Odes to joy

Musicals are often dismissed as shallow. Not so, argues David Benedict. A new retrospective rightly puts this joyful genre back in the spotlight
October 19, 2011
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?

It began as a dead-end idea—Hollywood flummoxed by the arrival of sound—which led to the writers striking. Like Mamma Mia! half a century later, Singin’ in the Rain is a back-catalogue musical, conceived not as a story but merely a collection of pre-existing songs handed to writers to string together. These were not random; they had all appeared in earlier MGM musicals and the world’s first “all talking, all singing, all dancing” film, The Broadway Melody.

Comden and Green had written the book and lyrics for (and starred in) On The Town, a 1944 Broadway hit about sailors on leave. A wow on stage, five years later it proved revolutionary on screen. First-time directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen (plus co-star Ann Miller) persuaded the studio to let them shoot large chunks of the musical on location in New York city. In a nightmare of lip-synching, Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin sang the slangy anthem “New York, New York/A helluva town” from the Brooklyn navy yard across the Brooklyn bridge and up Wall Street to the top of the RCA Building. The exuberance provided by the film’s locations lends it the zing of authenticity.

Dragged back to the studio from their strike—their contracts demanded it—Comden and Green were floundering just as Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard was about to be released. Holed up for a month in the house of former silent actor Marie Prevost, they had written and abandoned three premises—about silent pictures, vaudeville and talkies—when Comden’s visiting husband suggested they mesh them together. “It was,” Comden said, “our eureka moment.”

Most musicals pivot on their song ‘n’ dance numbers, stand-out moments that transcend their surroundings. You need care nothing for the plot of Top Hat to be transported by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shimmering “Cheek to Cheek.” You can miss almost all of Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933, yet still be captivated by the expressionist finale filled with the geometric patterning of Joan Blondell and a cast of hundreds performing the postwar lament “Remember My Forgotten Man.”

Singin’ in the Rain is littered with such numbers. Mirroring Comden’s eureka moment, “Good Mornin’” features Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and best pal Donald O’Connor having suddenly solved their creative crisis. At 1.30am, they explode into dance throughout the house and, famously, all over the furniture, leaping, tapping, racing on the spot, somersaulting over one sofa and walking over another before collapsing in exultant laughter. Reynolds, just 18 years old, had to be carried to her dressing room with burst blood vessels in her feet; but paradoxically, “Good Mornin’” radiates ridiculous happiness because it just looks as though they are having a ball.

Then there is the title song, and Kelly’s delirious dance. The four-minute number was shot in a ruthlessly planned day-and-a-half not least because they had to be finished by 5pm, when local residents in Culver City turned on their sprinklers and reduced the water pressure to a dribble. Technicolor demanded a high lighting level, so the “rain” had to be backlit to “read” on screen. When that was not enough, milk was added to make the water more visible. Beneath it all are the giddy feet and ecstatic, upturned face of Gene Kelly.

Although usually not short on ego, from the moment he shrugs off his umbrella to revel in the downpour, Kelly banishes all pretence at dignity. With the camera tracking him swinging round a lamppost and stomping through puddles, he gives himself up to contagious, childlike joy.

Even without those numbers, Singin’ in the Rain would be venerated. The sheer high-flying wit of its zesty script is without rival. Predictability is the Achilles heel of musicals’ plots and, initially, the regulation cute-meet between Kelly and the principled Reynolds would suggest that it is heading in that tension-sapping direction. But Comden and Green’s masterstroke was to use romance to charge up their structural setting. They harnessed one of the genre’s biggest clichés—a movie about making a movie—and reinvented it. The result is a sharp, enduringly funny take on Hollywood as it struggled with the commercial threat of new technology. A puncturing of pretence, ego and power, the film has thematic drive, tension and resolution—that is, what naysayers argue musicals lack: unpredictable and wholly engaging narrative.

Put on the defensive, critics retort that this is the exception that proves the rule that musicals are empty-headed. But that doesn’t explain It’s Always Fair Weather.

A caustic satire on TV and advertising that pre-empts Mad Men by over 50 years, this 1955 movie reunited Comden and Green with Kelly and Donen to revisit their On The Town sailors format, this time with three GI Joes who agree to meet ten years after they are demobbed. But where the characters of the earlier film were driven by optimism, these are drenched in cynicism.

At their 1955 reunion, their dreams have died. Wannabe chef Michael Kidd runs a hamburger joint in Schenectady, gambler Kelly is a two-bit fight booker and Dan Dailey is a failed artist turned ad-exec. Just when upstart TV was eroding Hollywood’s fortunes, the plot revolves around our heroes being unwittingly lured by Cyd Charisse onto The Throb of Manhattan—a true-life sob-story TV show that exists solely to sell Klenzrite cleaning products.

