Film Professor Chronicles Legacy of Classic Hollywood Musicals
A UT Dallas professor joined film scholars on a three-year project that focused on classic Hollywood musicals far from the spotlight of Tinseltown.
“The overall point was not to think of the musical as simply an isolated Hollywood genre but to place it in the context of the recording industries, of the stage, of literature, of other art forms, even of reviews.”
Dr. Adrienne McLean, professor of film studies in the School of Arts and Humanities, was part of Musical MC2: The Hollywood Film Musical in Its Mediatic and Cultural Context, a project that met twice a year at conferences in Paris, France. The participants — film scholars and students from the U.S., Great Britain and France — discussed topics such as “Stars of Hollywood Musicals,” “The Film Musical in the History of Technologies” and “The Politics of Hollywood Musicals.”
McLean said what made the conferences so significant was the commitment of the participants to study the genre in such a serious and passionate manner.
“The French are just so interested in the Hollywood musical. The conference events were filled with young people who want to study this topic because of its inherent value, for the sake of the humanities and the arts. Although it’s a bit moribund now, the musical was Hollywood’s most popular adult genre for close to 30 years,” she said.
McLean specializes in various aspects of Hollywood films, including musicals, dance and film, and women and film, and is teaching both undergraduate and graduate courses on musicals. She said the conference participants were very familiar with her research and appreciated her deep knowledge of the field.
As part of the project, McLean spoke to conference attendees about dancing in the context of industrywide censorship regarding sexuality and race.
“Movies did not have First Amendment protection in the U.S. between 1915 and 1952. And in practice, even though the Supreme Court granted movies First Amendment protection in 1952, Hollywood kept censoring itself through a mechanism called the Production Code — also known as the Hays Code — until it was given up for the ratings system,” she said. “And it’s probably not coincidental that the musical’s greatest heyday was during the influence of the code, which regulated the representation of sexuality especially.”
McLean said much of the appeal of musical films was their “utopian” dimension — that singing and dancing made it seem possible to break down barriers between art and life, individuals and groups, and particularly women and men. But the genre’s allure changed when moviegoers began to realize that some things in the world can’t be solved so easily, she said.
“Audiences in the early 1960s got tired of people breaking into song and dance to sing out their feelings and change the world. It became naive to think that everything could be fixed by a song or a dance,” she said.
Star Turns in Hollywood Musicals, a collection of scholarly essays about the genre, was released in December.
In December, the final conference accompanied the release of Star Turns in Hollywood Musicals, a collection of scholarly essays about the genre. The book, printed separately in French and English, is connected to a database that contains clips from the films referenced in the essays. At least one other book is planned for release in 2019.
In addition, the project is developing a database that will allow scholars and fans to search the entire classic musical corpus of some 1,288 films for various information, including the styles of musical numbers in different historical periods and the careers of the performers in such films.
“The overall point was not to think of the musical as simply an isolated Hollywood genre but to place it in the context of the recording industries, of the stage, of literature, of other art forms, even of reviews,” McLean said. “Anyone will be able to research musicals in different contexts to see the ways in which the musical made sense and worked for its audiences.”
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