8.20.2013

Affect and the Hollywood musical: "'Swonderful"


Innocent happiness: Gene Kelly and children in An American In Paris

Is it too reductive to say that happiness is the Hollywood musical’s unofficial affect?  The Hollywood musical wants to make us happy.  Its narratives occasionally dip into moments of pathos and seriousness, to be sure, and the stakes can be quite high: the “Anatevka” number at the end of Fiddler on the Roof (1971), for example, inspires feelings of strength, solidarity, and community, but it could hardly be called “happy.”  The darker and more ambiguous affects of a film like Fiddler is a sign of its lateness, and of the emergence of a new musical for the “new Hollywood” of the 1970s (cf. Cabaret, which appeared the year later).  MGM’s musicals of the 50s (An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon) facilitate purer kinds of happiness, evoking the utopian spirit of the musical as described by Richard Dyer.  But this is not to say that happiness in these films is necessarily simple.

Not all of the happiness in An American in Paris is the same.  The “I Got Rhythm” number (pictured above), in which Gene Kelly performs for, and continually interacts with, an audience of adoring French children, is about the experience of a certain flavor of happiness we might call innocent joy.  The presence of the children is crucial in communicating this particular affect.  Kelly mugs with them, they tease him back, he teaches them a series of words in English, and then he generously allows them to participate—though in a somewhat limited way—in the solo song-and-dance routine that commences.  The children find Kelly charming.  They laugh at his jokes and respond attentively to his instructions.  This is a scene of play: the “point,” if play can have a point, is to lose oneself in a kind of childlike (i.e., innocent) pleasure.  This number precisely seeks to forget about the sexual politics raised by the film’s dialogue scenes, specifically those featuring Nina Foch as a wealthy and sophisticated patroness of the arts who poses a sexual and financial threat to Kelly.  (She’s set up as the foil to the simpler, more “natural” Leslie Caron.)  In short, a number like “I Got Rhythm” wants to escape into an innocent happiness free from the taint of such adult concerns as sex and money.

Looking nervous: Gene Kelly with Nina Foch in a scene that directly follows the "I Got Rhythm" number.

If “I Got Rhythm” strives for lightness, simplicity, playfulness, all associated with the world of children, the climactic ballet sequence presents us with denser and more complex varieties of happiness.  For one thing, the ballet, which is a kind of pantomime of the film as a whole, does not try to escape the sexual or financial conflicts that drive the narrative.  Instead, it uses dance to transform these conflicts into sources of visual pleasure.  While the more frenetic portions of the ballet strive for a more abstract thrill—the thrill of seeing a mass of bodies in synchronous motion—the lyrical passages, such as Caron and Kelly’s dance on the fountain, are more erotically charged and speak to their relationship as a couple, while a section in which Kelly and Caron are spirited away into a Toulouse-Lautrec dance hall is more comic and whimsical.  Here, in this elaborately structured set piece, we’re made aware of the range of happinesses in which the Hollywood musical deals. 

The American in Paris ballet: the thrill of synchronous motion.

Kelly and Leslie Caron: an erotically charged pas de deux.


Looking comical in the "Toulouse-Lautrec" sequence.

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