Monday, April 30, 2012
A vision for all — perhaps not meant for one man alone
"I was most jealous of Truffaut — in a friendly way — with Jules and Jim. I said, 'It's so good! How I wish I'd made it.' Certain scenes had me dying of jealousy. I said, 'I should've done that, not him.'" — Jean Renoir
By Edward Copeland
From the first time I saw Jules and Jim in high school, the movie became a personal touchstone and remains one as we mark its 50th anniversary. Truthfully, I know the parallels my teen eyes recognized between myself and others in my life then didn't mirror the characters on screen as closely as my imagination wanted to believe, but as that fantasy faded away, I began to appreciate more of the artistry of a film that I already loved. In addition to what Jules and Jim contains within its frames, the movie also forged the connection I've always felt with François Truffaut.
If you discovered, probably early in your life, that your genetic makeup left you susceptible to artistic impulses of some kind — it needn't matter whether that creative bent took the form of movies, writing, art, music, whatever — the odds weighed heavily toward you falling for at least one Catherine in your lifetime. (Now, I'm speaking from the point-of-view of a straight male. I wouldn't dare presume straight female or gay perspectives, though I've witnessed similar dynamics secondhand.) As far as we go, the Catherines of the real world function like those purple-hued bug zappers hanging on summer porches and inevitably drawing us like moths to their pulsating light and our doom — and we wouldn't trade one goddamn miserable minute of it if it meant losing a single second of the joy. This isn't a new phenomenon: F. Scott had his Zelda and Tom had his Viv during the same era when Jules and Jim takes place. (A brief aside: I think Tom sent me a personal message from the past when he published The Waste Land in 1922 and penned those lines, "April is the cruellest month.") To casual and outside observers, proclaiming that Catherine must be crazy comes rather easily and mounting a counterargument against that assumption makes for a steep climb. Yes, our real world Catherines come with a fair amount of mental instability, as do we, but without our neuroses and idiosyncrasies, we probably wouldn't be drawn to these wild, wonderful, wounding women in the first place. Of course, Henri-Pierre Roché's novel and François Truffaut's film take the men's point-of-view, even when filtered through Michel Sobor's narration, so Jules and Jim aren't portrayed as being as unstable as Catherine. The closest the male friends come shows through Jules' fear and neediness at times. As for the Catherines of the real world, people do have the capacity for change, no matter what David Chase might believe, and can end up being vital parts of your life even as you become the one holding the monopoly on the madness in the friendship. It's a cliché, but it originates from truth: Most of the best art stems from suffering. Anyone remember Billy Joel during the years when he and Christie Brinkley were happily married? Jules and Jim, for me at least, represents a cinematic temple to that idea. Of course, it also begs the question that if misery breeds great art, why in the hell haven't I accomplished something of note?
Jules and Jim made its U.S. premiere April 23, 1962, the same year the film made its initial debut in France on Jan. 23. Though it marked Truffaut's third feature film as a director following The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim was only the second of his films to reach U.S. movie theaters. Shoot the Piano Player, though it opened elsewhere in 1960, wouldn't get its U.S. release until July 23, 1962. (Like Jules and Jim, The 400 Blows reached U.S. shores in the same year, 1959, that Truffaut's directing debut did elsewhere, just a few months later.) As I remind people as often as possible, all opinions about movies are subjective. Before beginning my lovesick tribute to what I think holds the title as the true masterpiece born of the French New Wave, I feel that I shouldn't pretend all critics agreed about Jules and Jim and I'd allow one to have his say before I got started. "With the years, I've sometimes felt the reputation of Jules and Jim is a bit exaggerated," this former critic said to Richard Roud, then-director of the New York Film Festival, in October 1977 on a television program called Camera Three. The ex-critic added, "and that I was too young when I made it." That appearance happened to be François Truffaut's first time on American television. I guess you can remove the man from the role of film critic but you can't take the critic out of the man. "I continue to re-read the book every year. It was one of my favorites. I've often felt that the film was too decorative, not cruel enough, that love was crueler that that," Truffaut went on to tell Roud. Now, François, don't be so hard on yourself. For those who haven't seen Jules and Jim, I'll be vague, I think you could call the film's dénouement fairly devastating. Besides, most recognize (or know from experience) that cruelty usually crosses love's path at some point. On top of that, the subject cuts too close to Truffaut for him to judge. Jules and Jim may speak to me in personal ways, but that isn't why the film rests among my 20 favorite films of all time. As John Houseman used to claim in TV commercials about how Smith Barney made money, Jules and Jim got that rank on my list "the old-fashioned way. It earned it."
While I knew that Jules and Jim originated as a novel by Henri-Pierre Roché, it wasn't until I obtained the Criterion edition that I learned that Roché loosely based it on his relationship with Franz Hessel, a German writer who translated Proust into German (as Jim does in the film) and Helen Grund, who became Hessel's wife and herself translated Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita into German. Legend has it that Roché also introduced Gertrude Stein to Pablo Picasso through his original career as an art dealer and art collector. Though the circles that Roché circulated in preceded the time period of Woody Allen's recent Midnight in Paris, he did know many of the literary and artistic figures depicted in Allen's fantasy. The real-life coincidences that brought Truffaut and Roché together border on the extraordinary. Truffaut stumbled upon the novel in a secondhand bookstore and it led to a letter-writing relationship between himself and Roché where the young critic Truffaut promised that if he ever made movies, he would bring Jules and Jim to the screen. Jules and Jim was the first novel that Roché ever wrote — which he did at the age of 74. His second novel, also autobiographical, Two English Girls and the Continent, eventually became the source material of a later Truffaut film, Two English Girls. Two English Girls, sort of the inverse of Jules and Jim with two women pining for the same man, marks its 40th anniversary this year but unfortunately, like too many other great films I'd like to write about this year, no proper DVD copy has been made for rental or at a reasonable price, the same situation that in the past two years has befallen other films such as Steven Soderbergh's Kafka, Barbet Schroeder's Barfly with its great performances by Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway and two of John Sayles' very best films — City of Hope and Matewan. Who said only old classics become lost films? With the constant format changes, some never made the leap from pan-and-scanned VHS. A true travesty, but I've digressed from the subject at hand. Roché didn't live long enough to see the movie of his first novel, but the film version brought best-seller status to his book that it never saw in his lifetime. One aspect that didn't occur to me until I re-watched the movie for this tribute: Not only has the film reached its 50th anniversary this year, 2012 also means a full century has passed from where its story begins in 1912.
