Listen to America: The 1920s and 1930s

To see the intro to this project, as well as links to other decades, click here.

1) “The Broadway Melody,” from The Broadway Melody of 1929 (1929)

One of the ironies of Hollywood in the talkie years is that the Californians spent years in thrall to the New Yorkers. Hollywood would not overtake truly overtake Broadway in the public imagination for some years, even if it wasn’t until the 1970s that a major musical or play didn’t have to become a major film. So it is that MGM turned out a new musical about the mystique of Broadway melodies from this first edition in 1929 through 1940, when the last iteration could star a Fred Astaire poached away from RKO. The Broadway Melody is frequently given as one of the worst films to ever win Best Picture, and I even agree with that; it’s in my bottom ten. To add insult to injury, one of the protagonists of the film is a woman named “Hank.” But the song that gives this film and a host of others its name is a catchy number, something of a perfect encapsulation of late Jazz Age music. A reedy male voice, an equally reedy clarinet not yet supplanted by a saxophone, syncopation, a guitar that’s serving the same function that a ukulele would. You may not remember any of the other words, but I might go to my grave with the sound of Charles King singing, “That’s the Broadway—melooodee-eeeee!”

2) “42nd Street,” from 42nd Street (1933)

Never that far away from it is the sound of Ruby Keeler singing in that nervous, girlish voice of hers: “Come and meet/Those dancing feeeeeet/On the avenue I’m takin’ you to/Forty.Second.Street.” Maybe “Shuffle Up to Buffalo” is a more memorable performance and a more memorable song, but that’s not the song that Warner Baxter spoke a pre-Gipper inspirational speech to get her up for. Keeler is by herself at the beginning of this and emphatically not by the end, but Marsh told Sawyer well when he told her that she’d come back a star because of this song. It’s a number which foreshadows two paths: the Busby Berkeley extravaganza that would become the ballets of The Red Shoes and An American in Paris, and the actual Broadway closing number with all the trimmings. Keeler’s wavering voice, imploring us to join her, is a baby bird warbling its first tune.

3) “We’re in the Money,” from Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

There’s a real chance that this is the strangest musical number of any mainstream American movie of the 1930s, and we haven’t even gotten to the Marx Brothers yet. Taking the phrase “we’re in the money” to a shockingly literal level are a bevy of showgirls decked out in some of the doofiest costumes to ever appear on the silver screen…granted, the point is to imagine them once they’ve banked the silver dollars. (Everyone mentions the pig Latin bit of this song that Ginger Rogers sings, and for good reason, because even money says it’s the soundtrack to your mother sucking cocks in Hell.) While the two other key Warners musicals of the year, 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, both went to some lengths to express glamour. Gold Diggers is a far more practical picture than either, and “We’re in the Money” is part of a golden American heritage: sarcasm in the face of adversity.

4) “This Country’s Going to War,” from Duck Soup (1933)

Speaking of sarcasm. I usually cite “They got guns/We got guns/All God’s chillun got guns” basically whenever I talk about the Marx Brothers, but there’s something about Rufus T. Firefly, ostensibly the president of the nation, rattling off the lyrics, “In case you haven’t heard before/I think they think we’re going to war/I think they think we’re going to war.” Fifteen years after the end of World War I and a kindergartner away from another one, Groucho has identified what gets wars going. The leaders of these nations just sort of think it’s happening? And then the people around them start saying stuff about it? And then they’re trapped? And when the war is won, the only thing to do with your leftover foodstuffs is to fling it at singing women?

5) “The Piccolino,” from Top Hat (1935)

A Fred Astaire number makes this list once, and it’s not for “Cheek to Cheek” from this film or “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time, but for a song I just truly abhor and which, lucky boy, he doesn’t have to sing. “The Piccolino” is Irving Belin in full terrible pun mode, in a single line rhyming “Vino” with “Scallopino” and “Piccolino,” though earlier in the same verse it’s rhymed with “bambino” and “casino.” God bless Ginger Rogers for emphasizing all the rhymes so that we might all burble up with glee at Berlin’s wit, God bless Fred Astaire for mutely and ironically strumming an imaginary mandolin, and God bless Ginger again for looking right in the camera as she murmurs “the Piccolinoooo” and finishes the sung portion of the number. It’s not so often that we catch the actors breaking character in reaction to something this dumb, but the seeds of it are back here, and at least in the context of knowing we’ll get a sublime dance from these two in a minute, it’s pretty funny.

6) “You Are My Lucky Star,” from Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)

The primary MGM song for much of the 1930s, and done over and over again within this movie specifically, “You Are My Lucky Star” is even self-referential. Whether or not Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown intended to do so, it’s a song for MGM, which of course was employing “more stars than there are in heaven.” (Singin’ in the Rain, spoofing early MGM, adds in the names of some of those female stars in order to get the point across.) In the film, it’s a song for women more than anyone else; Frances Langford has it in the clip above, and Eleanor Powell gets a crack at it, and maybe your great-grandmother got a crack at it too for as often as it shows up here. This is the song that made me think doing a project like this would be interesting. It’s so omnipresent, so easy to sing, and it is such an immediate signifier of a moment in film history. Robert Taylor can say the lyrics more or less as well as Frances Langford can sing them, and that inherent falseness, the universality of what the song is going for, makes it feel like a Valentine’s card that could go to anyone.

7) “Old Man River,” from Show Boat (1936)

One of the first sung performances in American movies to get after something like a real feeling. Paul Robeson’s rendition of “Ol’ Man River” has special power in part because of his unmistakable baritone, but also because of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. You can hear some variation on “I’m tired of livin’ and scared of dyin'” in heaven only knows how many pop, rock, rap, R&B, other musical theater songs. I don’t think I’ve ever found it as potent as it is here in this rhythmic story of Black men eking out something like life on the docks, although the life that it is is barely preferable to death. Yet the river seems to know something that Joe does not, or his compeers cannot know either. It keeps going, for some reason, although why it should is as mysterious as why Joe and the chorus should live like they do for another day.

8) “Over the Rainbow,” from The Wizard of Oz (1939)

No one thinks that “The Star-Spangled Banner” should still be our national anthem, right? And while the right answer is probably “This Land Is Your Land,” I’d stan for “Over the Rainbow” just as hard. (Seems just as appropriate for Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg to have written the national anthem as Woody Guthrie.) The American Dream, hardscrabble and fallacious, is on the other side of that rainbow. If Uncle Henry could sing—and if he could, there’d be no Oz at all—then his somewhere over the rainbow would be a land where the crops grow over a man’s head and no tornado threatens the family farm. Instead, it’s a young girl with an imagination but without means or privilege who sings this. None of us can sing like Judy Garland, and there aren’t many of us who have anyone in our lives as charismatic and reliable as Terry the Cairn Terrier. What makes the song relatable is a curious combination, idle wistfulness and deep longing, stirred together into a vision of a world with the mundane and recondite alike. King Vidor, who directed this scene, keeps it so simple, and in keeping the motion of the girl and camera minimal, he makes it easier for us to remember feeling what she feels, and to anticipate a Technicolor world to come.

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