Throughout June, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) will pay homage to the glorious world of the Hollywood musical with Mad About Musicals!, a special month of programming celebrating timeless musical classics such as Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, On the Town, My Fair Lady, and Cabaret. TCM is once again partnering with Ball State University and Canvas to offer a free online multimedia course tied to this programming about the history of the musical genre and its evolution. Classes start June 3, but it’s a self-paced program and enrollment is open until June 17. You can sign up for the course at musicals.tcm.com. Check out the amazing schedule of films that will be shown all day and night on TCM every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the month of June. You’ll want to catch as many as you possibly can.
I had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Vanessa Theme Ament, Hollywood Foley artist and professor and film scholar at Ball State University who will be guiding students through the course with help from Academy Award-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, film scholar Richard Edwards, and Distinguished Ball State Professor Wes Gehring. She will also be introducing some of the prime time musicals on TCM with host Ben Mankiewicz.
Danny Miller: Vanessa, I saw your great introduction of Silk Stockings (1957) at last month’s TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood.
Vanessa Theme Ament: Wasn’t that a fun movie?
It’s one of my absolute favorites even though by all rights, I should hate it: it’s a remake of Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), Cyd Charisse replaces Greta Garbo with an accent that would hardly pass muster in Moscow, and it’s dripping with 1950s Cold War anti-Soviet propaganda. In short: how dare they! And yet I love every second!
(Laughs.) I know! I love it, too. And frankly, I can’t even think of it as a remake of Ninotchka, I’d prefer to call it more of an “adaptation.”
As a film scholar, I don’t know if you try to avoid every naming favorites, but for my money, no one in the history of Hollywood can touch Cyd Charisse for that style of dancing.
Oh, I’m with you, Danny! You can talk about all of the immensely talented dancers that were in musicals, and they all have their strengths and appeal, but when it comes down to pure technique and the ability to dance with any partner with that level of style and grace, there really was no one like Cyd Charisse. I really believe that technically, she was the most perfect.
Yes, and we see through that scene that she didn’t have to shut herself off as a woman just because she was rejecting a political and economic theory. That’s such a beautiful number, and what more perfect place to explore that type of transformation than in Paris?
By way of MGM’s Culver City backlot.
Right! No backlot could look more like France than MGM. They sure did it well in An American in Paris (1951), too.
I’m so glad both of those films are on TCM’s Mad About Musicals schedule in June. I was just looking at the whole list and salivating — I want to watch all 84 films! Did you have a hand in choosing them?
Turner Classic Movies selected the movies but they did allow me to have some input. There are a few films, like Cabaret and Funny Girl, for example, that I felt really needed to be there. Of course, there are some they can’t get the rights to so they can’t show. But I have to say that they have an incredibly beautiful variety of films that covers a wide swath of the entire imagination of musicals — everything from the early musicals that were repurposing popular songs to the first story musicals where the songs are being written exclusively for the screen, to Broadway musicals that were transformed into more cinematic stories, to more realistic films that have songs in them, these films have everything going on — even the Beatles!
Can you describe in a nutshell how the online course works?
There are lots of pieces to it but the beauty of it is that you can do as much or as little as you want. We have online filmed discussions with experts — there are 16 of these lecture/discussions with me taking to people about various aspects of making musicals. We also have lecture notes that include images and clips from the films that follow a certain structure for the decade that we’re covering that week. On Mondays, I do an historic overview of the decade. On Tuesday, I focus on the various stars who were really highlighted during that period. On Wednesday, I cover the behind-the-scenes people who really made a difference in that decade. On Thursday, we focus on specific musical numbers and the style of dance, choreography, and songs from those years. And then Friday is a wrap-up of everything we’ve learned during the week and it includes podcasts I’m doing with Richard Edwards and several other film scholars. We also have a bunch of daily doses of film clips for each of those days. We want to provide lots of ways to get into how these musicals were made and what they meant to the overall culture.
That sounds great. Are there other components?
Yes! On top of all that, we have various games that we’re providing that help with the learning. There’s a game where you look at an image and try to tell whether it’s from a musical, there’s a kind of hangman game where you’re figuring out different people’s names, and lots of other fun experiences so that by the time the week is over you feel substantially smarter about what was going on with musicals in the 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s, and beyond.
I love the multi-pronged approach. I really think you can learn so many different things about a culture by looking at its musicals in each decade.
Exactly. And in this course you look at them through a theoretical and historical approach, from a technical perspective, examining how different aspects of society are represented, and also by looking at the changing aesthetics. So the awareness comes not only from enjoying the musicals themselves but also from understanding why they came out when they did, how the different studios did them differently, and how the star system impacted everything and why it started to change later on.
I love it. And can people doing the course interact with each other and with you in some way?
Oh, yes! We also have discussion boards where everybody gets a chance to share their knowledge with each other, so anyone involved with the class can talk back to us and say, “Well, I noticed this,” or “What about that?” We have a group discussion with everyone involved. It’s all very interactive and we’ll have some kind of live event later on in the course. On top of that, we have a lot of little extra components. For example, I do a demonstration of how you replace the tap foley in a dance number so people can see how dancing sounds were put in for the dances — those were always put in later by someone like me.
I always wondered about those. Are you saying that when we see Ann Miller’s tap numbers, we’re not actually hearing the sounds she makes while dancing?
No, it’s not really her, those sounds are too hard to capture. And not only that, but the person who created the tapping sounds would actually add in more taps than Ann Miller actually did.
Wow, those always look amazing, the foley artist really had to know what they were doing. This class looks like it will be a blast.
Oh, it’s been so fun to put together and it’s been an enormous amount of work, we’re still adding things. We’ve got all sorts of extras even beyond what I’ve mentioned. I want the class to be intellectually stimulating and to offer lots of different things for people so they can do whatever bits and pieces they’re interested in. There will also be quizzes so they can get badges for accomplishing things they do well, but nobody has to do the parts they don’t want to. It’s really up to the person how much time they put into it.
I assume you’re suggesting that students watch as many of the films they can that are on TCM’s Mad About Musicals schedule?
Absolutely. The prime time ones are really critical but we’ll be discussing many of them. We’ll also get into discussions of how race impacted musicals, the changing roles of women, and a lot of other important issues. There’s such a rich variety of films that TCM is showing that we can talk about so much.
Is there any limit to the number of people who can take the class?
No, we can take as many people as are interested. The class starts on June 3, but you can sign up through June 17. Everyone can do it at their own pace. And everything is free, including two free weeks of the great online site FilmStruck
I honestly can’t think of any reason not to enroll, I’m sold!
And because I like to have a lot of fun, we end up laughing a lot in our lectures, there’s just a lot of fun involved. And during the first week of the prime time showings on TCM, I was fortunate enough to be able to do the intro and outro discussions about the films with Ben Mankiewicz so that was a lot of fun, too. It’s just going to be one big party.
Yay! Would you say that we’re in a kind of resurgence right now of the American musical?
Oh, absolutely. I have a theory as to why musicals dropped off for so many years. I think that our culture lost sight of what the purpose of musicals really was. And when we became more cynical, we started thinking that the only purpose of them was to escape from reality, and we became a society that wasn’t escaping that much through film. But then Disney started having music in animation, and it started to come back, until finally people realized that music can help us deal with the realities of our world, too. I think they’re making a huge resurgence now for that reason. Songs today are being written to capture the essence of the real emotion of what we are living through. I think movies like La La Land really captured that zeitgeist. The truth is that musicals have served a different purpose in every decade. I can’t wait for us to all get into discussions about these things!