Give me There’s No Business like Show Business, give me Chicago, Cabaret, give me An American in Paris. What’s my cup of tea? Weak, with sugar: the sort of madcap caper with sequins and choreographed ensemble numbers and preferably a cartoon thrown in for a dance number or two. My love of broadway lyrics and lounge piano jazz has always been my big secret. I was aware that such a predilection was tres uncool. That these films lacked depth and cache. Still, growing up I was often left alone and spent the time belting out the lyrics to A Star is Born, the Judy version, and Yentl. Hello Dolly was a holy day. The syncopated tune of the eponymous song the dictates my ear’s association with show tunes to this day. Well hello. Dolly. Well hello. Louie. It’s so nice to. Be back. Where. I belong. Poetry, no?
There was a look to all the post-war era musicals and studio “classics” from the 1930s, 40s, 50s—beyond the exaggeration of CinemaScope, beyond the third-strip technicolor technology that imbued a magenta glow and thick black outlines to the objects on the screen (these images are beamed toward the viewer, quite literally, through rose-colored glasses). There was a shared studio sheen, costume changes, moneyed productions, cookie cutter formulas and rapid fire banter, a beginning, a middle, and an end (but little plot). In short, a common light appeal. Every character’s entrance was an affair: entrees to the scene were accompanied by muted trumpets and a string orchestra. Merely walking on would never do. A star arrived via two-steps and ball changes and pas de bourees.
These films existed outside of time—there were rarely obvious points of historical or political context. You could exchange one movie star’s 1950s polka dot wiggle dress for an electric blue Victorian crepe de chine gown, fiddle with the dialogue a hair, and voila, you had a period piece. I appreciate how orchestrated these movies were. They gave me a lie that I needed to keep on existing: that life could be just as structured, too.
The structure went:
Act I: Introduce Characters. Raise a Problem. Sing all the Songs.
Act II: Re-sing some of the songs. Resolve problem.
Easy. Escapist. Kansas.
These movies are not perfect by a long shot. Often they are deeply racist and sexist. They presented a firm and dangerous ideal: white, asymmetrically pretty, upward mobility. Still, as a kid, I watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s and my takeaway was invaluable: I could be a poor, sexual, gender ambiguous person and live radically different from the white heteropatriarchal norm. I didn’t even have to name my cat. But I also saw Mickey Rooney play one of the most offensive portrayals of a Chinese man in the history of film and now can no longer watch this movie. The actors from this era, the women in particular, fell hard from their cotton candy Edith Head-designed clouds. Once they got older than, say, 25, they got the boot. I can no longer ignore the blackface, macho men’s men, and effete girl’s girl’s that pervade the subtexts.
What’s more, the format doesn’t hold up anymore. We’re too far removed from the stage show origins and far too awake to political truths to suffer the ignorance of them. Unfortunately, it seems we’re living in a farce with no punchline. Entertainment amidst the bleak feels indulgent at best. Perhaps it’s fitting that horror is having a moment: we’re all terrified of the monsters let out of the hellscape and in need in some exorcising. And there are those of us who still turn to escapist media. Binge watching fluff that goes in and out of the brain, easy laughs, white washed, tradition, three camera, arcs, conflict, resolution.
Spectacle once meant feathered headdresses and sequin body suits and women swimming in synchronicity in a Busby Berkeley kaleidoscope. Now it means courtroom hearings nothing short of absurd. The skit’s high drama is short and leads nowhere: a humorless farce taking place in a courtroom with caricatures of the patriarchy backed up against a wall, defending themselves like a child caught in the act. Perhaps spectacles are no longer relevant to our time because our lived experiences are already so over the top, what with twenty-four hour news and social media feeds, endless amounts of images streaming and uploading and floating, and mythic-grade villains the best screenwriters could never imagine running the show.
I cannot suffer the contemporary musical. The distance of decades makes the unbelievability, the unrelatability of the old Hollywood productions charming, and digestible.
But despite it all, I think we should all watch a few of the classics as digestifs. If you look closer, the old vaudevillian formulas require a more complex simplicity than their sentimental contemporaries. And outside of the context of their production era, these films are pure camp, and often completely, utterly absurd. Bertolt Brecht, the very serious playwright, said:
“The artist’s object is to appear strange and even surprising to the audience. He achieves this by looking strangely at himself and his work. As a result everything put forward by him has a touch of the amazing. Everyday things are thereby raised above the level of the obvious and automatic.”
There is nothing obvious or automatic about a technicolor musical. I look at war-era musicals now and think, I could be watching an Ionesco. Laurel and Hardy are Waiting for Godot. For a taste of nonsense watch Rita Haworth perform Poor John in Cover Girl from 1944 in some high fashion lederhosen.
The spectacle as entertainment can be sneaky, sexual, and an indulgent de riguer in small doses. It’s extra. They were exciting to watch and Dionysian, the remedy to Puritanical ethos. These films said all the things that couldn’t be shown or said in clever, cipheric ways. Please watch Lawrence of Arabia and tell me this isn’t a three hour and thirty-six minute gay man’s love affair. The message was loud and clear to those of us who were looking and still are to this day.
What’s more, prior to Hay’s censorship code of 1934, movies could be and were much more sexually and politically controversial. But after the act was passed, fell under strict “moral” guidelines. The code contained an extensive list of “don’ts” and “be carefuls” ranging from suggested nudity (down to a silhouette) to sedition. Directors began to bury political acts under taffeta and major keys. Sometime they were more overt: in the blockbuster Island in the Son, Harry Belafonte plays a black labor leader who is pursued by an upper class white woman (played by Joan Fontaine). The movie was from 1957, ten years before interracial marriage was made legal in America. A kiss between Belfatone and Fontaine’s characters compelled the KKK to send poisoned mail and death threats.
