Alongside westerns and gangster films, musicals are one of the most iconic types of Hollywood classicism. With their heyday spanning from the ‘30s to the ‘60s, these glamorous and colorful musical films are often less superficial than they might initially appear.

Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 includes a track that would go on to become one of the “hits” of that decade: We’re in the Money. With lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren, this song perfectly encapsulates the essence of Hollywood musicals. The film is surprising in that its artistic accomplishment is almost perfect. The brilliant Busby Berkeley oversaw the choreography. Famous for his extravagant visuals, which played with black and white contrasts and complex geometric shapes, Berkeley was a major contributor to Hollywood musicals in the ‘30s. Although the film industry was still in its infancy, the first film with sound was indeed a musical (The Jazz Singer by Alan Crosland with Al Jolson), released in 1927. Shortly after, Gold Diggers of 1933, like other musicals of that time, gave a sugar-coated account of the Great Depression whilst enabling audiences to forget their troubles for the duration of the film. When Ginger Rogers sings We’re in the Money, accompanied by a female choir dancing around with huge coins, it all seems light-hearted on the surface, though beneath this escapist fantasy lies a subtle commentary about this troubled decade. The key ingredients, it seems, for Hollywood’s great musicals were extreme artistic ambition, an escape from daily troubles and small cracks exposing a complex reality.

The late ‘30s saw the introduction of color. MGM decided to use Technicolor to produce a musical with a staggering budget: Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz. Judy Garland played Dorothy, a young girl who finds herself whisked away to the land of Oz, far from her family. Lyricist Yip Harburg and composer Harlod Arlen (two young Broadway prodigies) joined forces to create the songs for this great classic. Over the Rainbow is undoubtedly the most famous of them all, a song that followed Judy Garland around until her death in 1969. As soft as a lullaby, this piece contrasts with the other numbers in the film - which are generally very dynamic - and evokes Dorothy’s hopes and dreams. Echoing Berkeley’s choreography, the focus of Over the Rainbow is the need to escape. But this impossible search for a better ‘somewhere’ begins, once again, from an anxiety-inducing situation: Dorothy being left to her own devices in an unknown land.

The 1930s to the 1950s

Thanks to The Wizard of Oz, MGM Studios became the king of musicals and continued to enjoy success until the late ‘50s. MGM’s classics from this period include Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); George Sidney’s Ziegfeld Follies (1946); Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s On the Town (1949) and Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953). Some of the greatest musical composers were involved in these films, such as George Gershwin, Arthur Schwartz, George Stoll and Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps the most iconic film from this golden age is Singin’ in the Rain by Stanley Donen (1952), with music by Nacio Herb Brown. The famous title song, written in 1929, is the driving force behind the film. The plot revolves around the characters Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), two silent film stars. With the emergence of sound, their producers decide to shoot the next "Lockwood and Lamont" production using this new technology. The only problem was that Lina Lamont’s voice was unbearable so they decided to have it doubled with the velvety voice of a dancer- Debbie Reynolds. Singin’ in the Rain is a humorous and glamorous behind-the-scenes look at Hollywood. But while the characters’ lives in this film, like in many other musical metafictions of the time, seem more pleasant and easy than those of the average person, they are in fact full of drama and dilemmas. Must you sacrifice your personal life to succeed professionally? This question is at the heart of Singin’ In The Rain, as well as many other musicals from the ‘50s, such as A Star Is Born by George Cukor in 1954, featuring Judy Garland.

Still with Gene Kelly and produced by MGM, Vincente’s Minnelli’s An American In Paris (1951) reflected another aspect of classical Hollywood musicals: putting European culture (particularly French culture) on a pedestal. To explain this huge admiration, some people put it down to a complex that the (still) young America had regarding Europe’s rich cultural heritage. While this point is debatable, it’s certainly true that many of the directors had a taste for refined exoticism, Paris being - as everybody knows - the capital of elegance. Entirely made up of Gershwin covers, An American In Paris is known for its final scene in which Jerry (played by Gene Kelly) dreams of dancing with Lise (Leslie Caron) in the beautiful streets of Paris, while the set pays tribute to painters such as Raoul Dufy, Auguste Renoir, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Minnelli’s Gigi (1958) and Walter Lang’s Can-Can (1960) are also shot in a postcard-like Paris and feature the most American of Parisians: Maurice Chevalier.

As with Kelly and Caron, Hollywood musicals are very often based on iconic couples. This was the case for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for films such as Top Hat (1935) and Shall We Dance (1937), directed by Mark Sandrich. Under the impetus of Fred Astaire himself, the films that feature actor-dancer-singers are characterized by a particularly subtle use of songs. Astaire believed that musical numbers shouldn’t simply be plonked into films but instead the songs should come about spontaneously, either from the dramatic situation or the character’s mood. In all his films, it is only when he reaches a climactic state of joy or sadness that Fred Astaire begins to sing. Just as Berkeley helped to sculpt the genre with his meticulous choreography, Fred Astaire helped turn musical film into a major genre by working on this fluidity between songs and drama.

Of course, there was Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, but musical film also gave charismatic women who could sing, dance and act at the same time the chance to step into the limelight. During the ‘50s, the status of stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn took on whole new proportions, as proved by Howard Hawks' Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957). With the vital help of Marilyn (and Jane Russell), Hawks’ film takes on a subversive approach as it deals with the more taboo aspects of gender roles. The filmmaker plays around with the ‘rules’ of femininity and masculinity (Ain't There Anyone Here For Love), and explores the blurry lines between sex and money (Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend). This masterpiece highlights one of the most fascinating aspects of musical comedy - by immersing the viewer in a totally extravagant, unusual or even dreamlike atmosphere, this film genre can discreetly tackle sensitive subjects, especially those that Hollywood censorship (the famous Hays Code) scrupulously banished from screens.

The ‘60s marked the gradual decline of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals. Studios stopped churning them out, though there were still a few noteworthy successes: George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964), Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965), William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968) and Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969). Some of these musicals were clearly anchored in reality. The most striking example of this is without a doubt Robert Wise’s West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein), a modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in New York. While the unspoken aspect of traditional musicals is one of the most attractive assets of the genre, Robert Wise’s film demonstrates that great musicals can also tackle explicitly complex and dark subjects. This film marked the beginning of a more “adult” type of cinema, that of New Hollywood in the ‘70s, which gave the director more freedom to evoke a violent social reality, without toning down the entertainment.