Niels Hartvigson

Seventy-seven Danish sound films were produced between 1931 and 1939 and of these over fifty were musical comedies deploying a content that is both romantic and populist. This chapter focuses on how the relationship between musical numbers, story-lines and themes created three specific sub-genres that dealt differently with the ideals of romantic love and political populism: 'collective musical comedies', 'character musical comedies' and 'romantic musical comedies'. Before turning to the films, an understanding of their political and social context is therefore necessary.

Danmark for Folket

The depression affected Denmark badly, with 1933 being the worst year. Yet, this was a time of political stability and a widespread popular belief in parliamen-tarianism, which had established itself successfully during the 1920s.1 The political solution to the Paskekrisen, the Easter Crisis of 1920, had been a government coalition between Venstre, a right-wing farmer's party, and the smaller Radikale Venstre, a socially conscious, intellectual and anti-militarist party. The coalition model became widely regarded as the touchstone of Danish parliamentarianism and, in 1929, Radikale Venstre and the much larger Socialdemokratiet (the Social Democrats), formed an alliance that lasted throughout the 1930s. The political platform that materialised emphasised the relationship between state power and the interests and rights of the individual, evidenced in new penal and social reforms. During this period Socialdemokratiet, which until then had largely addressed working-class voters, redefined and widened their political identity under the populist slogan 'Danmark for Folket' (Denmark for the People). This change was further reflected in the broader parliamentary politics of the 1930s, which saw several important social reforms carried through with the support of traditionally right-wing parties.2

Populist Visions

Critics have made much of the 1930s Danish musical comedies' supposed disinclination to deal explicitly with politics, the depression and social issues,3 concluding that their relationship to the 'real world' was escapist.4 Contrary to this view it will be argued in this article that these films do reflect a social and political reality, but also that they must be viewed as texts that are bound by an internal logic and generic conventions.

The populism of the Danish musicals of the period can be described as a general levelling moral outlook that stresses community rather than a political doctrine.5 This is achieved with the aid of one or more of the working-class characters within a film. These characters are mainly defined by their individuality rather than by their class origins, which gives the transgression of social and cultural norms, integral to the distinct populism of these musical comedies, a softer edge. The films base their outlook on the premise that through the virtues and morals of the socially marginalised characters there is the possibility to transform establishment figures positively so that lawyers, earls, department store directors, professors and millionaires are won over. Rather than being exponents of a ruling class, these establishment characters are depicted in terms of their human qualities, as parents, sons, daughters, lovers and friends. The opposition between classes, then, is primarily portrayed as a human conflict, which foreshadows the final reconciliation between characters. By focusing on the reunion of people from different classes the films may seem to be escapist; however, their emphasis on community, individual opportunity and problem solving may be said to reflect not only a contemporary popular and political belief in the power of co-operation but also the relative success of Danish parliamentarianism in the decade of the depression.6

Non-diegetic Music

These films' soft-edged populism is developed through the combination of comedy and music. Although non-diegetic music is not usually included in the discussion of musicals it is necessary to acknowledge its role in order to appreciate the full musical potential of these specific films.7 Popular orchestral jazz and swing music constituted an important core of the non-diegetic music in 1930s Danish musicals making it audibly noticeable.8 To a great extent, the Danish films of the 1930s emphasise the role of non-diegetic music in a way that often subordinates the visual elements. This non-diegetic music infuses large parts of the films, creating fictional universes with a distinct musical sensibility by producing 'rhythmical' landscapes, lyrical edits and distinctive camera movements, often resulting in a blurring of the borderline between spatially, temporally and narratively well-defined segments. Subsequently, many of these films have a montage-like quality. A clear example of this is Sol over Danmark (Sun Over Denmark, 1936), a holiday love story about two boys and two girls who make separate journeys through Denmark and constantly meet up in a variety of places. A musical theme played in swing time accompanies the passing landscapes as well as the action dominated scenes and is mixed with diegetic sound to such an extent that it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. Depending on the themes, characters, or milieu, this swing-style non-diegetic music is used alternately with other musical styles, such as sea shanties in Flddens bid matroser (Sea-blue Sailors, 1937) or folk tunes in Sol over Danmark. Only the period comedies such as Livet pa Hegnsgaard (Life On Fence Farm, 1938) and Champagnegaloppen (The Champagne Gallopade, 1938) do not employ this swing-style non-diegetic score. The important role of non-diegetic music is even demonstrated by the foregrounding of the musical ensemble in the opening credits in many of the films, including Sol over Danmark, where an extra-diegetic scene features a band in performance.