The film starts in blackness — literally if you were in a French-speaking country or watching without subtitles. You hear a voice (Jeanne Moreau's as Catherine, though we wouldn't know that yet) say, "You said, 'I love you.' I said, 'Wait.' I was about to say, 'Take me.' You said, 'Go.'" Then, quite abruptly, Truffaut launches us into the film's imagery with a bouncy spirit, playing music beneath the credits that seems to herald that a carnival lies ahead courtesy of prolific film composer Georges Delerue, who scores the entire film, though it won't all sound like this energetic romp which accompanies clips, some of scenes that will arrive later in the film, others that just fit the tone of the piece — such as Jules and Jim jokingly fencing with brooms. As with many others, Delerue would collaborate with Truffaut on nearly all of his films, having first worked on Shoot the Piano Player. We'll also get a glimpse of an hourglass, its sand pouring through to clue us in advance of the importance the passage of time serves in the story. We see our first swift sightings of Moreau as Catherine, though her actual entrance into the film doesn't occur immediately. While Catherine certainly acts as the catalyst for most events in Jules and Jim, her name isn't in the title for a reason. At its heart, Jules and Jim spins a story of friendship between two men. Oskar Werner's Jules acts as the outsider, the Austrian in Paris, until Henri Serre's Jim takes him beneath his wing, acting, quite literally, in the early days of their acquaintance as Jules' wingman. As with many Truffaut films, Jules and Jim employs a narrator (Michel Subor) not only to for exposition purposes but because Truffaut wanted to maintain as much of Roché's prose as possible in the adaptation he co-wrote with Jean Gruault. Jules and Jim's friendship begins when Jules, the foreigner in Paris, approaches Jim blindly to see if the Frenchman might wrangle him an invitation to the Quatres Arts Ball. Jim succeeds and a friendship blossoms as they search for a slave costume for Jules to wear to the event. From that, the men began to teach one another the other's language and culture and shared their poems, which they'd translate into the other's native tongue. Before long, the men saw each other every day, talking endlessly, finding common ground such as, the narrator informs us, "a relative indifference toward money." The omniscient voice also tells the viewer, "They chatted easily. Neither had ever had such an attentive listener." Jules though lacks luck when it comes to love in Paris, even of the transitory kind while Jim draws women to him as if he were a magnet. Jim finds getting women so easy that he willingly hands some off to Jules, including a musician. "They were in love for about a week." This early setup runs us through the women, most of whom bear little importance to the story so they receive scant attention from the film. Desperate for some amorous action, Jules even ignores Jim's warning to stay away from the "professionals" only to learn that he should have trusted Jim's word and avoided the disappointment. This changes one evening, when the men encounter a woman named Thérèse (Marie Dubois) seeking refuge from her loutish anarchist boyfriend who blames her for a shortage of paint that he thinks will make people believe that anarchists don't know how to spell.
What separates Jules' and Jim's relationship with Thérèse from what lies ahead with Catherine comes from Thérèse clearly indicating a preference between the two men, in this case Jules. Though Dubois' role takes up very little screen time, she does prove a charmer (and remember that U.S. moviegoers, at the time of Jules and Jim's release, had yet to see her film debut as the waitress Lena in love with Charles Aznavour's piano-playing Charlie in Truffaut's second feature, Shoot the Piano Player). When they return to the house, Jules acts the part of the gentleman, offering Thérèse his bed while he sleeps in a rocking chair, but romance occurs quickly and rectifies that situation. That hourglass first spotted in the opening credits reappears and Jules explains that he prefers it to a clock. When all the sand passes through to the bottom, that means it's time to go to sleep, he explains. She simply smiles and tells him he's sweet. Thérèse demonstrates for Jules her trick that she calls "the steam engine." She places a lit cigarette in her mouth and puffs out her cheeks like a blowfish and then chugs in a circle in the bedroom until she has reached Jules' chair, one of the many, recurrent visuals of circular imagery that Truffaut utilizes in the film. You shouldn't feel bad for Jim — he's busy bedding his frequent lover Gilberte (Vanna Urbino) and making excuses to depart her bed before the sun rises despite her request to lie beside her for a complete night for a change. Jim nixes that idea, saying that if they did that they might as well be married and she'd expect him to stay the next night as well. Gilberte expresses skepticism at his excuse, especially when he suggests that she imagine he's working at a factory, betting that his plan involves sleeping until noon. Later that night, Jules, Jim and Thérèse go to a café and no sooner have they sat down that after making eyes at another man, Thérèse asks Jules for some change to play music. He complies, she takes the money and the man follows her. Thérèse asks if she can stay with him that night and the two depart. Jules starts to stand in outrage, but Jim grabs his arm and he sits back down. "Lose one, find 10 more," Jim advises. Jules admits that he didn't love Thérèse. "She was both mother and doting daughter at the same time," Jules says, sighing that he doesn't have luck with Parisian women. He shows Jim photos of some of the women back home he loves, presenting them in order of preference and contemplating returning for one of them in a couple of months if the situation in France doesn't change. However, Jules lacks a photograph of one named Helga so he sketches her in broad strokes on the café's table. Jim tries to buy the table, but the establishment's owner refuses unless he purchases the entire set.
That night, they go to the home of Jules' friend Albert (played by Serge Rezvani, a renaissance artist, though he prefers the term multidisciplinarian, who billed himself as Bassiak here and added the first name Boris when taking credit as the composer of "Le Tourbillon" that Moreau memorably sings) to see his slides of ancient sculptures he found around the country. (Somehow it slips my mind between viewings of Jules and Jim how little dialogue the actors actually get to speak openly in the film in favor of voiceover. For example, when Jules and Jim enter Albert's place, they exchange introductions out loud but then Henri Serre as Jim doesn't simply ask Oskar Werner's Jules, "Who's Albert?" Instead, we hear Michel Subor's narrator say, "Jim asked" — When I first heard this the first few times I watched the film, it sounded as if Subor narrated this entire dialogue. After hearing it for the umpteenth time, it sounds as if Subor merely starts it the Serre asks in voiceover, "Who's Albert?" with Werner's voice replying, "A friend to artists and sculptors. He knows everyone who'll be famous in 10 years." I can't say with 100% certainty which interpretation stands as the correct answer. I've looked for verification, but found none. Jules' response tipped me in that direction because Werner's voice can be distinguished easily from Subor's while Serre's falls in the same vocal range.) One slide of a stone face particularly strikes the friends' fancy — and Subor definitely describes this, informing the viewer, "The tranquil smile of the crudely sculpted face mesmerized them. The statue was in an outdoor museum on an Adriatic island. They set out immediately to see it. They both had the same white suit made. They spent an hour by the statue. It exceeded their expectations. They walked rapidly around it in silence. They didn't speak of it until the next day. Had they ever met such a smile? Never. And if they ever did, they'd follow it. Jules and Jim returned home, full of this revelation. Paris took them gently back in." Later, Jules and Jim hit the gym where they spar with some kickboxing. Jules inquires about the progress of Jim's book. Jim tells him he thinks it's going well and will turn out to be very autobiographical and concern their friendship. He proceeds to read Jules a passage. "Jacques and Julien were inseparable. Julien's last novel had been a success. He had described, as if in a fairy tale, the women he had known before he met Jacques or even Lucienne. Jacques was proud for Jules' sake. People called them Don Quixote and Sancho Panza and rumors circulated behind their backs about their unusual friendship. They ate together in small restaurants, and each splurged on the best cigars to give the other." Jules finds the writing beautiful and offers to translate it to German. Jim's brief allusion in his novel to "rumors" about his friendship with Jules marks the closest the film ever comes to implying anything homoerotic between the men. While Jules and Jim opened the door for many cinematic variations on your standard triangle, we'd still need almost 40 years before Y Tu Mama Tambien. As the guys shower, Jules announces that his cousin wrote him and three girls that studied with him in Munich would be visiting Paris — one from Berlin, one from Holland and one from there in France, Jules plans to host a dinner for the visitors the next night. Neither friend has any idea who Catherine happens to be yet or that she will be the French girl in that group of visitors. This Quixote and Sancho soon will be tilting at a very shapely and unpredictable windmill that will change the course of all three lives forever. The next night, when Catherine (Moreau) descends the stairs and lifts the lace netting covering her face, her resemblance to the sculpture stuns Jules and Jim, something Truffaut emphasizes through quick cuts, and Michel Subor's narration, and the young men will keep the oath they made to that statue — they've found that smile, now they must follow it.
While for me, Jules and Jim stands at the high watermark of the French New Wave films, I know many others won't agree and when you look objectively at the story of Jules and Jim, it may employ many of that movement's techniques but many aspects of Truffaut's film set it apart from its cinematic brethren such as its period setting and a time span that covers more than two decades. Jules and Jim also caused moral uproars about the open relationships among the various characters in the film (and though Jules, Jim and Catherine might be involved simultaneously, they never took part in a ménage à trois). In a funny way, the 1962 film forecast the free love movement to come later that decade except its source material happened to be a semiautobiographical novel set in the early part of the 20th century. The prurience though lies in the mind of the fuddy duddy because part of what makes Jules and Jim so special comes from Truffaut's refusal to pass any judgment, be it positive or negative, upon the behavior of his characters. Despite the director's own criticism many years down the road that the film isn't cruel enough when it comes to love, the three main characters do suffer by the end but he doesn't paint it as punishment for their sins.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
"She's a force of nature that results in cataclysms."
In countless interviews, several excerpted on The Criterion Collection two-disc edition DVD of Jules and Jim, François Truffaut repeatedly admits that what attracted him to the story in Henri-Pierre Roché's semi-autobiographical novel lay in the concept of a love triangle where a film portrayed neither man involved as better than the other. He tells the interviewer questioning him at any given time that intrigued him because the cinematic tradition always paints one of the suitors as inferior. The film critic turned director certainly succeeded with his third feature film, aided immensely by those he cast as the triangle: Oskar Werner (his first name spelled as Oscar in the credits) as the Austrian Jules, Henri Serre as the French Jim and, most indelibly, the intoxicating Jeanne Moreau as Catherine, the French-English object of the title characters' affections. What wows you about Jeanne Moreau's performance though is that for all the brash acts that Catherine commits, Moreau doesn't play Catherine as a stereotypical nut. That "calm smile" referred to that relates Catherine to that statue exists in her performance most of the time as well. When you try to think of new ways to describe her work, it doesn't help when her director used to be a film critic and gave a great summary of it in a 1965 interview: "Jeanne Moreau's acting was like a slalom run against all the possible clichés. I left her free like the other actors to do as she saw fit." Man, I wish I'd written that. It wasn't enough that he made an all-time great film, he has to come up with better review lines as well?
Things move fairly swiftly once Moreau's Catherine enters the picture even though the film does cover a great expanse of time almost from the moment she appears. After the dinner, the narrator informs us that Jules more or less vanishes for a month, spending every day with Catherine, only encountering Jim at the gym. In a steam room meeting, Jules finally invites Jim to hang out with him and Catherine and as the two head up to see her, Jules admits that she inquires about Jim quite often, wondering what he's like. Despite the fact that Jim has been nothing if not generous to Jules when it comes to women, Jules makes a point of stopping him before they go in to meet her and says the line that originally made the film speak so personally to me, "But not this one, Jim. OK?" I almost spoke those exact words to someone, not that it mattered, and my antennae proved to be tuned correctly to pick up that signal far in advance of my real-life story (of which you will receive no further details). Upon that first "real" meeting, Catherine seems eager to join the boys' club, losing her dress to put on the costume of a man who Jules calls Thomas. She wants to see if she can fool others out on the street so the three depart and, sure enough, before too long a man asks "Thomas" for a light. For many, it would be easy to leap to a feminist interpretation of this scene, seeing it as Catherine's bid to be treated as a man's equal back in 1912 and to be judged by the same rules, but once you've seen Jules and Jim in its totality, that conclusion doesn't quite ring true. Catherine (a) doesn't get judged by anyone within the film and (b) operates under her own set of rules, unique to her and her alone. As the trio continues to wander, "Thomas" thinks that a bridge offers a great spot for a footrace and challenges Jules and Jim. She makes her first mention of rain or water, as Catherine also frequently bring associations with fire. Truly, the woman represents an elemental force (or a James Taylor song). To watch the clip of the race, I suggest going full screen because the image plays very tiny. YouTube offers other clips of the scene but so many of them lack subtitles, I thought it best to go with this one.