I can’t help but think of #MeToo when rewatching Judy Garland sing “Get Happy at Summer Stock” in 1950. Garland poses arms crossed, real-cool jazz hop dips, wearing a suit without pants, she’s surrounded by men in tuxes. She sings, “C’mon get happy,” and parts their bodies to make way for herself, to bring herself center stage. “Get ready for the judgment day,” she says, as she flicks away the men’s hands reaching for her body. She steps over their dead bodies, “it’s all so peaceful on the other side. Get ready.” We often think of the female stars from Judy’s era as victims, but it’s clear they too were angered by abuses of power and had something to sing about it. It’s an unlikely reality, but it’s also riling to see a woman in her prime stepping all over the advances of men to steal the show, getting her just deserts (even if she couldn’t dare to eat the sugar). We’re still waiting for the judgement on such a wild dream.
In a way, the mythic theatricality of these films is the opposite of apathy, a word that finds its origins in the Greek for “to be without feeling.” Apathy’s root is pathos, Greek for suffering, or the Latin pati, what would later become passion. Words, you see, are like showbiz: adaptable to the needs of the people. And spectacle requires passion. The spectacular film is so effusive with emotion that the actors must express through song and dance that spill into the “everyday” speech (though, even the speech is fantastical: I, for one, cannot relate to the glamor of a clipped and trill Mid-Atlantic speech pattern; see Katherine Hepburn in A Philadelphia Story). This is exuberance that we never see in life. Or rather, exuberance gets to a part of life that we never see unless it’s recorded in technicolor.
It’d be irresponsible to live in a fantasy world, but visiting every once in a while is necessary for a life worthwhile. It not only frees and resets the brain, but it allows the viewer to see things entirely differently than the bland world she may always feel trapped within. To be allowed to fantasize can be a political act. It is, after all, monetarily worthless. Fantasy positions those who rely on its power as anticapitalist, a labor that extends beyond the trade of time for money. Maybe, then, take this leap with me, escapism, fantasy, spectacle, whatever you want to call it, is completely radical. Maybe it’s whatever comes after Capitalism. Maybe it’s a way out. It’s called escaping, after all.
Bertolt Brecht was infamously suspect of such escapist catharsis in the arts. Brecht wanted his plays, and all plays (and I presume he’d think the same for film and television), to deal with what he called the Epic. This was not the epic of Spartacus or Cleopatra or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but epic in that the works deal in historical and political content that moves and inflames audiences. He believed that emotional release in plays created apathy among the audience: that if we saw a narrative that was peachy keen on screen, we wouldn’t be moved to create change in our material realities. I agree with old Bertolt that the musicals I once love are often insipid pablum, the filmic equivalent to cream of wheat. Like farina, the musical must be taken quickly, with lots of sugar, to avoid clumps. But every now and again the mush becomes velvety sparkles in your mouth. The sugar dissolves and merges with the bland wheat to form a piping hot hour and a half of boiled and entertaining sucrose. Isn’t there comfort in that every now and again? Isn’t therapeutic gruel food for the ailing, the infirm?
A ebullient spectacle opens the mind up to possibilities outside the workforce rat trap, outside the confines of poverty, the cycles of abuse, loneliness. It offers much needed catharsis from the drudgery. It does exactly what Brecht was afraid of for those who never find their way out from under the spell of the the spectacle of Entertainment. But I find that that same effect can also serve a good purpose: if we don’t identify with what we’re seeing we can begin to see that life can be otherwise. Brecht believed that if the audience related too closely to the actors they watched perform on stage (and if the actors related to their roles) that this would lead to the dreaded catharsis. It would be ridiculous to relate to any of Marilyn Monroe’s performances, the waterfall extravaganza of (pre-code) Footlight Parade, or to think when one fell in love with a familial enemy the rivals would come together to sing from fire escapes. Yes, aspiring such glamorized beauty and happy endings is irresponsible and does not reflect the myriad realities of our physical lives, but perhaps with a little distance, we can appreciate the unattainable as a major facet of the absurd. The hyper-energetic absurdity of a spectacle serves to remind the viewer that sometimes, despite all evidence to the contrary, this life can be quite marvelous.
I am, at heart, a Beckettian, and believe solely in this idea of absurdity, as it is tied to the meaninglessness of life. Because of that, I lean on spectacle and escapism for a break. I also believe in the ethics of Hedonism, that often our physical instincts and satisfactions can be the only truths available. Hedonism, like Entertainment, is a word that gets a bad rap. When in reality, the concept was coined by the Greek philosopher Epicurus to mean that pleasure is imperative to a good life, not insatiable pleasure, but the feeling of being pleased, or the elusive experience of not wanting any more. After watching Showboat or West Side Story, I experience an urge to unbutton my jeans from the gluttonous viewing experience and return, a bit expanded, to my more humble life. The pleasure of the unattainable hinges on the audience knowing when they’ve had their fill. When witnessing excess ask yourself, in the words of the Gershwin boys, who could ask for anything more?
As a poor, queer kid with no role models in a small boring town with a small boring life I wanted, I needed, to believe in that which was anti-realistic. My mom was absent, physically and mentally, and depressed. I had no way to connect with her except when it was Friday night and the networks were showing the classics. We had nothing else in common but when some saccharine easy dosage of Rogers and Hammerstein was on, we were in it together. Pleasurable entertainment allowed me to picture a world with abundance, not lack. Those privileged enough to daydream, to live in fantasy for a moment, I think, experience the heaviness of the world with more brevity, with more hope. Visually, filmic pageantry represented everything so many of us are taught cannot exist: wonder and imagination and emotions that boil over. Now that’s entertainment.