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Wednesday 10 February 2010

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Directors: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Stars: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds

I'm climbing the stairway to Cinematic Heaven in 2010 to post five reviews a week of films from the IMDb Top 250 List, supposedly the greatest motion pictures of all time. Are they really? Find out here.

It would be fair to say right off the bat that I really don't like musicals. Some of them have good stories and some of them have good songs but my thinking has always been that if the songs are good, I'll listen to the album; and if the story is good then why break it up with all that damn singing? The only time I tend to buy into the concept is when it's entirely offbeat, like with Paint Your Wagon, or where it makes utterly no sense whatsoever, like with most Hindi films. It's fun to watch violent gun battles in dark moody underground garages transform instantly into fluffy musical numbers, and then the background suddenly changes to the top of a hill just because everyone leaps into the air at once. That's what makes musicals fun. Any of them that try to take themselves the slightest bit seriously just suck.

Anyway, that's what I thought until I saw Singin' in the Rain in 2004. Now it's just not that simple any more. I'm not going to take any of it back, of course, but this film has changed things for me. Finally I've seen a musical where the song and dance routines all make absolute sense. They don't stop the story, merely progress it, and they do so in a thoroughly charming and enjoyable manner. That story is also a palpable thing, running through nothing less than the upheaval that Hollywood went through as the silent era gave way to the talkies, unlike say, Gene Kelly's Oscar-winning previous film, An American in Paris, in which, well, an American goes to Paris.

Part of the joy here for me is certainly the story, which rings very true. The more pictures I see from the late silent and early sound eras, the more details I recognise here. Certainly I recognise many of the silent stars and iconic moments alluded to, including Clara Bow, Pola Negri and, most obviously, John Gilbert, because now I've seen many of them. Maybe when I revisit it again in another six years I'll recognise all of the early musical icons too that are skipped through here in a montage sequence as sound arrives in Hollywood and they become all the rage. For now, I'm stuck at Busby Berkeley's obvious choreographic style and the fact that Rudy Vallée was known for singing through a megaphone.

We begin with an appropriate reminder of how much Hollywood stars of the era are utterly constructs of the studio's publicity departments. As the latest Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont picture, The Royal Rascal, premieres in 1927, Dora Bailey announces the stars as they walk down the red carpet and the massed crowds give all the expected responses because they're defined icons rather than people. When a mere person turns up, Cosmo Brown, they do precisely nothing because he's not in the magazines and so they don't have a clue how to react. He's nobody, just Don Lockwood's best friend who plays the piano for his pictures. They reserve their fainting spells for Lockwood and Lamont, famous screen lovers.

Just to hammer the point home, Dora persuades Don to tell his story, which he does precisely how the studios want him to. He tells all the standard lies, all about dignity: how he and Cosmo began as kids at a dance academy (a pool hall), experiencing the best culture (pulp serials like The Dangers of Drucilla), attending an exclusive dramatic academy (vaudeville) and eventually finding their way to Hollywood where Don played suave roles (performed stunts). It's superbly done but I can't help but notice just how much Gene Kelly looks like Mandy Patinkin, especially when we finally see him in The Royal Rascal. He's supposed to be a Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler but I see Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride.

Most telling of all, Lina Lamont doesn't talk, either on the screen or in public. She can't, because her films are silent and her voice is utterly not what the public expect from her screen persona, presaging what's going to come when The Jazz Singer brings sound to Hollywood and voice diction coach becomes the hottest occupation in town. She's dumb too, dumb enough to think she's Don's fiancée because that's what the studio publicity says. 'What do they think I am? Dumb or something?' she frequently shrieks. Once she follows up with, 'Why, I make more money than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!' But she's a star, because the silents hid such attributes and built up others. As Cosmo points out to Don, 'She's irresistible. She told me so herself.'

