Dancing Dreams: Performing American Identities in Postwar Hollywood Musicals, 1944-1958 Public Deposited

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  • March 20, 2019
  • Lach, Pamella R.
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • With the pressures of the dawning Cold War, postwar Americans struggled to find a balance between conformity and authentic individualism. Although musical motion pictures appeared conservative, seemingly touting traditional gender roles and championing American democratic values, song-and-dance numbers (spectacles) actually functioned as sites of release for filmmakers, actors, and moviegoers. Spectacles, which film censors and red-baiting politicians considered little more than harmless entertainment and indirect forms of expression, were the least regulated aspects of musicals. These scenes provided relatively safe spaces for actors to play with and defy, but also reify, social expectations. Spectacles were also sites of resistance for performers, who relied on their voices and bodies—sometimes at odds with each other—to reclaim power that was denied them either by social strictures or an oppressive studio system. Dancing Dreams is a series of case studies about the role of spectacle—literal dances but also spectacles of discourse, nostalgia, stardom, and race—in inspiring Americans to find forms of individual self-expression with the potential to challenge prevailing norms. It explores how Gene Kelly tried to broaden definitions of dance and art to make a case for the heterosexual male dancer; how Judy Garland used her performances to strike back at studio executives who tried to mold her femininity; how racial stereotypes and the Hollywood politics of race limited Oscar Hammerstein’s liberal messages of racial inclusion and cooperation; and how fantasy dances could remold nationality and gender. Musical motion pictures thus expand the definition of rebellion to include the sort of private, and often, quiet forms of personal resistance that occurred throughout the 1950s, and helps us to understand better the radical potential of postwar America.
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  • In Copyright
  • Filene, Peter G.
  • Open access

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