Collective Musical Comedies

In collective musical comedies the entire fictional universe is potentially musical. Music may express a host of different meanings - togetherness, work, play, love, eating, being a child and being old. While romantic love is an important theme in the collective musical comedies, with the mandatory union of young and beautiful lovers at the end, it is society rather than coupledom that is emphasised in terms of musical performance.

Kidnapped (1935), for instance, connects music with physically and socially marginalised characters as a distinct strategy. In the film, a nanny to a millionaire's daughter flees with the child - played by Little Connie, a popular child star of the 1930s - to Denmark to escape a kidnap plot by American gangsters. Once there, the nanny places the child into the care of her brother, the rotund Basse (Ib Sch0nberg), and his wimpish friend, Lasse (Arthur Jensen). Thinking the girl has been kidnapped, both the police and the gangsters pursue Lasse and Basse, while Little Connie's widowed millionaire father and a girl who works in the local ice-cream parlour provide the romantic storyline.

The musicality of the lovers, who are mainly defined by their beauty, is limited whereas Lasse, Basse, the nanny and the little girl are all musically adept. The nanny, played by the popular entertainer Olga Svendsen, sings '^h, b^h, buh, det er sjovt at v^re lille' (My oh my, it's fun to be little) to Little

Connie - a playful, if rather absurd performance due to Svendsen's girth and deep voice. Later, Little Connie prompts a performance of the song by a series of children who are shown in montage. This is typical of the montage numbers found in the many collective musical comedies, during which, for a short period, the film shifts focus from the main characters to anonymous performers in a way that signals that musicality is omnipresent while also displaying a self-conscious narrative and stylistic strategy. In another musical moment, Basse, inspired by his own rival love for the ice-cream girl, performs 'Jeg elsker en pige' (I love a girl) to Lasse because he is too shy to sing it to the intended; a performance which is rendered comical by a reluctant Lasse who, despite resenting being serenaded, playfully yields. Although this song is inspired by romantic love, the playfulness and imaginative performance of Lasse and Basse displace Basse's infatuation with the ice-cream girl.

Throughout the film, Basse's role as a would-be lover is made comical by his obvious physical draw-backs, but at the same time his feelings are portrayed with a good deal of sincerity by the actor, Sch0nberg, who gives the character a melancholic streak. However, the film primarily stresses Basse's inventiveness and the solidarity of friendship, most obviously at the end of the film. Here, as the heartbroken Basse sees the 'love of his life' sail away with the handsome millionaire, he is forced to react quickly as a real kidnapper threatens Lasse. Hooking the villain onto a crane and throwing him into the harbour basin, Basse proclaims 'Hvis ikke jeg sku' ku', hvem sku' sa ku' ku' (If I shouldn't-shouldn't, then who should-should), quoting a song about helping out that he and Lasse had performed earlier.9 The film's musical focus is on the unconventional characters, emphasising the artistry and friendship of Lasse and Basse, the joy and innocence of the children and the maternal self-irony of the nanny. The love story element is not musical and the union of the lovers serves little more than to close the narrative.

In contrast, in Nyhavn 17 (17, Harbour Canal, 1933) the young lovers are defined musically. The film is set in a wealthy suburb of Copenhagen, around the inner city and the Harbour Canal, a picturesque maritime quarter. The narrative is set in motion by the chance encounter of the two young lovers, Primula (Karina Bell), who works as a salesgirl in a department store, and Rolf (Sigfred Johansen). He is engaged to be married to the snobbish daughter of the department store managing director, played by Frederik Jensen, who is revealed later to be the father of Primula. Her mother, the long lost love of the director, owns the inn at 17, Harbour Canal. The love plot is thus interwoven with a story about family relations that focuses on the father of the two girls divided between two families.

