Thursday, March 22, 2007

1927 as presented in Singin' in the Rain

1927 was a very important year for cinema history, arguably THE most important year for cinema history (although 1939 is also pretty high up there). In addition to giving us films like Keaton's The General and College, Lloyd's The Kid Brother, Murnau's Sunrise, DeMille's King of Kings, Lang's Metropolis, Gance's Napoleon, Browning's London After Midnight, Hitchcock's The Lodger and Lubitsch's The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (any one of which would be worth writing a lengthy post about), it was also the year of the first Academy Awards celebration, in which the winner was William Wellman's Wings (try saying that five times fast!) as well as the year that a little film called The Jazz Singer was released, a film which instigated a major change in the face and "voice" of Hollywood.

With such a plethora of significant films and monumental events surrounding this particular year, I had difficulty choosing precisely what to write about for Goatdog's 1927 Blog-a-thon,. So, I decided to take a rather different approach. Rather than contributing a post about something that was released in/occurred during 1927, I would write about a film that takes place in 1927. Not just any film though, one where the setting is crucial to the story and themes of the movie, one where the year 1927 is so wrapped up in the identity of the film that it would be difficult for any self-respecting cinephile to think of the year without somehow thinking of this film. I am referring, of course, to that great American musical Singin' in the Rain.

I was in high school when I first saw this movie. It was part of a weekly film class being hosted by my friend and fellow film buff Tucker. Prior to seeing it in its entirety, all I knew (or thought I knew) of the film was its titular dance sequence, which I had seen once on television as a young kid and which ran through my head everytime I saw the box sitting on the shelf in the video store (with that iconic image of good ol' Gene hanging off that streetlamp). Naturally I knew there had to be more to the movie than just that one number, althougn it certainly stands well on its own, and getting to view it in context greatly enriched its significance for me. I also got to trace the origin of another song ("Good Morning") which I used to hear quite frequently, usually by my mother who would greet me cheerily upon my waking up to get ready for school. At any rate, I loved Singin' in the Rain and not just because it was a great movie, but because it was a great movie about movies. Like Trauffaut's Day For Night, it's an affectionate love letter to an art form that has given us many wonderful products. As a lifelong lover of films, I immediately responded to it.

At the time I saw it I was relatively ignorant of the forced shift toward "talking pictures" that took place in Hollywood. Singin' in the Rain not only introduced me to that piece of film history, it dramatized it in a very effective (and very funny) manner. The film brilliantly captures the extreme unease and fear that gripped Hollywood in the last gasp of the silent era. Much of the situations seen throughout, though exaggerated slightly for humorous effect, are based in solid fact. The recreation of the sound "promo" that the studio head shows his guests at the party, for example, is simultaneosuly hilarious and eerily accurate (as is their reaction in calling it "vulgar"). Frustrations with the new technology (such as synchronizing the sound with the image, being forced to hide the microphone in costumes and/or furniture, stars with unappealing voices either losing their jobs or needing to be dubbed, etc) are all beautifully staged.

There are also, peppered throughout Singin' in the Rain wonderful moments that have little or nothing to do with the Hollywood's "identity crisis." They serve merely to provide a context for the film, an environment in which movies are, pardon the expression, "paramount." In the early scenes, for example, things like the frighteningly dangerous level of obsessive behavior demonstrated by the start-struck crowds ("Zelda! Oh, ZELDA!") as well as the parasitic attention of the press (personified in the obnoxious gossip-mongerer Dora Bailey) celebrate, and also parody, the "importance" of movies both in the decade its representing (the 20's) AND the time the movie was actually made (the 50's). Later in the film, reality and fantasy are so intertwined that it becomes virtually impossible to distinguish the two. Debbie Reynolds crying "Here's one thing I learned from the movies!" before throwing a pie into Lina Lamont's face or Gene Kelly being unable to properly express his emotions to the girl he loves without all the trappings of a "romantic scene" illustrate this. I remember being rather amused to learn that in the making of Singin' in the Rain a microphone was hidden in Debbie Reynolds' blouse so her lines could be heard more clearly, which coincidentally resulted in her heartbeat being heard during one of the dance numbers. This is a world where reality is a movie and the movies are reality.

