Musicals in general don’t get much respect, and Hollywood musicals get the least respect of all. Dislike of musicals is a common opinion among the “smart set,” who claim that musicals are childish fantasies because after all, in real life people don’t suddenly burst into song and dance when they hit emotional highs. But at least Broadway musicals have been known to tell serious, complex stories and use songs to develop character and/or advance the plot. Hollywood musicals, by contrast, have a reputation for being pure frivolity. So runs the general opinion of the wised-up modern cinema audience. Why, then, does some Hollywood creative type try every few years to jump-start the long dormant heart of the musical?
Perhaps because “frivolity” does not automatically equal “waste of time”? Because the occasional bit of frivolity might meet a vital need? I am the naive creature who loves musicals, but even I know that most of Hollywood’s original product in that genre (as opposed to movie adaptations of stage musicals) tends to have shallow, silly plots and paper-thin characterizations. The success of a typical Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicle owes more to the elegance and likability of its stars than to anything else (unless you’re a fan of the music of Gershwin and Berlin, which I am). Yet I’d never turn down a chance to spend time with Fred and Ginger. There’s a certain joy I can find in their company that the harder-edged, more incisive cinema genres can’t quite give me.
The latest attempt to revive the Hollywood musical for modern audiences — an effort of which I’m skeptical, since the “musical stars” on which the genre once thrived, people like Astaire and Gene Kelly and Judy Garland, might be in abundance on Broadway these days but are nowhere to be found in Hollywood — is La La Land, which begins, as old-fashioned Hollywood musicals often did, with a splashy opening number featuring a crowd of southern Californians dancing on top of their cars in the midst of a traffic jam. This review by Rhiannon Thomas sums up with astonishing accuracy how my husband and I felt about the film. (Warning: Review contains Spoilers.) I can see why cynics claim that its huge tally of Oscar nominations springs from Hollywood’s reflexive fondness for movies about itself. But such talk only makes me think of what may be the best film Hollywood ever made about itself, which was also a musical but got almost no love from Oscar. My disappointment in La La Land only serves to remind me of how much I love this film, which possesses in spades the wit and the fun to which the recent film never really bothers to aspire.
I speak of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. What is it about this movie that makes it such a favorite?
It tells an interesting story. The creators of the film had the clever idea to string together a series of songs written by Arthur Freed (who became a successful producer of musicals) and Nacio Herb Brown in the late ’20s and early ’30s, and weave them into a plot centering on old silent film-era Hollywood’s often traumatic transition to sound. Back in 1952, plenty of people on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lot had very vivid memories of this transition, and they shared stories that make their way into the film — for example, the frustration with the stationary microphone, into which early sound film actors had to find a way to deliver all their dialogue. In one hilarious sequence, squeaky-voiced silent screen siren Lina Lamont, wonderfully played by Jean Hagen (who did earn an Oscar nomination), struggles to remember the microphone’s location, and no matter how many times the location is changed, nothing works. “I can’t make love to a bush!” Lina shouts. She’s the movie’s villain, but at this point we can’t help feeling sorry for her, as she’s having to re-learn everything she thought she knew about acting. With this and other problems, we’re left thinking it’s a miracle that cinema survived the transition, and admiring those who actually made it work.
The humor is wide-ranging. The movie opens not with a splashy number but with a deliciously ironic sequence in which Lina’s co-star and fellow silent matinee idol Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly, who radiates twinkling arrogance at this stage of the film) tells the screaming fans who have gathered for the premiere of his latest movie the story of his journey to success. As he talks, reiterating his motto of “Dignity, always dignity,” we watch his real story play out, which proves to be anything but dignified. The contrast between what he’s saying and what really happened — for instance, his descriptions of his early roles as “urbane, sophisticated, suave,” when they’re really a series of wildly dangerous stuntman chores — inspires a slow-building chuckle. In contrast we have the big number of Don’s best pal Cosmo (Donald O’Connor, pure frenetic energy), “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which is pure joyous slapstick. And of course we have the laughter inspired by the hapless Lina, as the transition to sound reveals just how much talent she doesn’t have, and as she tries, and fails every time, to speak in the “round tones” recommended by her diction coach. Whatever flavor of humor a viewer is hungry for, chances are Singin’ in the Rain includes it somewhere. (Except lacings of profanity and non-subtexted lewdness; the movie was made in the early ’50s, after all. But I think that kind of thing can usually be done without, anyway.)
The characters are engaging. I tend to throw the word “engaging ” around a lot. What does it truly mean? From a literal standpoint it speaks to the ability of certain characters and plots to engage the interests and sympathies of an audience. In the context of this film the meaning is simpler: they’re just plain fun to watch. Yet they have more to them than most Hollywood-musical characters. Kathy Selden, the talented aspiring performer played by Debbie Reynolds, who stands to benefit from the advent of sound as much as Lina would be hampered by it, enters the scene expressing disdain for screen acting and thus putting Don in his place as he’s trying to hit on her. We later learn she loves the movies and is particularly a fan of Don’s work, but that only makes her refusal to be a pushover all the more admirable. She may love Don the actor, but Don the person has to win her over by showing her respect and support. They make me smile as they move toward each other (a feat Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone never manage in La La Land), and their happy ending feels earned. They’re fun together, and they’re funny together.
O’Connor’s Cosmo rounds out our trio of good guys, and I love how quick he is to befriend Kathy. Many male characters in his position would resent the intrusion of a woman into his “bromance” with his best friend, but Cosmo knows what we know — that Kathy is good for Don — and welcomes her into their lives with open arms. On the other side of the spectrum, Lina Lamont might just deserve a place among the top ten most entertaining screen villains. Villain she is, as much as we may pity her when she can’t manage “round tones” or remember the location of the mic; her ice-cold treatment of Don when he’s a mere stuntman, her contempt for Cosmo, and her efforts to sabotage Kathy’s chance at stardom reveal her true character. Yet her moment of comeuppance is also one of her funniest, as she addresses the audience at her final premiere and they’re shocked by her cringingly squeaky voice: “If we bring a little joy into your hum-drum lives, it makes us feel as though all our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothing.”
In sum, Singin’ in the Rain has charm, a quality that is notably lacking in most contemporary films (with the exceptions of outstanding animated features). Classic cinema fans will keep going back to it long after most recent efforts to resurrect the live-action musical have faded from our collective memory.