Picture It With Sound: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ In The Rain (1952) – the Friday Classic review
Movies: cynical money-making schemes or joyous artistic creations? Make them a musical, and there’s no reason they can’t be both. Happy Centenary, Gene Kelly!
Singin’ in the Rain
(Gene Kelly / Stanley Donen, US, 1952)
Movies about Hollywood tend to fall into two camps: the ones that are proud of their heritage, and the ones that can’t help ripping the piss out of the place. It’s the classic battle between art and commerce, and both sides have their advocates – see, for starters, Sullivan’s Travels or The Player. But one of the many triumphs of Singin’ in the Rain is that it has transcended partisan politics to appeal to both sides equally.
On the one hand, this is a film that is under no illusions about its birthplace. It’s a gleefully vicious satire at the expense of Hollywood, nimbly dissecting how innovation (in this case, the switch from silence to sound) is borne of a fear of obsolescence, and puncturing the PR bubble to show how apparently loved-up co-stars really can’t stand each other. In other words, it hasn’t dated; just ask The Artist.
[Ironically, the whole premise of Singin’ in the Rain was the result of the same commercial imperatives, in that the project was green-lit solely to get some extra mileage out of some twenty year old songs gathering dust on the shelf. The weight of the film’s satire comes from the writers’ self-reflexive awareness of this irony, pulling back the curtain to show that what ends up on screen has survived a nightmare journey of frantic backstage hustling and technical glitches.]
And yet… there’s a conviction here that translates into something that cheap jokes cannot compete with. Far from harming the mystique, the revelation of how daft and chaotic the process is makes the alchemy of the movies appear all the more magical. This transformation becomes the very theme of the film, its classical tale of the dilettante who discovers his vocation becoming an eloquent statement of the belief that cinema can create art. The key scene comes when Don Lockwood, whose corny, rehearsed lines have until now failed to win over Kathy Selden, borrows an empty soundstage to provide the perfect setting for his wooing: this is a man who only comes alive with a song and a set.
Revealingly, until this point there are surprisingly few numbers for a musical, and those that make it are plausibly integrated into the action: a vaudeville act, a party entertainment, on-set during the shooting of a number for a film. During the film’s first act, only “Make ’Em Laugh” can be considered to fall into the musical sceptic’s traditional moan that the actors “launch into song” with cause or warning, but here that’s precisely the point.
See, Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo Brown is spontaneous, alive and free in a way in which the more reserved and cynical Lockwood isn’t. It’s only after Don hooks up with Kathy that he learns to loosen up, and by the time they’ve hatched the plan to make him a musical star there’s no stopping him: the final half-hour is wall-too-wall musical routine, Kelly launching into endless songs because now, finally, that’s what Lockwood does. If the title number is over-familiar from being shown as a clip, it still works best in context to show why people fell in love with it in the first place: Kelly’s first solo number of the film, timed to perfection as the Epiphany of an artist and a lover.
OK, so the film is slighty smug, largely because it’s a roman a clef about how brilliant Gene Kelly, fresh off Oscar success and unprecedented acclaim for An American in Paris, is. But Kelly he gets away with it because of the fervour of his passion for the movies. Whether Kelly or Fred Astaire is cinema’s greatest dancer is a moot point: Kelly has the strongest sense of how best to deliver it on screen, aided by Stanley Donen’s smooth ability to let the camera become another dancer moving in sync with the actors, and flawless cutting that allows the routines to flow seamlessly for minutes at a time.
It’s worth singling out the epic ‘Broadway Melody’ sequence in this regard: whilst it’s obviously an enormous indulgence, and it kills the plot stone dead, it remains perfect cinema, an exhilarating rush of movement, colour and song. And it provides the film with probably the best joke ever made about the movies: the sequence is framed as Lockwood’s description of something that hasn‘t been filmed yet, to which the studio boss replies, “I can’t quite picture it.” Nothing else has ever quite captured exactly what it is that makes the movies so joyful: it’s their limitless, transcendental ability to “picture it,” and Singin’ in the Rain does it beautifully.