Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: Singin' in the Rain (MOVIES ABOUT MOVIES BLOG-A-THON)

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: Singin' in the Rain (MOVIES ABOUT MOVIES BLOG-A-THON)

(The is the first entry in Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood)

In the spirit of killing two birds with one stone, Singin' in the Rain will be both my last-minute entry in goatdogblog's Movies About Movies Blog-a-Thon and the inaugural film in my Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood series. A couple recent reviews of In a Lonely Place (on Movies et al and MovieZeal) got me thinking. In the early 50s, something caused Hollywood to turn a spiteful gaze upon itself. Maybe it was HUAC and the blacklist, destroying careers and relationships across town. Or perhaps the breakup of the studio monopoly, heralding the eventual demise of the system. It could've just been part of the Cold War/Atomic Age national malaise, a self-doubt and weariness consuming the public once they no longer had a Depression or World War to distract them from their existential crises.

Whatever the reason, a number of screenwriters and directors spat out self-loathing classic after self-loathing classic in the years between 1950 and 1954: Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place, The Bad and the Beautiful, The Barefoot Contessa, A Star is Born. And smack in the middle of them all came the breeziest and sunniest of the narcissistic, self-critical fare (which makes it a good picture to start with): the comic musical masterpiece, Singin' in the Rain. This movie is often considered the pinnacle of the musical genre, and like many pinnacles it's actually something of an aberration.


Neither a prestigious Broadway adaptation nor a simple clothesline from which to hang catchy songs and bravura dance numbers, Singin' in the Rain is a hilarious satire of the movie industry's transition from silence to sound, a move which wrecked many careers and disrupted the way movies were both made and watched. The song-and-dance numbers are outstanding here, especially Donald O'Connor's spastic "Make 'Em Laugh," the undeniably catchy "Fit as a Fiddle" with some amazing legwork by O'Connor and star/co-director Gene Kelly, and the infamous title number in which Kelly radiates I'm-in-love good cheer (despite suffering a 103-degree fever during shooting).

But even if you cut those numbers out, you'd still have a classic comedy with a stellar screenplay. Adolph Green and Betty Comden were assigned to come up with a story around producer/songwriter Arthur Freed's back catalogue. Noting that many of the songs appeared at the time Hollywood's first talkies were hitting America's screens, and perhaps sensing the zeitgeist of the moment, Green and Comden decided to situate the movie in this milieu. It was a stroke of genius, and springs forth a series of brilliant gags and setups (the beautiful, aristocratic leading lady whose voice belongs to a "fishwife" - as Comden herself put it; the clunkiness of early recorded dialogue as actors tried to position themselves around props containing microphones; and the inefficiency of hammy, melodramatic screen acting when removed from the realm of pantomime).

These jokes culminate in a sublime sequence which deconstructs all of silent Hollywood's contrivances in front of a cruelly laughing audience. The heroine lightly taps the hero's shoulder and we hear a colossal thud. The star's wooing of his leading lady ("I love you...I love you...I love you...I love you...") escalates to ridiculous heights when not limited to title cards. And of course there's Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, half-heartedly struggling to maintain a refined diction for about half a syllable before sliding into, "an' I can' stan' 'im." The moment when the film falls out of sync and the villain, attempting to seduce Lamont, starts squealing "no! no! no!" while she bellows, "yes! yes! yes!" only grows funnier as the projection slows down and the villain's yelling turns into a pitiful drawn-out roar over the sound of the audience's hysterical laughter.

Seldom has Hollywood exposed its own illusionism and propensity for silliness so starkly. These briefly-glimpsed minutes of the disastrous Dueling Cavalier could almost stand alone as an avant-garde short, self-reflexively destroying the industry's magic and opening all of its machinations up to audience ridicule. Indeed, of all the films I mentioned, Singin' in the Rain is unique in launching its anti-Hollywood missiles over formal territory; despite some jabs at egotistical movie stars, most of its satire is aimed at Hollywood's silent era simplicity and transitional hiccups. Sunset Boulevard, for all its acidity, lionizes the lost golden age ("we had faces then"), while Singin' in the Rain mocks the bygone silents almost as much as those creaky, early talkies.

But ultimately this movie is a celebration of Hollywood's ambition, chutzpah and creativity. After knocking the industry flat on its back, the screenplay offers a hand and helps its wounded target back up before it's down for the count. Really, all Singin' in the Rain wants to do is cut Hollywood down to size, humanize it, and then let it continue to work its magic. The mission is not destructive but reformative.

Singin' in the Rain opens by undercutting everything its vain movie star says. We hear Don Lockwood as he stands before a roaring crowd, selling them a load of hogwash about his dignified youth and rise to fame. As the handsome, dashing actor describes playing for his parents' "society friends," partaking in high theater, and launching his career with gusto, we see him dancing in a pool hall, performing in cheap vaudeville sideshows, and engaging in dangerous and anonymous work as a stuntman. The film continues to cut off the Hollywood mythmakers at their knees: as soon as Lamont opens her mouth, we know that her elevated status is based on a pack of lies, while movie magazines and gossip columns are continually mocked for building up a big Lockwood-Lamont romance when in fact he can't stand her - I mean, "can' stan' 'er." Their romantic embraces in front of the camera are actually punctuated by insults and threats (apparently no one in the audience can read lips). And when that disastrous test screening of The Dueling Cavalier is unveiled, it isn't just Hollywood's technique that collapses, but the aura of Olympian grandeur which hovered over the arrogant actors.

