I don’t believe what I’m hearing


Gather round, kids.  What’s not to like in the following ensemble of wonderful-ness? :  Gene Kelly plays a movie star in a fab white trilby and hardly has his tap shoes off in the film’s 103 minutes,  Donald O’Connor is his fizzball-of-energy cohort composer, Debbie Reynolds is the charming ingenue and Jean Hagen is the woman whose voice is so harsh it could strip paint.  It’s a comic depiction of Hollywood by Hollywood, but its knowingness never turns to cynicism; it parodies film-making whilst still holding it in affection.   Singin’ In the Rain is a musical liked by people who don’t like musicals.

The infectious exuberance of its superb score, direction and tap dancing – marked by Kelly’s athletic slant as choreographer –  is the best reason for watching it.  Many nights in Bluebird Towers have been spent reclined on the sofa with a glass of red joining in by harmonising on You were Meant for Me and then getting up to dance haphazardly around the room, narrowing missing smashing into the television.  But, reading further into Singin’ In The Rain is a fascinating business ; you see only a series of mirrors, endlessly reflecting the reality and artifice of the screen.  This is a film concerned with the space between what an audience sees and what an audience hears; and makes us conscious of the discrepancy between the two.  Not only that, but even without the ears, the eyes alone can fool; what Hollywood looks like from the outside rarely has anything to do with what is going on within.  Hey kids, ain’t that the truth.  This film is contrived to show the nature of artifice, how it manipulates and suspends belief, but also its merits and purposes.  Any film musical is going to be far removed from reality by its nature; what Singin In the Rain creates is a reality based on artifice – a hyper-reality, if you will.  The brilliance of the 13 minute story-within-a-story sequence Broadway Melody is a riotous display of colour, dance and scenery that presents the film’s plot in microcosm in an expressionistic vision.  While comically lampooning film-making, and stripping away the lies and artifices that audiences end up having to consume, it is marked by a self-referential affection towards film-making.

At the outset, then, we meet Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and his co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), silent movie stars at a film premiere of their latest release.  The Royal Rascal is a melodrama set in France during the Revolution and featuring dashing sword fights and protestations of love set to a background of guillotin-ing.    Lina and Don, who are capitalising on a “Are they? Aren’t they?” love affair which the studio has artificially created, must first meet the terrifying Dora Bailey, the gossip columnist du jour.

Don Lockwood, debonair and thrilling, meets his adoring public in front of the Gaumont Theatre.

The principal issues of the film are raised in Don’s first monologue, in which he gives a potted summing-up of his career thus far.  He comments that he was raised on “Shaw….Moliere, the finest of the classics” whilst the montage we see on the screen features him and his great friend Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) singing and dancing for nickels in bars.  Whilst Don comments that he had a “rigorous classical training” we see him and Cosmo dancing with violins and playing in nightclubs to people who quite clearly detest them.  This section features the fantasic performance of “Fit As A Fiddle” in which Gene Kelly’s and Donald O’Connor’s outfits are so loud they threaten to drown out the music.  This opening speech of Don’s makes it clear : what the studio feeds the publicists is contrived nonsense, and Don is beginning to feel it.

After the premiere of The Royal Rascal, Don and Lina professionally flirt and bow to the audience, and we soon discover that he actually cannot stand her, and she has the kind of voice that the studio must conceal, lest it break windows.  She is also so indefatiguably consumed by her own publicity that she believes Don is really her fiance, and that she is nothing short of marvellous.  Doggedly, Don follows Lena to the after-show party hosted in Beverly Hills by their producer.

After Cosmo’s crappo car breaks down (good at tap-dancing, bad at oil checks)  and Don is attacked by a load of 14 year old girls, he thumbs a lift from young lady Debbie Reynolds (playing Kathy Selden) who proceeds to not give in to his polished seduction routine and thinks that Don is, well, rubbish actually.  His films don’t impress her because she is a serious actress.  Honestly, she gives him a right drubbing.

Don pimps Kathy’s ride by jumping in her convertible and pouting gorgeously all the way to Beverly Hills, like the renegade, maverick starlet he is.

However, her moral superiority is short-lived; they unknowingly turn up to the same party, she as a dancer and he is a guest of honour.  When she jumps out of a cake, the game’s up – you aint no classical actress lady, you’re a vaudeville hoofer just like our Gene.  Coo.

Our Debbie proves she aint no Sarah Bernhardt.  Gene would like to go out with her, despite her scary shower cap.

