not in our stars, but in ourselves
NOTE: I’m looking through my “portfolio” of writing, because I’ve gotten it into my head that I’m going to pitch a proposal to a film journal (and that’s all I have to say about that, unless I actually get in). Among my old essays, I found this nutty little piece that I wrote in Spring 2007 – nearly 10 years ago. I don’t have much else to say by way of introduction, except that it’s far more charming than I would have expected my 21-year-old self to be capable of writing. Enjoy, or don’t.
“The Great Equalizers: Love and Identity in Depression-Era Musicals”
In seemingly every film musical, from The Jazz Singer through Moulin Rouge, identity is a central question of plot, or theme, or both. In Love Me Tonight, for example, Maurice Courtelin (Maurice Chevalier) is presented as a Baron who is possibly actually a prince – when the son of a gun is really nothing but a tailor. Thanks to some bubbly, beautiful songs, Princess Jeanette (Jeanette MacDonald) allows herself to fall in love with him, in spite of the deception – none of which, by the way, is Maurice’s idea; although when he realizes he will be better able to woo his ladylove as a nobleman, he doesn’t exactly protest. This is a common feature of these films: a character realizes that he can take advantage of being mistaken for someone else. This is the case in Gold Diggers of 1933: J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) mistakenly identifies Carol (Joan Blondell) as his brother’s fiancée, and, in spite of himself, falls in love with her. She allows him to believe in his mistake, meaning to take him for a ride; but then, of course, she goes and falls in love with him. She knows, from the beginning, who and what he is; he finds out who she is only at the end; and love still triumphs over confusion. Once we get to Fred and Ginger’s movies, mistaken identity is an art form: in The Gay Divorcee, at first, Guy (Astaire) hasn’t the faintest idea who Mimi (Rogers) is, or even what her name is; he knows only that he’s madly in love with her. Later, she thinks that he is the hired corespondent to help her secure a divorce, and she believes that he was merely pretending to love her. The air is eventually cleared, and true love reigns supreme – as usual, in musicals. Swing Time presents a different take on the mistaken identity premise, since neither Penny (Rogers) nor Lucky (Astaire) ever thinks the one is anyone but Penny or Lucky. In Swing Time, the question is never who are you, but what do I want – Lucky is torn between his duty to his fiancée and his love for Penny, and Penny thinks that he must love his fiancée instead of her, and accepts the hand of a rather odious bandleader. Somehow, all these myriad cases of mistaken identity and cross-signals resolve themselves, but not until someone has fallen in love.
This seems to be the crux of the matter: what does it mean to be in love with someone? How much does one need to know about the object of one’s affections to fall in love? Like these musicals, many of the world’s great love stories involve some question of identity: Juliet doesn’t realize Romeo is the son of her family’s sworn enemies until she’s already besotted; Roxane thinks that it is the handsome Christian who writes her such exquisite love letters, when it is really her heartsick cousin Cyrano; Elizabeth Bennet believes Mr. Darcy to be cold and utterly devoid of any human feeling, when he has actually been in love with her almost from the time of their first meeting; and Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp understands that the blind girl he loves thinks that he is rich, and that she may want nothing more to do with him when she realizes he’s just a bum.
Each of these four films resolves its central question of identity in its own way, and in a way that demonstrates a progression from simplicity to sophistication. Love Me Tonight (1932), as befits its mock-operetta nature, breaks down the walls between Jeanette and Maurice through song. She realizes that she doesn’t care what he is, in a superficial (read: socioeconomic) sense – only that he is Maurice, and he loves her. When the truth comes out, that he is only a tailor, she decides that she loves him for who he is, not what he is.
Interestingly, Love Me Tonight is a sort of throwback in that it is operetta-like, but in a very tongue-in-cheek vein. It is not nostalgic; rather, it lightheartedly strips down the pomposity of the nobility and the royalty through Maurice’s dirty little ditties, such as “Song of Paris” (“You would sell your wife and daughter / For just one Latin Quarter!”), his verse of “Isn’t it Romantic?” (“We’ll help the population / It’s a duty that we owe to France! / Isn’t it romance?”) and “Mimi” (“You know I’d like to have a little son-of-a-Mimi by and by!”). This is a naughty fairy-tale world in which uptight, undersexed princesses burst into song. The audience understands, from the film’s beginning, that this is not a backstage musical, or a revue, or anything like that. This is magic: it begins in silence, and then the sounds of Paris waking up combine to form a sort of symphony, which introduces Maurice and his “Song of Paris”.
