Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Singin' in the Rain (1952)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 poll rank: #20

Practically since the beginning of cinema itself, there have been movies about the production of movies. Many of Buster Keaton's slapsticks directly referenced the influence of film on culture (particularly Sherlock, Jr.), while a number of comedies set themselves in the world of Hollywood. In fact, Singin' in the Rain, Stanley Donen's and Gene Kelly's Hollywood-history musical, wasn't even the only high-profile "movie-about-movies" of 1952: it went head-to-head with Vincente Minnelli's melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful. So the idea of setting a major Hollywood production in the late 1920s, with the transition from silents to talkies driving the narrative, wasn't exactly a unique idea at the time (and still isn't: 2011's Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist is more or less the same story, sans musical numbers).

Gene Kelly - who co-directed and co-choreographed - stars as Don Lockwood, a silent film star who, together with ditzy starlet Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), form the Hollywood It Couple of the time. However, their relationship is fabricated for publicity, and Don finds himself attracted to young dancer Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). When The Jazz Singer premieres and becomes a huge smash, Don, Kathy, and Don's best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) work to turn Don's latest picture into a musical. The only problem: Lina has a wholly unpleasing voice.

What sets Singin' in the Rain apart from the rest, though, is more than its relentless cheer and witty, breakneck humor. It's the way that the film fully and completely embraces its artificiality, constantly winking at the audience as it revels in the filmmaking process.

More after the jump.

That celebration of "movie magic" is present from the very beginning, with Kelly, Reynolds, and O'Connor clad in rain gear, standing in front of a plain blue background, turning around to sing the title track. In the next scene, the opening of Don and Lina's film The Royal Rascal, the film transitions into a flashback of how Don became a movie star by having Don talk directly into camera, even though he's ostensibly addressing the crowd. This works two-fold: Donen and Kelly have, right off the bat, reminded the audience that they are watching a movie while also tearing down the fourth wall. The audience is now an active participant, or at least knowing observer, to the fakery of the film.

The dance sequences, too, highlight the film's artifice while being wholly entertaining. By 1952, Kelly had established himself as one of Hollywood's best dancers, with only Fred Astaire perhaps being more famous. If nothing else, the dance sequences in Singin' in the Rain serve as a opportunity for Kelly and O'Connor to show off their impressive steps. Yet these scenes aren't just that. They will arrive out of nowhere, as they often do in musicals, but here they come with a wink and a nudge, an acknowledgement of the film departing the narrative for an extended period of time.

This is never more evident than in the extensive "Broadway Melody Ballet" sequence that bridges the film's second and third acts. Don introduces it as a proposed opening for the silent-melodrama-cum-musical film-within-the-film The Dancing Cavalier, as an aspiring dancer (Don) comes to New York in hopes of making it on Broadway. The sequence gives the film the opportunity to show off the possibilities of Technicolor, with bright, neon marquees filling the screen and vivid costuming choices. But it's also a chance for the film to revel in filmmaking, beginning the sequence with a zoom to a movie screen and ending with a pullback and a punchline ("I can't visualize it. I'll need to see it on the screen."). The full sequence, however, is an example of the expanded scope of cinema: it's a number that would be difficult to replicate on stage, but thanks to editing, it becomes one coherent sequence.

In many ways, the artifice of Singin' in the Rain comes from producer Arthur Freed. Freed had made a name for himself by putting together "revue"-style musical productions, usually featuring songs he had written for other shows that typically appeared on the vaudeville circuit. And indeed, with the exception of "Make 'Em Laugh," all of the songs in the film were pre-existing tunes (and even "Make 'Em Laugh" bears strong similarities to Cole Porter's "Be A Clown"). The film's already not really held to keeping a narrative momentum, which allows it even more liberty to indulge in flights of fancy. The sets change to fit the song, sometimes by adding elements (the props in "Make 'Em Laugh"), sometimes by subtracting (the nearly-bare soundstage in "You Were Meant For Me"). The film utilizes this flexibility to bring further attention to the "movie magic" at work while still engaging the audience emotionally.

There's no denying that Singin' in the Rain is, first and foremost, a Hollywood musical, made at a time when studios made films by committee for maximum audience entertainment. Yet the film stands apart by reveling in its artifice, calling the audience's attention to the fact that movies are illusions while simultaneously celebrating the power of "movie magic." Its self-reflexivity makes it all the more charming and engaging.

On the next "Sight & Sound Sunday": L'Avventura (1960)

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