The film also provides a few brief glimpses into the "magic" of movie-making (the fist-fight being filmed atop of the stationary train as the painted backdrop rolls by behind it, the use of a pianist to provide "mood music" for the actors as they perform a scene, etc). This was done at a time before most audiences were "savvy" to the details of film production and these little bits provide a wonderful "inside-look" to the behind-the scenes mechanics of filmmaking as well as a way to sort of "pay respect" to where movies have been and how far they'd come. Signin' in the Rain is the perfect example of cinema revering itself, acknowledging its own history and, at the same time, having fun with it. The latter is very important as there are a few gags that only someone actually acquainted with the process of filmmaking would notice. I love the fact that the costumes made for "films within the film" are all in glorious color even though this was a time when all the movies were black-and-white. I also love the Busby Berkley-style overheard shot that finishes the song "Beautiful Girls" followed by a cut to a camera shooting it that is at least ten feet away and AT EYE LEVEL! There is a marvelous little clip of Gene Kelly's acrobatic antics from his version of The Three Musketeers that is used as one of the Lockwood/Lamont features in the film, a chance for Gene to "play" with his own on-screen image. These are touches thrown in by people who love movies for people who love movies. And yet, Despite all of its in-jokes, homages, references and industry insights, Singin' in the Rain, never forgets that it is still a Hollywood movie and, perhaps more importantly, a studio product. Whatever "jabs" it contains are all good-natured. Unlike Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, it lacks any satirical edge. The filmmakers are unapologetically producing a piece of pop entertainment in the grand tradition of Hollywood musicals and while doing so wisely avoid biting the hand that feeds them. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the studio (represented by Millard Mitchell) being portrayed in the best possible light while the real "villain" of the piece is, of course, a spoiled actor!

In re-reading what I've written so far I realize that this post has become more of a tribute to the movie itself than a treatise on the historical period it purports to represent, so before I end up "gushing" too much I'll finish up with a story my mother likes to tell about this film. When she was terribly ill with a fever once as a young girl, she was lying on the couch in her living room when Singin' in the Rain came on TV. To this day she swears that she was not only perfectly well during that 103 minutes, she actually felt great. Nevermind, of course, that once the movie was over she went back to feeling terrible, it's remarkable that a film, any film, could have such a physical effect on a person, but it makes sense that if there were one that could it would be this one. Certainly Gene's blissfully defiant "footing it" in the downpour can bring a smile to anyone's face, but the overall tone of the film is so delightful and so joyous that I would maintain it's impossible to watch any of it without feeling good. It is a work of such sublime beauty and vibrant energy that it epitomizes the best kind of "classic movie experience" a person can have. It's a great film, one of the greatest, and whenever I hear the year 1927 mentioned, or the topic of the end of silent cinema/the beginning of the sound era comes up, I can't help but think of it.

9 comments:

goatdog said...

I think this film is #1 on my Must See Again list. I saw it a looooong time ago, back when I thought I didn't like musicals, and didn't like it very much. But I do like musicals, ergo a re-viewing is necessary.

Erin said...

A wonderful post. Singin' in the Rain is such a fun movie, and I do believe that your mom felt fine while watching it.

Like you, I watched the movie not knowing that it was ABOUT movies. I also had the fun of hearing Lina Lamont talk without any hint what to expect. Too bad that many folks already know too much about the film when they first see it. There's something to be said for being a little plot dumb sometimes.

Campaspe said...

I love this movie. It contains one rather sad inside joke: the disastrous first version of The Dueling Cavalier, where Kelly says, "I love you, I love you, I love you!" Alas, that has a real precedent in John Gilbert's disastrous "His Glorious Night." It was his first talkie, and according to legend it was this line, delivered in an incongruous light tenor, that had audiences howling with laughter.

Damian said...

goatdog:

You should definitely re-visit it. Not only is it a great movie, but given how much you know about the year 1927, you're sure to get a lot more out of it this time. Great blog-a-thon BTW!

Erin:

You're absolutely right. When I first saw the movie I had no clue what Lina Lamont was going to sound like. I assumed she was going to sound like how she looked: beautiful. When she did finally open her mouth, I thought it was hilarious.

Campaspe:

I didn't know that about the real-life inspiration for The Duelling Cavalier's "I love you" debacle (when that guy says "Did somebody get paid for writing that dialogue?" I always laugh out loud). As I mentioned in my post, that's a great thing about the Singin' in the Rain: the more on learns about its period, the more it enhances one's enjoyment of the film.

Alonso said...

My favorite of the subtle gags in Singin' has to do with Don and Lina shooting The Dueling Cavalier, first as a silent movie and then as a talkie. When Don tosses his walking stick aside during the shooting of the silent version, we in the "real" audience hear nothing. But when he tosses it aside for the talkie, the preview audience hears it make a loud clang as it hits the ground.

Donna said...

I enjoyed your post, but especially the story of your mom feeling better merely by watching the movie. Are you aware that Gene Kelly actually was sick with a fever while filming the famous dance in the rain sequence? I've always admired that about him...he worked through it, and the result brings us so much joy. If you like Gene Kelly, feel free to visit my Gene blog at genescene.blogspot.com.

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