Singin’ in the Rain opens at the 1927 premiere of The Royal Rascal, a costume drama starring above-the-credit silent film stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont. On the red carpet, Don tells the adoring crowds about his training in the arts of high culture, framed by the motto, ‘Always dignity’. A montage shows us the real story: pool hall dancer; beer hall fiddle player; performer in low-rent vaudeville houses; a film career that began when Don replaced a stunt-man injured on the job. We also learn why Don despises his co-star, Lina Lamont. After the premiere, Don meets and falls for Kathy Selden, a nightclub performer and aspiring actress. Stunned by the monumental success of The Jazz Singer, Monumental Pictures bets that Lockwood and Lamont can make the transition to sound. When their first effort, The Duelling Cavalier, flops, Don, Kathy, and Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown decide to remake The Duelling Cavalier as a musical, with Kathy acting as a vocal double for Lina Lamont. Singin’ in the Rain closes at the opening of The Dancing Cavalier. A coda reveals a billboard advertising Monumental Pictures’ next blockbuster, a Lockwood/Selden musical called Singin’ in the Rain.
Singin’ in the Rain holds a privileged place in the canon of American movies, comparable to the places held in the rock and roll canon by Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Among the various top-10, -25, -100 lists on which this 1952 nostalgia fest has appeared the most emblematic (and most frequently cited) may be Sight & Sound’s 1982 poll of critics for the 10 best movies of all time: Singin’ came in fourth; no other musicals made the list. Indeed, while musicals were among the most popular forms of Hollywood entertainment during the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and the genre remains beloved among devoted cinephiles, musicals tend to be marginal in film surveys. Dramas, melodramas, and comedies dominate this and most comparable lists, along with representative thrillers and Westerns and the occasional science fiction or horror film. Musicals are often cloying; their plots challenge even the most devoted viewer’s capacity to suspend disbelief; the music doesn’t always age well. What makes Singin’ in the Rain different?
To address this question, it’s worth asking another question: what is a musical? A few American films offer points of comparison. Casablanca (1942), many people’s favourite movie, includes a good deal of diegetic music; five different songs are performed in their entirety within the imaginary world of the film. ‘As Time Goes By’ and ‘La Marseillaise’ provide crucial thematic structure. But most people would not call Casablanca a musical.
One cannot define musicals as movies in which characters sing and/or dance without any plot motivation. The question of the relationship between musical numbers and the surrounding plot (if there is any) is often complex. In ‘integrated’ musicals songs advance plot or develop a character in various degrees, while revues hardly have a plot. But distinctions are often not that clear. Backstage musicals, such as Gold Diggers of 1933, deal with the problem of characters spontaneously breaking into song or dance by locating their plot in the entertainment world. Nor can we limit the definition to movies, like West Side Story, which feature original music (original, in this case, to the stage show on which the film is based). Of the 12 songs performed in Singin’ in the Rain, 9 appeared in earlier MGM musicals. Only two – ‘Moses Supposes’ and ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ – were written for Singin’. (Even this is a stretch. ‘Make ‘em Laugh’ has virtually the same musical structure as Cole Porter’s ‘Be a Clown’, the finale of The Pirate (Vincente Minnelli, 1948).)
Singin’ is the last, and best, of a post-Second World War sequence of what are now called juke-box musicals. Warner Brothers started the trend with Night and Day (1946), a sanitised and fictionalised version of the life of Cole Porter. An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain, both produced by the Arthur Freed unit, both starring Gene Kelly, represent the most successful examples of the MGM jukebox musical. American is built around a catalogue of songs composed by George Gershwin with lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Singin’ is built around songs composed by Herb Nacio Brown, with lyrics by Arthur Freed. While neither is a biopic of the Night and Day genre, Singin’ glorifies producer Freed – who began his MGM career as a lyricist – and Kelly – whose name appears in the credits three times: as above-the-credits star, as choreographer (with Stanley Donen), and as co-director (also with Donen).
Of course, this movie does more than glorify its creative team. Singin’ in the Rain is about movie magic. Set in the historical moment when sound film threatened the supremacy of silent film, this movie mythologises the development of the movie musical, and presents movie magic as evidence of film’s superiority to the cinema’s new, terrifying, and never-mentioned competitor: television.
Singin’ in the Rain’s intertextual relationship to Babes in Arms (1939), the first musical produced by Freed, is particularly noteworthy. Babes is the prototypical ‘let’s put on a show in the barn’ movie. Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland play children of vaudeville performers whose livelihood disappeared when sound film killed vaudeville. In Babes the vaudevillians’ children put on a musical show to forestall their parents’ insolvency.
In Singin’, three characters hatch a plan to put on a musical movie and save a studio. The film dramatises the transition from vaudeville to the movies twice: in the opening sequence, when Don Lockwood moves from vaudevillian to stuntman to star, and again in the ‘Broadway Ballet’ sequence, which dramatises the ascent of a Lockwood-like character from no-name to Broadway star. Although this number glorifies The Great White Way, everything about it reinforces its cinematic qualities. The number demonstrates that the movies can encompass all other performing arts – song, music, dance – and offer them all up in a glossy package.
As a film, Singin’ is structured by musical spectacle, nostalgia and creative anachronism. Musical spectacle dominates the diegesis from the film’s opening moments to its closing. The credits feature a very wet performance of the film’s title song by the film’s three stars: Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds. The film’s closing moments feature a duet of Kelly and Reynolds singing ‘You are my Lucky Star’, a number finished by an invisible choir as Kelly/Don Lockwood and Reynolds/ Kathy Selden are transformed into billboard images advertising a film called Singin’ in the Rain. While this film qualifies as a backstage (or backlot) musical, and the plot motivates the performance of some musical numbers as entertainment or as components of a film within the film, other numbers, which express character moods, exist mostly as spectacle.
After the opening credits, the film locates us firmly in a nostalgia-inflected past. A billboard at the centre of the frame advertises the premiere of ‘The Biggest Picture of 1927’ at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. We settle in for the pleasures of a nostalgia film: we’ll appreciate the retro costumes and antique cars, and smirk at the characters’ inability to foresee a future that is already past. Viewers with any knowledge of film history will immediately note the significance of 1927, the year The Jazz Singer was released, which along with other films signalled the beginning of the end of the silent film era. When studio chief R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) shows a talking picture at the post-premiere party, his guests pronounce it: ‘a toy’, ‘a scream’ and ‘vulgar’. A director intones, ‘It’ll never amount to a thing’. Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) appears to be the only one with any foresight when he says, ‘That’s what they said about the horseless carriage’.
In the next scene, on the front lot at fictional studio Monumental Pictures, Cosmo reads a headline from Variety about The Jazz Singer’s smashing success in its first week. An extra looks up from his coffee to opine that it will be flop in the second. This kind of dramatic irony is frequently used by Hollywood to offer viewers a position of superior knowledge: in films made about the 1920s, characters fail to anticipate the stock market crash. In films set in 1941, characters don’t know Pearl Harbor is about to be attacked. In fact, experiments with sychronised sound go back virtually as far as experiments with film technology. Sound shorts were far from unknown before the release of The Jazz Singer. However, Warner Brothers was willing to bet the studio on a film starring Al Jolson, the most popular performing celebrity of the day, and were able to convince enough theatre owners to rewire their houses for sound. A successful earlier short featuring Jolson convinced the Warners to build their gamble around him. Nonetheless, the transition to sound film did not happen overnight. It took three years for sound film to fully replace silents as the dominant product of the Hollywood system.
Some of the pleasures of Singin’ come from the film’s willingness to both grant us positions of superior knowledge and give us backlot passes. We see silent film production, and then see the new technologies of sound film on display. We are granted the illusion that we are seeing how movies are really made. Just as we are privy to the artifice through which movies are created, we are privy to the artifice through which stars are created. As Kelly/Lockwood narrates the publicity department version of his career, we see images of the ‘real’ history: the education of a third-rate vaudevillian who started his movie career as an on-set musician and got a break as a stuntman. Of course, the ‘real’ story is as staged as anything else in the movie. Since we know we are watching a fictional film, we are in on the joke. The interplay between artifice and ‘reality’ continues throughout the film, from the invented romance between Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont through the dubbing which substitutes Kathy’s voice for Lina’s in the musical version of The Dancing Cavalier.
