Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: Singing in the Rain

This film has been called "a musical for people who hate musicals." Here's why.

For decades, Singing in The Rain has been part of my teacher bag of tricks: it never fails to win over teen audiences who have tricked themselves into thinking that they hate Hollywood Musicals.

(OVER-LONG PARENTHETICAL: I suppose the exception that proves this rule happened a few years after I started teaching. I was introducing the film and asked the class to pay special attention to the "Moses Supposes" number, not only because it is well done and features the one song in the film NOT written by Arthur Freed, but also because commercial television showings at that time would often edit out the number to make room for more commercials. Blasphemy!

So I had alerted my class ahead of time that it was something special. Later, when "Moses Supposes" was on the screen, one of my students shouted, "THIS SUCKS!" and walked out of class. To this day, I do not know what aggravated him so. I DO know that it is my intention to find him on the Google machine after my retirement when I will have time for such things. I will track him down to his house (probably a scuffed refrigerator box on the seedy side of town) and tackle him to the ground. He will be surprised when I bite into his skull. First I will shout, "Disturb my class with your narrow-minded bullshit, will you? Well, THIS Moses supposes you're about to be FREED of your tiny BRAIN." )
SOME BACKGROUND: Producer Arthur Freed started his career in Hollywood as a songwriter. He and partner Nacio Herb Brown wrote many of the songs featured in early MGM musicals at the advent of talking pictures. This was a monumentally successful pairing: their songs have been featured in more than 250 films and television shows.

Freed worked him way up to producer, and the "Freed Unit" eventually became the most prestigious on the MGM lot, producing The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me In St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, Easter Parade, Annie Get Your Gun, The Band Wagon, and An American In Paris. If you like MGM musicals, what you really like is the work of Arthur Freed. In fact, the MGM cash grab/ compilation film That's Entertainment! (1974) is practically Freed's resume on film.

In the early 1950s, Freed got the idea to feature his 1920s songwriting catalogue in a new film. He hired partners Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write a script. Because the songs sounded old fashioned, they decided to set the film in the past and actually walked the MGM lot, collecting stories from old-timers about the coming of sound pictures. Thus, Singing in the Rain was born.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Silent film star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) and her leading man, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), are the most popular matinee idols at Monumental Pictures. The studio's publicity department manufactures a romance for the movie magazines, and Lina actually believes Don is in love with her; he is not, because she is a shrewish harpy with a ridiculous, high-pitched voice. Still, Lamont and Lockwood's movies continue to be huge hits. Then sound comes to film, and it looks as if squeaky-piped Lamont will be out of a job—until Don's best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) dreams up a scheme to have Don's sweet new love interest, cute-as-a-button Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), dub all of Lamont's dialogue. Hilarious hijinks ensue.

FOUR REASONS WHY EVERYBODY LIKES SINGING IN THE RAIN:

1) IT IS ABOUT MAKING MOVIES.

2) IT IS A COMEDY THAT IS REALLY FUNNY. IT IS THE RARE MUSICAL COMEDY THAT WOULD STILL WORK AS A COMEDY IF THE MUSICAL NUMBERS WERE REMOVED.

3) IT FEATURES PRINCESS LEIA'S MOM.
AND. . .

4) MOST OF THE MUSICAL NUMBERS ADVANCE THE STORY. . .
    AND ARE PEPPY! (PEOPLE LIKE "PEPPY.")

Last week, I wrote about Richard Dyer's system for categorizing the musical numbers in Hollywood musicals. Using that cool system, we find that Singing In The Rain is awash in numbers that fall into the category of ENERGY. People love "Energy" numbers. Almost half of the movie's musical numbers fit this category: "Fit As A Fiddle," "All I Do Is Dream Of You," "Make 'Em Laugh," "Moses Supposes," and "Broadway Melody." Perhaps more significantly, the first three musical numbers in a row fall into this category--just the thing to engage a fresh audience right off the bat.

In fact, a single number was shot but then cut before the film was released. It showed Kathy wandering around the studio backlot, singing "You Are My Lucky Star" to a billboard image of her secret crush, Don Lockwood. Although this would have amplified the impact of the movie's final image (Kathy's own face appearing on a billboard alongside Don's), the filmmakers were right to cut it. Given where "Lucky Star" would have fit into the film's continuity, the song would have given audiences three "Transparency" numbers (slow love songs) in a row. It works for the "Energy" numbers, but modern audiences have very little patience for "Transparency" numbers.
BEHIND-THE-SCENES TANGENT: For decades, the story persisted that, when Donald O'Connor shot his famous "Make 'Em Laugh" number, he went home dog tired because all day he had been forced to repeat the same exhausting stunts and tomfoolery again and again and again for the cameras. The story goes that his wife made him a martini and he went to soak in a hot tub. The phone rang; it was director Gene Kelly at the studio. Seems the lens on the camera was fogged, and O'Connor had to go back the next day and do the whole thing again.

