History of Hollywood Musicals 1: pre-1940

The Great Ziegfeld
"A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody"
from 'The Great Ziegfeld, 1935'


The history of the Hollywood musical is linked directly to three things: firstly, to the development of the technology of Talkies - the synchronisation of sound and vision on screen; secondly, to the performers, directors and choreographers who were available at the time; and thirdly, to the attitudes and abilities of the individuals who controlled the big studios.

During the early years of silent cinema, music was regarded as essential to accompany the action on screen. It was used to create atmosphere and to backup the movie action, giving the audience clues as to the emotions involved. In most movie theaters a solo piano was used, although the larger city theaters would use organists or even small orchestras.

Gradually technology evolved to enable sound, both music and dialogue, to be synchronised with the screen action. After 'The Jazz Singer' in 1927 the production of silents began to decline and by the early 1930's had ceased altogether.

Warner Brothers and the First Musicals

Warner Brothers was the studio which first experimented successfully with synchronising sound and film and in 1925 they developed the 'Vitaphone' sound system which recorded sound on a 78rpm wax disc which was electronically synchronized with the film projector. The discs were limited in that they could only contain about 10 minutes of sound and so were ideal for the short one reelers showing comic acts taken straight from the vaudeville stage. The disks had to be replaced after every ten uses, and it was easy for the picture and discs to fall out of synch with predictably hilarious results.

In 1926 Warners brought out 'Don Juan' which was a full length silent movie with a 'Vitaphone' disc containing a complete musical score and sound effects synchronised to the action on screen.

Most of the other main studios, after stone-walling for several years, started the complex and expensive task of converting from silent to sound film production. The technical difficulties were many. Sound stages had to be constructed and special soundproof camera boxes constructed as cameras made noise. The camera noise would be picked up by the microphone, which also "heard" every other noise, rustle and cough in the vicinity. The microphone was a new addition to the studio and many actors found difficulty in adjusting to it.

The years 1927 to 1930 were years of change and adjustment for the studios, technicians and performers. Some made the adjustment easily; many did not.

'The Jazz Singer' 1927

There had been previous attempts at incorporating dialogue and music into movies but always in short films. 'The Jazz Singer' contains synchronized speech and sound effects as well as numerous synchronized singing sequences. Al Jolson's first song is is of "Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," about 15 minutes into the picture and the first synchronised speech, directly after the song, was Jolson's famous stage patter: "Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain't heard nothin' yet!"

In reality, although it is generally quoted as being the first feature-length Talkie, the film was mainly silent. It nevertheless made a substantial profit, grossing over $2.5 million on production costs of $422,000, which was extraordinary considering how few theatres had the technology to show it. Many of them screened it without the Vitaphone discs and played Jolson records - not necessarily the correct ones - during the movie's vocal sequences. Throughout America 'The Jazz Singer' played to packed theaters and popular demand for more sound films grew.

'The Singing Fool' 1928

Warner Brothers capitalised on the success of 'The Jazz Singer' by bringing out a similar part silent, part synchronised musical the following year. Again starring the superstar Al Jolson 'The Singing Fool' became, as more cinemas became geared up for sound, the highest grossing film of all time, a record which it held until 'Gone with the Wind' in 1939.

It was apparent that Sound had arrived. 'The Singing Fool' grossed over $5.5 million on production costs of $388,000 and Warner Brothers had become one of Hollywood's major studios. At the end of 1928 they brought out a third "singing silent", 'My Man', with Fanny Brice and during the following year sound movies completely replaced Silents. An art form had disappeared.

Most of the other main studios, after stone-walling for several years, started the complex and expensive task of converting from silent to sound film production. The technical difficulties were many. Sound stages had to be constructed and special soundproof camera boxes constructed as cameras made noise. The camera noise would be picked up by the microphone, which also "heard" every other noise, rustle and cough in the vicinity. The microphone was a new addition to the studio and many actors found difficulty in adjusting to it.

The years 1927 to 1930 were years of change and adjustment for the studios, technicians and performers. Some made the adjustment easily; many did not.

'Showboat' 1929

In 1929 Universal released 'Show Boat', starring Laura La Plante. Originally made as a conventional silent film, it was temporarily withheld from release when the studio realised that audiences might be expecting sound. Several scenes were reshot to include some dialogue and singing and the movie was released in two versions, one as a silent film for movie theatres still not equipped for sound, and one as a part-talkie with a sound introduction.

