Death and the musical

Behind the smiles and fluff, a sense of mortality hovers over the great Hollywood musicals, says Christina Newland.

5 November 2019

By Christina Newland

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

If there’s a genre of classic film that seems, in some ways, the least likely to throw the theme or even the thought of death into the mix, it would probably be the musical. A commonly held and inaccurate assumption about American movie musicals, in particular, is that they are fluffy, escapist affairs that rarely touch on weighty matters. A passing glance at anything from 42nd Street (1933) to West Side Story (1961) to Cabaret (1972) should be enough to kill this canard. There’s the baroque overhead shot of an actual death scene in West Side Story, but each is stuffed to the gills with sin, social commentary and the potent clouds of impending tragedy. Darkness may be better disguised in the movie musical, but it’s often waiting in the wings.

Yet there are plenty of mid-century Hollywood confections that do all they can to dispel the darkness. Maybe to contemplate the toe-tapping films from mid-century Hollywood is mostly to think of sugary good cheer and dancers in clouds of pink chiffon.

Producer Arthur Freed cemented that image in the minds of the movie-going public with his ‘Freed Unit’ in the 1940s and 50s. Under his guidance at MGM, we got Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Easter Parade (1948), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), The Band Wagon (1953) and, of course, Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

An American in Paris (1951)

When it comes to Freudian obsessions of sex and death, we rightly assume there’s more of the former than the latter to be found in the American musical. Cheesecake shots of Betty Grable in wartime pin-up poses, the hypnotic kaleidoscope of legs and lips in Busby Berkeley’s choreography, the slinky come hither-ness of Cyd Charisse in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). Even the nicest of family-friendly musicals have a whiff of sensuality. But if sex is as linked to dance as romance is to song, what of that other Freudian preoccupation? That thing which hangs even heavier over movie-going while viewing the performances of long-dead stars and artists?

Theorist André Bazin once wrote that cinema extracts its unique power from the way it fights off mortality. Motion pictures could capture and freeze a likeness in time, or as Bazin put it, they could offer “the preservation of life by a representation of life”. It’s a striking and simple idea, but one with far-reaching implications. When our film stars grow withered with age or gnarled from booze, or whole neighborhoods of Los Angeles and New York are bulldozed and vanished, cinema returns faces, settings and bygone milieux to the viewer in their former glory. The result is compelling and not a little bit melancholy.

Bazin wrote about mortality and the cinema sometime in the 50s, when the art form was less than a century old. Now, as the remaining legends of film history grow old and pass away, classic film takes on a new poignancy for the viewer.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

To me, there’s no better example than the recent losses of Debbie Reynolds and Stanley Donen, two of the talents without whom Singin’ in the Rain might never have existed. With none of the film’s principal talent now living, a deep vein of melancholy throbs through subsequent viewings. In what is perhaps the best and most joyous of screen musicals, these people – so full of vitality and alive with song – seem immortal. There’s a real double consciousness to watching the movie for me now: one of the flat, plain contours of our reality and the other of beauty that will never perish; of watching Gene Kelly grin his toothpaste grin, O’Connor fearlessly bounce off soundstage walls, of Reynolds’ gamine little doll’s face soaked with tears in the final reveal. In this wholesome, apple-cheeked movie, death seems all the more implicit because it’s so neatly excised from view.

Like so much classic film, Singin’ in the Rain remains a glowing reminder of cinema’s unique ability to both guard against and simultaneously prod us about mortality. Movies change as we change, as time passes. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say there isn’t anything subversive in a film like Singin’ in the Rain. Donen and Kelly poke fun at the hoary clichés of Hollywood past, and its sense of humour is wry, but it’s hardly swarming with secret impulses.

This is true of most of the Freed Unit output from the era; it can be sly and sad and even a little acidic, but the heavy-duty stuff never really factored in. It’s this perceived purity that makes films like Meet Me in St. Louis or An American in Paris (1951) so beloved. Kelly and Sinatra and Garland and Charisse woo you; you are charmed by the dazzling choreography and artistry of directors Donen and Minnelli and screenwriters Comden and Green. These films are such powerful forms of entertainment that they could sing and dance you right into your grave.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Perhaps it’s also this purity that – to our contemporary minds in their hard-wired cynicism – makes us inevitably think of the underside. The magnificent high-key lighting used in studio musicals at MGM removed any trace of shadow; they flooded every crevasse with light, flattering stars and banishing the mere suggestion of darkness. Maybe that makes us seek out the darkness all the more. No doubt this was how Stanley Kubrick chose to use the title song from Singin’ in the Rain for his droogs’ murderous home invasion in A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Bazin was talking about all cinema when he wrote about our need to “have the last word in the argument with death by means of the form that endures”. But no form endures quite as joyfully and as effortlessly as a movie like Singin’ in the Rain. The impermanence of what it holds within only heightens its precarious beauty; and maybe there’s nothing more beautiful than knowing – for a few moments at least – we get the last word in the argument with death, after all.

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