Showcasing the Star: the Commercial Aesthetics of Star Display in the 1930s RKO Astaire-Rogers Musicals

Author: Ian Hutchison

Hutchison, Ian, 2017 Showcasing the Star: the Commercial Aesthetics of Star Display in the 1930s RKO Astaire-Rogers Musicals, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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Film studies scholarship has long acknowledged the centrality of stars to Classical Hollywood cinema. Studied from a variety of perspectives, a broad picture of the important role they play within the Hollywood studio system and more widely in society has been built up over the past three decades. While much has been written about stars’ commercial utility and exploitation as well as their representational and ideological significance, very little research has examined the way in which they function aesthetically within the Classical Hollywood cinema form itself. The critical literature recognises that the star is one of Classical Hollywood’s most important exchange values, and that studios exploited audiences’ deep affinity for particular actors by designing their films as star vehicles to showcase them and thus ensure each film’s consumption. Film studies scholarship nevertheless still lacks a comprehensive analysis of the commercial-aesthetic interface between the film product and the audience: the star vehicle itself, in which Hollywood had to put the star on show for the audience’s pleasure.

Seeking to address this gap in the literature by taking the 1930s RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals as a case study, this thesis conducts a detailed formal, performative and structural analysis of this group of films to explore how they have been aesthetically organised as star vehicles to display Astaire and Rogers to the audience in the most effective and satisfying ways possible. A fine grained examination of the aesthetic elements and techniques used across these films provides an insight into how systematically they have been designed to showcase Astaire and Rogers’ personae and talent to their fans, indicating that the fundamental logic underpinning their form and function is primarily that of star display. The thesis outlines an extensive vocabulary and grammar with which to describe the star aesthetics of Astaire and Rogers’ display, including both their song and dance numbers and the everyday light comedy, romance and dramatic scenes in which they appear. In identifying common stylistic strategies and devices employed to ensure star display, the terms of this analysis also provide the basis for examining other genres. More broadly, the thesis proposes that film studies consider a model of the Classical Hollywood cinema form in which narrative is accorded a less dominant role. Through its commercial-aesthetic analysis of the Astaire-Rogers star vehicles, the thesis argues for an understanding of the form organised less through a poetics of narrative than through a poetics of star display.

Keywords: Film history, film theory, film aesthetics, Classical Hollywood cinema, 1930s Hollywood cinema, stars, star vehicles, star display, commercial-aesthetics, entertainment, pleasure, musicals, RKO, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Subject: Humanities thesis, Creative Arts thesis, Screen Studies thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: Professor Richard Maltby