Thursday, July 16, 2015

Singin' in the Rain (1952)















Director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Writer: Betty Comden, Adolph Green
DP: Harold Rosson
Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Score: Nacio Herb Brown
Producer: Arthur Freed
Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen
Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Length: 1 hr. 43 min.

The primary concern of Singin' in the Rain, as far as we can tell from the incredible complexity and kinetic power of the dance scenes, is to be the most entertaining movie it possibly can be.  Still, one can't ignore the late 1920s Hollywood setting the film chooses for itself.  Singin' in the Rain was made in 1952, 25 years after the events of the plot.  So despite its occasionally critical commentary on that era of American filmmaking, it doesn't pretend to be any kind of message movie.  It isn't a film that tries to lead by example.  Rather, it tries to celebrate by example.

Singin' in the Rain is the story of Don Lockwood, a famous silent film actor.  He works with his friend, Cosmo Brown, and frequently stars alongside Lina Lamont, a shallow and vindictive person for whom he feigns affection in public; he can't stand her in private.  They're marketed to the media as a couple, which serves Lina's vanity just fine but only makes things more uncomfortable for Don.  They're working on a new silent film called The Dueling Cavalier when the studio first hears about the success of The Jazz Singer and decides The Dueling Cavalier needs to be a talkie.  However, Lina's voice is too unpleasant for her to star in a talking picture.  After Don and Cosmo meet a young stage actress named Kathy Selden and Don starts to fall in love with her, he convinces the studio to convert The Dueling Cavalier into a musical called The Dancing Cavalier and dub over Lina's voice with Kathy's. 

There's a scene in which Lina is unable to properly recite her lines because she's not used to acting with the microphones needed for sound films.  She habitually brings heavily dramatic movements to her performance, something she likely learned from silent film, but this style of acting is incompatible with the placement of the microphones.  Her voice is improperly recorded and the volume comes out completely inconsistent.  What's more, her exaggerated gestures come across as silly when the film has sound; the drama of her performance is excessive when the barrier between film and reality is less than it is in silent film.  On the other hand, it wouldn't be acceptable for her to subtract all gesture from her performance, even though the microphone placement seems to encourage this.

These are the troubles the studio faces when working with sound film for the first time.  They have such trouble with the new technology that it's tempting for them to use the sound as a gimmick, creating a successful but ultimately static and artless film.  But when they convert it into a musical we realize it's kind of an ideal solution; what better way to combine the power of sound and the power of motion to maximum effect?   

Singin' in the Rain is itself one of the best arguments for this; the characters are broadly drawn, but they resonate because their emotions are conveyed through musical numbers that combine stunning dance choreography with excellent vocal performances from all the actors.  The editing both complements the dancing and keeps us close to the characters so we can understand the emotional context of each dance.  And consider the scene in which Gene Kelly dances to the titular song, "Singin' in the Rain."  Like all the other sequences it's lovingly crafted, boasting fantastic choreography and singing, but what's especially striking about it is how directly Kelly interacts with water.  He jumps in puddles and makes the splashes part of the song, he stands under the pouring spout of a gutter, and above all it's impossible to ignore the rain.  The image of rain adds an invaluable visceral impact to Kelly's performance; there's little better a film can do to make the audience understand love and joy than to show a man with his clothes soaked through who drops his umbrella, raises his beaming face to the stormy sky and sings: "Come on with the rain, I've a smile on my face!"

The performers put themselves under great physical strain to create the dance scenes; Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds, who played Cosmo Brown and Kathy Selden respectively, even injured themselves.  But the film links the vapid, insensitive Lina to the temptation to take the easy way out when making a film, and it posits that this ultimately results in failure.  It's not a matter of financial or even personal success that makes Don Lockwood realize he wants to make a musical; it's something that becomes clear to him after Kathy brings him out of his initial shallowness and he tries to share the artistic value of film with her.

Singin' in the Rain looks back on the cinema and celebrates its power to reach people by striving to show its audience the ideal example of what can be achieved from the marriage of motion, sound, performance, and editing.  Some people are alienated by musicals, but hopefully anyone who views Singin' in the Rain will find themselves drawn in by the sight of artists pushing themselves to the physical limit of what they can do with their craft.

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