I think I was a little overwhelmed by Singin' in the Rain the first time through because I was dreading the experience and was rather stunned to find myself enjoying it thoroughly. Watching again, I realise that a lot of it is obviously staged but unlike many musicals this works because of the material involved and it could easily be seen as an exploration of that difference between star and person. Don Lockwood is obviously acting like a star when he romances Kathy Selden on a soundstage, using all the props at hand, but he's really not doing anything different when he leaps into her car from the top of a trolley in an attempt to escape a mob of fans eager to tear every souvenir off his body.

Until Kathy, he's forgotten what it's like to be a person, which is perhaps why he feels that it's appropriate to slip his arm around her shoulder. Fortunately she grounds him by becoming a worthy foil. She doesn't do the movies much. The stars don't act and they don't talk. He's just a shadow on film. He's not flesh and blood. She plays up instead how she's on the stage, a far more honourable and artistic profession, and all of these words resonate with him, even when she spoils it all through the way they meet next: she's jumping out of a cake in front of him at a party given by R F Simpson, the head of Monumental Pictures. This may be a musical about a paradigm shift in Hollywood but it's a romance too, whatever Lina Lamont might say about it.

Simpson's party is all about what Singin' in the Rain is all about: talking pictures. He screens a reel of a picture with synchronised sound pre-recorded to disc, and gets the inevitable reactions. It's vulgar. It's a toy. It'll never amount to a thing. When Simpson points out that Warner Brothers are making a feature using this technology, nobody believes it'll make a dime. When it takes the public by storm, they believe it will disappear the next week. It takes three before they just can't ignore it any more and Simpson closes down production of the next Lockwood and Lamont movie, The Duelling Cavalier, so that they can equip the studio with sound equipment and turn it into a talkie.

All of this is utterly believable because it's utterly real. This is what every studio in Hollywood went through at the time, as is patently obvious when you start watching films from that era, at least the ones that still exist. While there were many truly amazing films in the twenties, there's a real dip in quality in 1928 that doesn't really recover until 1931. Most of the exceptions were silent pictures that persevered with old technology, like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Show People and Pandora's Box, even though their day was obviously up. Watch the scenes here where Monumental director Roscoe Dexter is sent half mad by Lina Lamont's inability to work with the primitive microphones of the era, especially the one hidden by a bush, and you'll see almost every sound picture from 1929 and 1930 a different way. These folks didn't move because if they did, we wouldn't be able to hear them. It's great fun locating where all the hidden microphones are in pictures from that period.

Most of Singin' in the Rain is a joy to behold, even the failure of The Duelling Cavalier at a test screening, but it does unfortunately end up falling prey to the sort of indulgence that spoils other Gene Kelly musicals for me, not least the previous year's An American in Paris, which won six Oscars including Best Picture and consequently delayed the release of this film with its inevitable rerun to theatres. Like Words and Music, The Pirate and On the Town, An American in Paris contains a lengthy ballet sequence for Kelly towards the end, one that took up 17 minutes, cost half a million dollars and took a month to film. It's the cinematic equivalent of the drum solo at rock concerts, there primarily so that one man can strut his stuff, and it leaves me as dry as drum solos leave many fans at those rock concerts dry. Sadly Kelly couldn't resist doing something similar in Singin' in the Rain and the resulting Broadway Melody Ballet is by far the worst thing about the film. It doesn't help that it's very fifties when it should be very thirties.

Gene Kelly's was the one name I really knew when I first watched this film. I'd heard of some of the other names involved, but couldn't really put them to faces. I knew who Debbie Reynolds was but not what she looked like or what she'd done, and who the heck were Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen? It's possible that the only actor in the film who I'd seen in anything else at the time was Kathleen Freeman, who has a small role here as a diction coach, someone very different from the Penguin in The Blues Brothers, in which she appeared alongside Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds. For me, this film contributes more to my cinematic education than most in the Top 250. Now I know who all these people are and more, and I have my first understanding of what makes a musical work.

