Nine years ago, I was in my last semester of college and had just started dating the guy who would eventually become my husband. We were at that stage in our relationship where any moment not spent together was a moment wasted, and so we often attended each other’s large lecture classes in order to hold hands under the desk and write notes to each other in the margins of our notebooks. And learn, too, of course. He sat with me in my Greek and Roman Mythology fluff course, and I sat with him in his film class. And so I found myself one Spring evening following him and the rest of his class into a large theater on campus, where they were going to watch Singin’ in the Rain.
At that point, all I knew about the film was its title song, which one can’t avoid being familiar with if one has lived in the western world for more than a few years; it has been covered and mocked liberally over the decades. I had some exposure to musicals—one of the first movies I remember loving was The Sound of Music, and I regularly watched the first half of Fiddler on the Roof—but little experience with musicals incorporating choreography from masters like Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. So, doe-eyed and youthful, I walked into the theater knowing almost nothing about what I was about to see, only there because some guy had asked me to go, and wherever he was, there I had to be also.
For those who, like me at the time, have not seen Singin’ in the Rain, I’m going to give a brief synopsis. The musical stars Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, silent movie star, Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden, unknown but talented singer and actress, and Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, a silent movie star and leading lady to Don Lockwood. When Don and Lina’s studio wants to convert their latest film to a talkie, the results are disastrous and comical due to technical difficulties and Lina Lamont’s shrill voice. To save the film, they convert it to a musical and have Kathy dub over Lina’s lines (unbeknownst to Lina). You’ll have to watch to find out the rest. It’s a musical and comical take on an historic point in cinematic history, and is widely regarded as the best musical to date, although it wasn’t a blockbuster back then. Now, back to my date night in college…
I’d like to say that I remember every moment of that viewing, but that would be a lie. I do mark it as a sort of beginning point, however—or perhaps a transitional point in both my life and my film education. I remember loving the movie, particularly Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘em Laugh” bit, but what I most remember is looking over during one of the poignant moments to see that my boyfriend had tears in his eyes, and understanding very suddenly the depth of the person sitting next to me, with whom I was only just starting to get acquainted.
At some point not long after that, we moved in together and began subscribing to Netflix’s streaming service (before, we had been watching shows on DVD—I remember eagerly waiting for Deadwood to arrive in the mail), and I started filling in the gaps in my knowledge of early musicals, trying to recapture the magic of Singin’ in the Rain. None could really live up to the high standard it set, but I worked my way through (non-systematically) enjoying the movement of people across the screen.
After I watched what was available on Netflix, I lamented that musicals like Singin’ in the Rain were no longer made. We had dancing on screen, but not any that so well captured the feeling of a particular scene, or the line of an original song—at least, not in my opinion. I longed for movies like Singin’ in the Rain to be made again, so that I could go to the theater and leave feeling like singing and dancing.
It seems that I wasn’t the only one dreaming of a revival of old-fashioned musicals, because this year brought us La La Land—clearly modeled after the Fred and Ginger era. “At last,” I thought, “They’ve started making these again!” But an old-fashioned musical made in the 21st century just isn’t the same—and can, in fact, feel rather like tone deaf navel-gazing. There’s no recreating Singin’ in the Rain, or that day nine years ago when I hardly knew the person I’d eventually know better than anyone else—and perhaps we shouldn’t try. After all, I’m not 21 anymore, and it’s not the 1950s anymore. We’ve all changed.
I no longer feel as though we need to bring back the Hollywood musical as it was back then. On the 65th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain, however, we should remember the role of the musical in transitioning us from stage to cinema, and Singin’ in the Rain’s particular role as a piece of Hollywood history—both making fun of our resistance to moving to technology that transforms the way we do business, while being a great musical with fabulous choreography in its own right. It’s a classic worth revisiting, and worth showing to a theater full of film students, and worth waxing nostalgia over, because it’s wonderful, but it’s not something we can ever have again—not in the same way.
Featured Image: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer