by Richard Barrios
Oxford University Press
Barnes and Noble
"By inviting us to behold vestiges of our past, these movies allow us to revel, if only momentarily, in a time in which the world appeared less fraught, optimism was an option, and song and dance mattered immensely." - A Song in the Dark, Richard Barrios
I have had many long conversations with Jonas of All Talking! All Dancing! All Singing! about early talkies and I always found myself as the weaker half of the conversation. I really wanted to learn more about films from this era, particularly musicals, and Jonas had recommended a book for me to read so I could be well-informed on the subject.
A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film by Richard Barrios is a comprehensive and thorough examination of the early era of musicals. It focuses specifically on films from 1926-1934 starting with Don Juan (1926) and ending with The Gay Divorcee (1934). The book is well-organized which is crucial for the reader because otherwise we would get lost in the vast sea of information.
The book follows the story of early musical film chronologically however Barrios adeptly groups the films in each chapter into individual themes. This makes the book very readable. Chapter themes include Hollywood Revues [there were several: King of Jazz (1930), Hollywood Revue of 1929, The Show of Shows (1929), Paramount on Parade (1930), etc.], the Mammy theme [The Jazz Singer (1927), etc.], Comedies, the exotic, films that were not quite musicals, etc. There are also chapters on different specific time periods as well as one on The March of Time which is the most interesting chapter of them all. It focuses primarily on early musical failures and why they failed. It ends with The March of Time which is a Hollywood revue that was never finished and thus never released. A lot was already filmed and those musical numbers were chopped up and released in other movies, revues and shorts.
A special thank you goes out to author Richard Barrios for writing this about Ruby Keeler, a performer who I think is very misunderstood by modern audiences:
This particular performer needs her context, for Keeler will strike many as across-the-board incompetent.... As her primary identity apart from Jolson was as a tap dancer, viewers may be surprised by the flailing arms, leaden footwork, and the fact that the top of her head is more visible than her face; she's staring down at those feet to make sure they do her bidding. [Her heavy-footed technique, which seems absurd to those accustomed to Eleanor Powell or Ann Miller, is part of an older dancing tradition. The shoes had wood soles, not metal taps, and produced more sound the harder they were banged down.]Barrios explained this so perfectly! So for those of you who make fun of Ruby Keeler, you can go stuff it.
It does help if you are familiar with early musical films. Make sure you watch some early classics like The Jazz Singer (1927) an early revue like Hollywood Revue of 1929, Gold Diggers of 1933, Sunnyside Up (1929), Madam Satan (1930), The Broadway Melody (1929), Hips, Hips, Hooray! (1934), etc. When I read the book, I already had some familiarity with early musicals but when I did come across an unfamiliar film that was talked about extensively, I took the time to watch a clip online. YouTube has lots of the musical numbers (and oftentimes entire films) available to watch at any time. I recommend Jonas's YouTube channel which has quite a number of early musical gems.
A Song in the Dark is an essential guide for anyone with a keen interest in film history and musicals. I highly recommend it. Thank you to Oxford University Press for sending me this book for review!
Below are a few of my favorite early musical numbers: