By Shannon Butts
With technological innovations in sound and cinematography, the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood, the 1930s to the 1950s, produced musical films aimed at creating a dreamscape of Middle American values – a razzle-dazzle spectacle of modernity. In the 1930s few Americans could afford the luxury of the opera, ballet, or theatre and many did not take kindly to the ‘fast and loose’ values that came with vaudeville stages and burlesque performances; however, the new form of the ‘integrated’ musical film blended story, song, and dance to produce a middle class, middle brow, middle moral option for the populist masses. Combining the high art of operatic and symphonic style with the bawdy revues and stage productions of the ‘common folk,’ musicals had a style more aptly suited for the emerging ‘middle’ America and its vernacular idiom. Music was sung in English and usually accompanied by a lively colloquial tune while women traipsed the scene in slinky yet strangely demure costumes. Heterosexual couples would fall in love as the fantastic scenarios of song and dance subsumed differences of class, economics, or ethnicity.
Yet the musical not only mediated existing artistic forms and values, but also established a genre which reflected the new urban mass of industrial workers: the emerging modern American ‘middle’ class. Suited up in top-hat-variety-show fashion and with its pivotal plot points danced out in sequins and discreetly revealed décolletage, the musical offered a compromise in entertainment between art and industry, transforming the mechanization of the factory assembly line into the ‘happy-clappy’ rhythm of tap dance and jazz.
As America was sinking into eras of economic uncertainty and war, the musical offered an escapist option for the new urbanite class to take the dull and drab of economic depression and industrial mechanization and apply the golden light of Hollywood film. Freed from the fiscal and spatial economy of the stage and equipped with camera booms and editing rooms, the movie musical incorporated lavish sets and massive choreographed numbers akin to the Vegas pomp and circumstance of today – less nudity, but all the show stopping sparkly outfits and corresponding jazz hands.
Busby Berkeley came on the scene in the early 30s, taking the mechanization of industry to film through dance numbers that thrived on girls, girls, and more girls. Okay, sequins and camera tricks played a role as well, but mainly, girls. Building on the hurly burly of scandalous burlesque dance halls, Berkeley crafted musical numbers that featured simplistic dance styles in association with uniform geometric movement and, of course, those sparkly outfits. The camera would shoot from various angles to create an illusion of difficulty while the kaleidoscopic formations of those many women would create scenes of synchronicity rivaled only by babes in bathing caps and oh-so-modest swimming gear. Berkeley’s work centered around a basic unity of movement and shape reminiscent to the assembly line in production, establishing an industry standard for choreography and paving the way for massive productions without the need for excessive skill.
Amidst all those high kicks and shuffle ball changes, the audience was also presented with the overall idea of homogeneous figures in mass. The uniformity of movement extended to the uniformity of dancers, all dressed alike in groups, all performing the same steps and projecting the same image of smiley happy people holding hands. For the 1930s and 40s, this was what it was all about – ‘we all have to work together if we are going to make it’ – whether in a bread line, chorus line, or a factory assembly line. The individual faded and the production was the ‘thing,’ choreographed cogs in a musical machine.
But it was not merely the massive dance choreography that interpreted a modern middle working-class America, the basic music constructions alongside the moments of dance took on a clicking and clacking reminiscent of the machine room floor. Even with big band or jazz compositions carrying the melody, there often still remained an underlying staccato beat or bass ostinato that invoked the repetitious sounds of industry. As films moved from massive dance choreography to more character driven performances in the 1940s, the solo stars such as Ginger Rogers or Gene Kelly emphasized this ‘clickity clack’ even further as tap dancing became a thoroughly integrated ‘American’ style of musical dance. The toe taps and heel clicks resonated the mechanisms of modernity - the steady threshing of machines, passing of trains, and ticking of the time clock. The ‘tip and tap’ dancing invariably was incorporated into the music, the dancer’s feet acting as the percussion to the horns and brass. And at some point, the instruments would fade out, leaving only the metallic clicks of ‘shuffle ball change’ to soundtrack the moment. And boy did these soundtracks sell!
American movie musicals not only reflected industry, they became an industry, a factory of films putting Hollywood on the map while commodifying and proliferating the idea of the American ‘popular’ for almost 30 years. Music, dance, even the modern idea of celebrity emerged from the musical film industry. Songs such as “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “Cheek to Cheek”, and “Over the Rainbow” topped music charts while actors like Fred Astaire and Judy Garland became household names both in the United States and abroad. The film musical became a product just like any other, manufactured and shipped out to the masses. Encoded in these films was not just optimistic evidence of mechanized industry, but the proposed values of mainstream middle America: freedom, love, friendship, work, leisure, and success as well as ideas of race, religion, and sexuality that shaped public perception and established normative behaviors both at home and abroad (Bruce Babington and Peter W.Evans). Regardless of accuracy, the industry of American-‘ness’ was projected in the light of a movie screen. Yet, for all the optimism and elegance, the amalgamation and mediation, the pomp and circumstance of song and dance, the musical was a piece of work, a medium through which America ‘worked out’ issues of industry and identity through popular entertainment.
Kinda puts “Whistle While You Work” in a different light.
 Bruce Babington and Peter W.Evans. Blue Skies and Silver Linings: Aspects of the Hollywood Musical. Manchester: Manchester University Press. 1985. Print.