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The University of Southampton

Burlesquing the Belle: Professional Southernism in the Hollywood Musical, 1935–1941 Seminar

26 February 2013
Room 1083 Music, Building 2 Highfield Campus University of Southampton SO17 1BJ

For more information regarding this seminar, please telephone Dr Florian Scheding on 023 8059 5873 or email .

Event details

Part of the Music Research Seminar Series

In the 1930s, the New Orleans trio the Boswell Sisters had a profound influence on popular music and jazz singing, introducing the rest of the nation to a southern vocality that could sound 'black' but be 'white'. Such was their impact that by the time they disbanded in 1936, 'professional southernism' was music business common sense: girl singers often feigned southernness in order to succeed. Northern-born chanteuses learned the vocal cadences of the belle; Dixie origins and family ties were invented for singing groups who were neither southern nor sisters. Hollywood quickly found ways to satirize the ubiquity of the show-business belle - as in Every Night at Eight (1935) and The Awful Truth (1937) - often using camp to blur the boundaries between the constructedness of the 'real' belle and the double masquerade of her imitators.

The belle's popularity during the 1930s has been explained as an expression of a collective nostalgia for a society bound by honor, and a determination to rebuild a ravaged nation. Indeed she offered many positive traits to Depression-era America, with her obligation (no matter the circumstances) to optimism, purity, loyalty, and courage. But she was also symbolic of a social order predicated on white supremacy; eventually this association became uncomfortable for some, particularly as racial tension in Europe escalated into the terrors of Hitler's Germany.

Clare Boothe Luce's 1939 Broadway play, Kiss the Boys Goodbye, used the hype surrounding the casting of Scarlett O'Hara in the film of Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel, Gone With the Wind, to satirize the dangers of incipient fascism coming from within America. Its own 1941 film adaptation retained little of its anti-fascist sentiment, but still made trenchant comment on show-business dissimulation, and on the gulf between northern and southern social mores. Using camp and its more subversive cousin burlesque, the musical Kiss the Boys Goodbye critiques professional southernism and its implications, juxtaposing the 'original' belle Connie Boswell with the modern belle Mary Martin. Both singers articulate southern white femininity supported by black performers, although Martin ultimately undermines the paradigm in a defiant striptease, re-northernizing her character, and restoring northern authority.

Speaker information

Laurie Stras,Senior Lecturer in Music

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