.
But the large number of Italian pop singers is also due to their historical and cultural gift for emotional and dramatic vocal music, the same instincts that made their countrymen the best opera composers and singers in all of Europe for three hundred years or more.
Here's a quick partial list of some of those Italian pop singers. Nick Lucas, Russ Columbo, Al Martino (Alfred Cini), Jerry Vale (Genaro Vitaliano), Frankie Lane (Frank Lo Vecchio), Vic Damone (Vito Farinola), Perry Como, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin (Walden Cassotto), Dean Martin (Dino Crocetti), Bobby Rydell (Bobby Ridarelli), Frankie Avalon, Tony Pastor (Antonio Pestritto), Julius La Rosa, Frankie Valli (Frank Castelluccio), and Buddy Greco.
Of all the colorful personalities involved in the 1930s film musicals, choreographer Busby Berkeley William Enos (1895-1976) was certainly the most unusual and original. His trademark sequences, so unique and distinctive, were created with only one camera which recorded the most extravagant images ever put on film. His work is absolutely unmistakable, indelible, and unequaled (Thomas and Terry 1973, 15).
Francis Enos, director of the Tim Frawley Repertory Company, and his wife, Gertrude Berkeley, became parents of their second boy in 1895. Taking his wife's stage name and the names of two of his best company actors, Amy Busby and William Gillette, the proud father named the new baby boy Busby Berkeley William Enos.
Life was tough for traveling theater groups, and after a series of misfortunes during which the father and older brother died, Gertrude Berkeley enrolled her bright son, Busby, in the Mohegan Lake Military Academy, near Peekskill, New York. Upon graduation in 1914, the restless boy settled into a promising business career in a shoe company in Athol, Massachusetts. He also played semi-pro baseball, organized a dance band, and performed on stage in local shows.
After an uneventful tour of duty during World War I, Busby Berkeley drifted from one minor acting assignment to the next. He eventually became a drama director, and in that role would occasionally choreograph his own dances. Theater critics kept writing favorable reviews of Berkeley's work, and he was finally engaged to do the Earl Carroll Vanities of 1928. The show was a huge success, and in no time at all Berkeley was everyone's favorite choreographer-director in show business.
His dance routines consisted of intricate multi-rhythmic motions of the arms and legs of dozens of beautiful girls who formed constantly changing geometric patterns. The patterns were filmed from a distance way up in the top of the stage catwalk with a camera fixed to a giant monorail or a hydraulic lift.
For a number in Footlight Parade (1933), one hundred girls slid down a studio-built waterfall into a forest lake that turned into a pool with gold spring-boards. In Gold Diggers of 1935, fifty-six milk-white pianos whirled in a military drill in waltz time, an effect achieved by stagehands all in black carrying lightweight piano shells on their backs.
In "Don't Say Goodnight" from Wonder Bar (1934), Berkeley set up an octagon of giant mirrors so that a hundred dancers looked like a thousand. In Ready, Willing and Able (1934), Ruby Keeler and Lee Dixon danced across the keys of a giant mechanical typewriter, and as they jumped from one key to another, fifteen girls, lying on their backs above the dancers, snapped their legs to simulate the keys striking a piece of paper.
The image created by the beautiful girls forming ever-changing geometric patterns with their bodies was much like looking through a kaleidoscope. It is no surprise, therefore, that near the end of his productive period, Berkeley did actually construct a huge kaleidoscope. It was for The Gang's All Here (1943), and Berkeley described it later.
I built a great kaleidoscope – two mirrors fifty feet high and fifteen feet wide which together formed a design. In the center of this I had a revolving platform eighteen feet in diameter, and as I took the camera up between these two mirrors, the girls on the revolving platform below created an endless design of symmetrical forms.
In another shot, I dropped (from above) sixty neon lighted hoops, which the girls caught and used in their dance maneuvers (Thomas and Terry 1973), 153).
All in all, Busby Berkeley had a hand in more than fifty Hollywood musicals. He changed the art form, and brought hours of escapist pleasure to movie goers all through the Depression with stunning dance routines by hundreds of attractive young hopefuls. Many of his girls went on to big careers, including Paulette Goddard, Betty Grable, and Lucille Ball.