Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain

You can learn almost all there is to know about movies just from watching musicals. Sound cinema is a fundamentally different art than silent cinema, so when sound finally arrived on the scene at the end of the 20s, not only did filmmakers have to overcome enormous new technical challenges but they had to face the daunting task of developing a new artform from the ruins of the old. Musicals, being both new and such a hot ticket item at the time, were where much of this experimentation would play out.

Early musicals were artistically lacking. They relied on lavish productions and star-power to attract audiences. Most of them were stage musicals, variations of filmed broadway musicals literally set on a stage with uninspired camera setups. A typical example is unimaginative, nothing but dull spectacle.

Hollywood Revue of 1929:

Through expermentation, eventually real artistry found its way into the genre, and in the 30s there emerged two great artists of the screen musical. Both of these men remade the musical in their own style, styles that were diametrically opposed to each other.

The first was Fred Astaire. Astaire was already considered one of the best dancers in the world when he moved to Hollywood, and it was there that he developed his screen persona and style. The character that he developed was both sophisticated—charming, stylish, able to dance and romance—and an everyman—he smoked cigarettes and had everyday jobs and problems.

Astaire films are a showcase of dance, not of stage theatricalities. They include partnered dances of course, but Astaire always performs a highly inventive solo number where he will dance with a hatrack, or with his shadow, or on the ceiling, to give but a few examples. In Astaire films dances generally take place not on the stage but in the real world, although being 1930s Hollywood the real world is an obvious set, albeit a gorgeously designed art deco set.

Astaire's key development was his minimalist approach. In an Astaire dance, over the length of the number the camera will only ever cut once or twice, ideally never, and it will remain mostly stationary, only moving to follow the action. There are no close-ups of dancing feet or smiles, and typically no narrative cross-cutting, there is just dance. As Astaire famously put it, "either the camera will dance, or I will."

The result are simple but virtuosic sequences in which the dancing tells the story, each executed to near perfection by one of the world's greatest. Astaire would demand weeks of rehersals and then demand retake after retake until everything was flawless. His less experienced dance partners, like Ginger Rogers, would literally dance until their feet were bleeding, and then keep on dancing until they got it right. Astaire was even harder on himself. The results speak for themselves, noting the absence of cuts.

Swing Time:

The second great artist of the early musical was Busby Berkley. Unlike Astaire, Berkley stayed behind the camera. Berkley's musicals retain the stage musical element, but his sequences are so inventive that they move far beyond the stage toward a space of pure cinema.

His sequences wholly embrace camera movement, cutting, and unusual framing to undermine any sense of physical reality. In a Berkley sequence there are no dancers as such, just objects that he frames to create kaleidoscopic compositions.

Berkley's objects are women. To Berkley women were only good for sex, and he often delighted in humiliating and/or exploiting their nakedness, both on screen and behind the scenes. There's a quasi-pornographic quality to Berkley's use of the female body in many of his sequences that should not be overlooked, although most Berkley sequences are quite tame.

Berkley musical sequences share some noteable attributes. One is that that, because they narratively are supposed to take place on stage, they often embrace the artifice of the theater by showing backdrops and treadmills and other stage devices. In addition the long length of the sequences is generally noticeable, they routinely run seven minutes or more.


So on the one hand we have Astaire and on the other Berkley. Both are opposite extremes. To borrow some terms from film theory, incorrectly, to the sure annoyance of every film theory major, we could call Astaire's style realist and Berkley's style formalist.

But onto Singin' in the Rain and the third great artist of the musical film, Gene Kelly. Kelly didn't show up in movies until a decade after Astaire and Berkley had established themselves, and a curious fact is that his first appearance was actually in a Berkley film.

Kelly greatly admired Astaire, and loathed Berkley's style. And whatever his feelings, he came to believe that both styles were old-fashioned. Kelly started out partly imitating Astaire, but quickly decided to develop his own style of dance which drew on his athleticism and integrated it into a new style of musical film.

Kelly's cinematic innovation was to find a sweet-spot between the extremes of Astaire and Berkley, for although he dismissed Berkley's sequences, unlike Astaire Kelly believed in the potential of integrating cutting and camera movement into a dance sequence. Kelly's goal might be called the integration of cinema and dance. It was not an entirely new idea but it was one that had proven difficult to get right: most attempts at moving from the two extremes ended up with the worst of both worlds, rather than the best of either.

Kelly's success is in good part due to the integration of his sequences with the narrative: the dance sequences would often advance the plot rather than put it on hold as in an Astaire of Berkley sequence, and Kelly would dance dressed in whatever his character would be wearing rather than in signature attire like Astaire would. But his success is mainly due to his skill as a performer and his restraint as a filmmaker. Kelly moves the camera, employs lighting strategically, and cuts often. But, crucially, each shot is still long enough for you to see something real, something tangibly performed by an artist or artists of great skill.

If you study Kelly's dance sequences, you'll conclude that they utilize multiple takes rather than multiple cameras. The individual shots then may not quite reach the heights of Astaire in his prime, but in the best sequences this compromise is made up for by the cinematic flourishes that Kelly introduces. Note the frequent cutting and subsequent repositioning of camera, but also that each shot is still relatively lengthy, and that everything fits into and presents a clear narrative.

Singin' in the Rain:

Of course neither Kelly, Berkley, or Astaire, worked alone, nor did they work entirely independent of each other, but we might say that the work represented by these three men is the development of the American musical along a cinematic spectrum. One one end of the spectrum is Astaire, and on the other is Berkley. Somewhere in the middle, but a little closer to Astaire than Berkley, is Kelly. Figuring out which of these three you prefer can teach you a great deal about what you value in cinema.

Musicals are not popular anymore and in my experience even many serious film fans have only seen a small handful. Singin' in the Rain is one of the most widely seen because it is one of the most widely praised, but it is often seen with little or no knowledge about musicals, as a first musical.

All of this text is to make a rather small point. In my personal experience watching this movie with other people, and reading reviews, I've noticed that while it's obvious to anyone that the movie playfully makes fun of the transition from silent film to sound film through its narrative, viewers who are new to musicals fail to realize that some of the musical sequences, including song choices, are also meant to poke fun.

The Broadway Melody sequence for example, is basically one big joke, sending up older musical styles, particularly Busby Berkley musicals. The ending of the sequence with Gene Kelly's head, and the sheer length of the number, are both utterly annoying and bizarre unless you're in on the joke. And obviously, if one can't distinguish between the straight and the comic in this, then one probably can't fully appreciate Kelly's strengths as an artist in the film either.

So, perhaps somewhat presumptuously, my goal with this post is just to provide some basic context to people new to musicals who wish to watch this famous film with some more appreciation. Although I'm not a musical expert, hopefully if you're new to musicals you should be able to make more sense of the musical sequences in the movie, and have a bit of an understanding as to how it fits in with some other American musicals.

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