Lady Be Good

by Chuck Kleinhans

Lady Be Good, a fairly conventional 1941 MGM musical, provides good opportunities for analyzing ideology in an entertainment comedy. By reprinting the articles here, we can highlight some basic ideas, strengths, and strategies of ideological analysis. The film’s simple story line presents a comedy of remarriage between a successful composer and lyricist who discover separation is unsatisfying and who then get together by collaborating on the title song (which was already a well known standard in the American Songbook). The song’s hit status bonds the pair: Ann Sothern and Robert Taylor. Promotion headlined Eleanor Powell, an athletic tap dancer, and novelty dance sequences went to tap trio The Berry Brothers.

Originally MGM assigned the direction to Busby Berkeley, but then reassigned it to Norman Z. McLeod. Berkeley choreographed the final spectacular production number, “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” using Powell and 100 men in top hat and canes.

Jane Gaines considers Lady Be Good in terms of the 1970s and 1980s emerging semiotic analysis, working from Umberto Eco’s pioneering work. A more sociologically grounded analysis than more formalist and linguistic work in film semiotics, Eco’s terms expand the field of examination. Gaines begins with a novelty dance number by Powell and a fox terrier that ends with a perhaps naughty zoophilic embrace. She extends the discussion to multiple complexities of close reading within a semiotic frame. Thus Gaines is able to show how “rhythm” contained in music, the sound track, dance and movement, comes to be linked to “success.”

Scott Brewer and I provide a detailed breakdown of a long montage sequence demonstrating the remarkable formal complexity of the montage process as well as the underlying implicit assumptions. Because “success” is such a fundamental part of U.S. cultural expression, I further break down the ideological implications of the montage sequence revealing that while it presents itself as innocent and transparent, in fact the historical context reveals a tendentious and mercenary intent to the entertainment.

These three articles on the film were first published in Jump Cut’s 1986 print version, but the subsequent online version published later did not include the frame grabs. Here we republish the essays with the original images (now augmented with some additional frames and in a few cases corrected—a few had been flipped). Earlier versions were presented at the annual Society for Cinema Studies conference in 1979, based on a graduate class in film theory I taught at Northwestern University in 1978. As such the articles fit in with a then newly developing understanding of entertainment films and particularly of the musical, exemplified by the work of Richard Dyer, Jane Feuer, and Rick Altman.

The actual labor of song writing is presented as acts of almost spontaneous creation in which work is just creative fun. As they work through the first draft of “Lady Be Good,” the pair exude casual ease.