1930s Musical Theatre – Glorious Escapism

1930s-film-bFor many people, the 1930s world was one of economic depression, hardship and uncertainty. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 sent lasting shock waves throughout America, Britain and Europe. In Britain, closing factories meant widescale unemployment and poverty, particularly in the heavy industry areas. In 1936, 200 men marched for 26 days from Jarrow to London to protest and bring their plight to the attention of Parliament. There was a cold response and the issue was not even debated. Hitler ranted and raved in Germany. In 1936, a three-year Civil War began in Spain. The fascist-supported party won.

Our royal family hit an all-time low with the abdication and political scandal of King Edward VIII.

But… you could turn on your radio and listen to the lively beat of the big bands and jazz singers and you could pay just a few pence and go to the cinema! There you could escape to a world where poor girls went from rags to riches and ‘boy meets girl’ romance ruled the day. Beautiful costumes, dancing girls, lavish sets all added to the charm.

In 1927, The Jazz Singer had taken the world by storm. It was the first full length feature film to use recorded song and dialogue – although many audiences watched it in silence as some cinemas were not yet equipped to show a ‘talkie’! But this changed rapidly and the 1930s saw film companies producing a stream of wonderful all-singing, all-dancing film musicals. The sometimes unlikely plots may have been lost in the mists of time, but many of the songs are still standard repertoire.

Successful shows would be followed by a film version.

Babes In Arms (1937, film 1939) by Rodgers and Hart is a typically involved plot – but great songs. (Songs: Jonny One Note, My Funny Valentine, The Lady Is A Tramp)

Cole Porter produced Gay Divorce (1932, film 1934) including the much-loved song, Night and Day. In 1934 he followed this with the ever-popular show, Anything Goes. (Songs: Anything Goes, I Get A Kick Out Of You,You’re The Top)

Follow The Fleet (1936) with music by Irving Berlin, featured the spectacular dance duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers wowing the audience with their flamboyant and virtuoso dance routines. (Song – Let’s Face the Music and Dance)

In England, Noel Coward and Ivor Novello continued to produce their popular satirical musical comedies and romantic plays. (Noel Coward – Conversation Piece 1934. Songs: I’ll Follow My Secret Heart and Regency Rakes. Ivor Novello – Careless Rapture 1936. Songs Waltz Of My Heart, I Can Give You The Starlight)

If these were high society, Me And My Girl (1937) showed the other end of the social spectrum with its cockney rags to riches story line. (Songs: Me And My Girl, Lambeth Walk, Once You Lose Your Heart, The Sun Has Got His Hat On)

Back in America, Disney moved into production with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). (Songs: Heigh-Ho, Some Day My Prince Will Come, Whistle While You Work)

Gershwin gave to an ungrateful world his opera, Porgy and Bess in 1935. Now regarded as one of the outstanding works of the American stage, this blend of opera, folk and jazz idioms, with its all African-American cast and a hero who was a crippled goat-cart beggar, was probably too ‘low life’ and did not appeal to the audiences of the day and the show flopped.

But the shining star of the decade was certainly the curly-headed, cheeky young blonde, Shirley Temple, who between the ages of 6 and 13 made 46 highly successful feature films. In 1934, ‘Bright Eyes’ (Song: The Good Ship Lollipop) made her a national star. Half a million copies of the song’s sheet music were sold the same year! Next came ‘Curly Top’ (Song: Animal Crackers In My Soup). Franklin Roosevelt remarked, ‘As long as our country has Shirley Temple, we will be alright.’

A decade of song and dance wizardry on film and on stage ended appropriately with the fantasy film, The Wizard Of Oz (1939). With music by Harold Arlen, this was to be an all time box office winner. MGM wanted to borrow Shirley Temple for Dorothy, but Fox films refused to let her do it, and so the part went to another actress, who would become equally great – Judy Garland.

Guest Blog by Marion Shuster
BA hons (Cambridge) LRSM

Marion Shuster has been teaching music, conducting and performing locally for over 30 years. She currently has two choirs based in East Grinstead, the Greenstede Singers and Choirpower, as well as a busy teaching schedule.

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