Still Singin’

Singin’ In the Rain (1952) is 60 years young in 2012, a birthday which Warner Brothers is celebrating with a dazzlingly remastered Blu-Ray that comes out today. Richly textured with popping primary colors, this is the best the film will look outside a screening of a new 35mm print. Last week, the boutique home video distributor Twilight Time released a Blu-Ray of Cover Girl (1944), the first film in which Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen were given free rein to choreograph their own dance routines, under the auspices of director Charles Vidor. Licensed from Columbia Pictures, the transfer of this Technicolor film is dark with fluctuating color intensities – Rita Hayworth’s hair doesn’t quite blaze off the screen like it should. That technical quibble aside, these releases are a wonderful excuse to revisit the work of Kelly and Donen, and what struck me this time around was the violence of some of their routines, borne out of a melancholy that would come to the fore in their final collaboration, It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).

Cover Girl was promoted as the first musical to integrate its musical numbers into the plot, arising out of and advancing the story. There are sure to have been predecessors, but this was the biggest hit, and became the most influential. The story is a boiler plate backstage musical, with dancing girl Rita Hayworth rocketing to stardom after winning a magazine cover girl contest, and having to struggle with leaving her nightclub manager Gene Kelly for the bright lights of Broadway. The story arc is a predictable drag, but the film has some incredible compensatory pleasures, from its score to its choreography.

Rita Hayworth’s Svengali Harry Cohn was not enthused with the casting of Gene Kelly and his “tough Irish face”, and Columbia originally wanted to borrow Dennis Morgan from Warners to play the lead. Kelly was slated to appear in Dragon Seed (1944), but when that project was postponed, MGM extended his loan out to Columbia, and movie history was made.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNimJOqaBI0?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

It’s a film of firsts. It was Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s first pairing for a film production, writing the future standard “Long Ago and Far Away”. And then there is Kelly and Donen being granted creative control of their routines, a canny move by producer Arthur Schwartz. You can see the duo bursting with inventiveness, eager to break out of the stodgy confines of the story. The most famous is the “Alter Ego” dance routine, in which Kelly confronts his conscience over Hayworth stepping out with another man, dancing a duet with his super-imposed image on the dark studio streets of New York, the rage-filled inverse to the title Singin’ in the Rain softshoe. He chases himself across the street, each mirror-image seeming to pull the string on the other, until the “real” Kelly destroys the superimposed one by smashing his image with a garbage can. Cover Girl doesn’t dare play out the self-destructive impulses this sequence implies.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jr7-qi7JRtc?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

Singin’ In the Rain is such a contradictory pleasure, a film that parodies the artificiality of film construction, but in turn uses that construction to create one of the most giddily entertaining movies of the period. This is encapsulated in the “You Were Meant for Me” ballad, sung in an abandoned sound stage. We see Kelly arrange the set, flicking on the fill lights and industrial-strength fan, and watch Debbie Reynolds ascend a ladder and arch her back to appropriately catch the artificial wind and rays. But by the end of the sequence, as Jane Feuer wrote in her seminal The Hollywood Musical, “the camera arcs around and comes in for a tighter shot of the couple…reframing to exclude the previously exposed equipment. We regress from an expose of romantic duets to an example of a romantic duet.” I would quibble with her use of “regress”, but there is definitely some sleight-of-hand here, except we have already been shown how the trick works.

This trick also appears in my favorite number in the film, and one of the two original songs (along with “Make ‘Em Laugh”, “Moses Supposes”.The pleasure of the sequence comes out of the seeming sponteneity of their actions, from twirling a tie to using curtains as veils. But of course this sequence was meticulously planned out. It’s hard to make something look this easy. Violently anarchic, this elocution lesson ends up, as in the “Alter Ego” number, with up-ended trash cans and a feeling of ecstatic release. This is pitched in a comic rather than dramatic mode, with Kelly and Donald O’Connor parodying the nasal stuffiness of the teacher by inventing a nonsense rhyme and tap-dancing the room into submission.This introduces another favored Hollywood trope, that of upsetting the apple cart of “high art” with the more spontaneous, communal pleasures of the low arts; in Singin’ in the Rain, it’s vaudeville. This theme is brought to its apex in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, but it’s present here too, most famously in the opening montage, in which Kelly’s gaseous voice-over about “Dignity, always dignity”, is replaced with the reality of his hoofing it as a vaudevillian and stunt man.

