For a long time, I was sure I was a fan of Old Hollywood musicals, until I realized I really meant I was just a fan of this one.
On paper, Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t seem like it has much chance of both transcending and making a case for the whole genre. It has so many of the same foibles as they all do — The songs are scattered apparently at random. They have approximately fuckall to do with the plot, and they’re spaced out so haphazardly that sometimes you forget you’re watching a musical at all and other times you get two or three of them dumped on you at once. The performers all have Big Drama Kid Energy, and if they manage to escape obnoxiousness, maybe it’s because they’re the originals instead of six-generations-removed copies. The backstory is even less promising — not just a jukebox musical, but one made to order, a scheme by producer Arthur Freed to squeeze some more profit out of his musty old compositions from the ‘20s and ‘30s.
And yet you never find yourself rushing the movie along to get the plot out of the way for more songs or wrap up the fucking song already and move on with the plot. The movie’s so full of energy it hasn’t aged a day (mostly — we’ll be getting to that). Donald O’Connor passes out at the end of his solo number “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and it’s a miracle every setpiece doesn’t end that way. Debbie Reynolds famously danced until her feet bled, and she’s said, “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life.” But it never looks anything less than joyously effortless.
Too many musicals expect just to sit and watch someone standing still and singing for five minutes. Singin’ in the Rain knows better. Even when the characters aren’t dancing, smaller gestures like nodding and walking are as expertly choreographed as dance, all at just the right moment to fit the music.
The “All I Do Is Dream of You” sequence is a parody of Busby Berkeley, but the choreographer’s style is so appealing it’s hard to make it look bad, so it never occurred to me it might be meant as a dig. Knowing that, it’s easier to see how the frantic editing could look ridiculous (what it has to do with Berkeley, who took a pretty measured pace in everything I’ve seen from him, I still couldn’t tell you).
Either way, it’s funny to think directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen might have had it in for Berkeley, because they owe a lot to him. If Berkeley adapted the musical form for film by choreographing his dancers for the camera, Kelly and Donen take the next step and make the camera an active participant. It’s always moving right along with them and right in time with the score. You get the impression Kelly and Donen used more cranes than they did tripods.
Sometimes the camera dances so the actors don’t have to — think of that famous scene of Gene Kelly singing “Singin’ in the Rain” in the rain in Singin’ in the Rain, arms outstretched like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption. All he has to do is stand there and soak up the rain while the camera flies skyward, doing half the work for him, a trick that works just as well, if less famously, at the bookends of “Broadway Melody.”
And those colors! This is supposed to be the world behind the scenes, but there’s no pretensions to realism here. Everyone dresses like they walked out of a bag of Skittles, and they still almost blend into their Technicolor surroundings. And yet the most eye-poppingly colorful moment in the whole thing is the Kelly character’s pitch for the “Broadway Melody” musical number in his movie-within-a-movie — a black and white movie within a movie, mind you.
That should give you an idea of how many levels of artifice we’re working with here. Another movie-within-a-movie scene is just as oversaturated, and the colors even play into the lyrics (“And if you must wear fox to the opera/Dame Fashion says, dye it”). It also has even less to do with the plot than average since none of the characters show up, and it’s the only scene in the whole movie you can safely skip.
In the opening flashback, we learn Kelly’s character Don Lockwood got his start in the movie business as a stuntman, and we see him at work — the work, of course, being done by Kelly’s own stuntman. As he walks out of the premiere of his latest swashbuckling adventure to be mobbed by fans, he escapes with a stunt most swashbuckler heroes would call “a little unlikely.”
A whole lot of the plot revolves around Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden dubbing over Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). In reality, Hagen dubbed her own voice, and it’s Reynolds who gets dubbed over for a couple of the songs. And for all the talk of bad sound sync in The Dueling Cavalier, take a look at the actors’ feet in “Good Morning” and try to figure out just how they’re supposed to relate to the tapping on the soundtrack. Kelly says it best in the lead-up to the wonderful “You Were Meant for Me” number: “I’m trying to say something to you, but I’m such a ham I guess I’m not able to without the proper setting.”