To return to the question of identity, while it is song that brings Maurice and Jeanette together, songs are used more as fun ways to establish character than as devices through which the plot moves. “Song of Paris” is just a fun way to introduce Maurice; “Isn’t it Romantic?” is just a fun way to link Maurice to Jeanette before they meet; “Mimi” is just fun, period; and so on. The act of singing to each other helps to bring about Jeanette’s reciprocation of Maurice’s affection, but it doesn’t seem due to anything about these particular songs. Yes, they work in a general sense to move things along, but is there really any reason that something like “I Only Have Eyes for You” wouldn’t have worked as well in place of “Mimi”, from a plot standpoint?
Plot, though, is not the main point. There is a reason that “Mimi”, and all the rest, are where they are. The songs are by no means superfluous; they explain, cleverly and economically, who Maurice is, who Jeanette is, what kind of world it is in which they live. That is why “Mimi” works where it works, and something along the lines of “I Only Have Eyes for You” would not have: Jeanette, as well as the audience, understands that this Maurice is a rascal but a romantic, and, at the very least, fascinating. Eventually, in spite of her disappointment that he is not a baron, a prince, or even well-to-do, she realizes that this is enough – that this is the real Maurice, and that she loves this Maurice, regardless of his status as a son-of-a-gun tailor.
The main case of mistaken identity in Gold Diggers of 1933 comes about, not as a result of intentional deception, as in Love Me Tonight, but as an honest (if later exploited) mistake: Lawrence goes to his brother’s fiancée’s apartment, and, not realizing that Carol is another roommate instead of Polly, sets out to put an end to the engagement – by any means within his power, whether financial or sexual. Carol finds him obnoxious, and decides to have a bit of fun stringing him along, making him fall in love with her.
The interesting thing about Gold Diggers is that it doesn’t resolve its conflicts through song or dance, but through talking. The big numbers may help to set a certain mood, but they are mostly opportunities for Busby Berkeley to do what he wants. In some ways, Gold Diggers feels like a revue, simply because the songs have very little to do with anything happening in the story itself, or with each other, for that matter. “We’re in the Money” and “Remember My Forgotten Man” are connected to the Depression, one ironically and the other poignantly, but neither they, nor “Pettin’ in the Park”, nor “Shadow Waltz”, are in any way plot devices, characterization pieces, or explanations of anything in particular. The plot has its questions of identity, but these song-and-dance numbers raise entirely new identity issues – namely, who are all these anonymous showgirls, and why is Berkeley so obsessed with them?
This isn’t a crucial question, of course; in fact, it doesn’t matter. As disconnected from the plot as these routines are, the movie would just be a fun, mostly forgettable romp without them. They are a kind of art, purely for its own sake, and they lift Gold Diggers out of its place as a Depression-era comedy of errors up into the heights. The big numbers, which supposedly take place onstage, are very obviously created to be effective cinematically, not to be accurate representations of how this show might have run if it had really existed on Broadway.
Probably because it packs the strongest emotional punch, “Remember My Forgotten Man” is particularly striking, absurdly stylized though it is. At the end of the song, Carol is not only surrounded by dozens of those forgotten men, but also standing in front of dozens more silhouetted soldiers, marching, looming like ghosts in the background. Busby Berkeley is a long way from his fetishistic fixation on showgirls; he seems to have found a use for his staging technique that goes beyond highlighting pretty faces and nubile bodies. In fact, “Forgotten Man” highlights a far more critical identity crisis than anything within the plot of Gold Diggers; all those men and boys who went off to fight in World War I – and by 1917, they knew it was a dirty, horrific mess – were now standing on line just to eat, nameless, forgotten, and, in a sense, emasculated.
As for The Gay Divorcee, its identity crises are considerably less grave, and it resolves them – i.e., demonstrates how its leads have fallen in love irrevocably – through dance. Fred Astaire may not have had much of a gift for dramatic dialogue, but he expresses multitudes through his dancing, and persuades Ginger Rogers’s character of something she would never have dared believe: before the “Night and Day” number, Mimi is annoyed, fascinated, and/or bored with Guy; after, she is in love.
In many ways, The Gay Divorcee advances the development of the musical, as it is the first time that the dance numbers were more than mere showcases for pretty girls and/or Busby Berkeley’s madness for complete unrealism. Mimi and Guy – especially Guy – express their feelings and desires through dance. “Night and Day” is a positive ballet of lovemaking. The song itself is wonderful, of course, but it’s not the point. The point is that after he has sung to her, they make love to each other with nary a word – and from then on, it is abundantly clear (if it wasn’t already) that these two will end up together. With such extraordinary dancing, they could never do anything else.
