The term fairy tale here does not necessarily denote the enchantment of other worlds; these are not fairy tales of the magic forests and sorcerers, but rather of romantic dreams come true. Whether or not a film classifies as a fairy tale is really a difficult decision to make, and no amount of arguing between scholars will ever resolve the issue. Ultimately, this site attempts to define the fairy tale musical not exclusively, but in terms of inclusion. By taking a look at several films that incorporate very distinctively different aspects of fairytale convention, we hope perhaps to understand a little better why these films worked as well as they did in their time period.
As stated above, one characteristic is universal to all fairy tale musicals: some romantic quest for a desired end. Though by no means is it always the rule that the sought after object be a member of the opposite sex, a love interest, more often than not this is the case. With few key exceptions, like MGM's "The Wizard of Oz," which, despite its departure from the norm, may be the ultimate example of a studio's perfection of the fairytale musical, the safe bet for the studio operating in this genre was nothing more than your textbook romantic storyline. Nevertheless, romances can take on many different shapes and sizes. Every fairy tale musical used at least quasi-sexual implication, if not outright sexual desire, to play on the sensibilities of the audience. All these proven strategies, of course, were always present in the stage shows from which the musicals derived.
But the adherence to convention does not cease there in its specificity. It was not safe enough to merely bring a male and female lead together at the close of the picture, Hollywood created an exact formula for how they would come together, and the coefficient was sexual dynamics. In his book The American Film Musical, Rick Altman follows three main Hollywood approaches to sexuality: sex as sex, sex as adventure, and sex as battle. While an argument can be made for the prevalence of all three, sex as battle proves the most successful. The playfulness of courtship maintains the suspense of the romantic quest without offsetting the audiences' desire to see it completed.
This formula of sexual powerplay in the romantic fairy tale allowed Hollywood's gloss to mask the sexual tension. Though the existence of sex certainly played a major part in the success of the fairytale, these marks were always very subtle, such as Ginger Rogers rendition of "Music Makes Me Do the Things I Never Should Do" in "The Gay Divorcee." By no means was the sexual element all that was necessary to producing a successful musical romance, but it was a necessary element, nonetheless. It is also important to note that the term sex, for the purposes of this discussion does not equate to lust, but merely an avenue for playfulness, the wonderful give and take that marked the Astaire/Rogers films. In both "The Gay Divorcee" and later "Top Hat," the couple's initial meeting is a minor squabble and the banter continues as an outlet for their falling in love.
The musical and dance numbers of the romantic fairy tale would coincide with the romantic developments of the two leads. Often, the opening number would be just one of the two alone, forlorn. Then came several dances of sportful give and take, and finally the romantic finale. This same musical structure blankets all fairy tale musicals, regardless whether the conflict is between two love interests. In "The Wizard of Oz," Dorothy's opening number, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," mirrors the longing of Astaire's opening solo "No Strings" in the 1935 film, "Top Hat." Then comes a series of rollicking musical numbers addressing the quest for her romantic end, in this case Kansas, and finally there is a emotional conclusion-though not exactly song and dance, it provides a similar sense of resolution.
Last Updated December 16, 2000
Last Updated December 16, 2000