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The day the music died - an artform has, at least partly, been lost

Watching classic movie musicals, such as Singin' in the Rain, is a stark reminder of an artform that has, at least partly, been lost, writes Geoffrey Macnab

Song and a dance: Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain
Song and a dance: Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain

For the next three months, there will be hundreds of screenings all over the UK of the greatest musicals in cinema history. "What better way to escape from our uncertain times than by immersing yourself in the emotional, hairs on the back of your arms raising joy of the film musical? Forget your troubles, come on get happy," enjoins Robin Baker, the British Film Institute curator behind the season.

Inevitably, the season starts with yet another re-release of Singin' in the Rain (1952), which is, surely, still the most popular movie musical of all time.

Popular wisdom has it that musicals are enjoying a renaissance. Successful recent films such as La La Land (2016), The Greatest Showman (2017) and Les Miserables (2012), as well as the Streetdance, High School Musical and other franchises, are cited as examples of the enduring appeal of the genre.

A Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story is in the works. For better or worse, Cats is being brought to screen.

However, most of the films being made today seem very creaky by comparison with those being turned out by the Arthur Freed unit at MGM in the 1940s and early 1950s, or with the Warner Bros backstage musicals of the 1930s, such as 42nd Street (1933) and the Gold Diggers titles.

The irony is that the greatest of the MGM musicals - films like Singin' in the Rain, An American in Paris (1951) and The Band Wagon (1953) - were made just when the Hollywood studio system was beginning to slow down and television was stealing away audiences. In hindsight, they seem like a last hurrah.

"The furious energy has something desperate about it; it is like Cinerama and the Fifties biblical epics, trying to outshout and outdazzle the little home screen," novelist John Updike wrote of this last wave of musicals.

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Songwriter and producer Arthur Freed occupies an ambivalent position in film history. Few recent profiles of him fail to mention the grim story that Shirley Temple shared about him as a lecherous older man in her autobiography. She was a child actress, 12 years old at the time he harassed her.

Freed might not have been the most wholesome man of the lot, but, as his close friend Irving Berlin said of him, "His greatest talent was to know talent, to recognise talent and to surround himself with it." Once he identified potential collaborators, he left them well alone.

True to his name, Freed allowed Donen, Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli and others he respected a degree of creative and financial licence that would have been unthinkable elsewhere.

MGM's best musical projects were often put together on the hoof, in a freewheeling and makeshift way. Singin' in the Rain came about in cart-before-horse fashion, simply because Freed wanted to make a film based on old songs that he had written with his partner, Nacho Herb Brown.

He didn't have any particular idea what the story should be. That was left to the writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The actual song Singin' in the Rain had been written by Freed and Brown, back in 1929.

Comden and Green had the brilliant idea of setting the film in the era of the song, which was just when the studios were converting to sound. This is a story about the end of one era (the silent era in Hollywood) made towards the end of another (the golden age of musicals).

Freed was to stay at MGM until 1970, but his final musical, Bells are Ringing, starring Judy Holliday and Dean Martin, was made in 1960 and lost money. By then, in an era of TV, teen culture, Elvis and James Dean, old-style escapist musicals had begun to seem quaint and anachronistic.

The Hollywood studios had already been weakened by the 1948 supreme court "antitrust" legislation that dismantled the block-booking system. (This was the Hollywood practice of licensing films in packages, effectively obliging cinemas to acquire all of their titles - and often having to show the bad movies in order to guarantee getting the good ones.)

The studios were also stopped from owning their own cinemas. This legislation undermined the model that had made the golden age of musicals possible.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land
Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La La Land

The great stars of Hollywood musicals had tended to learn their craft through vaudeville, but the vaudeville tradition also foundered as leisure habits changed.

Nor did contemporary filmmakers and choreographers have the relentless perfectionism that had driven those working on the great Hollywood musicals.

Whatever the illusion of ease and grace given by, say, a Fred Astaire routine, the films were hellish experiences. They were based around endless rehearsals and hard work.

"Making Singin' in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I've ever done," Debbie Reynolds, who played Kathy Selden in the film musical, wrote in her autobiography, Unsinkable. "The movie was actually harder because it hurt me everywhere, most of all my brain and my feet."

Ginger Rogers would have to rehearse so hard on her collaborations with Astaire that her feet would bleed into her satin slippers. She used to joke when the films were over that now was the time for her to go and take a holiday, "digging in the salt mines".

These remarks are instructive. To some contemporary observers, one reason why today's musicals don't compare with the ones made in the golden age in Hollywood is that performers today don't have the physicality or work ethic of Astaire, Rogers, Kelly and Co.

42nd Street
42nd Street

"Either the camera dances, or I do," Astaire famously proclaimed. His routines tended to be shot in full frame with minimal cutting.

His light-hearted roller-skating sequence with Rogers in Shall We Dance (1937) involved skating in excess of 80 miles. Both he and Rogers knew that if they made a single mistake, they would have to start again from the beginning.

Now, the camera is more likely to do the dancing. Stars without specialist background are cast in leading roles in musicals. They hoof the best they can, but audiences can see that they're no experts.

It may sound falsely nostalgic and even reactionary to attack musicals made today by comparing them with those from long ago.

However, while technology and visual effects in movies may have improved since Donen and Kelly were making Singin' in the Rain, choreography and dancing have arguably gone backwards.

That is why the epic BFI musical season is likely to provoke mixed feelings in some film lovers. The older movies being shown are reminders of an art and a perfectionism that have (at least partly) been lost.

Not that you'll be thinking about that when you see Gene Kelly skipping through the puddles for the umpteenth time, twirling his umbrella and wrapping himself around a lamppost as he sings about being "happy again" with that carefree look on his face.

It's an enrapturing moment in an enrapturing film. The sequence also illustrates another defining aspect of the best musicals: they never grow old.

Movies in other genres can seem dated very quickly, but films like Singin' in the Rain are as fresh now as they were when they were first seen on screen, over 60 years ago.

Singin' in the Rain is being shown at the Queen's Film Theatre in Belfast on Sunday, October 20 (3.30pm), Wednesday, October 23 (3.30pm) and Thursday, October 24 (1.20pm). See https://queensfilmtheatre.com/ for more details and to buy tickets

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