About a year before Donald O'Connor passed away, I attended an Ebertfest where Roger screened Singing In The Rain and hosted O'Connor as a special guest. An audience Q & A followed the screening, and someone actually asked him if that story were true.

According to O'Connor, the story is bullshit. Great story though.

I love Singing In The Rain. I wish I could run up walls just like Donald O'Connor does in the movie. That would be something.

18 comments:

  1. Sorry JB but this was the only film you showed in your class that I couldn't stay awake for. However many days it took to finish, I would fall asleep almost immediately. I guess I might be a rare exception because I don't like musicals and I don't like this one either.

    I prefer Malcolm McDowell's version of the song over Gene Kelly's any day.

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    1. It's settled then-- the next time I see you, I will tackle you to the ground and gnaw on your skull, you miserable Music-phobe!

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    2. I'm sorry... I did love A Hard Days Night though.

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  2. I wrote a long comment about how and why I love Singin' in the Rain so much, but I pressed a wrong button and it all disappeard on me. To try to recap, Singin' in the Rain is my second favorite movie of all time. I love it to no end. The "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence is one of the greatest and most entertaining sequences ever committed to film. The characters and actors playing them are likable, the music and choreography are both wonderful, the movie is hilarious, and the story is brilliant. The only nitpick I've ever had with the film is that I think the "Broadway Melody" sequence is a bit too long, but nothing I can't live with. Singin' in the Rain is the best musical of all time, and, indeed, one of the best movies of all time in general. I greatly enjoyed your write-up on it, J.B.! Darn those ungrateful kids for not recognizing a masterpiece when they see it!

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  3. My favourite bit of trivia from this movie, and I'm thinking I heard it from you, JB, is that at one point when Reynolds's character is voice dubbing for Hagen's character, they actually dubbed Hagen's voice over Reynolds's in "real life", so it's like Hagen dubbing for Reynolds dubbing for Hagen (did that make sense? Hard to word that shit!).

    I really want to love Singin' in the Rain - I hope it's my next big 180 film - but for now it, nor any other musical, has ever really penetrated my black little heart.

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    1. Sol, thanks for reminding me of this-- I forgot to include this nugget of trivia in the article. This is one of my favorite Hollywood "inside" jokes.

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  4. I generally say I'm not crazy about musicals (which is ignorant and probably just a result of me not seeing the right ones), but you people are crazy if you don't love this movie. It's one of the best movies ever made. If only one Hollywood musical was ever produced and it was THIS ONE, I would be ok with that. It's a great movie about movies, a history lesson, a brilliant comedy AND has a bunch of great musical numbers? Gene Kelly in this movie is A PIMP.

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    1. I've never claimed to not be crazy.

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  5. Singin' in the Rain is the best! I think if you couple it with Sunset Blvd, you've got the only two movies about movies that you absolutely HAVE to see. I don't even have any more words to explain why I love it so much. It's great!

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    1. Now there's a double feature! Better show Singing in the Rain SECOND.

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    2. It really would make an interesting double bill as they have very different attitudes to Hollywood. You could even look it as what happens to Lena after Singing in the rain. Even though I am semi-joking it isn't far off what would happen to those who fell from stardom after the transition to sound. Though I definitely agree it would be much better to play Singing in the Rain second.

      I adore Singing in the Rain, it is one of my favourite movies. I got my sister to watch this when she was 9 and it is just so infectious she was staring at the screen grinning, which incidentally is how I often look when watching it.

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  6. I've been reading a lot about diegetic vs. non-diegetic -- i.e., do characters in a musical really sing, or are we to take it as a more entertaining framing of more mundane action?

    In Singing in the Rain, all the songs are diegetic -- they really happen in the context of the show, which makes sense since the characters are musical performers. (The same can be said about The Band Wagon.) This might help win over some of your students -- it's not unrealistic to expect singers to sing, dancers to dance, etc.

    Actually, if their complaint is that musical numbers are unrealistic, what do they think about something like Enchanted, where the artifice is front and center?

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    1. I get the feeling that my students find it easier to suspend their disbelief when the film is a fairy tale or cartoon.

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  7. Nice article JB, I use to work at the Great Movie Ride in Disney Hollywood Studios and got to see Gene Kelly perform about 30 seconds of the Rain song over and over again and never got tired of it. I definitely prefer my musicals to be peppy mainly cause I think the constant downtrodden songs of something like Les Miserables can just suck the life outta me and become repetitive (certain moments of Les Mis are great but on the whole ugh).

    Its a real shame musicals are super few and far between these days (Muppets Most Wanted is our life raft for now). I say we get a kickstarter campaign together to make F this movie the musical- A love story between Patrick and Doug with JB co-starring as the grumpy movie chief John Q Orion.

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  8. Singing in the rain is very pleasure and it feels like a wow. The film you mentioned,that is one of the most popular movie and the movie's story really good. I saw this movie. Thank you for your article.

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