The University Record, March 8, 1999

No waltzing around for ‘Oscar’ this year

By Joanne Nesbit
News and Information Services

Those golden statues are ready for distribution. But not one of the nominations for the Academy Awards is for a film musical. None were made in 1998. Not many have been made since the 1960s. And that void is all because of the lack of musical stars and the preponderance of rock music and sex, says Peter Bauland, associate professor of English who teaches a class in film musicals.

“We no longer have the kind of musical stars who can sustain interest in a character for a full-length film,” Bauland says. “And rock music simply does not lend itself to musicals. The rhythms are too regular and the lyrics subjected to a regularity of meter. But above all, the lyrics tend to be unintelligible when sung and inhospitable to lyrics with wit, intelligence, invention and variety.”

Once morality restrictions in the film industry were lifted, there was no need for a metaphor for sex, and film-makers began to take full advantage of the newly established standards. During the depression years of the ’30s and the war years of the ’40s, movie audiences were entertained and titillated by the dancing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in such classics as Top Hat, Astaire and Judy Garland in Easter Parade and Gene Kelly and Garland in The Pirate. These dances, Bauland says, were performed as a love ritual, about the same thing one could see two scorpions doing in Disney’s The Living Desert.

Each musical, written expressly for the film genre, featured a “challenge” dance, a duel of tapping toes that eventually becomes a duet. The challenge becomes the courtship; the duet engenders more romance and sublimated sex. As in the 1935 production of Top Hat with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, Bauland points out that the interpersonal relationship between the characters played by Astaire and Rogers is developed through dance and music. “There is no erotica,” Bauland says, “but the implication is there.” And in the classic 1952 Singin’ in the Rain the erotic theme was slowly “shoehorned” into the musical through the dancing of Cyd Charisse.

While most of the classics are available on video and/or laser disc, these recordings are no substitute for seeing films on the big screen. “The TV screen dimensions don’t let you see the whole image,” Bauland says, “and video technology cannot yet show as ‘deep’ an image as film.”