Edited and updated mid-2015
This being the first in a (slightly delayed) series on music movies for the month of October.
Two years before its release, Billy Wilder gave the world Hollywood’s greatest anti-Hollywood poison-pen-hate-letter by taking equal parts film noir fakery and haughty Grand Damery, putting them into a blender, and turning it to “positively eviscerate”. Perhaps populist Hollywood was listening. Just as that film peered behind the Hollywood lens, so too does Singin’ in the Rain give us a peek behind the cameras and into the unease of the filmmaking process. But while Billy Wilder came from a place of deep concern and perturbed, quiet nervousness, Singin’ in the Rain comes from a place of unabashed, borderline-oppressive, love.
Like Sunset, Singin’ meditates on the transition from silent to sound cinema, albeit with an effervescent, albeit not untroubled, grin rather than Sunset’s demonic cackle. Centering Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and his production team now struggling to transform a silent movie into a sound one as the talkie-boom finally hits in 1927, Singin’ explores the perils and possibilities of cinematic production as simultaneous carnival and calamity, the crew coping with all manner of turmoil, including, most prominently, the inescapably insufferable voice of their vain female star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Along the way, Lockwood falls in love with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who also proves useful as the new voice to go with Lamont’s physical body, the crew dubbing Lamont’s voice over with Selden’s. This is the plot, but the film’s narrative really casts a wider net, exploring not simply Hollywood during the late ’20s but the ebullient power of movie-making, not to mention the sometimes-pained production process which underwires the faux-objectivity and off-the-cuff, gee-shucks “touch of magic” happenstance that little miracles like this film tend to project, as though they were simply dreamt rather than pain-stakingly constructed. Perhaps no Hollywood film has ever been more enraptured with film itself than Singin’ in the Rain. And it is perhaps only for this reason that it can still cut, and cut deep, when it wants to, right down to the core of the fundamental jolly aching lie that is “film” itself.
Singin’ in the Rain was released during the early ’50s, a time when big Hollywood productions were finally playing around with themselves a little, bending the confines of their form rather than simply being content to exist within them. 1952, 54, and 56 brought, respectively High Noon, Johnny Guitar, and The Searchers, films which at least partially twisted the lies of the old West, even if they could not yet break from them. And the ’50s was also a decade of rampant noir re-readings that reached a kind of demented apogee by curdling the genre to its most hellish depths, often bringing Hollywood (or even American society) along with them, a la In a Lonely Place, Kiss Me Deadly, Touch of Evil, all of which is not to mention, of course, Sunset Blvd. Yet, Westerns and noirs have both become genres widely associated with their own self-critique. Would anyone expect the same of big production-number musicals?
Maybe one would be right not to expect as such – Singin’ in the Rain is far too good-natured and golly-gee to ever truly attempt to implode Holllywood from within. But if it does love film, Singin’ in the Rain isn’t afraid to throw a little mockery its way. The film frequently pokes fun at Hollywood attempts to master the use of new sound techniques in the film-within-a-film, ironic considering this film’s mastery of visual-aural irony. There’s a wry scene early on where Lockwood details his initial success in a burlesque partnership with best friend Cosmo Kramer (Donald O’Connor). The smoothness with which he regales the audience clashes wonderfully with the off-the-cuff raggedness and barely-held-together nature of the “truth” we are presented with visually. Here too the film understands that film, even talkies, are visual experiences. The scintillating use of sound combines with the diegetic images we are presented with to conjure tension and irony in teasing harmony, expelling laughter at the contrast between what Lockwood says, as falsity, and what is shown to us, as reality. Of course, it’s all genial and loving, but the barbed wit is there nonetheless, if only slightly coated in sugar.
This is not to mention how dancing plays as much of a role in the film as singing, itself a reflection of the innately visual nature of film. Shockingly, few early movie musicals genuinely realize the benefit of a camera as an active participant in, sculptor of, and commentator on human motion. In contrast, Singin’s camera carousels around the characters, slants the angles, distorts human form, and generally just has a time with the kaleidoscopic experience of people in motion.
Even without taking the camera into account, though, Singin’ is a triumph of balletic motion. Of course, Kelly’s famous “Singin’ in the Rain” is as much “Dancin’ in the Rain”. The sequence plays out almost like a ballet of pure motion de-contextualized from the film, if of course it was not so effervescently emotional for its perfect distillation of everything that the film’s simple, bold, broad emotions stand for. In particular, the lackadaisical lightness of it, the barely-there song with musical cues which hint and lay gently and the dancing which is light-as-a-feather and wonderfully unfiltered, is profoundly at odds with musical rules. While most musicals call for more, more, and more, this scene floats around and is rather happy to simply be. Lockwood is at his happiest here, content with a sort of spontaneous, effervescent joy in real life not always known to him during his stage life. This one number, which feels less like choreographed dance than children discovering for the first moments in their lives that something may fall from the heavens from time to time, is perfect for the scene’s display of primal, human love.
