Jeanine Basinger begins her book The Movie Musical! by recalling being a child in the small town of Brookings, South Dakota, during World War II and beholding Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the big screen of the downtown movie theater. The movie was Swing Time. In those days, she writes, “Everybody was sharing in the shortages, the sadnesses, the losses and the suffering, so just keep it quiet, please. Go to a musical and let yourself feel it through song and dance. Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
We can relate. Here we are, more than 75 years later, suddenly and unexpectedly experiencing our own sadness and suffering, and boy, do we need a lift. But if we look around on our home screens, here again, like an old friend, come the movie musicals from the golden age of Hollywood. Even if, while housebound, we’re seeing these movies for the first time or discovering musicals from much more recent years, they can have the same effect on us that they did on Basinger and the audiences she sat with in that Art Deco movie theater with the big murals on the walls and sparkling globes.
Basinger would use her love of movies to build a brilliant career as a film scholar and historian. Now in her 60th year at Wesleyan University, where she founded the film studies department, she is the Corwin-Fuller professor of film studies.
When I call Basinger at her home in Middletown, she reports that she and her husband are sequestered in their home near the Wesleyan campus. Other than taking walks around the block, she spends her days, of course, watching a variety of movies from her archive and working on another book, which will be her 13th. This one will be on film comedies. The title: How Funny Is Hitler?
But I have called to discuss her 12th book, which weighs in at 595 pages. It offers lavish photos of Basinger’s favorites Astaire and Rogers, along with Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Rita Hayworth, Marlene Dietrich, etc. Basinger writes in a lively, engaging style, laced with anecdotes. She writes in the book’s introduction: “I sat down and looked at musical after musical after musical. I found some confirmations, and I found some surprises, and I found a lot of emotions, and I had a lot of fun. Those things turned out to be what musicals, stylized as they are, are all about.”
Because Basinger had so much fun researching and rewatching those musicals, the book itself is fun and, as she says, “easy to read. It does look as if you drop it on your foot you’ll never dance again.” But she notes you can dip in and out of it.
Basinger says that watching movie musicals, which she calls “an original American art form” in her book, makes perfect sense in these stressful days. “They’re light-hearted, they’re entertaining. They have life and energy and give you a lift when you’re housebound.”
Her book takes us through the many ups and downs of movie musicals, from the 20th century to the present day. She doesn’t hesitate to bash a movie she believes falls flat, especially La La Land, which was a favorite of critics and audiences in 2016. Alluding to its co-stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, Basinger writes: “They become the people who sing and dance, even though neither of them can really do either very well.” As for the movie itself: “La La Land is not like an MGM musical. It’s not energetic, optimistic or determined to pin down joy for its characters. It’s not American.” She adds: “The screen is dead around its protagonists.”
But don’t think Basinger can’t appreciate a modern movie musical. She applauds the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born.
She notes that audiences are still clamoring to see new movies with captivating songs, dance numbers and characters. Before the coronavirus suspended film production, she says, “We were seeing a new surge of musicals. It was enjoying a rebirth.”
“I know what was in the pipeline,” she adds. “A major musical by Steven Spielberg was completed and being edited: his remake of West Side Story. It was originally scheduled for a Christmastime release. Who knows now?”
Meanwhile, Basinger will keep watching movies and maintaining her writing schedule. But in September she will retire from her work at Wesleyan. “I’m 84 years old. So it’s time.”
5 of Jeanine Basinger’s favorite movie musicals
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
“I’ve shown this to audiences of all ages and it never failed to entertain them. When Gene Kelly’s feet hit those rain puddles, even a curmudgeon will smile.”
“There are other excellent ‘series’ musicals — the 1936 Showboat, the 1954 A Star Is Born — but this stands out for its enduring excellence in every category. Eight Oscar wins endorsed those categories and the talents of Bob Fosse and Liza Minnelli.”
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
“A lovely mixture of music, nostalgic family life, comedic interludes and first-rate filmmaking. And an incomparable Judy Garland in her prime sings two of her major hits, ‘The Trolley Song’ and ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.’ ”
The Gang’s All Here (1943)
“What a movie! It’s got Benny Goodman and his band, Carmen Miranda at her zaniest (with monkeys and very large bananas), the hot pop of 1940s Technicolor, and Busby Berkeley’s wild and imaginative fast-paced direction. Each musicals list needs an off-the-wall movie like this one.”
Any Fred Astaire musical
“Astaire is the gold standard. He can elevate a trivial plot into musical heaven. He’s legendary paired with Ginger Rogers (try Swing Time or Top Hat), but is also sublime with Cyd Charisse (The Band Wagon), Audrey Hepburn (Funny Face), Judy Garland (Easter Parade), and Rita Hayworth (You Were Never Lovelier).”