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Double Take: 'Singin' in the Rain' (1952)

Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place, we gotta dance! Double Take does a pas de deux on the Gene Kelly classic.

Singing' in the Rain

Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor
Studio: MGM
US Release Date: 1952-04-11

Steve Pick: It says right there on the lobby card that this is a Technicolor Musical Treasure, and I ain’t gonna argue with that. This film has some of the most advanced shots in the avant garde world of musicals. How did Stanley Donen set up that long, wild, wondrous tracking shot that follows his co-director Gene Kelly in all his miraculous dancing invention, as he cuts not a rug, but giant puddles of water in the title sequence? How did the shooting of a film become a film on a screen, and get Donald O’Connor to dance on the walls?

The love story at the heart of the plot barely makes any sense, and the introduction of a villainous complication waits until the movie is nearly over, but who cares? Singin’ in the Rain is about movement; it’s about song; it’s about ridiculous, silly, triumphant, joyously shiny delights.

Steve, where shall we begin to talk about this one? What would be the modern equivalent of making a film about the changes in pop culture 25 years before it was released? Perhaps a hair metal band reacts to the changes produced by the sudden rise to prominence of Nirvana?

Steve Leftridge: You’ve reminded me of that scene from The Wrestler when Mickey Rourke’s character, while partying to Ratt’s “Round and Round”, extols the glory days of hair metal until “that pussy Cobain had to come around and ruin it all.” Singin’ in the Rain is likewise a revisionist history lesson, albeit one that accumulates a ton of satire. So much about the early movie biz gets skewered -- silent-film melodrama, phony publicity stunts, exaggerated movie-star biographies, stuntmen, the frazzled director in his jodhpurs, etc.

For a film that in many ways itself represents the golden age of the Hollywood star system, featuring Gene Kelly and “America’s Sweetheart” Debbie Reynolds, the film cuts acerbically into the vacuousness of celebrity worship and the phoniness inherent in it. “She’s so refined, I think kill I'll myself”, sighs one fan while watching the secretly unrefined Lina Lamont on screen.

Any good satire, of course, is based on some truth, and indeed some silent-film starlets, like Clara Bow, smoldered perfectly with those bedroom eyes in the silents, but, like Lina, couldn’t transition through the sound revolution due to her squeaky voice. Cheeky titles like The Royal Rascal further emphasize that the film is poking some fun at the wells from which Singin’ in the Rain itself sprang.

But wait. Why don’t you buy the love story between Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood and Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Selden? She was meant for him! He sings a song about it!

Pick: True enough, and we all know popular songs don’t lie. However, the 40-year-old Kelly has so little chemistry with the 20-year-old Reynolds that you’d think they were fronting as some Hollywood-crafted couple trying to fool the public. When they meet, he’s an ass, and she calls him on his bullshit. That’s the only scene between the two of them in the film that convinces me they mean what they say to each other.

Of course, as the tropes of movie musicals require, this causes Don Lockwood to realize how much he needs somebody like her to cook and clean for him, so he starts looking everywhere for her. Once he finds her, she pretty much instantly agrees to love him (because it’s halfway through the picture), and no more tension exists until near the end, when Lina Lamont decides to separate them or else. Honestly, I find the relationship between Lockwood and Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo Brown to have more intimacy. Certainly, they dance together with more passion.

Which is still fine with me, because Kelly (and sometimes O’Connor) dances up a storm in Singin’ In the Rain, and that’s what I want from his movies. Unlike Fred Astaire, his most storied rival for the crown of Classic Movie Dance Man, Kelly’s moves are much less about relating to a partner than they are about storming the screen. Astaire draws us in as if he’s leading us in a foxtrot, while Kelly pushes us away and forces us to drop to our knees in awe.

There are lots of reasons why the dance sequence to the title song is one of the most famous in film history, but every one of them pretty much has to do with the skills of Gene Kelly. You made some good points about the satire in this movie, but it’s the undeniable joy and power of movement that keeps the film in our hearts. Tell me what you think of the singing and dancing, Steve.

Leftridge: You would have to be pretty mean not to delight in the dance sequences in Singin’ in the Rain. I know that Donald O’Connor is hoofing it right alongside Gene Kelly in some of these numbers, but I can’t take my eyes off of Gene. He sells it from stem to stern, and I love his robust, athletic, rough-and-tumble style, a contrast from the debonair tux-and-spats prancing of Fred Astaire. Yet what impresses me most is Kelly’s range -- we get to see so many sides of him here: the Garlandesque solo performance of the title song, the burlesque slapstick of “Fit as a Fiddle”, the tap-dance fury of “Moses Supposes”, the big “Gotta Dance” ballet sequence at the end, and so on.

The dude is a quintuple threat -- acting, singing, dancing, choreographing, and co-directing this film with Stanley Donen. It’s one thing for him to choreograph his own sequences and duets, but he’s even responsible for the numbers he isn’t in, like the girls’ “All I Do is Dream of You” and the Busby Berkeley sendup “Beautiful Girls”.

Speaking of big production numbers, do you forgive the obvious shoehorning of “The Broadway Ballet” at the end? It has nothing to do with the plot, and I’ve heard a smirk or two about its inclusion in the film. Where do you stand on the tale of the aspiring hoofer and the gangster’s moll?

Pick: Well, if you want to be all formalistic about things, half the picture is shoe-horned in around a bare-bones plot that turns now and again on suddenly created conflicts which resolve at random intervals. I’d say the insanely complex production of “The Broadway Ballet” is second only to the title sequence itself as a purely delightful experience.

Gene Kelly as the rube who’s “Gotta Dance”, comes to the big city, encounters enough primary-colored character types to start a dozen or more separate movies (some day, I really should watch this with my finger on the pause button just to take in all those people on the moving sidewalk behind Kelly), is seduced by a lady in green of ill repute until he knows how to handle a woman, which enables him to quickly move up the ladder of show biz success until he’s playing the Palace, where, alas, the dancing girls sing with perfect diction but far less joy.

Ah, it’s just all breathtaking, and a perfect updating of the earliest days of movie musicals for the Technicolor Generation. Heck, isn’t Kelly doing Jolson when he sings “Broadway Melody”?

It’s interesting to me that the songs in Singin’ in the Rain were pretty much all written for other vehicles and recycled for this film. In a weird way, that resonates with the movie’s theme about improvisation in the artistic moment; creativity is necessary to make use of the materials on hand, but those materials don’t have to be original at all. Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont have recycled their roles in silent flick after silent flick, but when the old formula fades, they have to find a way to make things fresh.

What do they do? They add music to the same old stories. Assuming the songs in the movie are a mix of long-gone hits and duds, Kelly and Donen apply a shiny coat of paint, literally using every hue in the rainbow, and the perfect mixture of body and camera movements to make everything new. And now, 74 years later, it still feels fresh and exciting.

Leftridge: It definitely does, mostly because there’s timeless pleasure in watching these masters pick them up and put them down. Plus, Kelly in his classic black t-shirt in that elegant pas de deux with Cyd Charisse, she of the pins nonpareil. That’s never going to grow old. You present an all-new theory about the pastiche nature of Singin’ in the Rain’s construction, how it’s a collage of found songs that don’t specifically fit the narrative. So there’s no “just you wait, Henry Higgins” or “I just met a girl named Maria” to be found here.

You argue that such random turns fit within the story’s whatever-works creative thesis. I’d never considered it, but it makes plenty of sense. Just as Cosmo contrives that the modern ballet sequence fits into The Dancing Cavalier as the brain-rattled dream of a stagehand who gets hit in the head with a sandbag, Singin’ itself throws in the elaborate “Beautiful Girls” as a random post-silent-era soundstage production and the awesome “Good Morning” romp as the result of the trio of leads having pulled an all-nighter.

In the case of “Beautiful Girls”, we not only get a splashy top shot at the end, but a fashion show complete with wickedly waggish commentary like, “If you must wear fox to the opera, Dame Fashion says: ‘Dye it!’” But for all the “backstage” songs, like “Beautiful Girls”, “All I Do is Dream of You”, “Fit as a Fiddle”, etc., that provide a rational explanation for why everyone is doing all of this singing and dancing, we have plenty of integrated numbers, such as “Moses Supposes” and “You Were Meant For Me” -- the title song in which the characters just spontaneously burst into song in otherwise non-musical settings.

Do you have a preference between the two styles? Does it bother you at all that Singin’ is a musical that haphazardly blends both styles?

Pick: Heck no, it doesn’t bother me that this movie mixes and matches moods and styles. Honestly, I’ve never been entranced by musicals that are strictly logical about their use of music. If I’m going to watch a Gene Kelly movie, I’m not concerning myself too much at all with the story. Oh, sure, I’ll laugh when something is funny; the sequence when Kelly’s Lockwood meets Reynolds' Kathy for the first time had some withering one-liners.

But mostly, the time spent talking and moving through plot points is time that I’m waiting for the next song to begin. Fortunately, the pastiche nature of Singin’ In the Rain delivers almost as much variety as That’s Entertainment does 25 years later.

You actually made me think about the satirical nature of this film more than I ever did while watching it. I do think Donen is a little unfair to silent films, though. Sure, there were boiler-plate romances à la the Don Lockwood/Lina Lamont love stories, but dangit, the silents had reached an apex of artistry by 1927 that sometimes makes me wonder what might have happened if the technology waited a little longer to break through.

By 1952, the public consensus was that the silents, with the possible exception of Chaplin, were a primitive, formulaic, and mostly worthless precursor to the explosions of sound (and color, come to think of it) that seemed so sophisticated to modern viewers. My final question to you, then, is do you think Singin’ In the Rain helped or hurt the ability to look back at the achievements of the past?

Leftridge: I vote for neither. On one hand, Singin’ in the Rain does what it can to make fun of the silents and to create comedy out of the naive simplicity of the stars, studio execs, filmmakers, and fans of the silent films. The elegant, refined starlet is actually a dumb, mean triple threat (“She can’t act, she can’t sing, and she can’t dance”). Every film is the same (Don asks the director if he can just “say what I always say”, which is the not-terribly-original line “I love you, I love you, I love you”). And the fans can’t get enough. In this sense, Kathy Selden serves as a symbol of the real talent and serious integrity of the new talkie era as opposed to Lina Lamont’s plastic, talentless, and outdated, silent era.

On the other hand, Singin’ in the Rain is, at heart, a fond celebration of the joys of going to the movies, both in its actual narrative and certainly in its effect on anyone who watches it. In that spirit, I’m not sure too many people end up compartmentalizing their attitudes about movie history after watching Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, I can’t think of another film that more elicits the cry of "Hooray for Hollywood" as a whole.

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