I feel there is a talkie myth I have to kill. Almost everything written concerning the early talkies states them as static, stagy, non moving, stale or plain dull. This seems to be the common view of what an early talkie is like. Well, I don't agree. I think there lies more behind the staginess than the fact that the camera was stuck in a booth and nailed to the floor. There are of course certain films that are incredibly static and non moving because they simply were bad films, done by directors that didn't know better. But there is a particular reason for the staginess in certain pictures no one seems to think of.
The most static of them all is probably Warner's Technicolor Extravaganza The Show Of Shows from 1929. It's almost unwatchable for a modern day audience, especially since all that is left of it is a foggy black and white print made for TV in the 50's. This seemingly endless, over two hour long revue belongs to the bunch of films that didn't age well. Let's take a look at the only preserved color sequence from it that has reached the public eye. A Chinese Fantasy or "Li-Po-Li" written by Edward Ward and Al Bryan, featuring Nick Lucas and Myrna Loy.
The staginess is frightfully apparent here because it is a stage presentation that has been filmed straight up. All the big revues of 1929-30 are static seen through the eyes of the modern day spectator, but to say that the early talkies as a whole had this problem is unfair. Imagine the effect a number like this had on a 1929 audience. I guess it must have been mindblowing, and in color too!
There are quite a few movies from 1929 that are very mobile and full of movement. Cecil B DeMilles Dynamite is one example. Let's take a look at a scene from another 1929 talkie, MGM's Their Own Desire, a film that opened December 27th 1929, two days prior to The Show Of Shows. We'll see Robert Montgomery picking up Norma Shearer at a very stylish party, all set to a beautiful and catchy tune, The Night Is Blue, written by Fred Fisher.
I don't find this especially static or stagy, It could have been filmed in the 1950's if you ask me. No, I think the static staginess should be looked upon as almost a genre in itself, a style that developed during the musical craze of 1929. After all, most of the early musicals were either revues or backstage dramas.
Four months later, in April 1930 Warner's takes the genre even further in Show Girl In Hollywood where perky Alice White is lured to Hollywood to make a talkie. What we have here is a meta-film. The audience are invited on the set. Quiet! Camera! Action!
I come to the conclusion that most musicals were basically filmed theatre because Broadway shows was something everyone wanted to see at the time. Putting a Broadway show on film was also simple and economic for the studios. With sets, songs and routines already worked out, the only thing left to to was to film it. They were meant to be stagy because they should give the audience the illusion of attending a Broadway show, not a movie.
The real movie musical came a few years later with Busby Berkeley's almost psychedelic settings in 42nd street. Berkeley was the first director who saw the musical genre as something uniquely cinematographic. His production numbers were always a feast for the eye, showing the audience things that never could be experienced when sitting in the stalls at a theatre. Let's take a look at the earliest example of Berkeley's work, it's not exactly as psychedelic as his later numbers but not that static either. Stetson from Whoopee (1930) Ethel Shutta and the Goldwyn Girls are all over the place. (Thanks to Matt for the video)
Many of the earliest musicals are lovable and sweet in all their innocence and they often contains wonderful songs, some of them still sung today.
I end this post with a superb song from the wonderful 1934 movie Kid Millions. Eddie Cantor introduces Ann Sothern and George Murphy who sing the Burton Lane classic Your Head On My Shoulder. Not exactly an early talkie but an example of brilliant songwriting.
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