The lovers' courtship is expressed musically in approximately the first half of the film, when, for example, Primula sings 'Vente, ikke andet, bare vente' (Waiting, nothing else, just waiting) while modelling the wedding gown of her rival, the managing director's other daughter. Upon meeting for the first time in the furniture department of the store Primula and Rolf perform 'Hele verden sidder to og to i reden' (Love nest) a number about make-believe marriage. The lyrics of this song present a very domesticated view of love with a refrain that describes how everybody wants to pair up and build a love nest. These lyrics are underlined by the comical cut-aways during the number that feature performances of the song by pairs of employees and customers in different scenarios. Although Primula and Rolf dominate the number, it is established that their feelings are not exclusive. Another strategy is used with the song 'Godmorgen' (Good morning) for which performers are spatially separated. This song is begun by Rolf and his friends on his stag night, but is taken up and continued by anonymous members of the public, moving it out from a single group to a celebration within the wider Copenhagen community.

In the second half of the film, the musical focus moves away from the lovers to the managing director's emotional dilemma. Visiting the inn at 17, Harbour Canal, he indulges his taste for simple pleasures, as he reminisces in the song 'Ungdomsminder' (Memories of youth). Later, he and a drunken waiter play billiards and reprise 'Hele verden sidder to og to i reden', offering a different interpretation of the song's lyrics than had been suggested in the lovers' rendition, this time emphasising male comradeship, convivial surroundings and alcohol. It is the director who finally brings about the union of Primula and Rolf. Rolf, rescued from his impending marriage to the managing director's other daughter and followed by the wedding party, is brought to 17, Harbour Canal where he is reunited with Primula. Everyone is rejoicing in their union when a group of working-class children interrupt the celebration and begin the film's third rendition of 'Hele verden sidder to og to i reden', which now functions as a celebration of romantic love, together with community and class conciliation.

On each of the three occasions that 'Hele verden sidder to og to i reden' is sung it is by different people and displays different, if compatible, themes. First, the young lovers perform it as a love song; next, two older men from different class backgrounds perform it as a drinking song about male comradeship; finally, the number is performed using the original lyrics by working-class children amidst the wedding party, patrons and customers of the inn. During this final scene Primula and Rolf do not sing but are still clearly content. The reunited lovers have become well-developed characters through their performances early in the film, but at the end their own non-musical union functions as a symbol of the union of social classes. This change of musical focus from the lovers to the managing director, the working-class children and the patrons of the inn implies a move from individual union to community togetherness.

In the collective comedies the musical focus is, then, oriented towards the 'offbeat' characters: the bachelors, the old maids, the bohemians and the children. The songs feature the singers' zest for life, their inventiveness, community feeling and good humour. In contrast, the musical focus on lovers is often stereotypical and one-dimensional. The union of lovers from different walks of life plays an important symbolic role in this levelling strategy, but it is significant that is primarily the unconventional and non-romantic characters who make the union possible.

Character Musical Comedies

The character musical comedies are mainly star vehicles that chart a central protagonist's self-realisation in terms of social standing and love while featuring musical numbers almost exclusively performed by that star. These performers were all well-established entertainers from revue, which had continued to be popular in Denmark until the 1930s.10 The appeal of revue began to falter with the depression and a gradual change in audience taste and consumer habits. Seasonal shows with topical sketches and musical numbers were often satirical of government and social change, although this did not reflect any coherent ideology. Rather, the shows reflected the political diversity of 1930s Denmark and offered a humorous perspective through which it could be viewed. This kind of critique called for performers who were wholly different from mainstream stars: the celebrated performers of revue were often aging, physically unconventional and from socially marginalised groups. More importantly, all such stars were musically expressive. Although these entertainers were only featured in sketches and short numbers in revue, they developed distinct star personae. Those who managed a successful crossover into films included Marguerite Viby, Osvald Helmuth, Liva Weel and the above mentioned Frederik Jensen and Olga Svendsen, all of whom brought with them characterisations with a distinct lower-class attitude and unconventionality in terms of behaviour.