In that clip, though we'd earlier seen Jules express a mild fear that Jim could woo Catherine from him, we see that it doesn't matter much what Jules or Jim wants — the great friendship has become a threesome and Catherine controls what the group does, immediately deciding that all three will be departing for the shore the next day and selecting Jim to help her get her bags to the train station. (It's also telling that she not only proposes the foot race, but she cheats in it to win as well.) The clip cuts off before we get a few more important lines courtesy of our omniscient narrator who says, "Jim considered her to be Jules' and didn't try to form a clear picture of her. Catherine once again wore that calm smile. It came naturally to her and expressed everything about her."
When Jim shows up at Catherine's apartment, she hasn't completed packing yet and still wears her flowing white nightgown, telling Jim she must put her dress on. Catherine chastises him immediately for not following the superstition and placing his hay on the bed. "Never put a hat on a bed," she chides. First, other things need taking care of before they depart. She dumps a pile of crumpled papers onto the floor from a porcelain bowl and requests a match from Jim who complies and asks what she's doing. "Burning these lies," she tells him. It's not stated explicitly, but I've read references that identify the papers as love letters but doesn't identify either the author or recipient. The pile quickly turns into a tall blaze that leaps on Catherine's nightgown, but Jim leaps to extinguish the flames rapidly. We had the first reference from Catherine to rain, now we have her first connection to fire. She goes behind her changing screen and asks Jim to hand her the dress hanging on the wall by her bed. When changed, Catherine realizes that she almost forgot to add a bottle to her suitcase. Jim inquires what liquid it contains. "Sulfuric acid, for the eyes of men who tell lies," Catherine explains. Jim warns her that the bottle could break in transit and end up burning through her things. Besides, she can get sulfuric acid anywhere. Reluctantly, she empties the bottle down the sink. "But I promised I would only use this bottle," she tells him as he gathers her luggage. She places hit hat back atop his head and affixes her own to hers and they head off for the train station to join Jules. I can't say with any sense of certainty how many times in the past 25 years I've watched Jules and Jim, but each time I notice something new or view a scene in a new light and that's a trait common to many of the greatest cinematic gifts we've been handed. For instance, I don't recall observing the large number of locomotives, actual, figurative or near where trains run. We've seen Thérèse show off her "steam engine" skills and heard the sounds of a train nearby before Catherine selects the bridge beneath the track for the foot race. We see obvious stock footage of a train rolling by the countryside. Once again, Michel Subor describes the journey to us. "They searched up and down the coast before finding the house of their dreams. Though too big, it was isolated, imposing, white inside and out, and empty."
That describes the house but none of those adjectives remotely apply to the movie itself. Many of the greatest films often include a magical ingredient that no matter how many times you've watched them, you forget the exact order in which scenes come. Usually though, that only applies to films that don't follow standard chronological order (the most famous and obvious example being Orson Welles' Citizen Kane), but somehow Truffaut accomplished that trick in Jules and Jim as well and its narrative follows a straight line and contains nary a flashback. I think any movie that can pull that off should be considered a film critic's best friend since it stamps out any risk of slipping into synopsis. As I prepared for this tribute, taking my notes and marveling at the available YouTube clips, part of me wanted to make sure that I wasn't showing scenes out of order, forcing me to check my chronology again and again. Finally, there came a point where I said, "What the hell am I doing?" First off, I want people to watch Jules and Jim. Secondly, while I'd love to show all these great scenes and repeat the memorable lines, I'd much rather readers discover them for themselves (or be reminded again if they choose to pay a return visit to the film). To give you the briefest update of what occurs after the three settle in at the house, Jules almost immediately asks Jim if he thinks he should propose to Catherine. Jim expresses skepticism, wondering if Jules pictures Catherine as a wife and mother. "I'm afraid she'll never be happy on this earth," Jules responds. He goes ahead and pops the question to Catherine anyway, telling her that if she doesn't answer, he'll ask her again every year on her birthday. "You haven't known many women, I've known lots of men. It balances out. We might make an honest couple," Catherine replies. It isn't exactly a yes or a no, but eventually they do wed. Soon though, The Great War intervenes to separate all three of them.
The war and post-war sections interested me the most in this viewing with the intercutting of stock footage (which isn't actual World War I footage, since there wasn't a lot of filming in that conflict so Truffaut had to use clips from re-creations of the fighting from old films) with scenes of Jules and Jim — fighting on opposite sides — worrying about accidentally killing the other during a battle. It's with relief that Jules writes Catherine that he's being transferred to the Russian front which he figures makes it less likely he'll face his friend in battle. Everyone returns from the war safely. Jim spends some time visiting some war memorials and cemeteries before eventually reuniting with Jules and Catherine, who have added a third — their young daughter Sabine (Sabine Haudepin, who still acts to this day, mostly on French television, and appeared in one of Truffaut's final films, The Last Metro). Jules confides that his home isn't as happy as it appears, though he has accepted Catherine's frequent infidelities. He just fears the thought that she'll leave sometime and not return. Jim assures him that she'll always come back to Jules because she loves his "Buddhist monk quality." However, the war has changed Jim and it's easy to tell it's more difficult for him to maintain his distance from Catherine for the sake of his friend. One of the more interesting post-war sequences occurs when Jules and Jim chat about the experience of war, joined by Albert (Serge Rezvani/Boris Bassiak), who has been one of Catherine's recurring lovers.
