THE MOVIE MUSICAL! By Jeanine Basinger (Knopf)
I promised myself a gift for the holidays: time enough to read Jeanine Basinger’s 634-page book about movie musicals. I’m so glad I made good on that promise. What a wonderful addition to my library, and what fun it was to devour.
Jeanine Basinger is a brilliant woman who is articulate but refreshingly plain-spoken. She really knows her subject, as is evident from the films she mentions—not just classics but bread-and-butter films from the studio era like Shine On, Harvest Moon, which she cites as an antidote to more pretentious modern-day musicals like Moulin Rouge and Everyone Says I Love You.
This is not a dry history lesson but an interpretive survey of the musical film from its infancy to the present day. We already know about the glories of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but Basinger’s eloquent summation is lovely to read. “Once paired, Astaire and Rogers just fit. They are both slender and the right height for each other. Astaire likes to move a woman rapidly around the floor in an intricate pattern of steps, and on a dance floor Rogers could fly. She was light and could be twirled up and around. She was flexible, especially in her remarkable back, which suited Astaire’s desire to have his female partner sway backwards and forwards from the waist up. She was very pretty, but not so beautiful that she wiped him of the screen, and both could laugh with ease on camera. And, critically, Rogers fit perfectly with Astaire in their dialogue scenes—they’re not only great when dancing with each other, they’re great when they’re talking to each other. Their banter is like a musical number, with the same kind of pauses and checks and balances that their choreography has.”
The author has strong opinions and has the ability to back them up. She explains why she regards the 1936 version of Show Boat as a great American musical and why the Technicolor remake from 1951 feels hollow at the center. She can also be irreverent. Discussing a movie she likes, Johann Strauss biography The Great Waltz (1938) she adds parenthetically, “Never mind that Strauss has a noble little wife, [played by Luise Rainer in one of her ‘Let me suffer, I’m after the Oscar’ roles].”
The major achievement of this book is identifying the ingredients that define the movie musical: the ability to make us believe that the people onscreen have no choice but to sing and dance, even if they are not portraying performers. She addresses this challenge more than once, and is happy to point out both the ground rules and the exceptions to it. No one else I’ve read could unlock the reasons why La La Land left me wanting.
Basinger is no stick-in-the-mud. There are many contemporary musicals she admires, but she also faces facts: we may never see talents like Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, George Gershwin, Ernst Lubitsch, Vincente Minnelli, Busby Berkeley, or Hermes Pan again in our lifetime. All the more reason to cherish the great entertainment (and art form) they created and nurtured. This exhilarating book does just that.