A genre is born: How moviegoers first fell in love with the musical

At the end of the roaring 20s, the arrival of talkies gave birth to a whole new genre. This is the little-told story of a Hollywood gold rush, and how song-and-dance movies first came to rule the box office.

Pamela Hutchinson
Updated:

Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly inventing dubbing in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the classic musical that mythologises the dawn of the genre

Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly inventing dubbing in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the classic musical that mythologises the dawn of the genre

The effervescent 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain tells an inspirational story of resilience, adaptation, passion and perfect pitch – and it’s not too far from the truth. When the coming of sound threatens to dismantle the career of silent movie star Don Lockwood, played by Gene Kelly, he doesn’t mope for long. Instead he embraces the new technology, with all its possibilities, and turns his next film into something far more exciting than a mere ‘talkie’. With the help of his friends Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) and Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) Don turns the romantic silent melodrama The Dueling Cavalier into a musical extravaganza that becomes a runaway success.

While the events that occur at the fictional Monumental Pictures studio in the film are a simplification of Hollywood history, the energy and pulsing musicality of Singin’ in the Rain give a fairly authentic sense of the excitement, innovation and panic that followed the arrival of talking pictures. During this time, a group of talented directors in Hollywood used every trick at their disposal, and invented a few more, to give birth to the musical film as an artform worthy of this expensive new technology.

A glizty Hollywood premiere at the end of the silent era, as depicted in Singin’ in the Rain

A glizty Hollywood premiere at the end of the silent era, as depicted in Singin’ in the Rain

There are three main points to remember about the period following the release of The Jazz Singer in October 1927, and Al Jolson’s famous line: “Wait a minute, wait a minute I tell yer, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” The first is that although that film was a hit, sound didn’t set in overnight. The Jazz Singer’s box-office receipts convinced other companies that they should follow Warner Bros into adopting synchronised sound, but it took a long time to convert studios into soundstages and wire speakers into cinemas. In between there were a lot of hastily converted part-talkies and films shot in both formats.

The second is that the arrival of sound represented a massive disruption to the industry, a costly new overhaul of almost every part of the filmmaking and exhibition process. It was an exciting time, and a worrying one.

The third point to bear in mind is that the attraction of the new technology for many studios was not so much the ability to add dialogue, but music and sound effects. For years, the new trade magazines would call the new films “audible pictures” before the phrase talkies caught on. That’s because the link between music and cinema was already established: silent films were shown with live accompaniment, which could vary hugely, and so studios used advances in technology to standardise the soundtracks when they could.

Around this time, many silent films were released with music-and-effects tracks, from Murnau’s romance Sunrise (1927) to the flapper drama starring Joan Crawford, Our Dancing Daughters (1928). Back in 1926, for example, Warner Bros had made a lavish film called Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, which was shot silent but augmented with a continuous musical score and sound effects: the clash of swords, the rumble of carriage wheels. It used the Vitaphone system, in which the soundtrack was played alongside the film from a phonograph record. Some of the Vitaphone features that followed, such as When a Man Loves (1927), seem to bear more than a passing resemblance to Singin’ in the Rain’s The Dueling Cavalier.

The screening of The Dueling Cavalier in Singin’ in the Rain

The screening of The Dueling Cavalier in Singin’ in the Rain

The Jazz Singer itself confines most of its dialogue to written intertitles and saves its bursts of sound for the songs performed by Broadway star Jolson. The film was designed to showcase his musical talent, after all. What followed, especially after the even more successful Jolson vehicle The Singing Fool in 1928, was a wild period of experimentation that gave birth to the movie musical as we know it. For many people the history of this genre begins in 1933 with a trio of Warner Bros backstage musicals choreographed by Busby Berkeley, and the first on-screen appearances by Fred Astaire. But in the years 1928-32, the musical grew at a rapid rate, encompassing great leaps in technological capability and cinematic artistry. There were more than 100 musicals made in 1930 alone, and they deserve to be more than a footnote in the genre’s history.

The musical craze reported on a Variety front page in Singin’ in the Rain

The musical craze reported on a Variety front page in Singin’ in the Rain

Studios did not have to look far for material. Many of the first “audible pictures” were transfers of successful revues from Broadway, starring stars similarly recruited from the stage. One of the most famous examples is 1929’s The Cocoanuts, a transfer of the Marx Brothers’ 1925 Broadway hit featuring songs by Irving Berlin, filmed by Paramount at its New York studios.

