Friday, April 20, 2012
What a glorious feeling
By Edward Copeland
Sixty years ago, another MGM musical extravaganza began to open across the country, premiering first in New York on March 27, 1952 — exactly one week after its star's previous lavish MGM musical, An American in Paris, took home the Oscar as 1951's best picture. An American in Paris just had opened about four-and-a-half months earlier in November 1951, so though both musicals came from the same studio, the same producer (Arthur Freed) and the same star (Gene Kelly), Paris essentially stole Singin' in the Rain's thunder, despite good reviews and decent box office (ultimately, Rain only grossed about $1 million less than Paris did worldwide). Over the course of the ensuing decades, Singin' in the Rain displayed staying power as more generations and critics discovered and delighted in its infectious shenanigans to the point that it routinely grabs the label as the greatest movie musical ever made, a title it most richly deserves. When the film came out in 1952 though, the shower of awards that rightfully should have left Singin' in the Rain drenched in accolades didn't occur, but rarely do the movie classics earn the kudos they should upon their original release. How Casablanca managed to snag its best picture Oscar truly belongs on a list of the wonders of the world. Singin' in the Rain garnered a total of two Oscar nominations and lost them both. The Academy felt the best picture prize for 1952 belonged to The Greatest Show on Earth, which beat High Noon, Ivanhoe, John Huston's Moulin Rouge and The Quiet Man. Admittedly, I'm a fan of High Noon and The Quiet Man, but neither is better than Singin' in the Rain. I admire much of Huston's film, but I couldn't go for Ivanhoe and, as far as The Greatest Show on Earth goes, the movie doesn't just stage a spectacular train wreck, that sequence serves as a metaphor, not so much for the decidedly mediocre circus film but for the majority of the Academy's choices for best picture throughout the years. The nearly always wrong Academy found no room at the inn in the best picture category for Singin' in the Rain and, yet once again, history proves that that organization almost always has figured out ways to screw things up. Oh, well. As our hero, Don Lockwood, would say to his fans, "Dignity. Always dignity."
It's true — I did, I really did have a feeling of lightness about me when I first saw Singin' in the Rain on a small TV set in my bedroom when I was in grade school. The local PBS station aired it during one of its pledge drives late on a Friday or Saturday. I almost wrote something to the effect that though my age at that time stood in single digits, I wasn't unfamiliar with "older films." Then, I started doing something out of character for someone who spent his professional years in journalism: math. When Singin' in the Rain and I first crossed paths, the film still had a few years to go before it would reach its 30th anniversary. Figuring further, I realized that when I was born, the movie had existed for a mere 17 years. I suppose the point I should have been aiming for was that even as a youngster, I wasn't completely ignorant of films made prior to my birth — a contrast to an all-too-pervasive attitude pushed by magazines such as Entertainment Weekly that discounts most things made prior to its existence. I took a detour from my main point which was that no classic up to that point in my young life seized my imagination and prompted me to rattle about it nonstop the way I would a new release such as Star Wars could capture my youthful enthusiasm, but Singin' in the Rain did.