Jules and Jim provides so many points of entry, so many possible paths for discussion, that you could choose a topic a day and keep busy for quite some time. That's partially why it's taken me so long to complete this piece. The rest of the blame falls on illness and the calendar. Honestly, if I could put myself into a self-induced coma for the last couple of weeks of April each year, I would. One final clip I'd like to share (which again works better if you watch it full screen) doesn't have as much importance plotwise as it does in terms of filmmaking and one of Truffaut's trademarks.
On the Dec. 2, 1965, episode of the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps titled "François Truffaut ou L'esprit critique," Truffaut spoke at length on the topic of freeze frames and this particular use. He pointed out that in part the scene poked fun at Moreau's previous roles in films such as Antonioni's La Notte that tended to be deadly serious. However, the process isn't as easy as one might think.
"It was hard freezing her expressions there. In the editing room, it looked very sharp and nice so I did it elsewhere in the film, but it can quickly get to be a habit. I stopped doing it after a few films. I stopped using it as a visual effect. Now I use freeze frames only for dramatic effect. They're interesting providing viewers don't notice. You sense them, but an image is only perceptible — it takes eight frames for a shot to register. Fewer than eight frames and it's virtually unreadable, unless it's a tight close-up."
One thing I've noticed while comparing the various YouTube clips (when they actually have subtitles) and the Criterion version of those scenes is how frequently translations differ, For example, in the clip above when Catherine asks for someone to scratch her back, Jules replies, "Scratch and Heaven'll scratch you." On the Criterion translation, his response reads much better and, I imagine, more accurately, "Heaven scratches those who scratch themselves."
I keep thinking back to the comment François Truffaut made in 1977 about being "too young" when he made Jules and Jim. If he'd made it at any other age, it wouldn't be the same movie and probably wouldn't hold the same appeal for so many. Granted, critics of an older age appreciated and praised the film at its release, but for Jules and Jim to grab you, really grab you, and maintain that grip over the years, I think you need to be young when you see it the first time, and that's why Truffaut, not yet 30 but captivated by the novel since 25, had to be young as well. I found this clip on YouTube and knew I had to include it. It's the great actor John Hurt extolling the virtues of Jules and Jim and what an impression it made on him. He was 22 when it opened.
As for Truffaut himself, I don't know what attracts me to him as a filmmaker so much. The obvious answer would be the critic-turned-filmmaker aspect, but it's not as if he stands as the only film critic who made that leap and I certainly don't carry affection for the others as I do him. I'm very mixed on Godard and think Peter Bogdanovich made a single masterpiece. It might be that he seems as if he's the heir to Jean Renoir. On the other hand, my list of favorite filmmakers runs on awhile and few resemble the others exactly. I did think of one connection to another director that I never would have thought of before when watching Jules and Jim this time (or more specifically its extras). As Truffaut time and time again referenced his love of literature and film and why he felt the need to include as much of the novel's prose in the form of narration as he could, that may mark the first time I connected Truffaut to Scorsese, specifically with his wondrous adaptation of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, where Joanne Woodward served the Michel Subor role.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
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.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE
And you can charm the critics and have nothing to eat
When you get right down to it, everything that happens up to Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) accidentally missing Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and giving Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) the pie in the face, serves as exposition for the remainder of Singin' in the Rain. (If the credits had been delayed until this point, it would have put Raising Arizona's opening to shame 35 years in advance.) That could be a huge detriment to a film, but here it grows a mighty oak from which the biggest laughs, the greatest songs and the most memorable dance numbers spread forth. As Al Jolson said in The Jazz Singer, "You ain't heard nothin' yet" only in Singin' in the Rain, you ain't seen nothin' yet either. In many musicals — either those produced exclusively for the movies back in their heyday right up to new ones premiering on stages today — the musical numbers usually exceed the books in quality (a quite common problem throughout the career of Stephen Sondheim, whose many scores rank among the greatest in musical theater history but often come shackled to lackluster or problematic scripts). Singin' in the Rain doesn't suffer that kind of problem because Betty Comden & Adolph Green's screenplay never slows down long enough to take a breath, let alone allow writing weaknesses to interfere with the glory of what Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen cook up with the Freed/Brown songbook. The next scene we see following R.F.'s party shows Guy arriving on the Monumental Pictures lot three weeks later, ready to commence shooting on the next Lockwood & Lamont silent spectacular The Duelling Cavalier (and yes, they spell Duelling with two l's in the film), another romantic, swashbuckling epic set during the French Revolution.
Don spots Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) reading Variety and chatting with an actor in full costume for a jungle feature being filmed. Cosmo fills them in about The Jazz Singer being "an all-time smash in its first week." The other actor continues to be a sound movie naysayer, predicting, "And an all-time flop in the second." Lockwood's mind obviously rests elsewhere, so the news doesn't capture his attention. He only mentions that he's back reporting for duty and walks off with Cosmo, ducking to avoid ruining a shot in a Western filming next to the jungle picture. Don tells Cosmo that he now can refer to him as Count Pierre de Bataille, alias the Duelling Cavalier. "Why don't you release the last one under the new title? You know — if you've seen one, you've seen them all," Cosmo jokes, but Don gets serious and asks him why he said that. When Cosmo inquires what riled him, Lockwood explains that Kathy said that to him. Cosmo expresses surprise that the girl remains on Don's mind and assures him that he didn't get her fired from her job at the Cocoanut Grove. Cosmo suggests that Don's preoccupation stems from the fact that she was the “first dame that hasn’t fallen for your line since you were four.” Cosmo, intent on cheering his buddy up, gives him his version of "the show must go on" speech, leading to O'Connor's solo number. During the preparations of Singin' in the Rain, Donen noted that there wasn't really a suitable solo number for O'Connor to perform and asked Arthur Freed if perhaps he and Nacio Herb Brown could write a new song for him. Freed agreed and inquired what kind of tune they needed. Donen suggested something along the lines of Cole Porter's "Be a Clown" which Kelly and Judy Garland performed in 1948's The Pirate, which Garland's husband at the time, Vincente Minnelli, directed and Freed produced. When Freed returned with "Make 'Em Laugh," everyone's jaws dropped. Musically, the song nearly matched "Be a Clown" note for note. Here are the two clips. First, O'Connor's energetic and delightful rendition of "Make 'Em Laugh" (The four-pack-a-day smoker sang, danced and performed acrobatically so enthusiastically, it sent him to bed for three days of rest, or perhaps hospitalization, afterward. To make matters worse, the footage got destroyed and he had to re-create the routine once back at work.) and then Kelly and Garland's number from The Pirate.
