The next time a cliché-laden piece of cinematic musical pap lands at your feet, please do not write off it off as a genre. With the current state of things, it seems hard to believe that if it was not for the musical, Hollywood almost definitely wouldn’t be anything like as big as it is today.
Unlike today, when many independent production companies can hold their own at the box office, back in the 1920s and 30s, Hollywood was controlled by a small number of major studios. These places were run like filmic factories, using influences from the Fordist model of production to churn out release after release for the new, ravenous cinema goer. Because of this, like in a regular business, it was vital to generate consistent revenue. Luckily a genre developed, mostly from familiarity with stage shows, which allowed budgets to be controlled, audiences to be entertained, production to move quickly, and – most importantly – a consistent stream of revenue to be developed. Musicals facilitated Hollywood’s early growth.
Some remarkable technological innovations are associated with the musical. The Jazz Singer, the first film to ever use sound, is a musical. If you watch any films choreographed by Busby Berkeley, such as 42nd Street, you will see camera movements and set design that were brand new at the time, and are still being used today. If you ever see anything kaleidoscopic in a film (or in a music video) they are being influenced by musicals.
Not only did musicals allow Hollywood to grow and, eventually, take risks due to having a solid financial base, but if it weren’t for musicals, Frank Sinatra would never have become a household name. In addition to that, MTV and music videos as a whole grew from the ‘soundies’ of the 1940s.
Next time you despair about the rubbish, teeny-bopper musical trash around, take a beat and remember that any film that you have ever enjoyed in your life might only have been made because the musical saved Hollywood in its infancy.