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Singin’ in the Rain: Learning to Dance when the Sun Don’t Shine

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)

Directed by Stanley Donen (On the Town; Royal Wedding). Starring Gene Kelly (An American in Paris), Donald O’Connor (Colgate Comedy Hour), Debbie Reynolds (Tammy and the Bachelor; The Unsinkable Molly Brown), Jean Hagan (Adam’s Rib; The Asphalt Jungle), Millard Mitchell (My Six Convicts; Twelve O’Clock High; A Foreign Affair).


The following is a film review of Singin’ in the Rain which I wrote for an undergraduate film course.

Singin’ in the Rain – Learning to Dance When the Sun Don’t Shine

APRIL SHOWERS: When Singin’ in the Rain premiered in Los Angeles in April of 1952, the filmmakers and stars weren’t exactly drenched in praise. Instead, reviews were lukewarm and simply benign – not exactly an initial reception characteristic of a film which would eventually come to occupy the 5-spot on the AFI’s top 100 films of all time. The film garnered a total of zero Oscars, and, to some degree, was plainly considered another decent musical of the time. However, we can see clearly now; the rain is gone. We’ve had a few years — sixty, that is — to reflect on the film’s impact, and now, standing in the morning dew, we can with much ease understand why Singin’ in the Rain is such a cinematic triumph. It documents not only a time period, the late 20s, but also a critical transition in Hollywood itself, the revolutionary shift from silent films to talkies. It chronicles the adaptations developed by filmmakers and actors in order to survive during this period of change. It shows us the brilliance that can arise from the fusion of physicality, dialogue, and song and dance. Charged with energy and spirit, it’s a substantive spectacle and a titillating time capsule. Most importantly, with a steady flow of joyous, jubilant irony, it teaches us that, when a nascent reality takes us by storm, the only thing that we can do is sing a song in the rain.

Singin’ in the Rain details the lives of three performers struggling to cope with the implications of The Jazz Singer (1927) and other talkies which propelled Hollywood into the nebulous world of sound. Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, a fiddler-turned-stunt-man-turned-silent-film-star. In many ways a precursor to the masters of modern parkour, he displays tremendous physical ability; just as his character performs stupefying acts of agility, including a water-bound motorcycle jump, Kelly himself masterfully choreographs the film’s dance numbers. At only 19 years of age, Debbie Reynolds plays Kathy Selden, an aspiring thespian, although in reality a chorus girl who jumps out of a cake in a dance scene reminiscent of the opulent celebratory number from Citizen Kane. She is the vocal equivalent of Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer, secretly serving as the dubbed speaking and singing voice of the silent star Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagan, whose vocalizations make for an experience more abhorrent than a looped playback of Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” Donald O’Connor plays the prominent supporting role: Cosmo Brown, pianist and long-time friend of Lockwood. While Sam, the pianist in Casablanca (1942), seldom leaves the piano bench and merely plays when he’s told, serving as a facilitator of ambience, nostalgia and remembrance, Cosmo becomes a character in his own right. O’Connor’s unrestrained, jubilant performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” took every last drop of passion he had in him. If you don’t believe me, ask the nurses; the filming of this number actually resulted in his hospitalization.

In Singin’ in the Rain, with the help of his DP Harold Rosson, director Stanley Donen utilizes recent and game-changing cinematographic innovations in order to view a forgone period through a modern lens. Unbelievable mise-en-scéne gives us the feel of the times. So many shots achieve the degree of depth (present foreground, middle ground, and background) exhibited in Casablanca, the deep-focus to see it all, and the precise and effective direction of extras necessary to effectively enrich and enliven the established ambiences. Extravagant set pieces establish a grandeur for audiences to marvel at, but at the same time, room for imagination is built in. One scene features Don, Kathy, and Cosmo pretending that yellow raincoats are guitars, a skirt, and a matador’s cape. Techniques developed in Singin’ in the Rain are applicable to modern musicals and other productions, high- and low-budget alike. A strong example is The Artist (2011). With a Donen-esque artistic vision, director Michel Hazanavicius employs modern techniques, such as dutch angles (when framing is tilted to one side to underscore tension), to breathe new dynamism into already-explored concepts, such as the silent film. The Artist and Singin’ in the Rain certainly have many differences, including the fact that The Artist shows the silent-sound transition in a predominantly silent manner while Singin’ in the Rain makes use of lyrics and dialogue, but Donen’s influence on Hazanavicius is impossible to ignore.