It probably didn't hurt that back in 1974 my parents took me to That's Entertainment! and I saw many of the film's famous musical numbers before viewing the entire picture. My attention also likely got captured early in the showing when the first face I noticed after the opening credits belonged to Aunt Harriet (Madge Blake) of TV's Batman. Blake begins the fun as she stands before a microphone in as Hollywood columnist/gossip hound Dora Bailey covering the 1927 premiere of The Royal Rascal, the latest Monumental Pictures production starring the hot team (onscreen and off, so they say) Guy Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), live outside Grauman's Chinese Theater. When I fell for Singin' in the Rain as a youngster, I could enjoy it immensely for its music and comedy, but I needed to age and accumulate knowledge of cinema history in order to appreciate its references and some of the silent figures it parodies. For example, the first name that Dora announces stepping onto the red carpet belongs to Zelda Zanders (played by a 19-year-old Rita Moreno, who my young eyes failed to recognize as the "HEY YOU GUUYYSSS!!!" lady from The Electric Company), known as "The Zip Girl," a play on silent superstar Clara Bow's nickname as "The It Girl." Following Zelda, comes the mysterious Olga Mara (Judy Landon), merging mostly Pola Negri with a bit of Gloria Swanson, based on her latest spouse, an older, wealthy aristocrat. Of course, I didn't need to know any film history to get a kick out of the exaggerated reactions of the starstruck fans crowding the barricades to catch a glimpse of the famous faces or to get the joke when Dora announces the arrival of Don's best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), who leaps out of his car and onto the red carpet only to watch the fans' faces fall in disappointment since he's a "nobody." With its marvelous screenplay by the legendary team of Betty Comden & Adolph Green, the songbook of lyricist Arthur Freed (yes, the same Freed producing the film) and composer Nacio Herb Brown and the second film pairing Kelly and Stanley Donen as co-directors following 1949's great On the Town, Singin' in the Rain had a damn strong team going in, even considering its start from such a vague kernel of an idea. Freed had left his songwriting days behind long ago, becoming a very successful producer at MGM, almost exclusively of musicals. (Last year, when I wrote my tribute to Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along , I said that I never thought it made sense for a successful composer like that musical's Franklin Shepherd to switch gears and become a successful movie producer, but lyricist Freed did that in real life. I'm surprised no one called me out on that.) According to the commentary on the 50th anniversary DVD, Freed called Comden & Green and told them he wanted them to write a musical based around the old songs he wrote with Brown to be called Singin' in the Rain. "We didn't have a clue as to what it would be other than there had to be a scene where someone would be singing and it would be raining," Comden said on the commentary, which included her, Green, O'Connor, Donen, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, Kathleen Freeman, Baz Luhrmann (who horned his way in somehow) and film historian and author Rudy Behlmer. Of that group, only Donen, Reynolds, Luhrmann and Behlmer remain with us 10 years later. As Comden & Green thought about the era in which those songs had been written — the late 1920s and early 1930s — they conceived the idea of setting the film in that time period and from that sprang forth the idea of making Singin' in the Rain be about Hollywood's transition from silent films to talking pictures.
At last, the car bringing the stars of The Royal Rascal, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, pulls up to the red carpet. Dora Bailey hardly can contain her excitement, telling her radio audience that Lockwood & Lamont go together "like bacon and eggs." If the parodies of silent screen stars flew over your head and the caricatures of overzealous fans somehow didn't give you an inkling of what type of musical comedy the behind-the-scenes team had devised for Singin' in the Rain, it becomes abundantly clear once Lockwood & Lamont arrive on the scene and Don steps up to Dora's microphone to recount to her listeners a brief primer of how he became the movie star he was that day. At first, it might seem as if he's being rude to Ms. Lamont, who looks as if she's trying to move toward the microphone to say something, but Don doesn't allow her to say a word. If you've seen Singin' in the Rain before, you know why that is. If you haven't, what in the hell are you waiting for? However, like what could happen with sound film projectors to come, the words emanating from Lockwood's lips didn't match the visuals we saw as he and Cosmo, beginning as pint-size hustlers sneaking into pool halls, began careers playing violin and piano at any old dive where they could earn a few measly bucks. Gene Kelly always had the knack when it came to singing and dancing, but he never received enough credit for his acting and from his entrance as the public persona of Don Lockwood, you can tell that Kelly has stepped up his thespian skills a notch. While he will perform some of his best and most memorable song-and-dance moments at the same time he's co-directing the film itself, Kelly will end up giving the best performance of his career as Don Lockwood. The Academy did see fit to nominate him for acting once (in 1945's Anchors Aweigh) and gave him an honorary Oscar for the year 1951, when An American in Paris took best picture, "in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film." The Academy was only a year early because Kelly's best was yet to come. Lockwood's embellished flashback leads to the movie's first musical number. Once Don and Cosmo found their way on to the vaudeville circuit, they energetically performed the song "Fit as a Fiddle." The clip below begins with dialogue in another language, but the remainder is in English.
Kelly and O'Connor's choreographic chemistry confirms the correct choice in going with O'Connor as Cosmo instead of using Oscar Levant again following An American in Paris. On the commentary, O'Connor recalled that prior to rehearsal, Kelly had asked what his strongest dancing side was and expressed relief when O'Connor answered, "The right" which also was Kelly's strongest. O'Connor credited that for why they looked so well together as in "Fit as a Fiddle." Don's cursory version of his life story wraps up with him and Cosmo landing musician jobs at Monumental Pictures where Don soon finds himself working as a stuntman, hurtling over bars in the Old West, crashing airplanes and riding motorcycles to their doom. When he approaches Lina Lamont, already a star, she wants nothing to do with a lowly stuntman until the studio's president, R.F. Simpson (the great Millard Mitchell, notable in films such as Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway and Winchester '73, who died too young at age 50 in 1953), offers Don an acting contract — then Lina can't keep her hands off him, but Lockwood quickly removes them. Following the showing of the swashbuckling Royal Rascal. Don and Lina come out and greet the audience briefly but, again, only Lockwood speaks. When they get off the stage, we finally hear Lina speak as she complains about never being allowed to talk and when you hear that squawk, which might have originated at a crossroads between The Bronx and Hell, you realize why it's best for all concerned that Lina Lamont stay mute. If anyone doubts me when I say how much this film enchanted me when young, I'll share a personal tale showing its magic holds for later generations as well. Several years ago, a friend of mine visited with her then 6- or 7-year-old daughter and as we drove, the subject of Singin' in the Rain came up. Mom asked her young daughter to do her Lina Lamont impression for me and the little girl did a dead-on Hagen repeating the line, "Waddya think I am, dumb or sumptin'?" That darling child turns 15 in a few months. Sigh… Hagen earned one of the film's only two Oscar nominations (losing to Gloria Grahame for her brief appearance in a more serious Hollywood story, The Bad and the Beautiful) and Hagen deserved that recognition. Two years earlier, Judy Holliday won an Oscar for perfecting the ditzy blonde by re-creating her stage role as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday on the big screen. Lack of intelligence and hair color unify Holliday's Billie and Hagen's Lina, but where the characters diverge comes from inside. Billie Dawn may not be bright, but she means well. Lina isn't any smarter, but she's downright mean and devious when she feels her career needs protecting. Lina doesn't hear what everyone else does when she opens her mouth and that voice comes out. The studio fears the public hearing it then — and that's before talkies throw the studio into turmoil. What impresses even more about Hagen's hilarious work in Singin' in the Rain comes when they learn that the Hagen's primary reputation in theater and movies were dramas and film noirs such as The Asphalt Jungle and Side Street, where she inevitably played a moll or a femme fatale. "Jean Hagen was a legit actress. She'd never done comedy before so she didn't just play a ditzy blonde, she approached the role as if she were a ditzy blonde and she was brilliant," Donald O'Connor said on the DVD. Sadly, Hagen never really succeeded at capitalizing on her Singin' success except for earning three Emmy nominations playing Danny Thomas' wife on Make Room for Daddy. Hagen tired of the role though and quit, prompting a pissed off Thomas to kill her character off and change the show's title to The Danny Thomas Show. Hagen herself also died young, succumbing to throat cancer at 54 in 1977.
Following the premiere of The Royal Rascal and Lina's complaints about never being able to talk, despite the studio P.R. flaks trying to explain that it's to preserve her image as well as her insistence that she and Don's engagement exists and their romance wasn't cooked up by Monumental Pictures for publicity purposes. "Lina, you have to stop reading those fan magazines," Don tells her. "There's never been anything between us and there never will be." She just laughs it off, but the P.R. guys convince her that she and Don should travel to the after-party at R.F.'s house in separate cars to elude the fans and the press. Don hitches a ride with Cosmo in his jalopy which, unfortunately, gets a flat tire not too far from Grauman's, causing Don to be swarmed by fans seeking autographs, clothing and, perhaps one of his limbs. Cosmo offers no help to Don in this situation. When Don yells to him to call him a cab, Cosmo, standing out of range of the melee, simply says, "OK. You're a cab." Lockwood manages to escape the frenzy by leaping over a car and onto the roof of a streetcar before jumping into a young woman's convertible, causing her to scream, convinced he's a criminal fleeing the law. He tries to calm her down, but