February 2, 2012

#5: Singin' in the Rain

"What a glorious feelin'!"

You get closer and closer to the top of this list and you have to assume that there's very few people who would vote against these top films, and without having screened the final four on the list (though I've seen them all), I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who can resist the charm of Gene Kelly's 1952 musical fantasy Singin' in the Rain. I'm sure those people exist somewhere, but I don't know that I ever want to meet them.

Company: Ryan and Paul, movie buffs; Sheena and Bob, epicures; Katie and Matt, sleepy latecomers; Alex, descant specialist; Adam, musical loyalist; Elizabeth, loves older men; Andi, can make do with older men; Bret, Donald O'Connor reincarnate; Hannah, blonde bombshell

Cuisine: Alex's genius theme idea was "breakfast for dinner" (good mornin', good MORNin'!) so we had a brunchy smorgasbord -- bacon, onion and cheddar frittata, hash browns, turkey bacon, yogurt parfaits, homemade donuts, coconut banana bread with lime glaze (thanks Elizabeth!) and mimosas upon mimosas.

1920s silent-film stars Don Lockwood (choreographer and co-director Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Oscar nominee Jean Hagen) are on the red carpet for their newest picture (I love that time when they'd call them 'pictures') when a journalist's questions propels us into a flashback.

It just so happens that Don Lockwood started out in vaudeville with his lifelong pal Cosmo Brown (the unbelievably talented Donald O'Connor), as they'll prove to you in a stand-out number in a movie full of stand-out numbers. Cosmo is mainly a musician, but somehow just as skilled a hoofer as Don but half as famous. He's got the weird, buggy-blue-eyes thing going for him, and Gene Kelly is just as handsome as possible, so I'll buy this for now. (Actually, Jean Dujardin in The Artist is 100% the French handsomeness reincarnation of Gene Kelly. Just saying.)

Lockwood escapes a mob of fans by jumping from a trolley car into the moving convertible driven by Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds, only 19 years old!!), a stage actress who pretends not to know Lockwood and scoffs at his silent cred. This tete-a-tete sets up a little argument about craft, stage vs. screen, chops vs. looks. Film is so much more about looking right, hitting your mark, giving the best performance at least once within the takes, but in Kathy's profession you've got to do all those things right the first time, and eight times a week! In what other films does this stage vs. screen conversation come up? I'm actually very curious because I can barely think of any. Probably a lot of older Hollywood musicals like this one.

Well, if there was ever a meet-cute in a movie, it might be this, but as a couple of my movie going friends mentioned, you're never really that invested in this relationship. Never mind that Gene Kelly is twice Debbie's age: it's just not that important in the grand scheme of the film, which is much more interesting as a study of old vs. new.

And that debate is never more deftly articulated in the scene in which the head of Don's studio screens a short demonstration of the Vitaphone talking picture, in which the audio and video components of the film are synchronized. It's a breakthrough in technology, but the guests at the party are unimpressed, calling it a trick. Do they genuinely believe this, or are they actually impressed and hiding it because it would eventually spell doom for their silent-film careers? The film follows the effects this new technology has on the industry, and how it eventually saves Lockwood's film The Duelling Cavalier from destroying his career.

Lina Lamont, however, is not so lucky in this transition. Her grating voice eventually dooms this film's villain, who is based at least roughly on Norma Talmadge, a silent-film star of the 1920s who fell out of fashion and into obscurity with the rise of talkies. So so interesting that Lina Lamont is a loving homage to Talmadge, while Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond is a malevolent tribute to the great film star. In reading about Talmadge, this quote alone makes me want to know more: supposedly after she fell out of favor with audiences and was accosted by fans, she said "Get away, dears. I don't need you anymore, and you don't need me." Wow.

Well, our three heroes are the lucky ones, with voices and personalities that make an easy transition for them into talking films. But we really pick up on that from the moment we meet them all, and there's no question that they'll win the day. Maybe that's why the plot doesn't really do anything for me. I hate to say that it's really just filler in between the legendary musical numbers (like Cosmo's astounding comedic showcase "Make Em Laugh," pictured above), but I'll take it if it means I get treated to these musical fantasies.