"None of us had the nerve to say, 'Arthur, this song is too close. You can't do that.' So we used it. Arthur brought Irving Berlin down on the stage when we were shooting 'Make 'Em Laugh,'" Donen said in a documentary on the fabled Freed Unit on MGM included on the 50th anniversary DVD. "Obviously, Berlin knew 'Be a Clown'…and as the song went on his head got lower and lower and lower and after about eight bars, he said to Freed, accusingly, 'Who wrote that song?' Arthur said, 'That's enough, Irving. We don't need to hear anymore. The guys and I, we all got together and we wrote the song. Come on, Irving.' And that was the easing out without admitting he had somewhat borrowed some of it." You would think that with music that so obviously mirrored Porter's earlier song, Porter would have filed a lawsuit, but he didn't. The prevailing conventional wisdom, such as written by Cecil Adams, theorizes that Porter "was still grateful to Freed for giving him the assignment for The Pirate at a time when Porter's career was suffering from two consecutive Broadway flops." Partially plagiarized or not, "Make 'Em Laugh" was one of only two songs in Singin' in the Rain written specifically for the film. The other, "Moses Supposes," stands out as the sole tune in the movie not written by Freed & Brown, instead composed of lyrics by Comden & Green and music by Roger Edens, the associate producer of the film and, according to Comden in the same documentary, "the backbone of the Freed Unit in every department." Green added that "(Edens) was the original trainer and overseer of Judy Garland." Edens also added a little something special to the film's most famous song. More on that later.
Stolen music or not, if O'Connor's bit weren't enough to tickle your funny bone, what comes next may well be my personal favorite nonmusical scene of the movie. Director Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley) calls for his stars to come to the set to begin shooting The Duelling Cavalier. Lina exits her trailer in full 19th-century regalia, complaining about the period garb she wears. “This wig weighs a ton. Who would ever wear something like this?” she asks. Everyone used to wear them, Roscoe assures her. “Then everyone was a dope,” Lina declares. Don arrives, continuing to be crestfallen about Kathy — and even dim Lina detects what's bugging him. Lockwood expresses guilt about her firing when Lina admits that they weren't going to can her until she called and insisted. Before Don can throttle his co-star, Roscoe steps in to explain that in the scene about to film he needs to remember that he's madly in love with her. The moviemaking scenes in general but this one in particular pays off with some of the film's comedic highlights and makes me wonder if in the days of silent filmmaking, something similar ever occurred since no microphones picked up their words. It echoes the film's opening, when Don told the fans and radio listeners one thing while moviegoers saw the truth. This dialogue, delivered calmly, goes on while the two go through the motions of Don as Count Pierre de Bataille trying to seduce the maiden of the French aristocracy.
DON: Why you rattlesnake you, you got that poor kid fired.
LINA: That’s not all I’m gonna do if I ever get my hands on her.
DON: I’ve never heard of anything so low. What did you do it for?
LINA: Because you liked her. I could tell.
DON: So that’s it. Believe me — I don’t like her half as much as I hate you, you reptile.
LINA: Sticks and stones may break my bones.
DON: I’d like to break every bone in your body.
LINA: You and who else, you big lummox?
After Roscoe calls cut, Lina tries to insist that Don couldn't kiss her like that and "not mean it just a teensy bit!" Don glares at her. "Meet the greatest actor in the world! I'd rather kiss a tarantula." She thinks he's lying. He requests a tarantula. Before the quarreling can continue, R.F. (Millard Mitchell) storms onto the set. It seems that he reads Variety also. He announces the closing of the studio for a few weeks — to reconfigure it for sound filmmaking. The sensation of The Jazz Singer has changed everything. "I told you these talking pictures would be a menace," R.F. shouts, conveniently forgetting his own history. He tells Roscoe and Don that movie theaters already have started adding sound equipment and they can't risk being left behind. The Duelling Cavalier now will be a talking picture. "Talking pictures, that means I'm out of a job. At last I can start suffering and write that symphony," Cosmo sighs. "You're not out of job, we're putting you in as head of our new music department," R.F. informs the pianist. "Oh, thanks, R.F.! At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony," Cosmo gladly accepts. Don expresses worry, saying that they don't know anything about this talking picture business. It doesn't bother R.F. It's the same thing — just add talking. "Don, it'll be a sensation! Lamont and Lockwood: they talk!" Simpson proclaims. Then, from across the set, a voice adds, "Well of course we talk. Don't everybody?" Uh-oh. You think the P.R. flaks at Monumental Pictures feared Lina speaking in public or on the radio — now what would they do when a collision between that voice and the masses couldn't be avoided. Diction coaches sounded like the best short-term solution. In the meantime, the studio dived into the lavish musical business — so lavish that Singin' in the Rain was considered one of the more expensive films made in that era at $2,540,800 (with $157,250 spent on Walter Plunkett's costumes alone). Compare that to The Godfather's budget of $6.5 million 20 years later. Using the Labor Department's Inflation Calculator, the Singin' in the Rain budget would be worth $22,416,892.06 today, but only $3,957,784.62 when The Godfather filmed. One look at the complete production number for "Beautiful Girl" (with Jimmy Thompson singing the song) and you see where much of that costume budget went. Sondheim cites Brown & Freed as one of the songwriting teams whose style he mimicked in his pastiche numbers in Follies. Follies even contains a song called "Beautiful Girls," but it sounds nothing like the Freed & Brown song. The "Beautiful Girl" sequence does contain an important plot point though since Cosmo spots Kathy in the chorus and rushes off to tell Don and R.F. likes her as well and decides to hire her to play the younger sister of Zelda Zanders (Rita Moreno) in her movie (slightly humorous since only four months separated her and Debbie Reynolds in real life).