“Alter Ego” allowed Kelly to cut loose without the less schooled dancer Hayworth, and the same is true here, with Kelly paired with the astoundingly athletic O’Connor, and they end up stamping an office table, tapping on a pair of wooden chairs before trashing the room. When Kelly is paired with a classically trained dancer in Cyd Charisse for the “Broadway Melody” routine, it can only be done in a fantasy sequence, so the down-to-earth quality of Kelly’s character is not upset by the delicacy of his sublime work with Charisse. Her impossibly sharp angles and Kelly’s rounded movements melt into an inflammatory erotic reverie, punctuated by those delirium inducing ascending crane shots. It is another privileged moment when Kelly loses his grip, and it is moments like these that make up  It’s Always Fair Weather, in which army buddies reunite and realize their past friendship may have been a sham.  Kelly threatens to finally fall apart completely, but instead he simply loses his audience, and that film signaled the end of the classical Hollywood musical.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YWBOfsXsDA?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

0 Response Still Singin’
Posted By robbushblog : July 17, 2012 12:06 pm

I haven’t seen Cover Girl yet, but it is in my queue. I was going to go see Singin’ in the Rain in the theater last week, but my plans fell through. I will be buying the Blu-ray though. It is just one of those must-haves, one of those go-to movies that never gets tired or old. Gene is magnificent, Donald is hilarious, Debbie is impossibly beautiful and Cyd is…sigh…Cyd.

Posted By robbushblog : July 17, 2012 12:06 pm

I haven’t seen Cover Girl yet, but it is in my queue. I was going to go see Singin’ in the Rain in the theater last week, but my plans fell through. I will be buying the Blu-ray though. It is just one of those must-haves, one of those go-to movies that never gets tired or old. Gene is magnificent, Donald is hilarious, Debbie is impossibly beautiful and Cyd is…sigh…Cyd.

Posted By Heidi : July 17, 2012 12:29 pm

My husband loves both of these movies a great deal. Singin’ is probably just slightly ahead of Cover Girl. I did see that they were releasing Singin’ in THe Rain on Blue Ray, but didn’t see the release of Cover Girl. Will be looking for both for Christmas presents!

Posted By Heidi : July 17, 2012 12:29 pm

My husband loves both of these movies a great deal. Singin’ is probably just slightly ahead of Cover Girl. I did see that they were releasing Singin’ in THe Rain on Blue Ray, but didn’t see the release of Cover Girl. Will be looking for both for Christmas presents!

Posted By Jenni : July 17, 2012 2:46 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the info about the new dvd/blue ray release of Singing in the Rain, one of our family’s fave movies…robbush mentioned the great talents in the film but forgot Jean Hagen’s spot-on hilarious portrayal of the silent film star who has a bad voice-I am pretty sure she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for that role. Anyhow, I have an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my pocket, and since oldest daughter will be leaving home for college soon, planning on buying this and we can watch it together one more time before she departs.

Posted By Jenni : July 17, 2012 2:46 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the info about the new dvd/blue ray release of Singing in the Rain, one of our family’s fave movies…robbush mentioned the great talents in the film but forgot Jean Hagen’s spot-on hilarious portrayal of the silent film star who has a bad voice-I am pretty sure she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for that role. Anyhow, I have an Amazon gift card burning a hole in my pocket, and since oldest daughter will be leaving home for college soon, planning on buying this and we can watch it together one more time before she departs.

Posted By AL : July 17, 2012 5:51 pm

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN was deliberately suppressed as an Oscar nominee/winner because MGM wanted the attention to go their “prestige” film THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and coerced their employees to vote accordingly. They didn’t realize what a profound Classic SINGIN’ was to become, dissmissing it as “just another MGM factory musical”. Hence the mediocre Gloria Grahame got Jean Hagen’s Oscar. Her Lena Lamont is truly one of the great film characters…(and don’t knock Rita–she was magnificent.)

Posted By AL : July 17, 2012 5:51 pm

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN was deliberately suppressed as an Oscar nominee/winner because MGM wanted the attention to go their “prestige” film THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL and coerced their employees to vote accordingly. They didn’t realize what a profound Classic SINGIN’ was to become, dissmissing it as “just another MGM factory musical”. Hence the mediocre Gloria Grahame got Jean Hagen’s Oscar. Her Lena Lamont is truly one of the great film characters…(and don’t knock Rita–she was magnificent.)