'The Broadway Melody' 1929

The Musical Revolution swept on. Generally regarded as the first true Hollywood musical, 'The Broadway Melody' was the first sound film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and was one of the first musicals to feature a Technicolor sequence and to use a mobile camera. Produced by the young MGM genius, Irving Thalberg, and with hit songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, it became the top grossing picture of 1929.

The 1930's Musical Boom Bust and Boom

After the expense and upheaval of the changeover to Talkies, the studios wanted to recoup their investment, and from the start of the 1930's they attempted to do just that. The year 1930 alone saw the release of over 100 new movie musicals, many of poor quality, although gradually some genuinely talented composers and songwriters emerged, such as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin. The stock market crash of 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression and, as the market became flooded with musicals, many studios overspent and went under. Even Warner Bros, who had enjoyed such success with their early musicals, suffered an enormous loss of $7.9 million in 1931, and was dangerously close to bankruptcy. As the public's desire for musicals declined so did the numbers made. In 1931 only 13 musicals were released and studios even began to cut the music from films which had already been made. The musical appeared to be fading as fast as it had arrived. It needed a shot in the arm, a new direction. In 1933 it got just that.

Busby Berkeley

Berkeley made his name as a dance director on the Broadway stage and then, after the introduction of sound into movies, became a genuine innovator in the choreography of filmed dancing, with the imagination to see beyond the traditional limitations of the stage, and in so doing he revolutionized the screen musical.

He had an intuitive feel for how the movement of dancers would look on film and he popularised the high overhead shot making it his own ingenious trademark style, as well as being the first director to also use close ups of his dancers' faces. He also perfected the newly developed technique of synchronizing film to a previously recorded musical soundtrack. The effect of this was to free the camera from their soundproof booths as microphones were no longer needed. Berkeley cleverly and imaginatively exploited the possibilities of fluid camera movement and moved his cameras on custom built booms and monorails.

Berkeley's two early musical masterpieces were both in 1933: '42nd Street' and 'Gold Diggers of 1933'.

'42nd Street', 1933

'42nd Street', starring Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, was a smash hit with the public and helped to resolve the precarious financial situation of Warner Brothers. It used contemporary hip dialogue and was one of the first "backstage musicals", including such hit songs as "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me," "Young and Healthy," as well as the title song, all created by Harry Warren with lyricist Al Dubin. The public flocked back to see the film which earned for Warners almost $2 million profit on its first release.

'Gold Diggers of 1933'

After the success of '42nd Street' it was a matter of only a few months before Warner Brothers repeated the formula of music, dancing, pretty girls and romance. In fact many of the same performers were used, such as Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers and Guy Kibbee. As with '42nd Street' the dancers were choreographed by Busby Berkeley and the song lyrics were by Al Dubin, and the music by Harry Warren. The movie was another huge box-office success for Warner Bros.

Footlight Parade (1933)

Within a few months Warners brought out 'Footlight Parade', a third musical choreographed by Berkeley. With Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell this time, were James Cagney and Joan Blondell. The film contained three spectacular production numbers, "Shanghai Lil", "Honeymoon Hotel" and "By a Waterfall" and was another huge success.

Warner Bros. and Busby Berkeley had brought the movie musical back into favor. For the remainder of the decade the baton was taken up by the other studios.

20th Century Fox

A newly formed amalgamation, under mogul Darryl F. Zannuk. They had the good fortune to have Shirley Temple on their books. She was a multi-talented and irresistible blonde six year old who appeared in many successful movies in the 1930's such as 'Bright Eyes' in 1934 with Shirley singing "On the Good Ship Lollipop", 'The Little Colonel' in 1935, and 'Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm' in 1938.

Fox also had Alice Fay on their books, star of 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' in 1938. Faye also co-starred in 1940 in 'Tin Pan Alley' with Betty Grable who would become one of Fox's star attractions in the 1940's.


The studio's first major hit was a musical 'Rio Rita' in 1929, which included a number of Technicolor sequences. The studio's topline attractions were the sublime duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Ginger Rogers had already made several minor films for RKO when she was signed to a seven-year contract and cast in the big-budget musical 'Flying Down to Rio', starring Dolores del Rio, in 1933. She was paired with Fred Astaire, already an established Broadway performer, making his movie debut. Although billed fourth and fifth respectively, they were turned by the picture into stars, becoming Hollywood's most popular and famous partnership. They went on to make a total of nine films together during the 1930's including such masterpieces as 'Top Hat' in 1935, 'Follow the Fleet' and 'Swing Time' in 1936, and 'Carefree' in 1938. Hermes Pan, assistant to the film's dance director, would become one of Hollywood's leading choreographers through his subsequent work with Astaire.