The narrative thrust has a fascinatingly cold eye, in contrast to its production numbers. But whether it is Charisse disporting herself in a gym, or Dolores Gray gunning down hordes of adoring dancers, or all three buddies in a tap number with dustbin lids on their feet, they all point up the musical’s defining tone: fantasy.

Complaining that musicals are not “realistic” (as if, for example, action pictures are) completely misses the point, although it is one that, of all people, tractor-driving farmer Judy Garland asks in Summer Stock. Bewildered by performers who are going to “put the show on right here” in her barn, she asks Gene Kelly to explain. In the wings of the makeshift stage he says, “If the boy tells the girl that he loves her, he doesn’t just say it: he sings it.” To which, reasonably enough, she responds, “Why doesn’t he just say it?” The number that follows makes his and the wider point. It is not that musicals cannot work through narrative, it is that they choose a richer, more expressively full-blooded route consciously abandoning realism for idealistic fantasy.

Peculiarly, while viewers have no problem with breakout fantasy sequences on TV, in everything from the groundbreaking Thirtysomething through Ally McBeal to Six Feet Under, musicals, which have played an almost identical stylistic game for nearly a century, are given the critical thumbs-down. From the extravagant musical sequences in the 19 movies that ex-swimming champ Esther Williams made at MGM (including Dangerous When Wet, where she is serenaded underwater by seahorses and chased by a cartoon shark), to Doris Day singing alone on a hillside releasing repressed feelings for her “Secret Love” in Calamity Jane, shifts into non-naturalism are deemed awkwardly self-conscious. Thus it is no accident that in the 1990s, when musicals were dead, to all intents and purposes, one branch of the genre thrived: step forward Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King. The reason for their success? Cartoons are not naturalistic. Animation means never having to say that you are singing.

The antipathy to non-naturalism explains the success of Cabaret, the musical for people who hate them. Director Bob Fosse ducks the fantasy issue, coming up instead with a dazzling apology. He avoids the vexed question of people bursting into song by ensuring that everyone sings within solidly naturalistic circumstances. Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey play performers who sing onstage. Even the chilling Aryan salute, “Tomorrow Belongs To Me,” is started by a Nazi party member singing outside a Bavarian Gasthaus with a dramatically appropriate (unseen) oompah folk band. The film won a remarkable eight Oscars but it is a contraction of the musical’s possibilities, not an expansion.

At its finest, Cabaret creates the dramatic intensity that musicals purvey better than any other cinematic genre. At root, it takes longer to sing something than to speak it, so if the sentiment expressed has true communicative power, music allows it, literally, to resonate. A great performance of a song, no matter how embedded in the screenplay, affords the singer the opportunity to grab us by the scruff of the neck and lift us into a dimension of pure emotion. When aimed directly at the viewer, the connection is absolute.

Nowhere is that better expressed than in George Cukor’s searingly upsetting 1954 version of A Star Is Born, which, among other things, proves that narrative alone is a red herring. Two other versions of the story exist—plus another forthcoming from Clint Eastwood, starring Beyoncé—but neither Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in 1937 nor Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976 hold a candle to the killer casting of Judy Garland being “discovered” by star-on-the-skids James Mason. Anyone who believes musicals are flippant, escapist entertainments clearly has not seen this drama hard-wired for scalding emotional truth.

One number alone nails both Garland’s character’s raison d’être and the incandescent potential of musical performance. Song, with its twin texts of music and lyrics, can bring simultaneous contradiction to life in a way that plain speech cannot. Garland’s mesmerising rendition of Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin’s specially written torch song, “The Man That Got Away,” is presented to us in a single unbroken take seen through the eyes of Mason, her hidden admirer, who has slipped into a closed nightclub to watch her with her tiny band coming down at the end of a long evening.

In Ray Heindorf’s smoky, late-night arrangement, the melodic line moves in waves. The same minor-key phrase builds and drops back repeatedly to support the lyric, a four-minute revelation of loss and longing that subsequent performers sing as 24-carat self-pity. But Garland understands the lyric, “With hope you burn up,” and hope burns off her. She is not anguished, she is exultant. At the end of a song about pain, what does she do? She self-deprecatingly grins.

What thrillers did for fear musicals did for happiness. But 20th-century culture was all about lionising isolation, fracture and breakdown, so happy endings and happiness itself were all but banished from serious consideration. What place, then, for Kelly’s rain-soaked jubilation or Garland’s pleasure? Or the rip-snorting “Barn Dance” in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers or Ann Miller, tapping fit to burst and extolling her lust life, in “Tom, Dick or Harry” in Kiss Me, Kate (in 3D, no less). Freeing themselves from the constraining expectations of naturalism, those moments embody the culturally confrontational fact that compared with all other art forms, musicals have the greatest vocabulary for sustained joy.