Singin’ in the Rain sets the gold standard for movies that imagine a world full of pure joy, from Gene Kelly’s delirious stroll through a downpour, to Donald O’Connor cackling and spinning across a rug, to Debbie Reynolds ushering in a new day with an extended tap routine. But there’s one particular image from the film that, at least for me, sparks the biggest smile: Kelly wearing a banana-yellow vest, calling out to any and all passersby that he’s just gotta dance.
That number is “Broadway Melody,” a 13-minute dream ballet that follows Kelly’s fictional movie star Don Lockwood acting as a nameless, but nevertheless charming, hoofer. The sequence is undeniably exciting, taking advantage of the Technicolor process by highlighting vibrant costumes and set pieces. But with that said, it also tends to come across as a sudden detour; after all, it pulls the audience out of the main narrative of Singin’ in the Rain into the world of “The Dancing Cavalier,” a film-within-the-film that, at once an 18th-century period drama, is now bracketed as a modern musical. It’s just enough degrees removed from the central throughline of Singin’ in the Rain to make the number feel a bit jarring at first glance.
And yet, when looking into the number’s production history, you can see how “Broadway Melody” is actually an effective bookend to Don’s journey as a character. It dramatizes his whole personal arc through dance, starting with wide-eyed optimism, ending with hard-won emotional fulfillment, and as always finding love along the way. In the end, the ballet is a distillation of what Singin’ in the Rain is all about: rekindling joy in the midst of an ever-changing world.
While the concept of the dream ballet dates back to the 1940s, “Broadway Melody” is most directly a successor of 1951’s An American in Paris, a collaboration between Kelly and legendary musical director Vincente Minnelli. Released while Singin’ in the Rain was still in the late stages of production, An American in Paris culminates in a 17-minute long ballet set to the jazz piece of the same name by George Gershwin. The film was a smash hit upon its release, sweeping the Oscars and the box office that year; as a result, Singin’ in the Rain’s finale was reimagined in an attempt to recapture the pair’s latest hit. And they spared no expense in doing so; according to the Singin’ in the Rain home video audio commentary track, the initial $80,000 budget for “Broadway Melody” swelled to over $600,000 by the time it was completed.
In placing “Broadway Melody” in this lineup, it’s also worth considering the traditional purpose of the dream ballet overall. These numbers tend to spotlight characters at a crossroads, as they imagine a heightened version of their own life in order to achieve some sort of clarity. In An American in Paris, for example, the title ballet is positioned as a retrospective on Jerry (Kelly) and Lise’s (Leslie Caron) relationship in order to highlight the ultimate bittersweetness of their separation. In Singin’ in the Rain, the “Broadway Melody” ballet serves a similar purpose for Don in Singin’ in the Rain, in that it’s a retrospective of his career and personal relationships in order to demonstrate how far he’s come as a character.
As mentioned, it all starts with an idealistic, banana-vested hoofer who goes from having doors slammed in his face at every turn to hobnobbing at a prestigious society ball. His journey there isn’t as glamorous as it seems, though; before his arrival, we witness a montage of the character starting off as a wide-eyed Vaudeville performer, then gradually adopting the trappings of success, and ultimately wearing a fading, awkward smile as he stars in a more polished production. By the time he gets to that party, the guy shouting “Gotta Dance!” at anyone who will listen has been replaced by a silent, tuxedoed star gazing wistfully across a room full of waltzing dancers.
This progression matches the opening minutes of Singin’ in the Rain beat-for-beat, in terms of how Don himself describes his own career trajectory. In this earlier montage, we also see Don getting his start in Vaudeville alongside his best friend Cosmo, dancing and singing and prop-working and beaming through high-energy routines like “Fit as a Fiddle and Ready for Love.” His roots as a song-and-dance man, though, are soon lost along his path to stardom; here, this sequence highlights the dissonance between his humble origins and his sugarcoated smile at his latest splashy Hollywood premiere. Afterward, Don soon ends up at a similarly splashy Hollywood party, doubting his talents as a silent film actor and, after a demonstration that night, fearing his obsolescence with cinema’s imminent transition to sound.
In both of these situations, a partner comes along and changes everything. In “Broadway Melody,” Kelly partners with legendary MGM dancer Cyd Charisse in two routines: one in which she appears as a saucy vamp, and another as a wide-eyed ingénue on a pink-hued set. These dances are meant to recall the two relationships that Don finds himself in throughout the film, the first being with silent film star Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen) who, like the vamp, effectively ushers Don into his world of success, and the second with Kathy Selden, Reynolds’ rising star who inspires true love in more ways than one.
This second duet in particular — complete with Charisse’s stunning, soundstage-length veil — brings to mind “You Were Meant for Me,” another pink-hued sequence between Don and Kathy that demonstrates a truth about the former as a character. Really, Don expresses himself best when speaking through the lens of cinema; after all, he confesses through this earlier number that he needs the “proper setting” of an empty stage in order to tell Kathy that he loves her. The mirroring of that moment in “Broadway Melody,” in turn, indicates that Don is undergoing that process all over again, only this time we’re not seeing the behind-the-scenes underbelly of industrial fans and stage lights.
In truth, “Broadway Melody” is the closest way that Don can communicate his life-changing experience with Kathy to his audience without breaking his established, studio-fueled illusion of self. He might not be able to give his fans access to every detail of his private life, but he can show it to them through the mask of what he does best: song and dance. By inviting us into this dream, it’s as if he’s distilling his whole story into the same sort of musical moment as his previous confession; this time, he’s found love in his work again, and he’s done it through reminding himself of where he came from, alongside the woman he’s since fallen for.
Ultimately, “Broadway Melody” marks a return to form on a couple of levels, considering both Don’s journey as well as the number’s place in the broader history of the movie musical. Indeed, Singin’ in the Rain is part of its own 30-year-cycle, in that it’s a film from the 1950s about filmmaking in the 1920s. Notably, it also draws its music from Arthur Freed’s established songbook; the title of this particular number comes from The Broadway Melody of 1929, MGM’s first-ever movie musical and the second movie ever to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
In emerging from this lineage, Singin’ in the Rain’s “Broadway Melody” came at a time when Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen could pay tribute to the earliest movie musicals while flexing the capabilities of what cinema had grown to be by that time. The result is, fittingly, huge; it’s splashy, fun, and it moves, a marked evolution from panning a camera along a line of stationary actors on a sprinkling set.
In the end, “Broadway Melody” imagines Don’s journey on an awe-inspiring scale, combining MGM’s two largest soundstages, featuring 70 ensemble dancers, and spotlighting Gene Kelly at the top of his game, pinwheeling and hoofing to his heart’s content. You can’t help but feel pure joy when witnessing that kind of power, and pure assurance that Don has ultimately found his voice over the silence that came with his earlier successes. Now, Broadway Rhythm’s come back to him, and he can finally dance.