To escape from thoughts of work, for which TV works better than reading, I recently spent a couple of unfortunate nightmare-ridden nights after watching The Wire.
It's a great show, but not what you'd call slumber material.
So now I'm trying 1930s musicals. Not the good ones, like Golddiggers of 1933
, but the kind that you have to be a movie fiend to love, like The Show of Shows
(1929) and Hollywood Revue of 1929
and Broadway Melody
and On with the Show!
In other words, the kinds of musicals for which the studios pulled out all the stops, and into which they put all their stars. The kind that wore out the public on musicals and made them box office poison until Golddiggers
and 42nd Street
brought musicals back.
There's a lot to love about these musicals, just in terms of sheer weirdness. Girl chandeliers! Girls marching and climbing up and down ladders! Girls draped with beads for clothes with statuary on their heads! Jolson impersonators! The comedy stylings of Frank Fay! Shakespeare! (John Gilbert and Norma Shearer in Hollywood Revue
doing Romeo and Juliet
in modern slang; John Barrymore doing the most villainous Richard III ever
in Show of Shows,
with the most mobile eyebrows in the history of cinema).
And song classics--"Am I Blue?" sung by the great Ethel Waters, "Singin' in the Rain," "You Were Meant for Me," and lots more.
What you'll probably notice most, though, is the big chorus numbers and the dancers. Except for the acrobats, the dancers have different values and technique from dancers today. A couple of timesteps and the ability to tap dance en pointe
in toe shoes and you were golden back then--if you could also flash a big smile.
But the energy was there, though not what would be perfect technique today. So what if they sometimes had to take an extra step to catch up? So what if their arms flailed a little? They got through it, and the whole thing got done, in the can, shipped, and out to audiences.
There's something about technical perfection that can be a little bloodless, and something about looseness and energy that can feel more interesting and creative. And that's how I'm thinking about the writing right now.