When Broadway Went to Hollywood

An amusing, insightful account of the movies that sing

Dec. 26, 2016
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Ethan Mordden loves film and Broadway shows, yet is often frustrated when they meet and produce that hybrid known as the movie musical. With When Broadway Went to Hollywood, the New Yorker-New York Times writer has composed a rarity in today’s glutted publishing world: a book at once witty, well informed and just long enough. It’s neither a magazine article on steroids or a deadly compendium of every known fact. Like a good songwriter, Mordden chose his notes well.

The author disclaims any intention of writing a history of Hollywood musicals, though inevitably it becomes that. Despite his focus on Broadway writers who transitioned to the movies, he’s a smart enough to know that context is necessary: hence, history.

Mordden’s story begins with the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), adapted by Warner Brothers from Samson Raphaelson’s “sentimental little play,” forgotten if not for its place in film history. The filming of The Jazz Singer revealed the tensions and tendencies inherent as Hollywood cast its eyes on Broadway. Many of the moguls were evidently literal minded—or else they suspected (with good reason) that most of their audience thought that way. Hollywood liked The Jazz Singer because the musical bits arose from the necessity of the story being told. Mordden: “What if, God forbid, two sweethearts take a stroll in a forest and some crazy songwriter gives them a love song?” It took a few years before Hollywood fully embraced the fantasy.

“Yet more,” as Mordden puts it, “Raphaelson’s play was New Yorkist in tone, and New York was the nation’s obsession and resentment”—resented by heartlanders but “a great movie city, because no matter what you put on the screen, the public believed it if it took place there: New York was stories.” Maybe this explains why the city remains the setting for so many movies even today, including ones where no one even whistles a tune much less erupts in song.

Warner Brothers replaced The Jazz Singer’s Broadway star with someone more bankable, an electrifying celebrity singer, Al Jolson. “Like him or not,” Mordden writes, “he has an energy that set the Hollywood musical on the way to the rest of its life.” Also, the studio tinkered with the music, this time to good effect, interpolating Irving Berlin’s wonderful “Blue Skies,” which Jolson turned into the film’s showstopper. Raphaelson hated the movie, which turned his theme on its head: instead of the play’s affirmation of Old World legacy, the movie celebrated the self-invented identity that was already part of America’s self-perception and social decomposition.

Mordden’s observations extend well beyond his insightful analysis of individual musicals. In the 1930s, as he sees it, there were three moviegoing audiences: “the more sophisticated audience of the theatre capitals”; an audience from “the towns of the interior: less sophisticated but occasionally adventurous”; finally, the audience of “of the American village, with antique taste and a limited appetite for novelty.” In the present era he adds a fourth audience, even worse than the third, “the uncultured, intolerant of anything they’re not used to.”

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