The Cocoanuts (1929), a transfer of the Marx Brothers’ 1925 Broadway hit featuring songs by Irving Berlin

The Cocoanuts (1929), a transfer of the Marx Brothers’ 1925 Broadway hit featuring songs by Irving Berlin

Even when musical films of this period had an original story, they rarely strayed too far from the boards. MGM’s first musical, The Broadway Melody (1929), often said to be the first all-sound Hollywood musical, follows the antics of performers at a New York revue helmed by one Francis Zanfield (a conscious echo of Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld). It was the highest-grossing film of the year and won the second-ever best picture Oscar too. You can hear two of its songs, including ‘You Were Meant for Me’, in Singin’ in the Rain, as that film directly plunders the back catalogue of songs written for early MGM musicals by Nacio Herb Brown and future producer Arthur Freed.

Advertisements for The Broadway Melody called it “The New Wonder of the Screen!” and promised an “All Talking All Singing All Dancing Dramatic Sensation” but among all this hype, there was a certain amount of trepidation. Making sound films could be more difficult than making silents and most of the first talkie productions muddled through on a trial-and-error basis, learning as they went along. Cameras had to be surrounded in cumbersome soundproof cases, microphones hidden around the set, and orchestras squeezed on to the soundstage: the first audibles appeared much more static than the best silents.

The Broadway Melody (1929), winner of the second ever Oscar for best picture

The Broadway Melody (1929), winner of the second ever Oscar for best picture

Many audiences couldn’t watch sound films yet, and those who could were sometimes disappointed. So when the critics praised early musicals, they often did so by comparing them favourably to silent films, rather than emphasising the difference. For Variety, The Broadway Melody offered: “everything a silent picture should have outside of its dialog. A basic story with some sense to it, action, excellent direction, laughs, a tear, a couple of great performances and plenty of sex.” Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review of King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929) reassured readers that: “Although it is a talking venture, Mr Vidor has not permitted sound to interfere with chances for telling photography.”

Even audiences were changing. In 1929, cinema executive Harold B. Franklin wrote in a book called Sound Motion Pictures: “Observations would indicate that audible pictures are more likely than silent ones to move audiences to applause.” He recommended the use of electric signs and “special trailers” to encourage the patrons to pipe down and let others enjoy listening to the film in peace.

There was also a sense of nervousness in Hollywood that something else, just as cataclysmic as the arrival of sound, might be on its way. In January 1930, Clifford Howard wrote an article for Close-Up entitled ‘The Menace Around the Corner’ suggesting that Hollywood was terrified of being caught unawares by such advances as “natural-colour” film, television or even a paper replacement for celluloid. “Every picture at present turned out, and every investment in service and equipment, is freighted with the uncertainty of chance… yesterday’s production is primitive and crude in comparison with the latest one of to-day, in its improved technique and mechanical betterment.” Talkies could not rest on the novelty of sound alone: they had to be as future-proof as possible.

The Broadway Melody was one of many films of this period, including Paul Fejos’s Broadway (1929), to feature a two-strip Technicolor finale, and a handful of others, including The Show of Shows (1929) and The King of Jazz (1930), were shot entirely in the two-strip format: an early version of the Technicolor process that is limited to red and green tones. Notably, this caused a difficulty for Universal’s The King of Jazz, a variety-format film made up of songs and skits that features an epic rendition of Rhapsody in Blue – in the event, it was more of a rhapsody in turquoise.

The King of Jazz (1930), a variety-format film featuring a rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

The King of Jazz (1930), a variety-format film featuring a rendition of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue

Colour wasn’t the only way that filmmakers chose to innovate. Directors were eager to capture the beauty of their chorus lines from all angles – especially high. For The Cocoanuts, director Robert Florey stacked two cameras on top of each other and placed another on stilts. Photoplay published a picture of the latter contraption with the caption: “Talking pictures have to do the craziest things!” Cinematographer George J. Folsey was more impressed: “Florey was an artist,” he said. “He knew it was interesting to shoot down on a bunch of chorus girls unfolding like flowers – we hadn’t done that before.” A few years later, Busby Berkeley would develop this idea in several attractively abstract directions. 