But that fakery is so pure and unashamed it becomes transcendent, especially in the neon-colored, plywood-flat world of “Broadway Melody.” And then it transcends itself again when the number breaks for a dream within a dream (and probably a couple more layers deep), a ballet sequence (it was the style at the time, thanks to The Red Shoes) in an even more abstract setting. We’ve traded the tawdry and flashy for something more delicately, ethereally beautiful. I can’t imagine how many takes it took to get that impossibly long, billowing silk scarf to move in time. But it does, so perfectly I had to watch Singin’ in the Rain three times before I thought to ask. This is something past the usual Hollywood Dream Factory material to something genuinely dreamlike. That’s not a knock on the louder, kitschier side of “Broadway Melody” and Singin’ as a whole. To tell the truth, I’d be hard-pressed to tell you which is better.
Yes, Singin’ in the Rain is pure escapist fantasy. Not just for the glitz and glamour and Hollywood endings — who doesn’t wish they had friends as loyal and quick-witted as Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor? It’s easy to focus on those first two names, but Singin’ in the Rain has a deep, deep bench of talent. There’s O’Connor, even more joyously arch and camp than Kelly — and speaking of Kelly, how rare and wonderful is it to see a hearthrobby leading man also get to be a force of anarchy? There’s Douglas Fowley as the wonderfully anxious little director (“INTO THE BUSH!”) who I’m sad to say I probably identify with more than anybody here.
And then there’s Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont. By all logic, she should be insufferable. It’s a performance that’s been copied endlessly, more irritating every time. But what Hagen gets and her imitators don’t is it’s possible for a character to annoy the other characters while still being a joy for us to watch. Her voice has to be grating for the story to work, and it is, but it’s also so hilarious you could listen to it all day.
Hagen plays dumb the way only an enormously witty person could. Just look at the scene where the director condescendingly explains to her how the microphone works and she nods along like this really is all news to her. And if so many of Lina’s progeny are ear-bleedingly over-the-top, we can at least credit her as the forebear to another wonderfully vain, commanding wannabe star, Miss Piggy.
It’s a shame the movie doesn’t seem to have as much affection for Lina as I do. She’s a wonderful villain, but the story seems to enjoy tearing down a brash, bossy woman who’s learned to use her power a little too much. Of course, the story’s men have to take Lina down because she’s holding another woman’s career hostage. But she only does that because men (and, in the interest of fairness, one woman — the script’s credited to Betty Comden and Adolph Green) said she would. And does it really mitigate the sexism that Don prefers the young, malleable ingenue to the woman who’s gotten above her station?
Because Kathy’s treatment is just as ambivalent. She’s a serious actress who gets one up on Don when they meet by belittling his career, but then Don gets to humiliate her when he discovers she’s waiting for her big break by jumping out of cakes, and once again, the movie seems just a touch too gleeful to put a woman in her place. But Don obviously took what Kathy said to heart and goes to great lengths to make up for humiliating her. But then she reveals she’s really just a big fangirl at heart and immediately falls for him. But the dialogue and delivery are so convincing you can’t help believing in this totally unbelievable romance. All a lot of words to say that, I should probably leave it to someone else (i.e., notta man, notta man, unless he’s a mighty good man) to untangle all this.
If there’s ambiguity about the sexism, there’s a lot less about the jaw-dropping racism exposed in one brief scene where Kelly walks by a bunch of extras milling about in jet-black tights they’re wearing to play indigenous Africans. It’s doubtful anyone involved knew and/or cared just how awful this was. Then again, they’re just representing the filmmaking world of the late ‘20s, and as much as Singin’ in the Rain can be wonderfully, even embarrassingly optimistic, it gives us a spoonful of sourness to help the sweetness go down with its realistic and wickedly cynical look at the filmmaking process. This much I know — after spending a whole month watching early sound movies, I can say that all the jangling pearls and shout-whisper-shout as Lina turns toward and away from her mic is barely an exaggeration. I doubt the diction lessons are either, but I’m just as sure they were mostly an excuse for the actors to say “can’t” at each other over and over again, which sounds even filthier with the instructor’s semi-British accent. Despite what Debbie Reynolds says, they seem to be having a ball. Watching Singin’ in the Rain, it’s hard not to.