After singing and dancing All I Do is Dream of You Debbie isn’t in the mood for any of Gene’s nonsense and is so humiliated by him discovering her real job that there is nothing left to do but smash a load of pineapples in Jean Hagen’s face.

Lina Lamont remains unimpressed by the new “Donald O’Connor Face Pack” range.

Lina gets Kathy Selden sacked from her dancer’s job, the cow.  Don spends time looking for Kathy, and Cosmo takes it upon himself to cheer Don up by a brilliant rendition of Make ‘em Laugh in which he dances on a disused film set.  This is helpful, thank you Cosmo, but does not solve the main problem : talkies are in, and Lina’s voice will be revealed for all to hear. It’s a scandal.  Hollywood explodes into a vast amount of medleys performed by 1920s ladies shaking cocktail stirrers, but Don is not having his cocktail stirrer shaken.  Where is Kathy?

Even Donald O’Connor’s famous Geoffrey Palmer impression fails to cheer Don up.

But hope is in sight.  Whilst Don goes for a stroll and concentrates on looking handsome he bumps into Kathy Selden, who is filming a dance at the same studio.  Unable to tell her how he feels without the appropriate scenery, because “I’m such a ham”, he does it the Gene Kelly way, folks, by turning on hundreds of lights and creating a moonlit effect for a dance scene where he looks damn nice in a cricket jumper.  (Do the Americans even have cricket? Either way Gene makes it obvious to Kathy whether he bats or bowls.)

At last, Don assists Kathy with the decorating.

Terrified by Lina’s astonishing pipes “What’s WRONG with the way I talk?  Whadds the big idea?!!”  studio sets her up with a vocal coach.  Don too must also attend voice school.  Cosmo pops in to help out but it all goes footwards when the boys deliver what is my favourite dancing sequence on film.  Ever.  They turn a tongue twister “Moses Supposes his Toesies Are Roses” into a jazz tap routine and song.  And it doesn’t matter that it makes no sense.   Should you wish to see it in all its original splendour here it is (although if you work in office, headphones on, and volume UP please, otherwise you will prob get told off) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TKlub5vB9z8&feature=related

Wowzers – I love a man in two tone shoes – look at them go.

Gene and Donald thought they had the “Countdown” audition in the bag, until that bitch Vorderman bagged it.

The first day’s filming on the new talkie is a disaster, due to problems of where to place Lina Lamont’s microphone : (“I can’t make love to a bush!!”)   Their director seems to have a nervous breakdown.  A preview leads to the studio thinking Don and Lina are through when the sound goes out of synchronization and no one can fix it.  The audience leave thinking the film – and Don and Lina –  ridiculous.  Lina is too thick and ditzy to understand this, however.  Back at Don’s Spanish / Mexican / French-themed uber Hollywood chateau, him, Cosmo and Kathy try to find a way out of it.

The road ahead is Vaudevillian, they decide – or at least Kathy does whilst she is doing the washing-up.  They will turn the film into a musical : The Dancing Cavalier. Nothing can be worse than actually having to go back on the road in vaudeville, and they might just make the world’s first screen musical.  They celebrate.

Not for Gene the post-pub tea on the sofa with a slice of marmite and toast.  Oh no.  On arrival at Gene’s house, you must pirouette through his front room in the small hours, folks.  The only fit way to celebrate at Gene’s gaff, having decided to make a musical, is to perform “Good Toes, Naughty Toes” in front of his custom-built bar – a bar which, as Don Lockwood is so profoundly wealthy, is customized by Moroccan style fringed stools, with bases made from solid gold interwoven with strands of Lana Turner’s hair.  Classy.

Good Morning, which was actually filmed in the early hours, featured in an anecdote of Debbie Reynolds’ years later; she told how her agent  decided against her receiving the “vitamin injections” that Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor had to keep them going during long filming days.  This may explain why Debbie looks knackered and Gene and Donald look like they’re tripping off their faces.  Debbie Reynolds’s feet bled throughout the filming of the routine.  Years later she said that the two hardest things she had had to do in her whole life were childbirth, and making Singin’ In the Rain, which should tell you how happy she was.  During filming at MGM, Fred Astaire found a weeping Debbie Reynolds sitting under a piano, where she miserably told him how Gene Kelly didn’t think she was up to the job.  Astaire helped her, taking her through her dancing scenes.

He may be an Oscar winner, but Gene still has trouble trying to tell the difference between Debbie Reynolds and a wet lamppost. Or he’s still off his face on vitamin injections.

