When sound came to the motion-picture industry, the rush to create musicals was mostly motivated by straightforward thinking: Let’s get some songs and dances up there on the screen. But as film artists began to think more and more about musicals, and innovators stepped up to make them, the desire to create a musical that was about being musical emerged and took hold. They wanted to push the boundaries of the musical genre, test the form, take it apart and find out what made it work best.
The producer Arthur Freed, the directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and the writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green succeeded with this challenge in Singin’ in the Rain. It’s the musical for people who don’t like musicals. Kelly stars as a silent-movie idol who is making his first talking picture; he falls for a chorus girl, played by Debbie Reynolds, who’s tasked with dubbing the strident-voiced leading lady’s lines. Love it or hate it (and few hate it), overrate it or underrate it, the 1952 film makes a perfect musical yardstick. For people who don’t like musicals, it’s still a very funny comedy. For people who don’t want comedy, there’s a charming romance. For people who think romance is sappy, there’s the humorously treated history of the transition to sound in film. And for those who do want a musical, there are old tunes and new tunes and great performers to present them. In the most unpretentious way possible, Singin’ in the Rain gives an audience the elements necessary for a good musical: carefully established reality and unreality, with smooth transitions between them.
Three important questions apply to the structure of musical films, and musical films are all about structure: When does a viewer first become aware that the world of the movie presents characters who sing and dance as they live? How closely integrated are the songs and the story? How often do musical numbers occur? Because an audience starts living in a film’s universe as soon as the opening credits are rolling, the establishment of that universe as musical needs to be almost immediate. If the forward movement of the plot is disrupted too completely in order to accommodate a musical number, the performance tends to detach viewers from their story experience. And the spacing of numbers inside the plot is crucial to success—if there’s 40 minutes between numbers, the audience forgets it’s watching a musical, while back-to-back numbers can spoil the fun.
These structural issues are successfully addressed and resolved in Singin’ in the Rain. It tells a story about people who are in the business of moviemaking, opening on a glamorous Hollywood movie premiere in the mid-to-late 1920s. A great star, Don Lockwood (played by Kelly), tells an interviewer his “life story,” describing music lessons, culture, serious dramatic goals, and “dignity, always dignity.” As he talks, the audience is shown something totally different. He was a tough little poor kid. He and his pal (Donald O’Connor) snuck into theaters and bars, grew up to play cheap vaudeville shows, and started in movies by doing slapstick and Western stunts.
This combination of pompous narration and undercutting visuals is a big joke in the very first sequence. It’s a truth-revealing flashback that includes a musical number showing O’Connor and Kelly doing a fabulous tap routine to “Fit as a Fiddle” wearing cheap green-plaid suits. The scene presents two levels, an outer truth that is revealed to be false by the inner one. Even as it takes away that outer truth, however, it gives something back: musical performance. When Kelly and O’Connor do the fast-paced, comedic “Fit as a Fiddle,” they own the screen and the story and the music. Viewers forgive Kelly for his hypocrisy—and it’s the dance that makes them do it.
The integration between the story and the music is impeccable. Singin’ in the Rain is a satire in which musical numbers not only are wedded smoothly to the plot but also further the theme: the mishaps of the transition to sound for both actors and technicians. It’s a film about film history, and its musical numbers comply. “Make ’Em Laugh,” with O’Connor doing an amazing tour de force of slapstick dancing, is about the violence of American silent comedy. “Moses Supposes” is like a Marx Brothers routine set to music. “You Were Meant for Me” is a gentle self-parody of typical love duets in movies, showing all the props used and how audiences are manipulated by them. “Beautiful Girl” is a tribute to a 1930s Busby Berkeley number, and “Good Morning” uses an old song as a setting for an imaginatively choreographed tap routine that displays several different types of movie dancing (including a little musical shoutout to An American in Paris, at the time a recent blockbuster hit). All the numbers are about movies except “All I Do Is Dream of You” (when Reynolds, playing the young actress Kathy, jumps out of a cake) and the title tune.
That title number, “Singin’ in the Rain,” illustrates the art of the movie musical—the way the genre must be lifted off the page of the screenplay. It’s possible that Kelly’s puddle splash may be the most widely recognized of any Hollywood musical performance. All you have to do is hum a little “doo do do do, do do do do do” and everyone smiles, recognizing the familiar intro refrain. The script for this scene says:
The key words in the script are: “Don dances in the wet street.” On-screen, these six words become four minutes of song and dance that define Gene Kelly and are often used to define the whole genre of original Hollywood musicals. The rain dance: so easy, so relaxed, so happy and emotional, so simple. Just a carefree little moment on film.
But what did it take to put it up there? Experts in many areas had to work together to design, plan, compose, shoot, edit, perform, sew, light, choreograph, and make rain. And in the end, in a great coordination of performance and technology, what might seem to be just a little dance is cleverly created to present a man in love, acting silly because he’s happy, playing in puddles like a kid, rushing out into the street. The scene, set at night in a chilly rain, is grounded in gray and black, but the frame is also filled with touches of brightness: Don’s reddish shoes, the red fire hydrant, the shop windows, lit with yellow lights, the red alarm box. The decor in each carefully designed store window is also colorful. All these details suggest the warmth and happiness of Don’s inner state.
The camera moves with him, around him, toward him, away from him, and the viewer finds Kelly’s exhilaration in that moment and shares in it. When he turns a corner and jumps up onto a lamppost, it’s just a little leap—we’ve seen Kelly go higher—but with the music lifting and the camera watching, it’s as if he soared into the air. The movie, with all its technology, but especially with its music, lifts a viewer up there, too. That’s what musicals do, and that’s why they’re hard to make.
This article has been adapted from Jeanine Basinger’s new book, The Movie Musical!