But having accomplished this sly subversion, Singin' in the Rain redeems Lockwood. His underdog pals, the behind-the-scenes pianoman Cosmo Brown and the girl-next-door dancer Kathy Selwyn who's won his heart, step in with a series of clever ideas. They'll turn the film into a musical, dub Kathy's voice for the dialogue and the songs, place the footage within a framing device about a modern Broadway hoofer. All that's left is to cast out Lina Lamont, who is attempting to carry over the lying pomposity of the silent era into the presumably more honest and humble age of sound.

Though they probably didn't think it out to this extent, what Green and Comden are essentially doing here is celebrating a kinder, gentler Hollywood, one in which romance and magic still flourish, but alongside a good humor and forthright transparency ("there's the girl you loved in the movie tonight!" Lockwood proclaims as Kathy flees, humiliated, having been unveiled as Lamont's singing voice). Knowing what we do about Hollywood's sordid machinations and elaborate embroidering of facts, this mission is in itself a new kind of mythmaking, perhaps even more dishonest for being so subtle! In a sense, Lina Lamont is a patsy, sold down the river because her lies aren't clever enough.

Of course, this is all subtext: onscreen, Lamont richly deserves her comeuppance and we all cheer as she gets it. And though Lockwood is our protagonist, he too gets cut down to size: humiliated in front of his audience and ultimately reminded of, and forced to embrace, his roots. When he first meets Kathy she mocks his pretensions and self-regard. Soon these seeds of self-doubt are expanded and externalized. The screening of Lockwood's first speaking performance exposes him as an outright ham. His true talents lie within the tap-tap-tap vaudeville past he has tried to leave behind, and by turning The Dueling Cavalier into The Dancing Cavalier, he is finally able to come clean as the light-hearted hoofer he always was inside. Not so incidentally, none of this is his idea. In an all-night session, Kathy and Cosmo brainstorm Lockwood's redemption and part of the film's achievement is to celebrate those lesser-known, behind-the-scenes folks, the ones who don't make the front page of the movie glossies but who grease the wheels with their professionalism.

Cosmo is talented without Lockwood's vain charisma and Kathy is pretty without Lamont's haughty delicacy. It's people like them who are the true talents even if the crowds fall silent when Cosmo steps out of his limo. And by film's end, Singin' in the Rain has done its best to elevate them and puncture the egos of the overwrought vamps and lotharios.

Yet even with the happy ending, we're left wondering: what ever happened to Lina Lamont? In one scene, her contractual manipulations show us that she's not as dumb as she seems. Perhaps she gave up acting and became an independent producer - maybe she was one of those figures who, twenty years later, cracked open the studio system and shattered the power of the big bosses like R.F. Simpson, paving the way for industry-wide disillusionment and movies like...well, Singin' in the Rain. But then again, her denial may be too immense for that leap. Perhaps she fell through the cracks, retreating into her hidden mansion, marrying ruined movie director Roscoe Dexter, and falling deeper into her delusions until one day a young screenwriter's car breaks down nearby...

But we're getting ahead of ourselves, as we've several cycles of darkness to go through before we pass from the cheerful parody of Singin' in the Rain to the gothic cynicism of Norma Desmond. In the mean time, stick around; a few days a week I should be running new entries in the Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood series. Thanks goatdog, for providing me the kick in the pants
I needed to get the show going. Upcoming entries will include the films mentioned in the second paragraph... are there any other early 50s Hollywood-on-Hollywood films I should be tackling? Let me know below.

Next: The Bad and the Beautiful

6 comments:

Michael Peterson said...

Well done, sir!

I loved the bit about pinnacles almost always being aberrations, actually. That's worthy of its own essay.

You know, it's been ages since I saw this film. You've convinced me to go back and see it again.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks - the pinnacles essay will be forthcoming, along with the rest of Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood, the Auteurs series, the Twin Peaks recaps, the week I'll set aside for favorite classics...damn, this blogging thing was supposed to be fun...maybe I need a secretary.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

"Perhaps she fell through the cracks, retreating into her hidden mansion, marrying ruined movie director Roscoe Dexter, and falling deeper into her delusions until one day a young screenwriter's car breaks down nearby..."

I love that. I'm always going to think of that now when I see the film.

Michael Peterson said...

Ha - I know how you feel, completely.

Paul Duca said...

I read that Comden and Green originally tried to write a SINGIN' IN THE RAIN set in the (50's) present, but Freed's 20's era songs didn't work in that context. That's what inspired them to create something set in the times in which the tunes were new.

MovieMan0283 said...

I heard that too - that they were given a set of songs, and the story just followed from there. What's great about this film is that it isn't just (possibly) the greatest musical of all time - even if there were no songs or dances, it would be one of the most charming and amusing comedies of the era, and one of the most fun films about films.