Two musical trends of the 1930s—the development of a practice for scoring sound films, and the increasing concertization of the spiritual in both solo and choral form—help shape the soundscape of films based in the South and/or on Civil War themes in early sound-era Hollywood. The tremendous success of the Broadway musical Show Boat (1927), which was made into films twice within seven years (1929, 1936), provided a model of chorus and solo singing, and films like the 1929 Mary Pickford vehicle Coquette and the 1930 musical Dixiana blend this theatrical practice with a nuanced syntax that logically carries the voices from outdoors to indoors to the interior life of a character, usually a white woman. Director D. W. Griffith expands this use of diegetic singing in ways that will later be the province of nondiegetic underscore in his first sound film, Abraham Lincoln (1930).
Shirley Temple's Civil War–set films (The Little Colonel and The Littlest Rebel [both 1935] and Dimples ) strongly replicate the use of the voices of enslaved characters—most of whom are onscreen only to provide justification for the source of the music—to mourn for white women. Jezebel, the 1938 antebellum melodrama, expands musicodramatic syntax that had been developed in single scenes or sequences over the entire second act and a white woman's fall and attempted redemption. Gone with the Wind (1939) both plays on convention and offers a moment of transgression for Prissy, who takes her voice for her own pleasure in defiance of Scarlett O'Hara.
The detachment of the spiritual from the everyday experience of African Americans led to a recognition of the artistry of the music and the singers on the concert stage. In film, however, the bodies of black singers are marginalized and set in service of white characters and white audiences.
- © 2016 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press's Reprints and Permissions web page, http://www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints.