Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain ★★★★★

When an individual [...] blushes from modesty, he may lose his reputation for poise but confirm a more important one, that of being modest. Feeling that his chagrin is nothing to be ashamed of, his embarrassment will not lead him to be embarrassed.

-Erving Goffman, 'Embarrassment and Social Organization'

During this dancing stunt over the sofa, Debbie Reynolds makes a determined and rapid gesture, pulling her short pink skirt down over her knees with a deft hand, so that her panties can’t be seen when she lands seated. That gesture, quick as lightning, is beautiful because in the same image we have the height of cinematographic convention (people who sing and dance instead of walking and talking) and the height of truth, a little lady taking care not to show her thighs.

-Francois Truffaut's diary

Dancing does attract effeminate young men. I don't object to that as long as they don't dance effeminately. I just say that if a man dances effeminately he dances badly — just as if a woman comes out on stage and starts to sing bass. Unfortunately, people confuse gracefulness with softness. John Wayne is a graceful man and so are some of the great ball players...but, of course, they don't run the risk of being called sissies.

-Gene Kelly

I've had one motto which I've always lived by. Dignity, always dignity.

-Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood in Singin' in the Rain

Perhaps no-one knew both the embarrassment and the freedom that could come with dancing better than Gene Kelly. It was his mother that first made him dance at the age of eight; but the neighbourhood kids called him a 'sissy', and he would not dance again until, aged fifteen, he had earned enough respect as an athlete, and gained enough muscle, to feel as if dancing was a safe pursuit. Through years of success on Broadway and in Hollywood, that initial feeling of insecurity never entirely left him, as he revealed (above) in so many regrettable and antiquated words.

But if his words were too clumsy to resolve the tension between the jockish muscularity and the natural grace of his persona, if they could not express his masculine grace in a non-venomous way, then in his dancing and directing he always endeavoured to rectify his errors. Kelly never revealed in dance that he might be suffering any kind of effete humiliation, even dressed in a sailor suit, dancing with a cartoon mouse. And he rarely achieved this unabashed grace by acting macho-aggressive or posturing either. He radiated good will and camaraderie. Even during a love song as possessive as 'You Were Meant For Me' he manages to look both achingly romantic and boyishly sheepish. 'Kathy, I'm trying to say something to you, but I'm such a ham, I guess I'm not able to without the proper setting.' The proper setting is one where he can work out his awkwardness and discomfort, regaining his showman's confidence in the face of the righteous challenge to it that Kathy represents, both as a critic/performer and a defiant love interest. Don places Kathy on a pedestal (a ladder, actually), but once they've danced together for a while, he switches places with her. For a solo song, it looks as if a profound and mutual exchange has taken place.

Where did Don's awkwardness come from? To get to this point in the film, we must first endure his braggadocio, his pretence of heavily gendered artistic integrity. 'Dignity, always dignity' he insists, while flashbacks contrast that with early vaudevillian prototypes of the transcendentally undignified clowning to come, the same clowning that will eventually become Don's saving grace. In its early stages Singin' in the Rain, like no other musical, makes flawlessly executed dances seem sweaty, desperate, uncomfortable; 'Fit as a Fiddle' shows off Kelly's ability to contort that reassuring MGM smile into something uncanny. Dressed in bright green and white check suits and silly hats, he and Donald O'Connor hold their ending poses, their rictus grins and their fiddles for far too long, in defiance of an unimpressed everyman audience. The editor takes far too long to cut away. It's cringingly painful. It's also already establishing an alternative to 'dignity'— the unflappable refusal of the performer to admit humiliation or defeat. As so often happened during the making of Singin' in the Rain, life imitated art. Kelly and O'Connor tried filming the scene in less than a day, after they were already overworked; Kelly pretended to be offended by some minor prop detail and walked off rather than admit that, really, he was just too tired to keep dancing. I love this story. The deception was, crucially, just a bit of play; O'Connor found him grinning in his dressing room with his feet up, ready to confess everything. It simultaneously confirms and refutes that Kelly was insecure— here's his macho distaste for showing vulnerability; yet he would rather act like an 'undignified' diva than be seen failing in his art.

'Dignity, always dignity'. And then in the space of a short car ride, Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden completely erodes his pretentious facade. Crucially, Don responds to this dressing-down with his sleaziest, sweatiest, ugliest flirting:

Kathy: You're nothing but a shadow on film, a shadow. You're not flesh and blood.
Don: Oh no? [leaning in to kiss her] What could I do to you? I'm only a shadow.
Kathy: You keep away from me! Just because you're a big movie star...

Don goes to leave the car, tears his suit, and Kathy collapses into laughter. What a romantic fantasy: malicious mockery and unwanted advances lead only to humiliation and failure. It's Cosmo that demonstrates to Don, in 'Make 'Em Laugh', how to truly free oneself from embarrassment: by leaning in to and inviting humiliation wholesale. O'Connor's dancing is energetic, endlessly creative, and takes the desperate, try-hard intensity from 'Fit as a Fiddle' as far as it will go. Cosmo is performing for an audience of one, and there's no response, just a dissolve transition to the next scene once he's done. But that kind of awkward silence doesn't ever embarrass him. I don't think it's coincidental that O'Connor's dancing is a lot less gendered. He wears silly hats, makes fawning gestures to a mannequin. The mannequin itself is an entirely androgynous blank slate, and O'Connor begins to echo that androgyny before fighting and then angrily kicking it away (a gesture repeated with Kathy's raincoat and hat in 'Good Morning'). I won't say there's anything radical about it, but it is somewhat queer. The whole world is already in drag, and Cosmo knows it and takes joy in deconstructing it. The more he plays with gender (albeit in a low-key manner) the more he frees himself from the sweaty distress of insecure masculinity.

At times, Singin' in the Rain glories in the humiliation of women. The narrative (and even the dancing, as Truffaut shows) is driven by potential and realized humiliations, especially of Kathy and Lina. Reynold's prodigious talent was crucial in counteracting this. If our sympathies weren't with her during Kathy's chorus-girl performance of 'All I Do is Dream of You', it would be a cruel scene. Luckily, her face is a guide to how we should re-interpret this 'innocent' musical number in the light of its placement in the narrative. A fancy home populated by powerful and experienced Hollywood royalty, and Kathy the young hopeful must sing for her supper in a thoroughly degrading way, especially in light of what we know about the sincerity of her artistic aspirations. 'The movies', as in, the whole battery of cinematic conventions, tropes and practices, the construct that she tried to tear down in front of Don earlier, takes its brutal revenge, forcing her to sing and dance in a way that exposes the class and gender-based privilege behind Hollywood at its most exploitative. 'The movies' can't teach her to fight back properly: 'here's one thing I learned from the movies', she shouts at Don, and the cake she aims at his face hits Lina.

There's neither a comforting nor a galvanising resolution to this narrative thread; however, Singin' in the Rain's awareness of how Hollywood humiliates women is unusual, and it explores the matter with rare empathy, insight and wit. Who else but a dancer, and perhaps especially a dancer like Gene Kelly, would make a film like this, one that understands how the very thing you love the most is the thing that constantly threatens, due to the cruelty of the ignorant and oppressive, to shame and humiliate you? Most MGM musicals exude pride through dancing, but never did they work so hard to earn that pride. Just look at 'Moses Supposes', in which Don and Cosmo metaphorically and literally dance circles around their 'serious' and 'lofty' acting coach, outdoing his dramatic tones first with flawless mimicry, then the unbridled and superior joy of song— rapid or plaintive, classical or contemporary, whatever they feel like, and they can do it all, confounding propriety through relentless play. The acting coach, perhaps coincidentally, was played by Bobby Watson, best known in the '40s for his numerous on-screen portrayals of Hitler. Think also of the end of the title song, where Don sheepishly ceases dancing after noticing a policeman watching him, then transitions from embarrassment to one last defiant snippet of song in the cop's face, before skipping down the road, donating his umbrella to a wet passerby on the way. Kelly loved this kind of movement from joy to shame and back again (see, for example, 'I Like Myself' from It's Always Fair Weather, where he only briefly allows the onlookers' snooty astonishment at his roller skates to faze him).

This is why the test screening scene, and the build-up to it, is so crucial. I don't think this part of the story is there to show Don's failed attempt at making a dramatic picture, forcing him to eventually realise that he is better suited to all-singing, all-dancing comedy. Every creative decision that seems to lead to failure and humiliation actually brings Don closer to his eventual success. Changing the 'lofty' dramatic dialogue ('imperious princess of the night') to the more sincere yet clumsy repetition of 'I love you' attracts the audience's ridicule. But it's just an unpolished version of some of the MGM musical film's strengths, its unaffected romantic sincerity, its accessible lyricism. And the technical issues with the film's sound inspire Cosmo to think of dubbing Lina's dialogue. The 'Dancing Cavalier' musical is not a last-minute attempt to paper over the cracks of a failed dramatic picture; it's the sincere and polished perfection of the 'Duelling Cavalier', the ultimate realisation of its original creative intentions. The dance musical is the sophisticated, ambitious, worthy and expressive drama that the studio has been searching for; by mythologising its origins, Singin' in the Rain becomes its apex.

Every choice that deliberately grounds the film in the 1920s manages to seem progressive, almost futuristic. The costumes and props, some of them genuine artefacts of the studio's history, exude a love of surface that approaches post-modern camp. One need not look to 'Beautiful Girl' to notice that the film is self-conscious about dressing all its characters in historical drag. Don looks positively ridiculous in those puffy trousers and big hats that comprise his 'casual' clothes between takes. Yet he also looks comfortable, at ease, in command of himself. And the studio head character's joke after the 'Broadway Melody' sequence, that he 'cannot quite visualise' it and will have to see it on the film, is a smart celebration of technical achievement and technological advancement: when he sees it on film in 'The Dancing Cavalier', it will be in black and white; he has no idea just how vibrant film will become, almost 30 years later. The sequence is an anachronism, a miraculous impossibility, something which, in the film's diegesis, can only be dreamed of, never achieved. Finally, when Gene Kelly has pulled off this and many other impossible feats, he stands in front of a billboard with the name of the film itself emblazoned on it. This isn't arch, above-it self-awareness. It's the triumph of pride.

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