Kidnapping, Prostitution, Racism, Satanism: Those Wonderful Old Movie Musicals

“They just don’t make movies like they used to.” That’s the sort of line you’ll likely hear from older filmgoers who yearn for the days of Saturday matinee twin bills at the local picture house and wouldn’t be caught dead at a 24-screen megaplex to view one of today’s $200 million-plus, effects-laden behemoths…and certainly wouldn’t pay $10 or more to be exposed to the preponderance of sex, curse words and bad behavior in such contemporary Hollywood musicals as 8 Mile and Burlesque. “Why,” these longtime movie fans ask, “can’t they make wholesome, old-fashioned stories for the whole family like they did back in the day, with good songs that everyone can enjoy and not rap noise like (as one ex-U.S. senator called them) the Enema Man and Snoopy Snoopy Poop Dog?”

I like to think of myself as a still-relatively young and hip cinephile (I’m not, but that’s how I like to think of myself), and the musical genre was never one that I spent a lot of time watching, so I set out to view a cross-sampling of vintage Tinseltown toe-tappers and see just what the post-MTV generations have been missing. And what did I find?  How about shockingly racist stereotyping, non-stop profanity, sado-masochism, abduction and implied “coerced intimacy,” near-pedophilia, white slavery and Satanic worship? If you don’t believe me, just check out the following examples:        

Wonder Bar – It goes without saying that blackface minstrel songs were a trademark of Al Jolson’s career, both on the stage and in films from The Jazz Singer on. Nor was he the only performer–white or black–in the first half of the 20th century and beyond to do so (check out Fred Astaire in Swing Time or Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms sometime). Even so…and even by the standards of its release year of  1934…the Warner Bros. musical Wonder Bar certainly lowered the bar for race relations when Al, owner and featured performer of the title Paris nightclub, does “one of his characteristic numbers for which he is famous,” as bandleader Dick Powell puts it. That number is the now-infamous “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” sequence, choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley. Elderly farm worker Uncle Abner (Jolson) passes away and ascends, beloved mule in tow, to the Pearly Gates and an afterlife that manages to work in just about every offensive depiction relating to African-Americans (along with references to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Emperor Jones).  Here’s a taste of the “heavenly” goings-on:

Did you notice how they also managed to turn Al’s “wing tailor” into a gay stereotype while they were at it (this film also features the scene where two men are dancing in the club, while Jolson throws his hand in the air and exclaims “Boys will be boys…WOOOO!”)?  From a purely technical standpoint, “Goin’ to Heaven” is another of Berkeley’s typically well-staged and elaborate numbers, but to watch the white (and black) performers surely must have made viewers squirm uncomfortably in their seats, even 77 years ago. Oh, and don’t get me started on the bizarre phallic symbolism on display in another of Wonder Bar’s dance routines, “Don’t Say Good-Night,” where chorus girls dance around majestically tall columns from which masked, tuxedo-clad men magically emerge.

The Goldwyn Follies – Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn’s all-star tribute to the vast panoply of popular music–as well as, judging from the title, to himself–is a slapdash smorgasbord of musical numbers (George and Ira Gershwin songs, a sampling from La Traviata, and dancing by The American Ballet of the Metropolitan Opera, among others) and comedy bits (Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, The Ritz Brothers, and others) that tanked in its 1938 release. One segment that merits notice, however, comes when the brothers Ritz, playing animal trainers and would-be singers who want producer Adolph Menjou to hire them for his film-within-a-film project, serenade him with a song called…, well, just watch and listen:

I think this holds the record for the greatest number of times that word was used on the screen…pre-Quentin Tarantino, of course.          

Kiss Me Kate – Cole Porter’s Tony-winning 1949 Broadway musical apparently had to have some of its racier lines and lyrics cleaned up before MGM brought it to the screen in 1953 (a changing of “You bastard!” to “You louse!,” for example, and the borrowed-from-Noel Coward bon mot “women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”). Not to worry, though, as this show-within-a-show re-staging of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew still has plenty of casual misogyny hurled by Howard Keel at co-star Kathryn Grayson, highlighted by several spanking scenes. And just think, audiences back in ’53 got to see Grayson’s fanny slapped in 3-D.   

