The 1930s were trying times here in America. The Great Depression dug its claws into every aspect of American life, destroying the American dream and leaving millions jobless, homeless, and hopeless.
People escaped the harsh reality of the world through literature, music, and film. Hollywood studios at the time had the brilliant idea to combine the later two…and the musical film was born.
Filmmakers everywhere had tinkered around with sound in films for decades before it permanently took hold of Hollywood in the late 1920s. The John Barrymore picture Don Juan (1926) was the first feature-length film to use a synchronized musical soundtrack and sound effects. The following year, Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length picture that added spoken dialogue (and some jazzy ditties) to film.
So if you have ever heard that Jolson’s The Jazz Singer was the first sound film, you heard wrong. It was the actually first feature-length film to use synchronized spoken dialogue. (And I emphasize feature-length film because short subjects had entered the “talking picture” business before it was made.)
Now that I have that brief little film history lesson out of the way, let’s get to the point of this post. The Jazz Singer was so popular that Hollywood knew they had to continue capitalizing on it by making even more pictures like it. The 1930s musical most often had a romantic plot and big, elaborate sets built for the musical numbers. Producers and directors went all-out to make sure people would fall in love with sound film.
Today I am going to share with you some of my favorite numbers from some of those early musicals. You might know some of them, and others you might be hearing for the first time.
1. “Temptation” by Bing Crosby from the film Going Hollywood (1930)
The film Going Hollywood stars one of my all-time favorite people (actress or anything else) Marion Davies and a young Bing Crosby. The plot is pretty predictable—a French teacher becomes enamored of a singer and follows him to Hollywood to save him from a self-indulged vamp.
In this clip you see Crosby crooning his heart out to that vamp, played by the sexy Canadian-born actress Fifi D’Orsay.
2. “Free and Easy” by Buster Keaton from the film Free and Easy (1930)
Overall, I loathe this film. It makes my beloved Buster look like a complete oaf. In it, Buster stars as Elmer J. Butz, an agent for Elvira Plunkett (Anita Page), who won a beauty contest in their town of Gopher City, Kansas and is headed to Hollywood.
While I dislike this film, I can’t help but love this cute little number. It’s Buster singing and dancing. What’s not to love?
3. “I’m No Angel” by Mae West from the film I’m No Angel (1930)
I’m No Angel is one of two Mae West films starring Cary Grant. Two out of this world sex symbols in one film is too much sexy for most people to handle. But if you think you can handle it, you might enjoy this film about a sexy bombshell (West, who else?) in a sideshow.
4. “ich lass mir meinen Körper scwarz bepinspeln” by Willy Fritsch from the film Einbrecher (1930)
You all knew that I had to include at least one German number in this list…right? Ha! Anyway, this is one of my favorites, from the German film Einbrecher. (Also known by the English title Murder for Sale).
It’s your run-of-the-mill fluffy film starring the “dream team” of Willy Fritsch and Lilian Harvey about a young woman who is unhappily married to a toy maker. The film takes all the predictable twists and turns, but it as at least watchable.
The song, “ich lass mir meinen Körper scwarz bepinspeln” is a naughty comical number about a man who is bored with Paris and wants to go to the Fiji islands to have an affair with an island native.
5. “Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You)” by Judy Garland from the film Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937)
Young Judy Garland singing a love song to a portrait of Clark Gable is well-known, even if people are unfamiliar with the film it came from, which has an all-star cast including the formidable Sophie Tucker, Eleanor Powell, and Buddy Epsen, among others.
Are you a fan of 1930s musicals? What are some of your favorites? Let me know by leaving a comment below!