she spots a police officer and pulls over and the cop immediately recognizes him and then the young lady (Debbie Reynolds) realizes why he looked so familiar to her in the first place. She tells him her name is Kathy Selden and agrees to drop him off at his house so he can get out of the shredded tuxedo that he's wearing, explaining that its ventilation resulted from "a little too much love from my adoring fans." Kathy expresses shock that they would do something like that to him and thinks it's just terrible. Don thinks her sympathy might give him the opportunity to make some moves on the girl, trying to wring as much as he can out of the "burden of stardom" line. "Well, we movie stars get the glory, I guess we must take the little heartaches that go with it," he declares as he snakes his arm around her shoulder. "People think we lead lives of glamour and romance, but we're really lonely. Terribly lonely." Lockwood lays it on so thick even Lina would see through it and Kathy takes note of his hand and apologizes for mistaking him for a criminal before. She just knew she recognized him from somewhere. Don asks which of his movies she's seen, but Kathy can't remember which one it was. She thinks he was dueling in it and it had "that girl, Lina Lamont" in it. "I don't go to the movies much. If you've seen one, you've seen them all," Kathy says, putting a damper on his amorous mood rather quickly. His arm returns to his body, now crossed. "No offense. Movies are entertaining enough for the masses, but the personalities on the screen just don't impress me. They don't talk, they don't act. They just make a lot of dumb show," Kathy proclaims, scrunching her face in imitation of their facial mannerisms. "Like what I do," Don says. "Why yes," Kathy responds with a smile. Now, not only has Don lost any desire he had for this young woman, he's thoroughly pissed off. Do Kathy's criticisms about silent acting sound or, more accurately, read as familiar to you? If you're having trouble visualizing the context, remove Don and Kathy from the car, make Kathy a miscast brunette and rising sound movie star speaking too loudly during a radio interview at an upscale restaurant while Don dines at a nearby table, sports a mustache and overhears the insults to his profession indirectly. Also, let's swap out the gorgeous Technicolor cinematography by Harold Rosson for supercrisp, 21st century black-and-white imagery. Getting the picture now? If you're still in the dark, I imagine this photograph I've placed on the right should jog your memory. I know I refer to his quote too often, but when Godard said, "The best way to criticize a film is to make another film," he spoke words that cried out for repeated use. What puzzles me is how Kelly and Donen, Comden & Green and the rest of the Singin' in the Rain creative team applied Godard's advice pre-emptively, making their film rebuttal to the lackluster Oscar winner of 2011, The Artist, nearly 60 years before Harvey Weinstein bought the film its best picture statuette (and before Godard said that quote either, for that matter). Too bad Irving Berlin composed "Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better)" for the musical Annie Get Your Gun instead of Freed & Brown — it would serve nicely as background accompaniment showing how Singin' in the Rain kicks The Artist's ass on every level.
When I wrote my review of The Artist, I admitted that I struggled to get a handle on the film. At first glance, it seems harmless but something gnawed at me. I watched it a second time before I wrote about it and figured out that it contained little beyond references and artifice. I did make a huge error on one point so blindingly obvious, I didn't see it at the time. I wrote, "Surprisingly, The Artist tends to steer clear of any direct references to the classic Singin' in the Rain… I don't think The Artist dared to go there because comparing it to Singin' in the Rain would be too dangerous. It can toss out references to great movies such as Citizen Kane, Vertigo and Sunset Blvd. because as a whole The Artist bears little resemblance to those films. Singin' in the Rain holds a mirror up to the essential emptiness inside The Artist." How I missed the borderline plagiarism in both imagery and plot turns. (The Artist's George Valentin even transforms himself from an adventurer in films to a song-and-dance man just as Don Lockwood does in Singin' in the Rain only The Artist doesn't provide a backstory to show that Valentin had any previous musical experience; Kathy Selden similarly gets discovered by the studio head in the chorus of a musical, though she doesn't rise as Peppy does in The Artist because of other factors,) The only explanation I can propose for missing steals that obvious stems from The Artist being too pedestrian for me to notice its similarity to something that rises so much higher in the ranks of cinematic greatness. Back to the brilliant movie. Don asks Kathy what she plans to pursue as a career that allows her to look down so much on his profession and — surprise — her goal involves serious acting in the theater. She plans to move to New York eventually. Kathy manages to get Lockwood so steamed by the time she drops him off at his house that when he tries to depart with some cutting remarks, his coat stays behind in her car door, getting shredded further, much to Ms. Selden's delight. Don stomps inside his home while Kathy drives on, stopping at another house and asking a servant if it's R.F. Simpson's house, explaining that she's from The Cocoanut Grove. "For the floor show," the servant says before pointing out where to park. Inside R.F.'s spacious mansion, the festivities commenced some time ago. Throngs of men surround Lina for a chance to light her cigarette; Olga Mara dominates the dance floor tangoing with some young buck; Cosmo makes time with a young lady with promises that he can get her into movies; R.F. holds court, wondering what's keeping Don. Lockwood finally appears in a tuxedo that hasn't been torn to pieces, but his spirits certainly could use boosting. He asks Cosmo if he thinks he's a good actor. "As long as Monumental Pictures signs my checks, I think you're the greatest actor in the world," Cosmo laughs before realizing that Lockwood isn't kidding around. He then tries to reassure Don sincerely. Don informs Cosmo he may need to be reminded occasionally. R.F greets Don, telling him that he's been holding his main attraction until he showed up. R.F. orders the movie screen opened, "A movie? We've just seen one," Don declares. "This is a Hollywood party — it's the law," Cosmo responds. Simpson informs everyone that he's about to show them something this madman has been coming into his office and bugging him about for months. When he gets the signal that everything is ready, the lights go out. Shuffling papers echo throughout the room and the long narrow face of a mustachioed man (Julius Tannen) addresses the room. "Hello! This is a demonstration of a talking picture. Notice, it is a picture of me and I am talking. Note how my lips and the sound issuing from them are synchronized together in perfect unison." The party guests think it's a trick with one woman accusing R.F. of hiding behind the screen until Simpson speaks up behind here. After the clip ends, the opinions vary. "It's a toy," one man grunts. "It's a scream!" a woman shouts. "It's vulgar!" Olga proclaims. R.F. informs them that production already has started on Warner Bros.' first talkie, The Jazz Singer. "They'll lose their shirts," R.F. says with certitude. "What do you think of it, Dexter?" Simpson then asks of Monumental's biggest director, Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley). "It'll never amount to a thing." Roscoe replies. "That's what they said about the horseless carriage," Cosmo adds. Unlike The Artist, everyone keeps their heads buried in the sand about the coming sound revolution instead of presenting it as only Valentin against the world — a much more realistic look at the state of the times in a flat-out comedy. After the partygoers finish laughing at the idea of talking pictures, R.F. announces another surprise for his "starlets" Don and Lina — and he takes the pair to another part of the room where a man wheels a huge cake in for all to see. It truly surprises Don when he sees who pops out of that cake — and he's ready to mock the "high standards" of Ms. Selden mercilessly (and we get to see Debbie Reynolds' first number of the movie).
Where the clip ends, Don keeps pestering Kathy and a jealous Lina shows up. "Say, who is this dame anyway?" Lina wants to know. "Oh someone lofty and far above us all. She's an actress from the legitimate stage," Don informs Lina. Kathy has reached her limit and tells Lockwood, "Here's something I learned from the movies" as she grabs a pie — only Don's reflexes are quick and Lina's aren't so she gets the face covered with cream pie as Kathy darts from the scene in horror while Lina screams. Lina vows to kill her despite Don's insistence that Kathy had been aiming at him. Cosmo, always willing to help a situation, tells Lina that she's never looked lovelier. "It was an accident," Don insists to Lina. "Sure. Happens to me five or six times a day," Cosmo adds. Lockwood, who could care less about Lina Lamont, goes off in search of Kathy Selden, leaving Lina alone and covered in pie, crying his name. The other Cocoanut Grove girls inform him that she just "took her things and bolted," Don runs outside in time to see her car speeding away. He yells her name to no avail. He starts to return to the party, but instead just looks off wistfully and smiles. According to film historian Rudy Behlmer on the DVD commentary, one of the early drafts of the screenplay called for Don to sing "All I Do Is Dream of You" as a ballad at his home while wearing pajamas. As much entertainment as Singin' in the Rain has provided so far, its excellence only will escalate in terms of comedy, songs and dance — and this behind-the-scenes Hollywood story harbors some doozies of behind-the-scenes Hollywood stories of its own.