Magic Gene's Monument

Singin' in the Rain


Poor Don Lockwood. For a movie star like him, life is a culture war—one he can never conquer. Played by Gene Kelly, Don is the protagonist of MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952). As Hollywood’s leading man, Don has—opposite co-star Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen)—steered many a swashbuckling romance film to commercial success. But this is the 1920s, and cinema is both in its infancy and, paradoxically, on its way out—at least as we know it. Its youth might account for why, to a reasonably educated woman like Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), movies aren’t anything to get too excited about. As she says to Don, whom she meets by chance when the latter runs away from some pesky teens in the street, “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.”


At the same time, movies are dying. Long live talkies: as
Singin’ in the Rain will itself show, Warner Bros.’ box-office triumph with The Jazz Singer in 1927 encouraged rival studios to adopt the technological means by which to record synchronised dialogue, marking the decline of the silent era and ushering in a new age of talking pictures. At a cast and crew party following the premiere of The Royal Rascal, Don and Lina’s latest film for Monumental Pictures, studio chief R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) projects a recorded demonstration of how such a film works. After some attendees speculate about the trickery, one of them calls it a toy. “It’s vulgar!” another retorts. Either way, it’s bad news: to the public, Don’s a practitioner in an enjoyable but inferior art, while within the film industry itself his job’s suddenly precarious—as is made desperately evident when his first talkie, The Dueling Cavalier, is received with derisive laughter.

But the movies are magic. By now we know as much. At their best, Hollywood’s products have operated not unlike a magician’s trick: they depend upon and elicit audience involvement in a way other artistic media do not, with their commercial value and aesthetic success determined by the extent to which they reward a suspension of disbelief. To do this, they must draw an audience into their world without revealing the industrial mechanics behind their construction: the creation of space through backdrops, the illusion of flight through crane shots, otherwise implausible action made possible by well-timed edits, and the self-obliterating presence of the camera—all of these are electively indulged upon by an audience wanting to believe the story. It’s a bedazzling sleight of hand.

Expensive, too: at $2.5 million,
Singin’ in the Rain was the second biggest budgeted film of 1952, behind The Greatest Show On Earth. The film has proved enduringly popular with the public, in addition to now standing among critics and filmmakers as one of the greatest testaments to (and cinematic records of) the medium’s technological resilience and historical longevity. The American Film Institute voted it the best American musical ever made, and the fifth best American film in general. The film has twice made the top ten in long-running British monthly Sight & Sound’s decennial ‘best ever’ poll: first in 1982 and then in 2002 (in the most recent poll, it had fallen to 20, owing perhaps to the fluctuating popularity of the musical—though it remains the only film of that genre to appear in the top 50).

A clever send-up of the filmmaking process,
Singin’ in the Rain is the product of a profoundly collaborative artistic practice: co-directed by Kelly with Stanley Donen (the same team behind On the Town three years previously), it brought together the finest technicians and behind-the-scenes artists that the Arthur Freed Unit at MGM could at that time offer. Nevertheless, the film can’t help but trample over the exploitative property relations upon which its production depended: reports of Kelly’s formidable authoritarianism on set, the 19-hour working days, Donald O’Connor going to bed for a week after having to film a particularly taxing dance sequence twice in succession. To varying degrees, of course, all movies bury their backgrounds—and to find the wilful suppression of such realities troublesome is to question or reject an entire artistic paradigm.

As tempting as such rejections might be with Hollywood today, there was a time when its films didn’t in fact look down at audiences, didn’t in fact treat people with disdain, didn’t in fact view humanity as the dimmest of all species. Imagine! There was a time when artistic endeavour could appeal to a wide demographic, even the lowest common denominator, at the same time as being a charming, sophisticated enterprise alive with colour, humour and the suggestion of a world worth living in. In the 1950s, good movies were great indeed. And as a film that creates its own grounds for entertainment,
Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest. I can’t think of a film more deserving of renewed exhibition and distribution—which the Slovenska Kinoteka can now provide thanks to its recent acquisition of screening rights and, adding to the 35mm print it already owned, a new digital print.

