I love a good story. And whenever I find a good story, whether it’s a book, a movie, a comic, or something else, I often try to analyze it to figure out what it was about the story that made it so good. I’d like to think that this practice has helped me as a writer and storyteller – if I know what makes someone else’s story good, then I can incorporate those techniques into my own writing.
One of my favorite examples to study is the 90s sci-fi TV show Babylon 5, which I have blogged about repeatedly. That is one of the best examples of epic fantasy storytelling, which is my first and biggest love when it comes to stories (to both read/watch and to write). But lately I’ve been absorbing a very different kind of storytelling: the musical comedy movies of the 1930s.
No epic fantasy tales to be found here in these musical slapstick adventures. In fact, most of these films follow the same basic plot structure and feature the same kinds of characters and story elements or tropes. Original they’re not. So what makes them such good stories?
Side note: most of the movies I’ve been watching are the films of the Marx Brothers, and the films starring the dance team of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I know there were plenty of dramatic and non-musical movies made in the 30s, but let’s save a discussion of King Kong or Gone with the Wind for another post.
Romance. This is really nothing new, and certainly not exclusive to the comedies of the 30s. But whether romance was a subplot (like in most of the Marx Brothers movies, since none of them played the romantic leads) or the main plot (as in most of Fred and Ginger’s movies), it’s an ever-present idea. Everyone loves a good love story – it’s one of the oldest and most universal storytelling ideas and it stands the test of time.
Music and dancing. Because, you know, these were musicals. Telling a story through music is also an old and universal idea. Music, like stories, has the power to communicate things about life that ordinary methods can’t match. Also, during this time period most Americans were suffering the effects, great or small, of the Great Depression. A story of happy romance and singing and dancing was more than entertainment – it was a needed respite from a crushing reality.
Archetypal character roles. Complex character development was not really big in these old movies. In fact, you always know the role and basic personality of every main character the moment they show up on screen: the dashing bachelor (Fred Astaire), the career gal with no interest in romance (Ginger Rogers), the crotchety but brilliant con man (Groucho Marx), the inept girl-chasers who wind up saving the day (Chico and Harpo Marx), and so forth. Of course this is largely due to the fact that in these movies I’m discussing, the actors had a “screen persona” that they carried throughout their movies. These stories were never intended to be rich, character-driven explorations of the human condition. The lighter elements of the story were the focus, so little time was spent developing complex characters.
Comedic storyline with predictable plot. Frequently the plot in these movies involved some sort of mistaken identity, with predictable hilarity and unrealistic results. I’m not sure why this was such a common idea, but I can see how this sort of plot would provide the audience with a sense of power, because they knew something the characters didn’t. To the average citizen during the Depression who was at the mercy of uncontrollable circumstances, a brief moment of even fictional power could be very appealing.
Certainly not every good story has to have all (or any) of these elements. But it’s fun to see how these basic elements were used over and over to tell predictable stories that we still enjoy 80 years later.
And now, for your viewing pleasure, here is comedy, romance, and dancing all in one package: