Singin’ in the Rain: Preserving the Illusion
*Written for the “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” series at The Film Experience*
Singin’ in the Rain shares a lot of DNA with Sherlock Jr., the previous subject in “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” They’re both movies about movies. They celebrate the fantasy — the dream — of cinema. Most importantly, they emerge from an examination of their art with joy and enthusiasm. These films feed our reveries about what movies can do. The pleasure and warmth we associate with Hollywood is stored in the images of Singin’ in the Rain. And below the bold colors, blasting brass, and exuberance, there’s a very nuanced art at work. It’s easy to get lost in the whirlwind, but Singin’ in the Rain is a carefully calculated Hollywood production. The reason it is still considered one of the greatest examples of cinematic expression has less to do with its joyful abandon and more to do with its immaculate craftsmanship.
The film, directed in 1952 by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, is an account of Hollywood’s shift from silent pictures to talkies. For a film with such a gleeful veneer, it is surprisingly frank in dealing with the roughest period in filmmaking history. It finds great comedy in what had to be terrible headaches — look no further than the scene where Lina is incapable of speaking into the microphone — “Well, I can’t make love to a bush!” While a number like “Make ‘em Laugh” is meant as an hommage to silent comedians like Buster Keaton, Singin’ in the Rain can cut sharply, not unlike its distant cousin, Sunset Blvd. — Lina is a distortion of Buster’s (and so many others) ghost, incapable of surviving the switch to talking pictures and studio hierarchy. It’s impossible to ignore the ecstasy of Singin’, but it takes movies very seriously. Otherwise, would we ever accept the ludicrous pretend-plot of The Dancing Cavalier? Most of the magic that we immediately associate with Singin’ comes from its deconstruction of filmmaking. The overwhelming joie de cinéma that we all remember is attributable to the film’s ability to acknowledge and illuminate the history of movies as a product without fully recognizing itself as one. Musicals that keep themselves contained — the ones that don’t say “Gee, isn’t it crazy that we’re all dancing and singing?” — are the ones that access the enchanting power at the core of the genre.
So, after that dense preamble, my vote for “best shot”:
Don (Gene Kelly) has fallen for Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) and they share a sublime love scene on a Hollywood stage. This is only one image that exemplifies the energy Singin’ in the Rain knows how to access — it just happens to be the most beautiful. Don is working through Hollywood’s toolbox and, at this point, has turned on the lights to reveal a sunset and a little bit of mist that you can see creeping into the left side of the frame. He’s not done with the tricks — there’s still more light to be added and you can expect him to switch on the giant fan. But here, the two of them exist in a half-world twilight. Don is showing his love for Kathy by giving her a dream. She’s experiencing the same miracles as the audience. Silhouetted against a fake sunset with fake mist, their love is made to feel very convincing because the film takes itself seriously. Singin’ in the Rain succeeds because it positions itself confidently between awareness and illusion — like a magician still in awe of his own tricks.
Above is another spectacular image showing Singin’ at its best. Don and Cosmo chat as they walk by a series of active set pieces. The camera embraces the deep background and the audience gets to see a director (positioned between Don and Cosmo), a batch of extras being sprinkled with fake snow, all the way back to the ladders and walls of the stage. The sausage being made in this film is organic, free-range, no-antibiotic, happy, and probably inedible, but it is precisely what makes it so exciting and enjoyable. Problems and repercussions involved with this attitude are for a different post.
About 20 minutes before the end of Singin’ in the Rain, something remarkable happens. It throws everything out the window and hunkers down for a 10-minute Gene Kelly fantasy ballet. Some have condemned this segment, some have embraced it, and most have walked away just assuming that it was great. It’s a vital part of the film and, in my opinion, the climax. As I’ve been discussing, the movie’s success depends on its ability to deconstruct several aspects of filmmaking without fully acknowledging itself as a product. Singin’ in the Rain loves to pull back and reveal enormous stages as if showing the limitless force of cinema.
It pulls back to reveal the stage but also preserves a close-up on Kelly. This is both the climax of the ballet and the climax of the film. It rounds out some important symmetry with the opening by using the mirror of the device that accompanied Don’s initial flashback. Most importantly, it inserts the chaotic background behind him. This image is the runner-up for Best Shot only because it lacks the sensuality and warmth of the other. Not only does this frame capture the ecstatic spirit of Singin’, it demonstrates how the movie is able to come so close to recognizing itself as a film without spoiling the illusion. Singin’ in the Rain portrays film as a fantasy or a dream, much like Sherlock Jr. The entire ballet takes place inside Don’s imagination and we allow acknowledgment of the camera to happen because it isn’t interested in the Meta Wink. By taking itself seriously, it becomes a legendary example of comedy and one of the most joyful expressions ever set to celluloid. In a time when there’s an awful lot of winking going on, it feels great to see a film rely on craft rather than cleverness.
***As a final note, make sure to check out the special features on your new Singin’ in the Rain Blu-ray’s. They have all the original filmed performances of these songs — taken from movies between 1929 and 1939. It’s a remarkable insight.