As you no doubt noticed by now, movies that mean a lot to me such as Singin' in the Rain do start me prattling on like the grade school student I described in the first half of this piece. When you combine that with the accumulated knowledge I've gathered over the several decades since and new goodies I've picked up from commentaries, my impulses push me to regurgitate it all and ignore the writer inside me who yells, "Enough already! People stopped reading this before you even created the second page. You wonder why so few leave comments?" (I also must ask why I'm getting wordier the older I get. I love films such as Goodfellas and The Rules of the Game even more, but I kept their tributes to a page.) Prompting and provoking my worst traits in this regard happens to be the colossal collection of embeddable clips from Singin' in the Rain that YouTube contains. Admittedly, not every musical number exists in a pristine presentation — and the 17-minute "Broadway Melody" ballet sequence only gets represented by two clips of the Cyd Charisse portions of the epic dance piece — but YouTube even has examples of some of the hysterical dialogue scenes. The movie contains so much that I want to share it all. Granted, ruining twists in it wouldn't be the same as it would be in other films where the plot turns contain some significance, but in other ways, it would be worse here. I've seen films such as Fight Club where I've gone in knowing the twist and loved them anyway. You can't untell a joke. As much as I might want you to hear Gene Kelly sing "You Are My Lucky Star," I can't show you that clip because if you haven't seen the movie — well, dammit, you should and you should see him sing it in context. As far as all those backstage, insider details that I could toss your way, I'm going to let some slide. Otherwise, I'd never finish this tribute.
I feel I must share one particular number because it doesn't earn the kudos that the more widely seen musical sequences such as "Make 'Em Laugh," "Good Mornin'," "Moses Supposes" and, of course, the title song, do. When Don learns that Cosmo has found Kathy — and on the Monumental lot, of all places — Lockwood doesn't waste any time clearing the air between them and making his true feelings known. However, there is a hitch. Just as Don the actor lacks experience with dialogue, Don the man also stumbles when it comes to putting his thoughts into words. In this sequence, you see a very subtle theme that lurks beneath the film's surface. It isn't just the transition from silent films to sound ones but about the love of language in general and using the proper words. To feel more comfortable, Don takes Kathy on to an empty soundstage to sing his feelings to her. Originally, film historian Rudy Behlmer said on the DVD commentary, they planned for Kelly to sing the song while taking Reynolds on a tour of changing backdrops such as London, Paris and a jungle. Instead, they settled on the empty soundstage and it may be one of the best decisions since not going with Howard Keel as a silent Western star for the lead. Harold Rosson's use of Technicolor on the sparse set makes for one of the loveliest scenes in the film.
I praised her extensively in the first half of this tribute, but I can't allow Jean Hagen's brilliance as Lina Lamont to receive mention in part one alone, especially when a fun bit of Singin' in the Rain trivia makes the actress's work all the more impressive. First though, let us backtrack to more of the funniest moments of the movie (which all inevitably involve Lina) as we see a brief snippet of her session with diction coach Phoebe Dinsmore, played by the wonderful character actress Kathleen Freeman, who died just two weeks after lending her voice to the commentary track. At the time, Freeman appeared in her Tony-nominated role in the Broadway musical version of The Full Monty but her credits were so extensive, you had to have seen her in something. Perhaps as Fred Ward's gun-toting mom in The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. Second, as Roscoe films Lina and she drives the director insane because she can't grasp the concept of speaking where they've placed the microphone. That leads to one of Lina's best one-liners in the entire film. As you might expect if you haven't seen the film (again, what the hell are you waiting for?), the premiere of the sound version of The Duelling Cavalier turns into a big bust. Actually — and fortunately for Monumental Pictures — the showing merely was a preview, not the opening to the public. Cosmo, during an all-night session of bemoaning the death of Don's career with Don and Kathy, comes up with the idea of turning The Duelling Cavalier into a musical — until they recall a problem known as Lina Lamont. "Lina. She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat," Cosmo comments. They then get the bright idea — which Kathy agrees to do and R.F. backs as long as Lina doesn't know Kathy provides the voice — to have Kathy dub all of Lina's singing and dialogue. One of the songs in the re-titled Dancing Cavalier is a short number called "Would You?" They construct the sequence quite nicely, beginning with Kathy recording the song then cutting to squeaky-voiced Lina doing the same. We switch to seeing Lina in color lip-synching to Kathy as they film the scene until it slowly turns to black-and-white and R.F. gives his approval in the screening room. The scene from the movie:
Later, Don and Kathy have a scene where Kathy dubs Lina's dialogue in her love scenes with Don and the two confess their true feelings for one another. Now, why does any of this involve a bit behind-the-scenes True Hollywood-style craziness? Because, for whatever reason, Donen and Kelly didn't think that Reynolds' voice resonated strongly enough in "Would You?" During the other songs in the movie that she performs (admittedly none were solos), the singing voice does indeed belong to Reynolds, but they didn't think she worked here so in the scene where Debbie Reynolds portrays Kathy Selden dubbing Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont's singing, Reynolds herself had her voice dubbed by Betty Noyes, somewhat of a mystery dubber whose few other verified credits include singing the Oscar-nominated "Baby Mine" in Dumbo, though since Dumbo was born when Walt ran the show, no voices received credit. It gets stranger. The powers-that-be also ruled that Reynolds speaking voice didn't sound right to replace Lina's dialogue. Instead, Jean Hagen used her natural voice to dub herself doing the Lina voice for the scene. Follow all that? By the way, if you are curious, the take of "Would You?" using Reynolds' singing exists here.
