Rubin- Busby Berkeley and the Backstage Musical

  • Usually thought of as cinematic, a break from the stage-bound camera style of early musicals.
  • importance of the continuity between Berkeley's film style and preceding theatrical forms-based on creating feelings of abundance, variety, and wonder.
  • Musical genre in state of suspension between spectacle and narrative, between aggregation and integration.
  • Berkeley considered an innovator of intricate and offbeat rhythms. assisted in building integrated musical comedy forms. Pushed for external novelty, spectacle, and precision dancing.
  • The first major wave of talking pictures had loads of musicals. These films were plotless revues, employing backstage mini-narratives that concerned the production of the revue (in the film). Popular from 1929-1932
  • tour-on-the town format: musicals that take viewers on a tour of the big city. Initially began with Tom and Jerry: or, Life in London. It worked with its "rapidly shifting scenes, great diversity of city types and of character, and large amount of consequent spectacle, song and dance". More variations were made of other cities.
  • Farce-comedy: employed a rudimentary plot in a setting (theater or cabaret) and would perform specialty or musical acts.
  • The backstage musical: works from the inside, origination for the venue where the show is made and centering on the performers who make it.
  • The backstage musical flourished through the 30s, became attached to other forms in the 40's and 50's, then becoming a nostalgic or parodic version in the 60's.
  • The most essential piece of spectacle in the backstage musical is space. A space must be established that's independent of the surrounding narrative. A place where spectacle's occur but don't disrupt the flow of the narrative.
  • Berkeley's Gold Diggers of 1933 as an example of a musical that doesn't break impossibility at points of transition from narrative to performance. But, the numbers are audaciously impossible in theatrical space. These occur on two levels: scale and effects.
  • Scale - the numbers create constant and rapid progress into new and enormous space that can't all be contained in a theatrical stage.
  • Effects - the numbers create configurations that are only possible with a film camera, editing table, special effects and would be impossible on a theatrical stage.
  • RKO/Astaire pictures make their world's more homogenous and continuous than Berkeley's distinct differences of worlds. Done by 1) making world of musical numbers more natural and restrained and 2) the world of the narrative more artificial and stylized.
  • The 1st is done by a reduction of scale and naturalizing of musical performance. The 2nd is done through polished dialogue and syncopated line deliveries.
  • Berkeley spectacularizes the camera; liberates it from demands of narrativity in order to assert a presence of autonomous display.



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