In
Singin’ in the Rain, entertainment and sophistication converge in a thinly veiled narrative of self-deprecation. This is a film all about the mechanics of the movie industry, one that sets to demystify and de-sensationalise the procedures of its own operation from the outset. In the first scene, Don Lockwood arrives at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for the world-premiere of The Royal Rascal and tells fans of how he and his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) came to rule the industry. “Dignity, always dignity,” so goes Don’s motto. But then he tells it as it isn’t, or how it wasn’t: when Don says he and Cosmo arrived in “Sunny California” we see the flashback as it really was, both of them standing outside an employment office sheltered from a downpour. When Don says his early roles were “urbane, sophisticated, suave”, the images reveal another story: he’s a cheap stuntman, and only gets his breakthrough by luck.

But this is a movie, too. As the American scholar Richard Maltby notes in his wide-ranging book
Hollywood Cinema, the film acts to demystify Don Lockwood’s rags-to-riches narrative while also re-mystifying it. Despite the expository in-joke about Don’s career trajectory, the film has us believe that Hollywood is a meritocracy after all: by its end, lowly but talented chorus girl Kathy Selden is revealed to the public as the real voice behind villainous diva Lina Lamont. The deeper ironies remain outside of the film. Jean Hagen, who delivers Lina’s lines in a rough, unsophisticated drawl, actually provides the voice for Debbie Reynolds when the latter is dubbing Lina—and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for her trouble. When Kathy sings for Lina, however, both Reynolds and Hagen are dubbed by singer Betty Royce, who goes uncredited. Similarly, only a few of the musical numbers are original. Most were lifted from previous Arthur Freed productions; it’s either a farce or entirely fitting that a film designed to be an anthology of older works is accepted today as a unique masterpiece.

Singin’ in the Rain
exposes some industrial secrets in a digestible, mass-consumable form while keeping its own tricks invisible. During an extended sequence revealing the trial-and-error filming process of Don and Lina’s first talkie, The Dueling Cavalier, we see the difficulties with which dialogue was first recorded on set in the early days of talking pictures, with the filming equipment housed in a special, soundproof booth. First the microphone is hidden in some strategically placed plants, but doesn’t pick up Lina’s voice (“I can’t make love to a bush!”); then, a microphone placed in Lina’s cleavage proves disastrous because it picks up her heartbeat; finally, Lina turning her head back and forth during the scene means that the microphone only picks up snippets of dialogue. The film’s test screening, six weeks ahead of release, is a disaster. Audiences laugh, mock, jeer.

And audiences are all that matter, because there’s no entertainment without public demand. When R.F. first gives news that
The Jazz Singer has taken the box-office by storm and others dismiss it as a fad, he exclaims, “The public wants more!” While Don’s romantic interest Kathy earlier derides movies as merely “entertaining enough for the masses,” one of Singin’ in the Rain’s most persistent joys is its emphasis upon “sheer entertainment.” Musical sequences like “Make ’Em Laugh,” “Moses Supposes” and the timeless title number are fine examples. While each does very little to further the ongoing plot, its production values become standalone attractions.

The first, featuring O’Connor, is a comically self-fulfilling ditty about how the show must go on and how, despite all, entertainment for the sake of entertainment is a key component of that notion. The second, featuring Kelly and O’Connor, emerges from the tongue-twists of Don’s otherwise tiresome diction lesson, and actually
interrupts the story rather than advancing it. The third, featuring Kelly’s ineffable, rain-drenched solo performance, is a set-piece designed to concentrate the talent and energy of the performer down to its purest and most euphoric essence (and to showcase the ingenuity of the production design).

But in terms of gratuitous displays of spectacle—of an extravagance removed from all narrative function—nothing matches the “Broadway Melody” sequence towards the end of the film. Don begins to describe it to R.F., but the musical number that follows is an illustrative “what-if,” a kind of self-enclosed fantasy sequence that adds neither to our understanding of
Singin’ in the Rain’s story nor to that of The Dancing Cavalier, the movie being made within it. By far the longest musical number in the film (13 minutes), the “Broadway Melody” sequence creates its own fantasies upon fantasies and fictions within fictions. The relatively lengthy duration of the sequence, accompanied by its seamless structure and cinematographer Harold Rosson’s saturated visual palette, allows it to draw us in as if its universe were quite dependent from the rest of the film. It becomes a self-contained narrative in itself.

