Musicals are often dismissed as shallow. Not so, argues David Benedict. A new retrospective rightly puts this joyful genre back in the spotlightby David Benedict / October 19, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
Gene Kelly’s giddy feet and ecstatic face make the title number of Singin’ in the Rain one of the most memorably joyous moments in cinema
Billy Wilder, director of masterpieces such as The Apartment and Double Indemnity and a man not easily impressed, rated it one of the five best films ever made. Before its release in 1952, its screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were at a party chatting with Charlie Chaplin when he started raving about a film he had just seen at Sam Goldwyn’s house. It was called Singin’ in the Rain. Had they heard of it?
In 1999, near the end of their careers, Comden and Green were understandably happy to recount that story about their triumph. They would be even happier to see the film, plus several more of their finest works, form part of a two-month season of MGM musicals at London’s BFI Southbank beginning in November. In a retrospective stuffed with greats, from Fred Astaire in lederhosen in Dancing Lady (1933) to the jaw-dropping excesses of Ken Russell’s rarely seen The Boy Friend (1971), Singin’ in the Rain will again rise above the competition. It is, without question, a cinematic masterpiece. The only odd thing about that statement is that it refers to a musical.
Declaring publicly that you like musicals invites either derision or, worse, pity. Compare that with the response to admitting a fondness for, say, science fiction. That genre encompasses everything from the allegory of 1950s communism and McCarthyism stalking Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the questions of human individuality posed by Blade Runner. The visual narrative breakthroughs of 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Matrix are self-evident. Few would argue that all science-fiction movies deserve to be put on the high-culture shelf; the genre also includes Plan 9 From Outer Space and the Kirk Douglas-Farrah Fawcett farrago Saturn 3, complete with a woeful Martin Amis script. Yet an expression of enthusiasm for that form is not accompanied by embarrassment. So what makes Singin’ in the Rain the masterpiece of so despised a genre?