Each of these numbers, particularly "Make Em Laugh," "Good Mornin', Good Mornin'," "Moses Supposes" and the title number, all exist outside of the realm of reality in their own way. Don and Cosmo are trained vaudeville performers, used to mugging for crowds (even hostile ones), so it's no surprise that Cosmo would create a whole world for himself to dance, flip and catapult himself around a sound stage. Film, however, doesn't give the same immediate satisfaction that the stage does, putting one more check in the column for Kathy's earlier argument. They're just different media, and when a character starts to sing in a film this way, well... it means something different.

When Cosmo, Kathy and Don begin to dance "Good Mornin'," they're so elated that they've discovered how to save Don's career that they're taken away to a fantasy world where they express themselves through dance. It's an equal artistic representation of what they're feeling as a more naturalistic monologue or scene, but the skill they possess transcends the medium somehow. It's very difficult to explain -- I'm not even sure I'm making any sense. I guess what I mean to say is that these dance sequences, so vivid and exciting, lift the film that might otherwise be a drag to a height that cannot be disputed.

So it's so baffling to me to hear that Gene Kelly was not the first choice to play Don Lockwood. Supposedly he was cast once the role was more tailor-made for him. Originally Howard Keel, a major musical film star, was considered when Don Lockwood was more of a Western-film actor. But when you think about what the film ended up doing for musicals, for dance, and for Gene Kelly, it's hard to imagine anyone else ever taking his place. He's so at ease, and in all these dance sequences you can see him just a little more at ease than anyone else, simply because he choreographed it. Notice the freeze frame above. O'Connor and Reynolds are looking straight into the camera, professional, poised, spot-on, proving they can keep up. But Kelly's focus is upward, so care-free, so uninhibited. It's very telling.

You hear these amazing stories about the filming of these sequences: that O'Connor had to be hospitalized after throwing himself all over the place for "Make Em Laugh," that Reynolds' feet were bleeding after "Good Mornin'," that Kelly himself was running a 103-degree temperature when he performed the blissful title number. These factoids make watching these numbers all the more satisfying. I was just reading a review of a new book about the Obamas that said "we like our warriors happy," referring to alleged complaints by our current president about the stresses of his job (duh) and his eagerness to return to normalcy. That's different, of course, from these performers, but never once in these sequences to you see any of them break for even a micro-second. Watch Gene Kelly's face and forget his feet: he's doing what God put him on earth to do. And can you get more from a performer than watching that level of commitment and confidence? I don't imagine you can.

For me, you could strip everything away from this movie and leave me nothing but the musical sequences. Even the ending, with Lina disgraced and Kathy running up the aisles away from her fame, seems somehow false. Why would Kathy, a struggling chorus girl, not delight in her newfound fame? The holes are filled to excess with the colorful, imaginative dance and storytelling. I'd almost say that this film holds its place on the list for the same reason that Sophie's Choice does -- two movies that could not be more different except that they both glorify and revel in one legendary performer at their absolute peak. Anyone care to comment?

However, Kelly didn't receive acclaim for this performance at the time the same way Streep did for hers in 1982, maybe partially because he had just been awarded an honorary Oscar the year before, "in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film" for the far inferior Best Picture winner An American in Paris. History has been much kinder to this film that only managed two Oscar nominations (for Hagen and for its original score), proving to me once again that the Academy's place in history is more a social and cultural benchmark rather than an actual gauge of talent and skill. "I'm haaappy againnn..."

Only four more to go, and none nearly as cheery as this one. Hold on, folks, we're almost there! Next up is Scorsese with DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull.


  1. Kern McFadden2/2/12, 11:43 AM

    Hands down.... the best MOVIE MUSICAL ever made.

  2. elizabeth griffith2/3/12, 8:39 AM

    offended. older BRITISH men. older BRITISH men who have done a lot of Shakespeare in their day. there are very specific qualifications.

  3. I beg your pardon, Lady Griffith.