From its early days Paramount had always emphasised the importance of its stars and by the 1930's it could boast such top names as Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Jeanette MacDonald, Dorothy Lamour, Carole Lombard, Bing Crosby, and band leader Shep Fields.

Although the most successful studio of the silent era, it was bankrupt by 1933, yet managed to survive in large part thanks to its three most popular stars: Marlene Dietrich, Bing Crosby and Mae West.

Marlene Dietrich
Marlene Dietrich made her name in the German film 'The Blue Angel' in 1929. Her first Hollywood movie was 'Morocco' in 1930. The movie, which co-starred Gary Cooper was a massive success. It immediately made Marlene a top Hollywood star and earned her her first and only Academy Award nomination. She signed a long term contract with Paramount and made five more superbly crafted films directed by von Sternberg, including 'Shanghai Express' in 1932, 'The Scarlet Empress' in 1934 and 'The Devil is a Woman' in 1935. After this last, Dietrich and Paramount broke with von Sternberg and many critics feel she never reached such artistic heights again. Her movies were not true musicals but all contained scenes of Dietrich singing.

Bing Crosby
Bing earned millions for Paramount with several movies during the 1930's such as 'Mississippi' in 1935, 'Pennies From Heaven' the following year and 'Sing You Sinners' in 1938, each of which were part musical, part comedy and part romance. All suffered from poor scripts but all benefited from some good songs delivered by Crosby in his unmistakable crooning style. His best movie work would come in the following decade.

Mae West
was aged 39 when she began her film career and she only made a total of 12 movies. None of them were full musicals, but they were witty and daring usually featured a suggestive song or two. as in 'She Done Him Wrong' and 'I'm No Angel', both in 1933.

Although West was the most highly salaried women in the world in 1935, the Hays code became so restrictive that she stopped making films in 1943. But her comedies with music became lasting cult favorites.

Goldwyn Productions

Sam Goldwyn produced six highly successful screen musicals starring Follies comedian Eddy Cantor, including 'Whoopee' in 1930, 'The Kid From Spain' in 1932, 'Kid Millions' in 1934 and 'Strike Me Pink' in 1936. This series gave Broadway choreographer Busby Berkeley his first opportunity to work on film, developing the techniques he would later use at Warner Brothers.


Founded in 1915, Universal first made its name in the Horror genre with hits such as 'Frankenstein' in 1931. James Whale, who directed 'Frankenstein' gave the studio a major musical hit in 1936 with 'Showboat'. Original Broadway stars Helen Morgan and Charles Winninger repeated their acclaimed performances, and Paul Robeson was on hand to sing the definitive "Ol' Man River."

Universal also contracted teenage Canadian soprano Deanna Durbin, who had been dropped by MGM, and showcased her talents perfectly in a series of low cost musical comedies which mixed light opera with popular songs. 'Three Smart Girls' in 1936, '100 Men and a Girl ' the following year and 'Mad About Music' in 1938 were highly profitable and saved the otherwise failing Universal from bankruptcy.


The studio destined to become the specialists in high quality movie musicals was MGM. Led by the shrewd and dictatorial Louis B. Mayer and guided initially by the "boy wonder" producer Irving Thalberg, MGM was the only studio to consistently show an annual profit through every year of the Great Depression. During the 1930's and 1940's MGM advertised itself as having "more stars than there are in heaven" and certainly Mayer carefully nurtured his stars and employed many of the finest creative and performing talents available.

In 1934 Thalberg produced a sound version of 'The Merry Widow' with Ernst Lubitsch directing the already established screen team of Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald. MacDonald was then paired with Nelson Eddy and the two starred in eight films together from 1935 to 1942 including 'Rose Marie' in 1936 and 'Maytime' the following year.

Tap dancer extraordinaire, Eleanor Powell began her career on Broadway her first movie was 'George White's 1935 Scandals ' for Fox Film Corporation. Her quickfire tap dancing was sensational and she was soon taken up by MGM, appearing in the 'Broadway Melody' series of 1936, 1938 and 1940.

The Great Ziegfeld

Although starring the non-singing William Powell and Myrna Loy, this semi accurate portrayal of the life of the great showman, Florenz Ziegfeld, won the Best Picture Oscar and is one of the all-time great movie musicals. The show-stopping number "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" is one of Hollywood's best ever.