Genre in context : toward a reexamination of the film musical in classical Hollywood
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Though no single history of the Hollywood musical exists as such, a historical narrative nevertheless emerges from the extensive body of scholarly work on the genre. Most studies of the American film musical have used as texts a limited canon of films. Though these studies have illuminated many stylistic and critical constructs at work in the film musical, they have also presented an incomplete picture of the historical development of the musical in classical Hollywood. We need to contextualize our critical understanding of the American film musical by broadening the scope of films we study and by investigating the cultural and industrial circumstances in which these films were produced. The purpose of this study, then, is twofold: I offer a historical context in which to conduct critical examinations of the Hollywood film musical, and I provide examples of how this historical understanding can inform further investigations of the genre. By far the most attention in the literature is given to MGM musicals, particularly those produced by the Freed unit in the 1940s and 1950s, with RKO’s Astaire-Rogers films in the 1930s trailing not far behind. Yet almost every other Hollywood studio, whether major, minor, or independent, made cycles of musicals during the studio era. Paramount Pictures, through its Bing Crosby and Bob Hope Road films, provides a significant contrast to the MGM Freed unit among the large studios in the prosperous 1940s, while Walt Disney Productions, through its animated musicals in the 1950s, offers a rare example among independent studios during the dismantling of the studio system. Taken together, these two case studies present a cross-section of production and reception practices through the height of the classical Hollywood era and into the immediate postclassical period. I will use these two prominent cycles of film musicals to examine the dynamic relationship that existed between the industrial and cultural conditions of the entertainment industry and the film musical's aesthetic style and content. This study will work alongside the existing literature to create a more complete and historically grounded understanding of the American film musical in the classical Hollywood era.