But, of course, as anyone who recalls that Reynolds herself was dubbed in two of her songs by Betty Noyes, Singin’ in the Rain is constructed, choreographed, and falsified itself, no less a product than the film-within-a-film it narrativizes. This is not to suggest that Singin’ is, in some way, a reduction of reality or the film’s truth-content, but, rather, to remind that its observations about the fallacious construction of Hollywood cinema reverberate into the film’s very core, inflecting Singin’ in the Rain too, rather than positioning the film as some hypothetical “pure” alternative to the Hollywood artifice it explores. All cinema, even this film which is itself exposing the construction of Hollywood cinema, is constructed after all. (Thirty years later, Julie Dash’s wonderful short film Illusions would deepen this question and further testify to the tensions in the creative process as well as the vicious segregations and hierarchies between not only sound and image but blackness and whiteness, exposing the political and social valences of on-screen and off-screen life, public and private performance, of who is permitted a life on-screen and what kinds of life they are permitted to lead).
But at the same time, the film’s other chief sensation, the one that many other Hollywood critiques miss, is that if Hollywood is a lie, it’s a damned intoxicating one, a dreamlike melding of stagecraft and performance that blurs the line between on and off-stage. In particular, the other standout number from the film, the other scene where the film explores the raw physicality of the human form in motion, is when madcap madman Donald O’ Connor breaks an arm, a leg, and just about every bone in his body proving himself a walking rag-doll. This scene is not only the product of genuine skill and artistry; it’s genuinely transcendent in its melding of comedy and tension, as Cosmo avoids danger after danger like a kind-of free-wheeling beached madman flopping around to save his life. Here, of course, we’re backstage, with nothing nominally planned about the obstacles he confronts, but in its artifice and staginess the film cleverly breaks down the boundaries of the stage, film, and real life, creating a wondrous world we can see and feel with childlike wide-eyes yet still understand as constructed stage-craft. In doing so, the film suggests that all life is a stage, and that it’s a wonderful stage to live in.
As such, the film calls attention to the power of film to construct and deconstruct, allowing us to see things we can’t normally see while also bleeding the filmic artifice into reality. This is most true during an elaborate fantasy sequence constructed for the film-within-a-film, a ten-minute visual tour-de-force that mimics life in an obviously manipulated and over-the-top way, recalling the non-narrative spirit of improvisational jazz and reminding us of the skill that goes into constructing life for the screen and the necessary fantasy of everyday life. More than anything, the film’s highly presentational nature, by which it must tell its story through images and sounds as they create affective moments rather than a “narrative”, calls attention to its very existence as a “film”.
If this all sounds a bit heady, it’s to the film’s credit that it does all this within the confines of a big-budget Hollywood musical. Make no mistake, this is as entertaining a film as you’ll find; nearly every second of its existence is designed to distill emotion to a kind of effervescent purity. It’s filled with all manner of wonder and invention, giddy music and zany dancing and clever jokes backed by genuinely likable characters; it just uses that wonder and invention to explore what film is and to humorously, even subversively, make us rethink what film and entertainment ought to be, or can be. We begin to wonder if the whole thing, not just the film within a film but the film we’re watching, is fantasy, which of course it is. We don’t want to think that, as the whole point of movies, we’re taught, is to transport us to another world emblazoned in reality. Singin’ in the Rain lets us know we’re wrong, opening the wound, but that it’s all okay anyway, dressing the wound up with the finest, most caring medical supplies around. It’s smart enough to peel back the layers on multiple levels, letting us know that it knows that deep down, it’s really fantasy in the guise of reality we’re looking for. The film is its own making, in a sense, and it’s entirely proud and in perpetual high spirits about this very process.
If Singin’ uses sound to its favor, and does it ever, it nonetheless understands that film is ultimately a visual experience and that what we’re looking at can imbue itself into our unconscious. More than anything though, it’s simply glad to exist. That pure distillation of Broadway burlesque showmanship, that aching grin it gets on its face every time it’s ready to wow us or steal our hearts, is worth all the subversiveness in the world. That the film manages to add a fair helping of that subversiveness back in – well, there’s nothing wrong with having your cake and eating it too.