A rags-to-riches musical-cum-ballet, “Broadway Melody” sees Gene Kelly playing Don Lockwood playing an unnamed happy-go-lucky hopeful who arrives on Broadway with a naïve but infectious desire to make a living from dancing. The layered construct, allowing a deeper emotional engagement in the spectacle, is ingenious: if we were asked to invest in a feature-length film consisting entirely of this number’s particularly hammy, over-expressive and emotionally simplified register, we might have some trouble. But presented to us as is, “Broadway Melody” acquires a cumulative sweep that is all its own. The wide-eyed protagonist, played by Don (played by Kelly), is as overwhelmed by the Broadway neon as we are by the unfolding artistry. It’s perhaps no coincidence that stills to promote screenings of
Singin’ in the Rain today are often taken from this sequence: it was the primary image used for the Berlinale’s ‘Glorious Technicolor’ retrospective in January this year—Kelly in bright yellow waistcoat dancing with Cyd Charisse in an immaculate green dress against a beguiling red backdrop. Glorious indeed.

In terms of showmanship, artistic calculation and sheer value for money, this is cinema
par excellence. As Gerald Mast notes in his 1990 book Can’t Help Singing, Gene Kelly choreographs the camera as well as the dancers, directing sequences that are deeply and purely cinematic. Writing on the “Broadway Melody” sequence, he remarks: “When the dancer spots the woman of his dreams, the crowded casino dissolves into thin air so the pair can dance in a placeless void of pure emotion. Only movies dissolve people and places into thin air, for only movies use a technique named dissolve.” Later in the same sequence, an opulent ballroom dissolves into an empty but somehow much grander stage, in which Kelly and Charisse can once again dance—the latter trailed by a magnificent, translucent scarf. As Mast again notes, “Only movies can animate a giant cloth with some combination of wind and string that is both mechanical trick and pure magic.”

But movies don’t make themselves—and some magicians are better than others. Kelly, for his part, was both a director and performer of exceptional talent—and he’s as important to
Rain as Welles was to Kane. “I’m such a ham,” Don notes to Kathy when trying to reveal his romantic feelings for her. “I guess I can’t [tell you] without the proper setting.” In the sequence that follows, Don takes Kathy into a Hollywood set. “Why, it’s just an empty stage,” Kathy protests, before Don creates his proper setting with some very ad-hoc assistance: a painted backdrop (“a beautiful sunset”), a smoke machine (“mist from the distant mountains”) and filtered lighting (“coloured lights and a garden”). Of course, the song that follows—“You Were Meant For Me”—could just as easily have taken place outside the empty stage, but in drawing attention to Don’s need for a “proper setting” the film creates a plausible space at one remove from its “real” story, thereby reinforcing the latter as a believable universe we might relate to and engage with.

Part of what makes
Singin’ in the Rain so sophisticated in its handling of these different realities is the way it appeals to both cine-literate and less informed viewers. Though the latter may be more convinced of the demystification than the former, Kelly never condescends them. While cinephiles may remain aware that the atmosphere of the scene immediately before “You Were Meant For Me” is as engineered as that during the song itself, for instance, they too are swept along by the number due to the complex arrangement of its components: Kelly, Reynolds, the lighting, direction, editing and so on. Consider the giant fan that’s providing Kathy and Don their wind, and the ladder that’s doubling as a balcony, and the lights illuminating the duo in a veil of artificial dusk: at the beginning of the song, these constitute a dead, behind-the-scenes apparatus, and yet by the end of the song they are props absolutely integral to the mise-en-scène. What they do on a micro level—creating and fulfilling the conditions of their own function—Singin’ in the Rain does as a whole.

In its final moments, the film sees Don and Kathy singing their last number, “Lucky Star”, on a literal theatre-stage—a space in which reality and artifice collide. We dissolve, from a two-shot of them looking at each other, to a billboard promoting their appearance in an upcoming film, “Singin’ in the Rain.” The dissolve—that dreamiest of transitions—gently pierces the proscenium of the stage and sends us into one final and distinctly cinematic delirium, advertising a film we have, in essence, already watched. As R.F. says after Don’s 13-minute illustrated “description” of the “Broadway Melody” number: “I can’t quite visualise it.” The joke is that we were just shown it. This hasn’t been an argument for cinema’s immersive qualities, but a demonstration of them. We don’t bow to
be conquered: we already have been.

Michael Pattison I idFilm
First published in Ekran Magazine, LIII, August-September 2015, p. 45.