Marguerite Viby (born 1909) was the youngest of the crossover artists to appear in films. Although she was conventionally beautiful her exuberance, energy and tomboy persona struck a blow against gender norms as she regularly indulged in 'unfeminine' behaviour. Moreover, with her talent for scat singing and tap-dancing her characters had a distinct flavour of the US. The Marguerite Viby film Mille, Marie og mig (Mille, Marie and Me, 1937) tells the story of Ellen Klausen, a young medical student, who explores different sides of her personality in order to pursue her studies and romantic aspirations. She appears as Klaus, a medical student, Mille, a classy nightclub singer and Marie, a provincial maid; in character as each of these she runs into her professor, who is intrigued by the physical resemblance between three seemingly different people.

'Hot, hot' (Hot, hot) quite deliberately employs the editing device of the wipe across nine separate instances to evoke Ellen's hard work as a housemaid while she also prepares for her anatomy exam. The number features Ellen in her three

Figure 13 Marguerite Viby exhibits her acrobatic skills in the musical number 'Hot, hot' from the film Mille, Marie og mig.

characters as maid, medical student and performer, Marie, Klaus and Mille, displaying a cocktail of working-class, middle-class, and bohemian values. Moreover, the number emphasises Viby's status as a star performer exhibiting her acrobatic skills and singing talent as she tongue-twists her way through the lyrics while repeatedly acknowledging the camera.11 As Mille, the nightclub singer, she performs 'Jeg har elsket dig, sal^nge jeg kan mindes' (I've loved you as long as I can remember) in satin top-hat and tails. As Marie she later performs the same song in an up-beat manner, which highlights her playfulness, and finally, as Ellen, she performs the number with her friends and beloved Professor at her side, signalling that she has resolved her different personalities to form the 'me' of the title.

A multifaceted character is also central to the Osvald Helmuth vehicle, Den mandlige husassistent (The Male Housekeeper, 1938). Helmuth (born 1894) excelled at portraying the common man and was noted for his unsophisticated working-class persona projected by a meaty, if charming, face. In Den mandlige husassistent, he plays a hardworking waiter who, after having used his life savings to buy land for a seaside hotel, is cheated by a unprincipled lawyer, loses his money and ends up as a street musician. Through the intervention of both the lawyer's daughter, with whom Helmuth falls in love, and his dim-witted wife, who is tired of girls quitting her employment, Helmuth is employed as the lawyer's male housekeeper. By the climax of the film his democratic politics and commonsensical humour have forced a change in the lawyer. Helmuth's character challenges social and gender norms as he jumps from being a waiter to proprietor to a street singer, and as he turns housekeeper, showing a domestic side.

The three songs featured in this film are characteristically sung-spoken by Osvald Helmuth. 'En sang for dig' (A song for you), which he performs as a street musician, is at this point only loosely connected to Helmuth's romance; however, the direct romantic effect of the song upon casual listeners within the diegesis is clearly illustrated by a couple in a nearby window caressing each other. The first song, 'Klem sa pa, h^ng sa I' (Come on, get a move on), is performed for workmen building the seaside hotel; the last, 'Kys mig godnat' (Kiss me goodnight), is a lullaby sung to the lawyer's grandchild, who is played by Little Connie. Throughout the film, Helmuth's ability to inspire is stressed by the musical numbers. Moreover, these numbers allow Helmuth to display very different aspects of his persona. At one end of the range is the work song in which Helmuth the employer demands activity from his builders. At the other is the lullaby that he sings to Little Connie, which shows his caring nature.

Another popular performer, Liva Weel (born 1897), usually played hardworking women who manage to transform the snobbish milieu they encountered. An unconventional star, she appeared in films while in her late thirties and early forties and often played characters older than her age. She is most associated with physical comedy, which flaunted her chubbiness, in films such as De bld drenge (The Blue Boys, 1933), in which she plays a physical education teacher or Frk. M0llers Jubil&um (The Jubilee Of Miss M0ller, 1937), in which she skis and skates.

