Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Singin' In The Rain

Gosh, it's astonishing. The famous film musical Singin' In The Rain - in my reckoning Gene Kelly's finest performance - was released sixty-three years ago, in 1952, the year I was born. And yet it's up there still as one of the finest films ever made - it you like singing and dancing and slapstick and Hollywood-style music, that is. I accept that it won't be for sci-fi freaks, and anyone whose outlook is so dark that violence and thuggery and death define their area of enjoyment. This film is for free spirits, open hearts, those with a sense of fun, and anyone who thrills to something done supremely well. It was jolly hard work for the cast.

I watched it on DVD the other night. I'd just dipped into a programme about George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - the only thing on telly that had any appeal - and this had somehow got me into the mood for a classic Hollywood musical. I immediately dug out Singin' In The Rain, and wasn't disappointed.

I dare say you've seen it at least once. So I don't need to say much about the plot, which deals with a major film studio's rocky attempt to move away from silent movies into the new era of talkies. The transition poses difficulties! Gene Kelly is the handsome male lead Don Lockwood, and he possesses charisma and a fine voice, perfect for sound. But his on-screen leading lady (Jean Hagen, as Lina Lamont) has a weedy, nasal voice that didn't matter for silent films, but sounds farcical when you hear her in a talkie. She also behaves in a crass manner. The public reaction to her awful voice is a serious matter that threatens the survival of the studio. Matters come to a head, of course. Kelly is supported by his best friend (Donald O'Connor, as Cosmo Brown) and the studio boss (Millard Mitchell, as R F Simpson), and he falls in love with a young and feisty singer and dancer (Debbie Reynolds, as Kathy Selden). It all ends well, but just in case you've spent your life on the planet Zog, and have never actually seen the film, I'll say no more.

I want instead to examine a sequence towards the end of the film, called 'Broadway Melody', which despite the excellent earlier parts of the film, and catchy favourite numbers like Beautiful Girl, Moses Supposes, and (of course) Singin' In The Rain itself, is for me the very best part of the film. It's Kelly visualising a modern-dancing sequence for the studio boss. It will fit into their hastily-renamed and re-produced (and hitherto silent) historical film The Dancing Cavalier as a glitzy, all-singing, all-dancing and eyepopping spectacular, to wow the audience and make them forget the obvious defects of the much-adapted and hashed-around film.  

It opens with Kelly in immaculate evening wear, complete with hat and cane, in a spotlight, on a vast stylised film set. (These are my own photos throughout, by the way, taken off the TV screen)


Then pan out to impress the audience:


Now a hopeful Kelly - in small-town attire - arrives on Broadway in New York with his suitcase, trying to find work. He knocks on agents' doors, and gives them each a burst of 'Gotta dance!':


One hires him, and introduces him the the Broadway Crowd. They all energetically dance and sing 'Broadway Rhythm':


But watching the dancers at a table is the Big Underworld Boss and his two henchmen, all in evening dress; and an anonymous statuesque girl in green (the lovely-legged Cyd Charisse), who tranfixes Kelly with her cool, commanding presence:


There is no dialogue whatever: it's all gestures and glances and body movements. So much conveyed by physical means. I think that Kelly was a genius at choreographing all this.

With the Underworld Boss and his scarcely-restrained henchmen looking on, Kelly and Charisse dance together with power and sensuality. What a treat for the eyes. Kelly was in reality very strong and athletic. Charisse said later that she enjoyed all that strength and athleticism very much.


Kelly is extraordinarily attracted.


But then the Boss (flipping a coin, the sign of power) reins her in, with a new diamond necklace as the irresistible lure. Kelly looks on in dismay, as she turns away from him. The two henchmen then push him away.


The agent now puts Kelly to work. He starts in ordinary vaudeville, and quickly ends up as the top-hatted star of the Ziegfeld Follies. He comes off stage, joins a high-class society party at a Casino, and is surrounded by rich, beautiful and adoring New Yorkers - all wanting his attention.

Then he sees Her again, standing apart, dressed in white like a bride. The party, the champagne, and everyone else are instantly forgotten - he has eyes only for her:


Then begins a dream sequence, essentially a ballet with only two performers, assisted by Charisse's immensely long white train, some nice pink and mauve lighting, and multi-directional breezes. It's beautiful. They dance delicately, yet with yearning passion:


Fred Astaire, another dance genius, may have had better skill with his feet, but he couldn't hold a woman like Gene Kelly could!

Back down on earth, Kelly thinks that - surely - he must be in with a chance this time? He hopes...but no, it's not to be. She flips her own coin, gives it to him, and rejoins the Underworld Boss. Kelly gives the coin to a waitress as a tip, and leaves the Casino, despondent. It's still all being done by facial expression, gesture and body movement.


But then, another Broadway hopeful comes along, singing 'Gotta dance!' This changes Kelly's mood completely, and he launches into an upbeat 'Broadway Melody' finale:


Now some unusual camerawork and cutting-room magic (no computers in 1952!). The casino and its surroundings recede rapidly as the finale reaches its climax, but - simultaneously - we zoom in on Kelly, who ends with a cheerful and winning smile. That's the Broadway Melody!


Fantastic. I always find the whole thing thrilling. I know it's just one girl's view, but I hope you stayed with me, and enjoyed it too - and will see the film again for yourself.

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