Seventeen minutes of a "Broadway Melody Ballet" never had been planned for inclusion in Singin' in the Rain and, truth be told, as much as I love the film and admire the sequence itself, it sticks out like a sore thumb. For all of the sequence's extolling of that "Broadway Rhythm," this segment is the only part of Singin' in the Rain where its rhythm breaks down and the fault lies entirely with the success of An American in Paris, which Oscar or no Oscar for best picture, I've never liked the film that much (except for Oscar Levant). For best picture, it defeated A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. Those eligible but not nominated for the top prize included An Ace in the Hole, The African Queen, Alice in Wonderland, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Detective Story, The River, The Steel Helmet and my personal choice, Strangers on a Train. However, An American in Paris had a ballet in it so Freed, Donen and Kelly figured that they better put one in Singin' in the Rain no matter how incongruous it would be. The original idea of a Broadway-type number that would have included O'Connor and other cast members got tossed as production shut down on the film for four months. The delay put the kibosh on any chance of O'Connor taking part in the finale anyway since, though Rain was an MGM production, Universal had loaned him to them. "They preempted me at Universal. We finished the picture. It took us about nine months, if I recall correctly, then Gene was gone about four months…and (Universal) had other plans for me. They wanted me to work with the jackass again," O'Connor said, referring to his film series with Francis the Talking Mule. "So I went back and worked for them. That's the reason I'm not in the finale." Behlmer said in the commentary that an early draft ended with everyone showing up to the premiere of the movie Broadway Rhythm and Don and Kathy were married as were Cosmo and Lina, if you can believe that.
"What originally was going to be a relatively simple number budgeted at $80,000 came in at more than $600,000 because of the extension of it and elaborateness and the fact they had Cyd Charisse who had just had a baby and had to get back in shape," Behlmer said as he talked of how Kelly and Donen kept expanding the size, scale and time of the "Broadway Melody" sequence. While I do enjoy this sequence, it plays as if someone spliced it into the film from another picture by accident. On top of that, the early part, where Don plays an eager would-be hoofer going door to door in New York trying to find an agent bears a slight resemblance to the movie's beginning depicting the early struggles that he and Cosmo had. His character in the "Broadway Rhythm" fantasy even eventually ends up in vaudeville. The notion that he tries to sell to R.F. about why The Dancing Cavalier needs this sequence doesn't quite hold water either, but they try to explain that away in two parts, giving half the idea to Cosmo who suggests to get modern numbers in make the movie be about a hoofer who reads A Tale of Two Cities while backstage waiting for his call when he gets hit in the head with a sandbag and imagines all the French Revolution stuff. That doesn't quite mesh with the 17-minute sequence that Don describes to R.F., so it's understandable that he says, "He can't quite visualize it. He'll have to see it on film." (Reportedly, that phrase often came out of Arthur Freed's mouth but he didn't catch the joke they made at his expense. Cyd Charisse puts on some damn sexy dance moves though as a gangster's moll with a Louise Brooks hairdo (a gangster who does a George Raft coin flip). I also enjoy the finish of the sequence when Kelly rises above all the lit Broadway theater signs and it practically looks three-dimensional. Here's the first encounter with Charisse for you to enjoy. What a great place to hang your hat, eh?
When they first planned what arguably became the most famous musical number in film history, "Singin' in the Rain" was going to be a trio. After the disastrous preview of The Duelling Cavalier, Don, Kathy and Cosmo together, in that "at some point things just got so off-the-charts bad, it just got funny" spirit, would splash out the title tune. One night, an idea struck Gene Kelly and he phoned Arthur Freed and told him that he wanted to do it as a solo. Freed inquired as to what Kelly had in mind, but he didn't really have an answer except that he'd be singing and dancing in the rain. Sounds easy enough, but a lot of work went into that memorable little scene. First, as most film buffs know and I'm sure I've mentioned in relation to other movies, it's damn hard to get rain to show up on film. In the case of Singin' in the Rain, the mixed milk in with the water so the downpour showed up better. As always in these situations, the lighting had to be adjusted correctly so that not only did the rain show up, but so did your principal figure and backgrounds. The milk-water mixture had an unintended side effect as well: It shrank Kelly's wool suit the wetter it got and this scene took days of filming. That's right, days, which required covering the street sets of MGM's back lot with black tarp to make it appear as if it were night outside. To make matters worse, Kelly wasn't at his best. Illness had caught up with the workaholic who filmed parts of the scene with a temperature of 103 degrees.
The streets on the MGM back lot didn't come ready made with puddles. Those had to be built — or I guess broken would be the more proper term. "The puddles in the street were all faults we built because that is where he was going to be at that particular moment. We chipped out the pavement and the sidewalk and made puddles for him to splash in," Donen said in the Freed Unit documentary. While the crew may have deconstructed puddles for Kelly to splash in, they couldn't control the water pressure when the clock hit the right time of the day. "As people got home around 5 o'clock, they would start watering their yards because the hot sun had been beating down and the water pressure would suddenly drop enormously. We used a lot of water raining that whole street and when we tried to turn on our water, we'd just get a drip around 5 or 5:15 in the afternoon," Donen said. One matter that did stay in their control were transitions, something that film historian Rudy Behlmer said mattered a lot to both Donen and Kelly. Immediately preceding the "Singin' in the Rain" number was when he dropped Kathy off at her place after the all-night session that came up with the musical idea and she gives him a chaste kiss goodnight (or good morning, to be accurate) which prompts his elation. Donen and Kelly still sought some way to get from the doorway to the song and that's the other Roger Edens contribution I alluded to earlier. Edens added the little vocal vamp at the beginning that wasn't in the original version of the Freed & Brown song. "Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo/Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo/Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo/Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo…I'm singin' in the rain" They added the dancin' as well. You wouldn't think a string of sounds or nonsense words could make that big a difference, but can you imagine that number without them? They might as well be a magic spell.
How can anyone watch that and not have their spirits lifted immensely? That song has survived being placed in a horror context in A Clockwork Orange, yet it still makes me smile. Even though Singin' in the Rain regularly tops lists of superlatives now, few awards came its way in 1952. Donald O'Connor won a Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy and Betty Comden & Adolph Green won the Writers Guild of America award for Best Written American Musical. (How about that for a very specific category?) Green said on the commentary track that he thinks he knows why the film didn't get the kudos then that it received in the years since. "It never won any big awards because, maybe for the simple reason, I think maybe, that it was funny. It didn't seek significance because people were laughing and doing odd things." Let's hear it for people laughing and doing odd things, especially when they did it as well as they did in Singin' in the Rain.
TO READ ON, CLICK HERE