As with any film, artifice made visible to the audience masks other kinds of artifice. In Singin’ the most mind-boggling joke played on us concerns vocal dubbing. While Reynolds sings for herself in ‘All I do is Dream of You’ and ‘Good Mornin’’, other voices are dubbed over Reynolds’ when Reynolds/Kathy is shown dubbing in her voice for Lina Lamont’s. Betty Noyes actually sings the song recorded for The Dancing Cavalier, while Jean Hagen, the actress who plays Lina, speaks the dubbed dialogue attributed to Selden.
The film creates a similar illusion about film history, compressing years of history into weeks or minutes. Even as we swallow the fictionalised version of film history we are struck by a raft of anachronisms, many apparent even to casual moviegoers. The most significant anachronism is the use of dubbing technology to dub Kathy’s voice over Lina’s. Even if casual viewers were not aware that this technology was not available to the filmmakers of 1927, when synchronised sound was a technology in progress, they might notice the discrepancy between the ‘Beautiful Girls’ number and the later love scene from The Dueling Cavalier. When filming The Dueling Cavalier, the camera is placed inside a soundproof booth (an actual booth used in early sound pictures). The Monumental Pictures crew goes to great lengths to ensure that Lockwood and Lamont’s voices get recorded without extraneous noise such as a thrown cane or the beating of Lina’s heart.
Showing this rocky transition to sound, the film represents some real bumps on the road to sound film. However, when filming ‘Beautiful Girls’, not only is the camera freed from its booth, while sound is recorded through an overhead microphone, but R. F. Simpson manages to carry on a conversation with the director without interfering with the filming. The number concludes with an overhead camera shot of dancers forming kaleidoscopic patterns, a technique of choreographing and filming dance numbers pioneered by Busby Berkeley in the early 1930s, years after Singin’ takes place. In the earliest film musicals the camera films headon while simultaneously recording the sound. The sound quality was often poor and the camera was mostly immobile.
More than most (or perhaps any) musicals from the period, Singin’ in the Rain never feels wholly dated. The pace, the production values, and the quality of the performances are crucial. The interplay between artifice and greater artifice flatters viewers. The film can acknowledge the artifice of movie magic and still use movie magic to seduce its audience, which is fine with us – we would not be watching if we did not want to be seduced. Steven Cohan makes this point succinctly in his argument about and Singin’s status as ‘the first camp picture’. He writes: ‘Singin’ in the Rain stands out as “the ultimate MGM musical” because it can simultaneously be appreciated as one of the best films ever made and as feel-good escapism from a bygone era that still works its movie magic’ (2005: 202–3).
Produced when Hollywood was panicked about a new competitor – television – this glorification of movie magic, and of the all-encompassing capacity of the musical, reminds viewers to remember the silver screen. That tiny black and white TV set might help you keep up on old movies, but nothing can match the glorious feeling you get from the big screen, technicolor, star-studded, MGM musical.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: MetroGoldwyn-Mayer. Directors: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly. Producer: Arthur Freed. Cinematographer: Harold Rosson. Editor: Adrienne Fazan. Art Directors: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons. Set Decoration: Jacques Mapes, Edwin B. Willis. Costume Design: Walter Plunkett. Cast: Gene Kelly (Don Lockwood), Donald O’Connor (Cosmo Brown), Debbie Reynolds (Kathy Selden), Jean Hagen (Lina Lamont).]
Rick Altman, The American Film Musical, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1989. Steven Cohan, Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical, Durham, Duke University Press, 2005. Scoto Eyman, The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talking Revolution, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1997. Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical, 2nd ed., Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1993.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.