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – Speaking of casual misogyny, if spanking isn’t the way to a woman’s heart, how about just out-and-out taking her from her family’s home and holding her captive until she “comes around”? That, as far as I could tell, is the premise of this beloved 1954 MGM frontier tunefest by Singin’ in the Rain director Stanley Donen.  Kiss Me Kate’s corporal punishment Casanova, Howard Keel, is back as the oldest of a septet of siblings in mid-1800s Oregon. After he weds local gal Jane Powell, his backwoods brothers start pining for brides of their own…especially ones that will do all the cooking and cleaning for the  household, as Powell does. After a barn-raising face-off for the affection of some townswomen turns into a brawl that gets them banned from the community, the fellas are inspired by Plutarch’s account of the Rape of the Sabine Women to head down from the mountain and make off with their would-be “sweethearts.” A long winter follows and, as always happens in real-life kidnapping cases (he said sarcastically), the girls fall for their abductors and agree to marry them. Yes sir, a true love story if ever there was one.               

Daddy Long Legs – Jean Webster’s 1912 “for young women” novel has been filmed several times over the years. In it, a wealthy middle-aged man serves as benefactor to an orphaned schoolgirl, and years later she falls in love with him, unaware of his true identity. The age of the girl varies depending upon which movie version (1919 with Mary Pickford, Janet Gaynor in 1931) you’re watching, but for our purposes we’ll look at the 1955 20th Century-Fox musical starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. Here Astaire is a visiting American millionaire who meets 18-year-old Caron in a French orphanage, anonymously pays for her college education, and then re-enters her life three years later. Okay, so it’s not exactly Lolita territory, and the film does make references to the three-decade age difference between the two, but there’s still something a bit unseemly about the whole affair. Perhaps a modernized version by a respected director would help remove some of the stigma around the story…Woody Allen, for example?       

Damn Yankees – What could possibly be more American than baseball? Why, baseball and trading your soul to the Devil for worldly success and fame, according to this 1958 hit which slapped a little horsehide on the Faust legend. Joe Boyd (Robert Shafer), a middle-aged fan of the hapless Washington Senators, makes a deal with the Satanic “Mr. Applegate” (Ray Walston) and is transformed into muscular slugger Joe Hardy (Tab Hunter), who helps the perennial also-rans challenge the Bronx Bombers for the pennant. When it looks as though Joe might use an “escape clause” to get out of his contract, Applegate sends seductive assistant Lola (Gwen Verdon) to keep him ensnared…which shouldn’t be too hard, as Joe already abandoned his long-suffering wife (via farewell note) to follow his dreams of ballpark glory. Of course, Boyd/Hardy eventually sees the light and returns to his old life, but only after taking advantage of his supernaturally-derived skills to win the pennant for the D.C. nine. So, let’s see: a guy enters into a legitimate business arrangement, leaves his spouse behind, carouses with another woman, benefits from said deal and then reneges on it…and he’s the hero? (By the way, it took over a decade, but Satan did get even with Washington sports fans by moving the Senators to Texas in 1972 and then, after 30-plus years of watching them wander in the baseball wilderness, “rewarded” the town with the just-as-pathetic Nationals.)    

Gigi – Based on a novella by acclaimed French writer Collette, Vincent Minnelli’s lush winner of the 1958 Academy Award for Best Picture features Daddy Long Legs gamine Leslie Caron in the title role of a tomboyish young woman in early 20th-century Paris who is groomed by her aunt and grandmother to follow in their footsteps…as a kept woman for single and/or married men. Yes, these two older women want their young charge to grow up to be someone’s mistress, although the film uses the euphemism “courtesan,” for surely what more romantic notion could there be than to make a movie musical about long-entrenched prostitution among the well-to-do in fin de siècle France? That Gigi does (unknowingly at first) rebel against her fate and ultimately finds true love with her intended “gentleman,” playboy Louis Jourdan–who already has at least one such arrangement under his belt, as it were–really doesn’t help much with the  “ick factor” inherent in this supposedly charming and touching film. And that’s without my mentioning the undertones that now accompany Maurice Chevalier’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” sequence. Is this really the kind of message we want to send impressionable girls today in order to keep them away from Madonna, Britney and Christina?