Having established the forces and minds behind this extraordinary production, we now move into the meaning of it all, the meaning of this transition into the presence of synchronized, recorded speech. During Kathy’s first encounter with Don, she says that pantomime isn’t acting, that “[great] acting means great parts, wonderful lines, words.” Yes. In some ways, Kathy is correct. Through their screenplay Singin’ in the Rain, Betty Comden and Adolph Green show us what absurdly clever wordplay and syntax can add to a story and its characters. For example, at one point, Cosmo states, “Lina. She can’t act, she can’t sing, and she can’t dance. A triple threat.” What a line! In another memorable wordplay moment, Don declares that he “must tear [him]self from [Lina’s] side.” Just as he finishes this line, part of his tuxedo jacket tears off, stuck from when the car door initially closed. A third instance can be observed during Lina’s speech in one of the final scenes. Addressing the audience, she remarks that if the actors can give the audience joy, “it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’.” Awkward and nonsensical phrases like this verify Lina’s lack of sophistication, eloquence, and relatability. Kathy’s statement about lines and words, however, is not entirely accurate. The innovativeness of sound and dialogue derives not only from clever diction, but also from the relationships between words and actions, from comical and high-spirited irony.

From start to finish, the film is saturated with incessant, almost parodying irony, apparent even in its title: a happy act, singin’, juxtaposed with an often-unpleasant condition, rain. On too many occasions to list, we hear one message but observe another. In one of the first sequences, Lockwood shares with his adoring fans his rise to stardom. What he describes as glamorous is shown to be, in actuality, rough. While he describes growing up watching “the finest of the classics,” we see him as a boy sneaking into theaters to watch low-budget films. While he describes “rigorous musical training at the Conservatory of Fine Arts,” we see him and Cosmo playing in a typical bar. While he says that he and Cosmo “rounded our [their] apprenticeship at the most exclusive dramatics academy,” we see the two performing in venues advertised with terms such as “burlesque” and “vaudeville.” While he describes his roles as “suave,” we see him performing risky stunts. It is the juxtaposition of saying and doing, and specifically the discrepancy between the two, which Singin’ in the Rain so masterfully calls to our attention. Body language reveals so much more when words serve as a counterpoint. We realize the enormous potential of the emerging ubiquity of diegetic motion picture sound, and we recognize that, although in the world of the characters the future of cinema is unpredictable and unknown, the best course of action is to cope with the transition in a constructive manner.

Unlike many modern musicals — including Across the Universe, which seems to lay out a string of songs and then play “connect the dots” with its plot — all of the songs in Singin’ in the Rain serve the story. The core of the film lies in the sequences during which Don, Cosmo, and Kathy lay out a plan to convert their disastrous talkie The Dueling Cavalier into a musical, The Dancing Cavalier. They’ve stayed up all night thinking through their options, and they sing “Good Morning” when they’re through. But the lyrics of “Good Morning” demonstrate implications beyond the sunrise. The key phrase in the lyrics is, “When we left the movie show / The future wasn’t bright / But tame is gone / The show goes on / And I don’t wanna say good night.” No matter how intimidating the potential decline of silent cinema was to our protagonists, the show goes on. They don’t want to sit and wave goodbye to the silent era. Instead, they want to look ahead, face the inevitable challenges, and say good morning to the rising era of sound.

Bottom line: outlook makes all the difference. Whoever started referring to ‘graduation’ as ‘commencement’ was onto something. Singin’ in the Rain is such an accomplishment because it exemplifies that sort of outlook. It effectively calls the decline of silent films the commencement of talkies. It gives us a model of how to think about change. We don’t need sunshine to sing, because, if I’ve learned one thing from living in New England, it’s that the weather’s never going to be predictable.

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