‘Singin’ In the Rain’: The Bloody Hard Work of Effortless Entertainment

By  · Published on April 22nd, 2013

Singin in the Rain

Looking for any excuse, Landon Palmer and Scott Beggs are using the 2012 Sight & Sound poll results as a reason to take different angles on the best movies of all time. Every week, they’ll discuss another entry in the list, dissecting old favorites from odd angles, discovering movies they haven’t seen before and asking you to join in on the conversation. Of course it helps if you’ve seen the movie because there will be plenty of spoilers.

This week, they hail Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain as a work of delightful, effortless spectacle that almost killed its cast. It takes a lot of blood, sweat, tears and more blood to make something this blissful.

In the #2o movie on the list, the age of talkies is upon Hollywood, so to celebrate that 1920s transition, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds revive songs from the 1930s for their 1952 musical.

But why is it one of the best movies ever?

Scott: So we’ve come to the highest-ranked musical on the list, and it’s perhaps also the least divisive movie to be considered “the best ever.” But there’s also a ton to unpack here – from its production history of bleeding feet to its status as a blueprint for other musicals. So, you got your dancin’ shoes on?

Landon: And my Gene Kelly teeth.

Scott: Terrifying. But a great place to start because Kelly has a giant smile plastered on his face during an unbelievably arduous production.

Landon: Yes. Dude performed “Singin’ in the Rain” with an 103 degree fever. He looks “happy again,” but really all he wanted to do was run off-camera and vomit.

Scott: Good thing they knocked that sequence out in only 3 days of filming! All while the constant water made his clothing shrink.

Landon: This movie was absolutely brutal on its cast. After “Make ’Em Laugh,” in which Donald O’Connor nearly establishes a ’50s prototype for breakdancing, he had to be hospitalized. And Debbie Reynolds’ feet were bleeding during “Good Mornin’” because she was dancing so hard. Reynolds later said that this and giving birth…giving birth!…were the two most difficult things she’s ever done.

Scott: And they still don’t make epidurals for professional dancers.

But all of that bodily torment gives the movie an even greater mythology and points to something that’s not always obvious – that acting and performing can be unbearably difficult tasks. The best proof is watching O’Connor’s Make ’Em Laugh routine up against Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s recreation on SNL. Gordon-Levitt does it as well as anybody could today, but he’s huffing and puffing by the end.

Landon: Exactly. It’s the MO of good entertainment to hide the labor that goes into making good entertainment. It might seem fun and even, at times, effortless to us, but that’s because we buy into the light tone that takes so much effort and work to pull off.

Scott: O’Connor makes it look easy while his lungs were about to tank. But that kind of clean-looking slapstick has simply been out of fashion for too long. Vaudeville died decades ago.

Landon: True, and in that case, it’s fitting that the movie is about Vaudeville and early Hollywood cinema. It’s a nostalgic project, one that harks back at a time when American movies were primarily about spectacle.

Think, for instance, about how poorly integrated the music here is to moving the plot forward. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor suddenly decide to torture a dialect coach. “Broadway Melody Ballet” has as little to do with The Dancing Cavalier as it does Singin’ in the Rain.

Scott: They sing “Good Mornin’” because, you know, it happens to be morning.

Landon: And that’s not at all a criticism of the film – I don’t think Kelly and Stanley Donen set out to make a musical like West Side Story, but something of what seemed at the time to be Old Hollywood.

Scott: The songs are there because they were popular. They’re fun diversions from what’s going on, but I think they work despite that because the plot takes place inside the entertainment business. It makes a weird sort of sense that actors and performers would just burst into song at a moment’s notice.

Which is the core dilemma/conceit of musicals (and the reason I normally dislike them).

Landon: Yeah, I think the music works better here than it does in films where music has to be justified by a moment of heightened emotion or a plot point: it acknowledges the fact that we came here to see pure spectacle and, at the end of the day, it’s simply great to see Gene Kelly dance.

And it’s interesting that, as you point out, many of these songs were pre-existing while the film itself (unlike many 50s musicals) was original, not an adaptation of a popular Broadway show.

Scott: Right, and that’s how it was for many musicals in an earlier era.

A lot of the songs here are from the 1930s (in an attempt to echo the period of the film (and to tap into nostalgia from the audience)) . Even the title song isn’t original – it’s from Hollywood Revue of 1929. Bet you can’t guess which year that came out.

Landon: My guess is 4 years before Gold Diggers of 1933.

Scott: Nailed it.

Landon: It really is a great combination of two musical eras: large-set musicals of the 1930s and MGM technicolor extravaganzas of the 1950s. I just felt bad for the art department on The Dancing Cavalier for making such flamboyantly colored clothes that nobody would ever see in a black-and-white film.