In Odds 777 (Odds 777, 1932) Liva Weel plays a middle-aged cook, who becomes a cabaret singer. Her spiritual youth is stressed in her relationship with the film's young lovers, whose union she secures, but also in her ability to save her lover from ruin by riding his horse to victory at a derby. The character's breadth is emphasised through the variety of her musical numbers, from love ballads - in which she laments her lack of sex appeal, melancholic mood and the impossibility of a romance above her station - to the black humour number, 'Dr0mmer man om den' (If you dream of that, you'll ne'er wake up again), in which she mocks the bourgeoisie. This last number is out of character and unrelated to the narrative, but it is an opportunity to display a satirical dimension to her star image.

Apart from dealing implicitly or explictly with the coming together of classes and lifestyles, the character musical comedies develop a distinctive populism through placing emphasis on a single performer who spans class, gender and age norms while also allowing the star to demonstrate the different dimensions of his or her persona.

Figure 14 Riding to Victory: Liva Weel saves her lover from financial ruin in Odds 777.

Romantic Musical Comedies

According to Rick Altman, the celebration of courtship is integral to US popular culture and is the determining factor in many film musicals' subordination of other storylines to a love plot.12 He argues that the plot structure of the Hollywood musical is based on a central male/female dichotomy, which establishes a parallel principle whereby the musicality of one lover is mirrored by the musicality of the other. The structure subsequently cues the viewer to focus on the suitability of the lovers for each other and anticipates their romantic union. Danish romantic musical comedies, however, place less emphasis on heterosexual coupledom.

For example, the film 7-9-13 (Knock on Wood, 1934), is about Peter, a failed composer, played by Eyvind Johan-Svendsen, who takes out a suicide contract with two insurance swindlers. Having agreed to kill himself within the year, he then changes his mind when he falls in love with Molly (Solvejg OderwaldLander), a girl performing in his ailing show. Their love is demonstrated musically in two songs in which their individual musical expression is harmonised. In the first, while playing his compositions in a bar, Peter is asked by Molly to play something lighter. He does, she hums along, and he is inspired to write lyrics. In the second instance, during a private moment, they sing that song 'Det er dig'

(It is you) together. Later, Peter plays and Molly sings 'Kys mig, nar du vil' (Kiss me when you want to), which has a lightness signalled by the title but is here performed by Molly with an almost desperate vitality, connecting it to the unpredictability of the suicide plot.

The composer's efforts to stop the fatal contract cover the last quarter of the film in which there are no musical performances. Seen in the context of the other Danish musicals of the period, 7-9-13 seems almost bleak. The insurance plot remains unaffected by the musicality of the lovers, the composer's salvation is achieved through various entirely non-musical coincidences and, moreover, the musical show plot is left undeveloped after it has been established as the determining factor in Peter's desire to kill himself. Finally, and most interestingly, the musicality of the love plot never re-enters the film after 'Kys mig, nar du vil', although, unusually, the happy ending at a hot dog stand does contain a musical performance.

Another romantic musical, Fem raske piger (Five Peppy Girls, 1933), is the story of five American performing sisters, who journey to Denmark to find their uncle, an elderly earl played by Frederik Jensen. Although initially suspicious of their motives, he soon surrenders to the good-natured girls. However, a villainous butler, in collaboration with the earl's sister, does everything in his power to sour the relations between them and the earl. The story of the girls' fight to be accepted is intertwined with a love story in which the eldest sister, Annie (Karina Bell), falls for the earl's nephew and the others for four of his friends. False accusations made by the butler make the girls give up their romantic aspirations to pursue their careers. After a successful performance they receive an offer to go on tour to the US, but the tour is eventually abandoned for love and the film ends with a multiple wedding.

