Tuesday, May 4, 2010
I've watched Singin' in the Rain many times but it's always fresh when I go back to it. It chronicles the introduction of sound to films, and stars Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, a silent film actor poised to make the transition to speaking roles. He and screen partner Lina Lamont (the very funny Jean Hagen) have a successful string of films behind them and their supposed romance makes them stock tabloid-fodder. In actual fact, Lockwood can't stand Lamont but goes along with the ruse since it stokes his career and therefore his vanity. Appearing together at the debut of their new silent picture, Don tells a doting reporter how he came to be in the movies. While he says he studied all of the theatrical classics, and rose through the ranks of the finest concert halls, the visuals in flashback discredit his narration. Instead, he and partner Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) are shown hoofing for change in pool halls and playing slapstick to booing audiences on the vaudeville circuit. Don's life on film began out of desperation - he took any job thrown at him. His manipulation of the truth typifies the film industry's long-standing insecurity about being seen as less than high art.
After the premiere, Don's harassed by voracious fans and escapes by jumping into a car driven by the very "normal" Cathy Selden (plucky Debbie Reynolds). She's unimpressed by his presence, so Don immediately warms to her disinterest (she's a challenge!). During the pivotal musical number in which Don and Cathy profess their love to one another, he suggests that movies are an act of seduction. They wander into an unoccupied lot and Don shows how the right lighting and backdrop - in this case, a sunset - create a mood and place in which the actors can perform. The ingredients are suggestive rather than explicit, foregrounding the dance and the song. It works for Cathy. From this point on, their romance directly parallels Don's artistic coming of age, and the maturation of movies themselves (evidenced by the development of musicals).
Early on, Lina Lamont emerges as the film's antagonist because she's a total drag and lacks authenticity. The problems begin when the studio head decides to make the latest Lockwood and Lamont picture into a talkie though its principal actress has a dreadful speaking voice. This, coupled with the fact that recording technologies are still crude, makes the final film laughable. During a late-night commiseration and brainstorming session (featuring the totally awesome song "Good Morning"), Don, Cathy, and Cosmo decide the film can be saved if it's retooled as a musical. Cathy (who surpassed her initial averageness by proving she could sing well) will supply Lina's voice against her knowledge.
The next day, Don and Cosmo pitch the idea and the studio head levels only one concern against the concept - how will it end? On the spot, Don envisions an elaborate song and dance number which plays out as he narrates. It's comparable to the flashback of his life shown earlier but this time it's much closer to his actual story. For Don, it completes a project that has redeemed him as a performer. This film finally, properly showcases skills he was previously too bombastic to employ. Falling in love has made him confident so his work is more honest, inspired and sure-footed as a result. For Gene Kelly, who staged and choreographed the dance numbers with director Stanley Donen, it's an artistic tour de force - one of the best dance sequences ever filmed.
In the number, Don appears as a young, inexperienced dancer who arrives in New York from small town America. He knocks on agents' doors - all impressionistically painted in cartoon-like strokes - to find opportunities. He's overwhelmed by the city's callousness, made flesh in the form of Cyd Charisse, one of the most beautiful creatures ever to have lived. Their introductory dance is almost impossibly great. It's set in a smoke-filled nightclub filled with bright colours, though dominated by an alarming, "proceed with caution" red, which Charisse is set against in shining emerald green. The choreography moves her around in sharp angles, accentuating her stature, toughness, and exceedingly long limbs. He's won over by her sex appeal and believes he's in love with her, despite her apparent involvement with an intimidating gangster. Another dance follows, but this time they're paired in a more dream-like setting that directly borrows from Don and Cathy's earlier scene - the few, basic ingredients of sunset, wind and gentler coloured lights. It's art imitating life, as it were, with Don newly able to create his own material by abandoning posturing for genuine feeling. Charisse has been softened considerably, her appearance and comportment filtered through the male character's heady, innocent love for her. She's dressed in white with an incredibly long, diaphanous scarf that's almost magically held aloft throughout. The way it floats on air makes literal the sequence's buoyant sentiment. The dance is notable for its grace and extreme simplicity. Over the course of the film, Don's realized that stylized acting, dominating sets and ornate costumes are fallbacks in the absence of emotional truth.
Musicals are most often criticized for the unrealistic way in which characters break from the story to sing and dance (first of all, is that such a bad thing?). To my mind, this only happens when a film is poorly written and constructed. The musical numbers in Singin in the Rain always elucidate the film's events and move the story forward. The final sequence is a perfect conclusion because it condenses and summarizes all of the movie's themes. The dancer's been rejected by agents and had his heart broken by a gangster's moll, but these experiences strengthen him and serve as reminders of what he came to the city to do - dance for an audience. "Gotta dance!" The sequence ends with the introduction of yet another young, dancing innocent, newly arrived in the city to make it big. And all of this unspools as Cathy finally gets her due as a singing powerhouse. The continual promise of undiscovered, dedicated performers finally finding their crowd is exactly why movies excite us. Movies about making movies - or more simply put, art about making art - is elemental storytelling: It's about finding your way, which is always, rightly born of confidence, honesty and love.