Unlike Gold Diggers of 1933, The Gay Divorcee could never have worked if it weren’t a musical. Even Love Me Tonight could, conceivably, survive without its songs (though it would be much less fun). The Gay Divorcee is the first time that a key plot point is inextricably tied to the fact that the film is a musical. If it weren’t for “Night and Day”, Mimi would not have given in to Guy; if it weren’t for “Night and Day”, she would never have made the mistake of thinking that he was her corespondent; and so, if it weren’t for “Night and Day”, she would never have invited him to her room, where the mistake is cleared up and she allows herself to succumb to those feelings that “Night and Day” introduced. None of the other numbers in The Gay Divorcee have quite such importance, as far as both plot and characterization go, but “Night and Day” is so crucial that it is impossible for the film to exist without it.
Finally, we have Swing Time, and again we have dance as the central means to tossing aside all questions of who or what someone is. Penny discovers, in a quite literal sense, Lucky’s true self through dance: where he had led her to believe that he didn’t know the first thing about dancing, he gallantly gets her job back for her through a burst of terpsichorean brilliance. She realizes two things: first, obviously, that Lucky is a miraculous dancer; and second, that he is a rather perfect fit for her.
Swing Time differs from The Gay Divorcee in that it uses songs as well as dances to move forward both the plot and the theme. This is an advance in the Fred and Ginger genre. Gone are the goofy, fluffy little songs of the “Let’s K-nock K-nees” variety; here, with the exception of “Bojangles of Harlem”, each song develops character and advances plot in a way that, in previous Astaire-Rogers films, the dance had done alone. Of course dance is still critical; “Never Gonna Dance” would not be the dramatic climax that it is without that gorgeous, final, brokenhearted ballet. Because the songs and the dances have equal dramatic weight in Swing Time, it is a more sophisticated effort than The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow the Fleet, and even Top Hat – although Top Hat begins to explore this trend.
In many ways, Swing Time is the most advanced and sophisticated of the four films discussed in this essay (indeed, perhaps the most sophisticated of any of the films we have seen) in that it is the first musical where all the elements – songs, dance, plot, characterization – serve each other. It seems to mark the beginning of a new era in the musical film, just as The Gay Divorcee did before it. From this point on, musicals that feature songs and dances that are, from a structural point of view, useless, cannot quite get away with such superfluity. Swing Time has shown that a musical can be as delightful as it is unified.
For it is delightful, at least as delightful as Love Me Tonight; the romance in Swing Time is more romantic, the comedy is more sparkling, the poignancy of the almost-doomed love affair is more affecting, than in any of Astaire and Rogers’s previous outings together. As Will Friedwald points out in his liner notes to Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers at RKO, in “Never Gonna Dance”, the two “move as if they’re propelled by fate. They dance resignedly – they don’t want to, but they can’t help it, because they’re caught up in the grip of something that’s bigger than both of them” (33). This should probably tip off Penny and Lucky that they’re as meant to be together as any two human beings ever could be, but, for the dance does not resolve the plot’s central problem. They clearly love each other, almost against their will, but they don’t see how they can be together until very near the end.
The question of whom we love is as complicated as why we love. The four previously mentioned musicals all introduce mistaken identity as a plot element because, perhaps, they seek to demonstrate that love is the only force powerful enough to transcend such barriers as class, rank, station, race, family, and so on. Love is a great equalizer; it is an experience that very few human beings are able to escape. No one is able to choose whom to love. Sometimes we love in spite of ourselves – when we know nothing of the person we love, or when we believe the person is no good. When love hits, though, all those problems melt away; and while not, perhaps, for very long, those superficial barriers vanish. These four films were all made at the height of the Depression, which was another not-so-great equalizer. All four films are brimming with escapist songs of romance and joy, but this may be more than sheer escapism. The actors, songwriters, and directors involved in the creations of Love Me Tonight, Gold Diggers of 1933, The Gay Divorcee, and Swing Time chose to remind their audiences of the permanent way in which they were (and are) all alike. The effects of the Depression would not last forever, but humans have always fallen and will always fall in love with each other, no matter who they are, what they do, or how advisable it is to do so. It’s how we’ve operated since time immemorial. It makes fools and kings of all of us, at some point in our lives, and such a reminder of such a beautiful fact of life was hugely important for Depression-era audiences – and, of course, for all audiences throughout the ages.