Posted By Marty : July 18, 2012 9:31 am

This is the true “zenith” period in the MGM musical era…maybe for all of MGM. An American In Paris, Singin In The Rain, The Bandwagon, Brigadoon and even It’s Always Fair Weather. All displaying the talents of the studio, the departments and the stars at the height of their powers. The marvelous fluidity of the camera presenting the dance, whether it’s Kelly or Donen or Minelli.Precision editing, story pace, the MGM orchestra and the greatest orchestrators…Douglas Shearer’s sound department etc.
It’s all there and every dollar is on the screen.
Like millions of others, I love SITR and know every line and every placement of tap by heart. But over the years, I seem to gravitate to The Bandwagon and It’s Always Fair Weather. I know that Kelly appears to be a screen “hog” but when you have millenial talent, you just can’t surpess it. Plus, it’s what his audience wanted to see…MORE KELLY.
When I watch SITR, I watch O’Connor now, not Kelly.

Posted By Marty : July 18, 2012 9:31 am

This is the true “zenith” period in the MGM musical era…maybe for all of MGM. An American In Paris, Singin In The Rain, The Bandwagon, Brigadoon and even It’s Always Fair Weather. All displaying the talents of the studio, the departments and the stars at the height of their powers. The marvelous fluidity of the camera presenting the dance, whether it’s Kelly or Donen or Minelli.Precision editing, story pace, the MGM orchestra and the greatest orchestrators…Douglas Shearer’s sound department etc.
It’s all there and every dollar is on the screen.
Like millions of others, I love SITR and know every line and every placement of tap by heart. But over the years, I seem to gravitate to The Bandwagon and It’s Always Fair Weather. I know that Kelly appears to be a screen “hog” but when you have millenial talent, you just can’t surpess it. Plus, it’s what his audience wanted to see…MORE KELLY.
When I watch SITR, I watch O’Connor now, not Kelly.

Posted By Juana Maria : July 18, 2012 1:33 pm

I love “Singin’ in the Rain”! I have seen it so many times,but it never gets old,just more special. I love to dance and I play piano,nether of these do I do very well,but they make me happy. So I love this film,because it has such energy! The colors are amazing,even without big screens and Blu-Ray. The film within the film called “The Singing Cavilier” is the film on the billboard in “The Three Amigos!” Marty can focus on O’Connor all he wants,I will be watching for handsome Gene Kelly! The actresses in the film are perfects for their roles too. I couldn’t imagine this movie with a different cast and I don’t think I would want to.

Posted By Juana Maria : July 18, 2012 1:33 pm

I love “Singin’ in the Rain”! I have seen it so many times,but it never gets old,just more special. I love to dance and I play piano,nether of these do I do very well,but they make me happy. So I love this film,because it has such energy! The colors are amazing,even without big screens and Blu-Ray. The film within the film called “The Singing Cavilier” is the film on the billboard in “The Three Amigos!” Marty can focus on O’Connor all he wants,I will be watching for handsome Gene Kelly! The actresses in the film are perfects for their roles too. I couldn’t imagine this movie with a different cast and I don’t think I would want to.

Posted By Brian : July 18, 2012 4:12 pm

For all my years as a classic film fan, I never saw SITR. Deep down I resisted any chance to catch it, there was always something else I wanted to watch more. Last Thursday I broke down and saw it on the big screen and all I have to say is, thank God for my stubbornness. To see movie like this for the first time on the big screen was a magnificent film experience.

Posted By Brian : July 18, 2012 4:12 pm

For all my years as a classic film fan, I never saw SITR. Deep down I resisted any chance to catch it, there was always something else I wanted to watch more. Last Thursday I broke down and saw it on the big screen and all I have to say is, thank God for my stubbornness. To see movie like this for the first time on the big screen was a magnificent film experience.

Posted By JackFavell : July 19, 2012 12:31 pm

I have to ask you what you mean by Rita Hayworth being “less schooled” as a dancer?

Posted By JackFavell : July 19, 2012 12:31 pm

I have to ask you what you mean by Rita Hayworth being “less schooled” as a dancer?

Posted By Medusa : July 19, 2012 1:36 pm

Great write-up and appreciation of these classic musicals. I’ve always been a little cool on SiTR — I think because I’m not a big Reynolds fan, but adore Kelly — but I need to revisit it with your points in mind.

“It’s Always Fair Weather” is one of my favorites, though, probably *because* of its slightly sour aftertaste.

Wonderful post!

Posted By Medusa : July 19, 2012 1:36 pm

Great write-up and appreciation of these classic musicals. I’ve always been a little cool on SiTR — I think because I’m not a big Reynolds fan, but adore Kelly — but I need to revisit it with your points in mind.

“It’s Always Fair Weather” is one of my favorites, though, probably *because* of its slightly sour aftertaste.

Wonderful post!

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