In this film, the family plot, show plot and love plot are neatly interwoven, while the music is primarily reserved for the storylines concerning love. The songs and singing styles are divided according to a clear dichotomy between male/female, Denmark/the US and tradition/modernity so that the boys sing folk songs and the girls perform jazzy tunes that celebrate rhythm. During a dinner party the sisters challenge the national and folksy mood of the boys' singing by performing a jazz number while tap-dancing on tables. The explicitly romantic song - 'Kom, alene vil vi ga' (We'll walk alone) - is performed after the dinner party by the two eldest girls and their respective beaux on parallel midnight strolls. The number cuts back and forth between two spatially separate and stylistically different renditions of the same song. Annie and her beau, J0rgen, sing a tango version slowly and romantically whereas Karin (Marguerite Viby) and Sigurd on their romantic promenade jazz the tune up. Prior to this in the film, music had been used to demarcate sexual difference but this number functions to reconcile the two different styles of music, folk and jazz, and at the same shows the difference of temperament between the placid Annie and the tomboy Karin.

Figure 15 In a 'Sunshine mood' the five sisters go for a choreographed bicycle jaunt in Fem raske piger.

Since the girls decide to give up their careers in order to marry, it would seem that the values that prevail are connected to the boys and their songs. However, throughout the film it is the girls' musicality that is featured more often and more originally in the musical numbers, such as in the twice repeated 'Solskinshum0r' (Sunshine mood), which is performed during a hayride and during a choreographed bicycle jaunt.

These films are primarily concerned with the theme of love, which dominates the musical content, though it is interesting to note the relative independence of love from other themes. In 7-9-13 the show plot is left undeveloped, and in Fem raske piger it is isolated from the love plot, in both cases forfeiting a love inspired show or a show inspired love. Compared to their US cousins the Danish romantic comedies display a smaller degree of musical integration between related storylines.


Courtship plays an important part in the Danish musical comedies, but it is significant that romantic union is envisioned as a product of society, whereas in the Hollywood musical society is seen as a product of courtship. So this specifically Danish populism, which is developed differently according to the three subgenres explored above, is central to understanding the Danish musicals of the 1930s. It demonstrates that such films are not only interesting as exponents of a distinct national cinema but also as a generic alternative to the dominant Hollywood model.


1. Olaf Olsen and Tage Kaarsted argue that the popular belief in parliamentarianism is reflected in the limited popularity of extremist political groupings with non-democratic tendencies. Olaf Olsen, Tage Kaarsted, Gyldendal og Politikens Danmarkshistorie Bind 13: Krise og Krig (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1991): 122.

2. See Olsen and Kaarsted: 79-85.

3. This makes the Danish musical comedies distinctly different from the populist US comedies of the 1930s, such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which deal with politics and the democratic process.

4. See Niels J0rgen Dinnesen and Edin Kau, Filmen i Danmark (Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag, 1983): 102-8; and Ebbe Neergaard, Historien om Dansk Film (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1960): 98-103.

5. For more on this discussion of populism, see Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981): 290.

6. See Olsen and Kaarsted: 101-3.

7. By this I mean non-diegetic music proper, and not the supra-diegetic music that surfaces to accompany diegetic singing and dancing. See Rick Altman, The American Film Musical (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987): 66-7.

8. See Claudia Gorbman, Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1987): 73. In discussing the use of non-diegetic music according to classical Hollywood practice in non-musicals, Gorbman stresses in-audibility as the norm. In contrast, the audibility of the music in these films is due to volume as well as the rhythmic quality of the music. Because of this I have chosen to refrain from using the term 'background music'.

9. As with many of the Ib Sch0nberg's lines, this became a popular catch phrase.

10. See Emill Marott, Dansk Revy, vols 1 and 2 (Gylling: Narayana Press, 1991): 22-3. In the early 1800s traits of popular revue could be found in the French-inspired Copenhagen vaudevilles. In the last half of that century, popular revue began to acquire its distinct form, as a succession of topical musical and non-musical numbers with little or no narrative or thematic coherency.

11. This stylistic self-consciousness has an affinity with popular revue. One possibility is that the aesthetics of the film medium in this cultural and historic context borrowed from popular revue central elements such as the direct address.

12. Altman: 50-1. According to Altman, this strategy is culturally determined by a specific fascination in the US with the processes of courtship and with courtship as a cultural problem-solving device.

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  • monica
    What is supra diegetic music?
    9 years ago

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