Tragicomedy, Melodrama, and Genre in Early Sound Films: The Case of Two “Sad Clown” Musicals

Michael G. Garber


This interdisciplinary study applies the theatrical theories of stage genres to examples of the early sound cinema, the 1930 Hollywood musicals Puttin’ on the Ritz (starring Harry Richman, and with songs by Irving Berlin) and Free and Easy (starring Buster Keaton). The discussion focuses on the phenomenon of the sad clown as a symbol of tragicomedy. Springing from Rick Altman’s delineation of the “sad clown” sub-subgenre of the show musical subgenre, outlined in The American Film Musical, this article shows that, in these seminal movie musicals, naïve melodrama and “gag” comedy coexist with the tonalities, structures, philosophy, and images of the sophisticated genre of tragicomedy, including by incorporating the grotesque into the mise en scene of their musical production numbers.


Genre theory; Melodrama; Tragicomedy; Comedy; Movie musicals; Hollywood musicals; Musical comedy; Pagliacci; Buster Keaton

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