The French Film Musical
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The French Film Musical

Phil Powrie, Marie Cadalanu

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eBook - ePub

The French Film Musical

Phil Powrie, Marie Cadalanu

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Like many national cinemas, the French cinema has a rich tradition of film musicals beginning with the advent of sound to the present. This is the first book to chart the development of the French film musical. The French film musical is remarkable for its breadth and variety since the 1930s; although it flirts with the Hollywood musical in the 1930s and again in the 1950s, it has very distinctive forms rooted in the traditions of French chanson. Defining it broadly as films attracting audiences principally because of musical performances, often by well-known singers, Phil Powrie and Marie Cadalanu show how the genre absorbs two very different traditions with the advent of sound: European operetta and French chanson inflected by American jazz (1930-1950). As the genre matures, operetta develops into big-budget spectaculars with popular tenors, and revue films also showcase major singers in this period (1940-1960). Both sub-genres collapse with the advent of rock n roll, leading to a period of experimentation during the New Wave (1960-1990). The contemporary period since 1995 renews the genre, returning nostalgically both to the genre's origins in the 1930s, and to the musicals of Jacques Demy, but also hybridising with other genres, such as the biopic and the documentary.

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In his brief introduction to the film musical published in 2002 Michel Chion lamented the fact that there existed no history of the French variant (2002: 94). The current book is the first to attempt a critical and cultural history of the French film musical. Provocatively, we will be claiming that the French film musical exists as a major genre of French cinema, and that it has always existed, continuously, since the advent of sound cinema. We will also claim, equally provocatively, that what makes the strength of the French film musical is the reverse side of what has often been seen as its weakness, its inability to consolidate as a genre with recognizable codes in the same way that the Hollywood musical was codified during the 1930s. Our claim is that the strength of the French film musical lies in its refusal to be strictly codified, the variety that it displays as a result, and the difference within the continuity of older musical genres. Within that variety, the echoes of Hollywood, whether mimetic or occasionally parodic, are only one of many ingredients in the genre’s history.
If the Hollywood musical’s history is one of centripetalism and the gradual consolidation of a solid centre that reached its apogee in the MGM musicals of the 1950s, the French variant in this Hollywood-centric metaphor, while not necessarily centrifugal, is circumferential. There is no solid centre; rather, there are many formulas that ebb and flow as they gesture to a centre, only some of them towards what we might recognize as the Hollywood genre. For that reason we will not be trying to define a ‘standard’ variant of the French film musical, as that standard does not and could never exist, for a number of reasons. First, the French industrial context is one of an artisanal production environment, rather than a well-developed studio system. Second, the cultural context is one in which popular song prevails rather than song and dance; as Tom Brown points out (2015), French musical films are less spectacular than Hollywood musicals because they are rooted in the popular café-concert tradition, and therefore a more realist space. Finally, there is the historical importance of European forms such as opera and operetta (although we should remember that these also influenced the development of the Hollywood musical). None of these reasons mean that the genre does not exist; it means that it is often radically different from the Hollywood genre and is more diverse and often more experimental because of that diversity.
It is also arguably the most nostalgic genre of French cinema, not just because music and nostalgia are often considered as a pair, but because of the genre’s roots in other musical forms and the way that these live on as recollected practices, whether they are, as Svetlana Boym terms them, ‘restorative’ nostalgia or ‘reflective’ nostalgia. The first is the more conservative gesture that yearns to restore the past as it was, the second ‘does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity’ (Boym 2001: xviii), and ‘points to the future’ (Boym 2001: 55); they frequently shade into each other, as we shall see. If we have retained the metaphor of the circle, it is not because we think that the French film musical can only be defined in relation to the Hollywood variant, but because the centre of that circle is not ‘Hollywood’ but more often than not a return to a range of pasts, only one of which is the Hollywood film musical. The circumference, constituted by a wide range of sub-genres or types, appears to be drawn towards a fantasized and homogenous past, but is immediately referred back to that circumference and the heterogeneity that constitutes it. Paradoxically then, the French film musical un-constitutes itself at the same time that it constitutes itself, often with relatively short-lived sub-genres, such as the chase film, the big-band film, the popular tenor spectacular. In that respect, it demonstrates nostalgia for past forms while also demonstrating a repositioning and evolution of musical forms as they take account of sociocultural and technological developments, such as the rise of television, or industrial developments, such as the increasing hybridization of genres in the contemporary period.
In this introduction, we will consider the transition to sound and the way that musical forms were incorporated in film, the emergence of the film musical genre as a recognizable category, and an indication of what we consider to be the development of the genre’s history.
René Clair and the emergence of the film musical
The first French talkie was Les Trois Masques (André Hugon), released on 1 November 1929. The first film musical was released only a few weeks later, on 24 January 1930. This was La route est belle (Robert Florey, 1930), best known for its title song, sung by the film’s star André Baugé, who plays a poor singer substituting for a famous tenor and achieving fame as a result. These two films were made in the UK, as the French studios were not equipped for sound. René Clair’s better-known Sous les toits de Paris was made in France in the Épinay studios and released three months later on 28 April 1930. In it, Albert Préjean plays a street singer who is in love with the same woman as his friend. These two early film musicals exemplify one of the more interesting tensions in the genre’s history, that between performances by singers and performances by actors. Baugé was a well-known singer of opera and, in the later 1920s, operetta; Préjean was a film actor who had begun his film career in the early 1920s. Moreover, whereas Hugon’s film is now remembered only for the title song, Clair’s film is seen as an auteur film, helped in part by Clair’s own perception of his work; he preferred to call himself ‘auteur’ rather than ‘metteur en scène’ or director (Clair 1928: 3). Clair’s four films of the early 1930s – Sous les toits de Paris, Le Million (1931), À nous la liberté (1931), Quatorze juillet (1933) – strike us now as considerably more inventive in their use of sound and music than most films of the period. But as we shall see in the first chapters of this book, in some respects they were not much different from many other musicals of the early 1930s, as filmmakers experimented with the new medium. As John Kobal points out: ‘Between 1929 and 1931 European writers and directors went farther in the exploration of sound than did the Americans, who were limited by an enormous public and by producers who wanted to make good their publicity slogan: “A one hundred per cent talking motion picture!”’ (1971: 72). Nonetheless, by the 1950s Clair was seen as a major filmmaker, as evidenced by the appearance of what was to be a long list of academic works in both French and English devoted to him.1 His status as an auteur was consecrated by his admission to the Académie Française in 1960, with the director of the Cinémathèqu...