….what goes up must come down, chaps.  The injections wear off.  Our stars are reduced to a vegetative state.  MGM must replace their batteries else filming shall not continue.

Cosmo has an idea – his first since the film began.  As Lina’s voice is so awful, they will use Kathy to dub her.  The audience will never knew they are being duped, the peasants, and he won’t tell Lina either.  It’s going to be a triumph!  Don celebrates outside in some quite bad weather.

Gene taps beautifully, to distract from the fact that he is committing fashion suicide by teaming brown shoes with a grey suit.

Gene practically has to swim through his epoch-making dance, so heavy is the rain.  A small amount of milk was added to the rain vat to ensure the droplets showed up on screen.  Even with a temperature of 103 he carried on dancing through this sublime performance.  What a trouper!  It’s simply Gene at his fabbest.

The producers are up for it, but the plot will need to be entirely shifted to accommodate the musical element.  Don and Cosmo wander around the producer’s office in 1920s plus fours and come up with a plot, all of which is a run-in to Gene Kelly’s and Stanley Donen’s baby, The Broadway Melody. Cyd Charisse plays a vamp and gives it all she’s got.

Cyd Charisse tells Gene how it is – from the end of her very very very long legs.

“Do they have those in my size?”  asks Don.  “I’m desperately trying to remedy the brown shoe situation.”

At the end of the Broadway Melody - a story of a man who gets processed through the sausage factory of the entertainment business – Gene’s character (a Broadway hoofer) emerges jaundiced and sullen at the other end regarding both work and romance.  Salvation arrives only when he remembers the passion for dance that first inspired him.   Broadway, in all its glories and depravities, will always bring the silver-shoe tapper back to his original passion – which is to look snazzy in a boater and dance, dance, dance.

From this moment on, it’s a question of tying up the various loose ends; Kathy dubs Lina’s voice, in between Don telling her he loves her, Lina gets wind of it but remains as brassy, ditzy and ineffective as ever, and the premiere looms.  The Dancing Cavalier is a resounding success and the audience scream and shout for Don and Lina after the screening.  Lina is given enough rope to hang herself with when Don, Cosmo and the produce RF Simpson, enable her to go out and talk to the audience so they can hear her.  Disappointed by her screeching, the audience request that she sing.  Uncooperatively, Kathy stands behind a curtain and dubs Lina’s singing.  Cosmo and Don pull the curtains back and expose the sham movie-making procedure for what it is, and reveal Kathy as the true star.

When the facade is stripped away it reveals only another contrived reality – the curtain rises on Kathy, and the movie theatre audience in the film discover something new.  But we the audience at home do not.  We feel the vocal truth and artistic integrity of the film we sensed all along has risen to the surface and the gifts of the talented are truly realised.  The triumph of  hard Vaudevillian graft and romance has not only won Kathy and Don true love but also access to successful film production: the final frame – Kathy and Don embracing in front of a movie billboard of their latest film Singin’ In the Rain – is the last example of self-referential artifice, of a film within a film.   That reminds us that all the removal of artifice leads to is the presentation of an even more surreal reality that Hollywood hangs itself on.

A great musical film depends on a special alchemy, the triple thread (singing, dancing and acting) must be intact and all performers must gage the temperature of those performances correctly, or else the whole thing collapes like a badly-cooked souffle.  I think that the true measure of this alchemy does not make itself known until the film is screened in its final version.  The extra something special isn’t about the filmmaking procedure, because it is more than the sum of its parts; it’s more to do with a sense of completeness that can only be apparent with viewing.  I think Singin’ In the Rain is one of these films, in that its ultimate alchemy is so enchanting  that no one could have possibly planned it.

Fred Astaire visits the boys on set which was nice as his suit gave everyone something to laugh at.

Dear Bluebird Readers, this week my challenge is for you all to find a copy of this film from somewhere – steal from Aunts, ransack old video cupboards of random old people, and watch it.  I defy you not to find your spirits lifted.  Please post your comments to the blog entry – I’d love to know what y’all think.

I found a brilliant blog about this – also on WordPress – at the following site.  If you’re interested in reading more about Singin’ In the Rain check it out!:       http://filmwhat.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/an-embrace-of-artifice-%E2%80%9Csingin-in-the-rain%E2%80%9D-through-a-%E2%80%9Cbroadway-melody%E2%80%9D/

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this.  This blog is updated every Thursday.

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