Looking back on it, it seems that Singin’ in the Rain’s nostalgia is also for a time when movies were king. The film came out immediately before Hollywood really had to begin competing with television.

Scott: Yes, and a lot of filmmakers seem obsessed with the moment that sound overtook silent. We’re still seeing explorations of that revolution today with stuff like The Artist.

Landon: Yeah, there’s definitely a parallel there with Hollywood’s TV moment.

Scott: Probably because 1) filmmakers love film history and 2) it was the most dramatic change in the industry’s timeline. We talk about color being a game-changer, but it seems like a small shift compared to sound.

And there’s no more vibrant way to explore that dichotomy than through a lush musical where voices are front and center.

Landon: The central irony here is, of course, that the movie is a celebration of authentic singing and dancing talent by literally pulling the curtain at the end, but Debbie Reynolds herself was dubbed on some songs by Betty Noyes, who we never see.

Scott: Yet another dark element to the otherwise happy-go-lucky, feel-good film. It celebrates giving credit where credit is due, without giving credit where it was due. But after thinking about this a lot, I know a quick way to change the entire tone of the movie from surface-level glee to complex human difficulty.

Landon: Have Lars von Trier remake it?

Scott: That, or make Lina Lamont a really kind, lovable character.

Landon: Oh, wow

Scott: Instead of being a spiteful ego-case, she becomes a genuinely nice person who is stuck in an impossible position of losing her livelihood because of an unstoppable wave of change.

Landon: Then it’s a movie about Hollywood favoritism.

Scott: Right. She’s sweet and capable in the silent film world, but she simply doesn’t have the skills necessary to survive in the new Hollywood landscape.

Landon: Yet this movie is so quintessentially Hollywood precisely because it doesn’t do that: we have to be certain at all times, unquestionably, where are loyalties and emotions lie.

Scott: But while we’re on that note, we can talk about Don Lockwood being a womanizing, but otherwise nice figure…while the reality was a Gene Kelly who was a complete asshole to the brand new Debbie Reynolds.

Landon: He cast her despite the fact that he knew she wasn’t a skilled dancer (yet), then chastised her dancing skills on set.

Scott: And then made her so upset that she wound up underneath a piano in tears, convinced that she had to quit the project.

Imagine getting your big break, being noticed by one of the biggest stars/producers on the planet, and then being within inches of having to turn it down because it’s too difficult (and because that star is an abusive jerk).

Landon: As wonderful as these personalities might be on-screen, power makes only a few people in Hollywood pleasant to be around. I think that’s illustrated most pointedly by the fact that this film represents the nicest studio head that never lived.

Scott: Hahaha. Where are you, R.F. Simpson when we need you most?

Landon: But there’s a silver lining to the Reynolds story: Fred Astaire, Kelly’s friendly rival, found her weeping on the MGM lot and helped her learn how to dance. So we have Astaire to thank, in part, for Kelly’s greatest musical.

Scott: So you’re saying one more major element of the 1930s filmmaking scene made this one possibile.

And now imagine getting your big break, being noticed by one of the biggest stars/producers on the planet, and then being within inches of having to turn it down because it’s too difficult (and because that star is an abusive jerk)…and then being saved by an even larger movie star.

Few people have experienced something as surreal as Debbie Reynolds did. No wonder she likened to giving birth.

Landon: But the weird thing is, it worked in terms of Hollywood’s logic: she went on to perform in many musicals.

Reynolds needing to be dubbed doesn’t mean she wasn’t a great singer. Kelly being an asshole doesn’t mean he wasn’t an incredible performer. But this movie, in supposedly representing Hollywood, actually illustrates most starkly the things that Hollywood hides.

It also illustrates how incredibly difficult it is to make “good entertainment,” which has such a passive connotation. Very few films on this list exist to be merely entertainment like Singin’, and it’s a ton of work simply to put on a show and make audiences smile (which is especially apparent given that Singin’ wasn’t universally beloved upon first release).

Scott: And that’s quite a legacy – a reminder that trying to entertain can be just as difficult as trying to be meaningfully deep, and a lesson that an on-screen smile covered in fake rain could just be fever-induced delirium.

Landon: So many movies exist just for entertainment, but my frustration with Hollywood is that so few of them are actually adequately entertaining. Singin’ in the Rain is a blast, and it shows that, despite a Hollywood that can be fucked up in many ways, that work arguably pays off with many returns.

And quite frankly, after the events of this past week, I found genuine entertainment to be really valuable and important

Scott: Well said. Hollywood: Hiding the Bloody Feet and Hospitalization Since At Least 1952.

Next Week: Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura

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