Applause (1929), an inventive early example of the backstage musical

Applause (1929), an inventive early example of the backstage musical

As early as 1929’s Applause, director Rouben Mamoulian used extremely high-angled shots to capture his chorus girls not just on stage but when they crowded around a friend’s bed during labour. Taking the high-angled photography a stage further by adding movement, director Paul Fejos invented the camera-crane for his film Broadway. This innovation was the subject of some excitable press: American Cinematographer magazine accompanied pictures of the new machine with the headline “It does everything but talk!” and Photoplay waxed lyrical about its many virtues as well as praising the film’s modish new set, which was inspired by cubism.

Across the Atlantic, in 1930, French director René Clair opened his Under the Roofs of Paris with a gorgeous crane shot over his urban set. The crane is now a staple of cinema and especially musicals – there are numerous elegant examples of its use in Singin’ in the Rain, and La La Land (2016) employs one for its opening number.

Those swooping crane shots in Broadway are even echoed in the musical’s romantic lyrics. Glenn Tryon sings: “Hitting the ceiling/Breaking through to the stars.” Early musicals were inspired to escape the soundstages and plasterboard nightclubs in a more literal sense too. A full two decades before On the Town (1949), Applause and Hallelujah both featured several scenes shot on location: in Manhattan and rural Tennessee and Arkansas respectively. Hallelujah was also notable for being one of the very first major studio features to feature an all African American cast. Its depiction of black American music and culture was far more authentic than was usual in Hollywood films of the time, and the soundtrack was carefully mixed and edited too.

King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), which features an all-black cast

King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), which features an all-black cast

Vidor’s film was inspired by hearing choirs sing spirituals on Broadway, and tells the story of a young man played by Daniel L. Haynes who becomes a preacher, but then throws his life over for a vampish woman played by Nina Mae McKinney. The studio worried that white audiences wouldn’t relate to the film, but it was a hit across the board, and although there have been serious criticisms of its use of certain stereotypes, it’s still considered a landmark in Hollywood’s representation of people of colour, and in the movie musical itself.

Vidor was only able to make Hallelujah because he oversold the sex angle to producer Joseph Schenck, who conceded: “Well, if you think like that, I’ll let you make a picture about whores.” Prejudice may have still been a factor in deciding what got made, but prudishness was far less of an obstacle. These first musicals were all made in the pre-Code era, and although many in Hollywood did worry that adding dialogue to film would give the Production Office more reason to enforce censorship, many of them are a riot of boozing, crime, bedhopping and innuendo.

The Love Parade (1929), the first of a series of musicals from Ernst Lubitsch

The Love Parade (1929), the first of a series of musicals from Ernst Lubitsch

The latter was the speciality of German director Ernst Lubitsch, who made a short string of musical jewels in this early time period. His first talkie was the Ruritanian musical The Love Parade, which starred future genre titans Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, and was a huge success. Rather than a stage transfer or variety show, The Love Parade represented a new departure: an original operetta created for the screen. Screenland enthused: “Leave it to Lubitsch to remember that the screen has a glorious technique that in the first excitement of sound pictures has been largely tossed aside… Now the great German director is making a musical film in which he uses all the triumphs of the cinematic idiom.”

Mordaunt Hall agreed, writing in the New York Times that it “reveals unmistakably that this Teutonic genius is not dismayed by the linking of the microphone with the camera”.

And Lubitsch’s films weren’t just sophisticated in technique. Despite their fairytale settings, these witty operettas were slathered in his famously knowing sexual humour and were definitely musicals for grownups – who can forget Claudette Colbert advising Miriam Hopkins to “jazz up your lingerie” in 1931’s The Smiling Lieutenant?

Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), the grand finale of the genre’s early phase

Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), the grand finale of the genre’s early phase

If this period of the movie musical has a grand finale, it’s Mamoulian’s charming Love Me Tonight from 1932. This film benefits from the sweet combination of elegant camera movements, refined sound design, technical cleverness and certain enjoyably carnal humour. And that’s not to mention the twin duos of Chevalier and MacDonald singing songs by Rodgers and Hart. It’s endlessly adorable, as ripe as Chevalier’s smile, and in the ensemble number ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’ it’s both very charming and very technically accomplished, as the song is picked up and passed along by different members of the cast.

As the New York Times noted: “This new picture is a musical fantasy, in which Mr Mamoulian never neglects an opportunity to conjure with the microphone or make the most of the camera.” Even Don Lockwood would be proud of a musical like that – the crowning glory of this vibrant genre’s first burst of enthusiasm.

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