Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of Musical Film

A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film
Second Edition
by Richard Barrios
Oxford University Press
Paperback 9780195377347

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.

Barrios isn't afraid to share his opinions or judgements. It is necessary to know this going into reading the book because otherwise it might come as an unwelcome shock. It does add something extra to the text which could have been quite dull without Barrios' voice shining through. Although, I have to admit it took some getting used to. I almost set the book aside to pick up something else until I got 170 pages in and found my stride. I'm so glad I stuck with the book because boy did I learn a lot!

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:


  1. Really enjoyed your review! I need to pull this book down off the shelf and revisit it from start to finish -- when I first got it many years ago I'm not sure I understood much about things like pre-Codes, and I'm sure if read it now I'll have a much better context for understanding the early musicals.

    I've always loved sweet Ruby Keeler, though I confess that at times I've found her dance style clunky -- I love that explanation you included by Barrios about the wooden soles.

    If you haven't yet seen it, an early musical that I love is LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932) with Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, and Myrna Loy, score by Rodgers & Hart. It made a big impression on me when my parents took me to audit a college course on musicals in my teen years.

    I need to see some of those films you mentioned above -- I recently got MADAME SATAN, inspired in part by your past review, and I'm really looking forward to trying it.

    Best wishes,

    1. Laura - I'm so glad you have a copy of this book! If you get a chance to review it, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

      I find older dancing styles are very misunderstood and people are quick to judge which angers me greatly. I think it's because I used to dance and just to think of future generations looking at the dances I used to do and making fun of them because they are different makes me incredibly sad. I also seem to have a tendency to fight for the under dog and Ruby Keeler seems to get a lot of hate. So I feel the need to stand up for her dancing and for her as well. It doesn't hurt that I actually like her hoofer style (I find myself copying her dance moves in the privacy of my own living room - when my husband is away) and I like her sweet nature too!

      Thanks for recommending Love Me Tonight. I haven't seen that one yet. I'm interested to read your thoughts on Madam Satan. That is one bizarre film but very entertaining.

  2. Great review, Quelle! I love early musicals and some are among my favorites... I had a year where enjoyed and studied them... Great memories... :)

    Will definitely be picking this book up in the near future!

    1. Thank you Sebina! That's so wonderful that you spent a year studying them. Was that for school or was that an independent project?

  3. You know what? I've always liked Keeler, but I often wondered why she always looked down while she was dancing. I thought it may have been because she was camera-shy LOL Now I know better! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this book - it definitely sounds like a must-read for me!

    1. Vanessa - Thanks for your comment. Speaking of looking down, I'm always fascinated my those musical numbers in which elaborately dressed women in heels walk blindly down staircases, looking forward the entire time. Wow! I always have to look down when I walk down staircases, go for hikes and sometimes when I dance too.

  4. Greatly enjoyed your post, Raquel! I'm not a big musicals fan, but the ones that I do like tend to be the ones from the era covered in this book. I also appreciated the text you provided about Ruby Keeler -- when I watched her in a couple of musicals last month, I wondered about her technique, and decided she was more of a "hoofer" than a polished tap dancer. Interesting stuff!

    1. Karen - Thank you! You are so right. She is more of a hoofer than a polished tap dancer. I wish people would realize that tap dance styles of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire are not the only ones in existence.

  5. Great post! I love the early musicals of the sound era, and I'll have to pick up that book. Next to Eleanor Powell, Ruby Keeler is one of my favorites!

    1. David - thanks for your comment. You have great taste!

  6. Wow. That number I wanna be bad is terrific. So inventive.

    Vienna's Classic Hollywood

  7. As a lover of musicals, this sounds like a great book to read! I loved the info you posted about Ruby Keeler as well, she does get the short end of the stick from some people. I honestly haven't read a lot of books focusing on specific genres, so this one might be a good one to add to the list :)



Leave me a comment! If it is a long one, make sure you save a draft of it elsewhere just in case Google gobbles it up and spits it out.

Popular Posts

 Twitter   Instagram   Facebook