Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Dancing Between the Raindrops

This was written for the Skuriels, an alternative exercise in canon-making run by the folks behind the Muriel and Skandie awards. This was conceived as an alternative to the recently released Sight and Sound poll, about which I have nothing to say. My ballot of twenty movies contained only one film that made the cut for the top 15. This is the film in question.

Singin' In the Rain (1952, directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly) is likely my favorite movie. I say "likely" because I don't know that I have a favorite movie, but if I did, this would be it. I've had a hard year, beset by self-doubt and depression, and I've watched the film twice during that period, both times as a panacea to what ails me. Like no other movie ever made, it makes me happy. The thing is, I can't quantify that, really. I can't point to this element or that and say "this makes me happy," when the exact same element in another movie does not make me happy. I mean, I can say that Gene Kelly's smile in this movie makes me giddy (because it totally does, hubba hubba), but why doesn't his smile in, say, Cover Girl or Inherit the Wind have the same effect? I don't know. There's some kind of weird alchemy at work in this film, and I don't know how to write about it, really. But I'll try. I'll try.

The most amazing thing about Singin' in the Rain is not Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" number, but the fact that O'Connor, a four pack a day smoker, did it twice. The first time through, the actor was so wrecked that he spent a week in bed afterward. An accident ruined the footage and O'Connor was pressed into doing it again. By all accounts, this was a hard film to make. Debbie Reynolds once said that making Singin' in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things she'd ever done. Do you want to know the difference between Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire? Astaire looked effortless. With Kelly, you could see the hard work involved. Kelly was a stern taskmaster. The word "tyrant" is often associated with him. The making of Singin' in the Rain was reportedly an unpleasant experience for all involved. Even Kelly himself was famously beset by the flu when he shot the famous sequence where he sings the title song in the middle of a downpour.

Singin' in the Rain is, for want of a better word, the "movie-est" movie I know, a froth concocted of smoke and mirrors and celluloid. What's more, it knows that it's built from "a bunch of dumb show" and it revels in it. It's set in the world of movies, it's about movies, and its formal playfulness comes both from the conventions of the movies and at their expense. While it's an enormous entertainment it's also a a shrewd deconstruction of the movie musical and of the movies themselves. This does everything that the French New Wave guys wanted to do, a decade before the fact. It's a serious head trip if you start probing very deeply into it. "You're just a shadow on the wall!" Kathy Selden shouts at Don Lockwood, which is the movie equivalent of Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images. Ceci n'est pas une pipe.

Of all the directors who came up through the musical dream factory at MGM, Stanley Donen was perhaps the most forward-thinking. When Vincent Minnelli kept on making the same kind of studio movies he'd always made into the post-New Wave 60s, looking more and more out of touch film after film, Donen adapted to changing appetites and film mores (Two for the Road, for instance, and Bedazzled, both look to be in tune with their respective zeitgeists). Or maybe he didn't adapt, really. He was already an archetypal "New Wave" director in 1952. Look at the arbitrary dazzle in the "The Wedding of the Painted Doll" montage that precedes "Beautiful Girls:" it's both razzle dazzle for its own sake and a catalog of images culled from the musicals of the early talkies. The way it brings these to bright technicolor life threatens to fry the retinas and the whole thing is deeply weird, but Donen knows exactly how long to let it hold the screen. This sequence is a bridge through time as the talkies take over the film's fictional movie studio, but its baroque gaudiness is there for no other reason than because the filmmakers felt like doing it. But that's the least of the film's meta-cinematic pranks. The fact that Jean Hagen dubbed Debbie Reynolds's voice when Reynolds, as Kathy Selden, dubs Hagen's voice as Lina Lamont is one of the best cinematic in-jokes ever put on screen.

Speaking of Lina Lamont, Jean Hagen's performance in Singin' in the Rain is a comedic masterpiece. Much as I like Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, it's the supporting characters that really make me smile when they're on screen, and Jean Hagen is first among them. It's weird: after I showed my partner Singin' in the Rain for the first time--she had never seen it when we'd met--Lina Lamont became the most quoted character in our household. Every so often, she still randomly exclaims "I can't make love to a BUSH!" in her version of Lina's distinctive voice. I occasionally find myself saying things like "I make more money than Calvin Coolidge...put together!" or "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'." It's infectious. She's one of the great movie characters and she's a huge part of why the movie works. I don't know why Jean Hagen never became a bigger star. She mostly worked in television after Singin' in the Rain. Still, I suppose she has her claim on immortality. There are plenty of big, big stars that have never made a movie--or a performance--as good as Singin' in the Rain.

Of course the movie has flaws. It has a pretty huge flaw at the end, when everything that makes Singin' in the Rain work comes to a screeching halt as Kelly embarks on the "Broadway Ballet" that takes up, like, 12 minutes of the film's running time. Kelly liked these kinds of mini-ballets, and after seeing how such things were incorporated into The Red Shoes, he started doing them himself. In truth, Singin' in the Rain drops the ball on this. The Red Shoes ballet is central to the narrative of that movie. "The Broadway Melody?" No. Still, it has its pleasures. For all the love I have for Kathy Selden and Lina Lamont, it's the sight of Cyd Charisse wearing a Louise Brooks bob who fires my lust. This movie did make a star out of Cyd Charisse, even though she didn't have a single line of dialogue. Watching her made over by Kelly and Donen as Madonna and whore is one of the film's indelible pleasures. And even if this part of the movie is a white elephant--and I think it absolutely is a white elephant--the filmmakers seems aware of this. The "Fit as a Fiddle" montage could give the end of the film lessons in irony, given that it punctures the "dignity, always dignity" the Broadway Melody number tries so hard to encompass. I like to think it was Donen who had the idea of puncturing the whole thing right out of the break when, after this huge phantasmagoria unfolds before our very eyes, Millard Mitchell's studio head says "I just can't see it." So not a fatal flaw by any means.

The film more than compensates with other pleasures. There's an antic, Monty Pythonish feeling to the "Moses Supposes' number, while there are surprisingly deep wells of emotion in both the "You Were Meant for Me" serenade in front of a huge cyclorama (again puncturing the illusion of the cinema), and again when the film shows us the hurt Kathy Selden feels at the end of the film before Don Lockwood redeems it. And the title song, too. It's one of the best evocations of infatuation, of the blooming of new love, that I've ever seen in a movie, and it presents it without schmaltz or embarrassing bathos or poesy. It's actually funny. Mostly, it's exhilarating and that seems just right.

So what is it about all of this that makes me not just happy, but giddy every time I watch Singin' in the Rain? As I've said, I don't know, but I've had a LOT of emotional reactions to the movie. I've laughed myself silly watching it, I've been wracked by sobs after the end, and during almost every viewing, my heart has risen a little in my chest such that I could feel it beating just below my collarbone. In some regards, I can't convey what it is that makes me love this movie so much because how does one describe color to a blind man? I'm comforted that others love the movie as much as I do, but their experience of it is theirs and mine is mine, and that's something to treasure.


Laura said...

This is indeed the "moviest movie" of all time, in the very best sense of that phrase. It's celluloid Paxil. The clouds parted and the angels sang out in awe when the writers conceived of Lina Lamont, and cast Jean Hagen in the role. Fantastic write-up!

crow said...

I sure hope you get to feeling better. I think we all go through that at one point in life, but you will persevere. Anyway, I never realized this film was such a joy in your life and the essay presented here based on how it impacted--and continues to impact, it seems--your life was a pleasure to read. My favorite film couldn't be more different--haha--in tone and theme, Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, mainly because I'm so beholden to the mastery of performance and image. A delightful real--damn, you sure know your stuff!