Gene Kelly is certainly the big star, with his name on the credits both as lead actor and co-director, and he does do a marvellous job in both roles. For my money, though, the biggest respect should go elsewhere, regardless of how he managed to create one of the most iconic scenes in all of movie history, dancing to the song of the title while suffering from a 103 degree fever and completing the whole thing in one take. I tend to prefer Gene Kelly in non-musicals because he was a seriously good actor and yet he obviously saw that talent as far less important than his dancing, which is what he showcased in his musicals. Even in those musicals I tend to prefer the 'lesser' routines that tended to go to others. Both those things mean that I can't help but focus on Donald O'Connor in this film rather than Gene Kelly because Cosmo Brown is a more interesting character with more interesting things to do.

Donald O'Connor deservedly won a Golden Globe for his troubles, though not an Oscar. I found that I appreciated his slapstick, his dancing and his quick wit far more than I did Kelly's, just as I preferred routines like Cosmo's Make Them Laugh skit over Kelly's indulgent Broadway Melody Ballet routine. It's as far from ballet as could comfortably be imagined but is still amazing to watch, not only for the famous backflips off scenery. Born into vaudeville, the son of an acrobat and a bareback rider, O'Connor knew it backwards and debuted on film in such a routine at the age of twelve. Make Them Laugh is a definitive routine, not just because of what it says but because of what O'Connor does. Given that he was a four pack a day smoker in 1952, he spent a week in bed (or perhaps the hospital) after completing it, but when the footage was lost in an accident he came back and did it again anyway. If that isn't Vaudeville, I don't know what is.

The character of Lina Lamont was written for Judy Holliday, but she dropped out after becoming a star in 1950's Born Yesterday. Eventually her understudy on that film was cast instead, Jean Hagen, and she's a revelation, garnering the only acting nomination the film received at the Academy Awards, though she lost to Gloria Grahame for The Bad and the Beautiful. Hagen was a massively versatile actress, though never a prolific one, who could move from tough films like The Asphalt Jungle to this and then on to something like The Shaggy Dog without blinking. Her voice here is utterly memorable, perhaps what most people hear today when they think about silent stars failing to make the transition to sound, yet it was all utterly unlike her real voice, which you hear at the finale when she actually dubs Debbie Reynolds while Debbie Reynolds is supposed to be dubbing her.

Reynolds was the new girl, both in the film and in Hollywood. Only nineteen years old and still living with her parents at the time, Kathy Selden was her first starring role after a few supporting slots, but she keeps up with the consummate professionals she's partnered with, even though Kelly decried her lack of dancing ability. She's said that Singin' in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things she ever had to do in her life. It's unfortunate that she's lumbered with a few levels of irony that are difficult to ignore. She plays a character whose voice is used to overdub a star whose voice was not acceptable, while was actually overdubbed herself for her singing numbers. Moreover, while that star is shown up during the finale as it's demonstrated so memorably that it's really Kathy Selden singing, the actress singing for Reynolds remained uncredited. Let me point out that she was Betty Noyce.

This was the first classic musical in the traditional sense that I really enjoyed, but it wasn't the last. However I'm still trying to work out what the magic component is that makes me care. All I know is that this one has it and others, like High Society, Guys and Dolls or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers don't. It isn't the stars involved, as I'd watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers over Gene Kelly any day, even though their musicals tend to have the flimsiest frameworks imaginable. It isn't the dancing as I much prefer Astaire and Rogers over Kelly there too. It isn't the music as Gershwin's score for An American in Paris was about the only thing I liked about that entire film (at least that and Nina Foch). Part of it may be the subject matter, which might explain why I like The Producers and Yankee Doodle Dandy too but not why I enjoyed The Umbrellas of Cherbourg or pretty much anything Busby Berkeley choreographed. Perhaps the biggest reason may just be in the way the songs seem to be built around the story, but if so the joke's on me because it was actually set up the other way round. One day I might figure it out.

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