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.