STILL SINGING: SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and COVER GIRL

July 17, 2012

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Singin’ In the Rain (1952) is 60 years young in 2012, a birthday which Warner Brothers is celebrating with a dazzlingly remastered Blu-ray that comes out today. Richly textured with popping primary colors, this is the best the film will look outside a screening of a new 35mm print. Last week, the boutique home video distributor Twilight Time released a Blu-ray of Cover Girl (1944), the first film in which Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen were given free rein to choreograph their own dance routines, under the auspices of director Charles Vidor. Licensed from Columbia Pictures, the transfer of this Technicolor film is dark with fluctuating color intensities – Rita Hayworth’s hair doesn’t quite blaze off the screen like it should. That technical quibble aside, these releases are a wonderful excuse to revisit the work of Kelly and Donen, and what struck me this time around was the violence of some of their routines, borne out of a melancholy that would come to the fore in their final collaboration, It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).

Cover Girl was promoted as the first musical to integrate its musical numbers into the plot, arising out of and advancing the story. There are sure to have been predecessors, but this was the biggest hit, and became the most influential. The story is a boiler plate backstage musical, with dancing girl Rita Hayworth rocketing to stardom after winning a magazine cover girl contest, and having to struggle with leaving her nightclub manager Gene Kelly for the bright lights of Broadway. The story arc is a predictable drag, but the film has some incredible compensatory pleasures, from its score to its choreography.

Rita Hayworth’s Svengali Harry Cohn was not enthused with the casting of Gene Kelly and his “tough Irish face”, and Columbia originally wanted to borrow Dennis Morgan from Warners to play the lead. Kelly was slated to appear in Dragon Seed (1944), but when that project was postponed, MGM extended his loan out to Columbia, and movie history was made.

It’s a film of firsts. It was Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin’s first pairing for a film production, writing the future standard “Long Ago and Far Away”. And then there is Kelly and Donen being granted creative control of their routines, a canny move by producer Arthur Schwartz. You can see the duo bursting with inventiveness, eager to break out of the stodgy confines of the story. The most famous is the “Alter Ego” dance routine, in which Kelly confronts his conscience over Hayworth stepping out with another man, dancing a duet with his super-imposed image on the dark studio streets of New York, the rage-filled inverse to the title Singin’ in the Rain softshoe. He chases himself across the street, each mirror-image seeming to pull the string on the other, until the “real” Kelly destroys the superimposed one by smashing his image with a garbage can. Cover Girl doesn’t dare play out the self-destructive impulses this sequence implies.

Singin’ In the Rain is such a contradictory pleasure, a film that parodies the artificiality of film construction, but in turn uses that construction to create one of the most giddily entertaining movies of the period. This is encapsulated in the “You Were Meant for Me” ballad, sung in an abandoned sound stage. We see Kelly arrange the set, flicking on the fill lights and industrial-strength fan, and watch Debbie Reynolds ascend a ladder and arch her back to appropriately catch the artificial wind and rays. But by the end of the sequence, as Jane Feuer wrote in her seminal The Hollywood Musical, “the camera arcs around and comes in for a tighter shot of the couple…reframing to exclude the previously exposed equipment. We regress from an expose of romantic duets to an example of a romantic duet.” I would quibble with her use of “regress”, but there is definitely some sleight-of-hand here, except we have already been shown how the trick works.

This trick also appears in my favorite number in the film, and one of the two original songs (along with “Make ‘Em Laugh”, “Moses Supposes”.The pleasure of the sequence comes out of the seeming sponteneity of their actions, from twirling a tie to using curtains as veils. But of course this sequence was meticulously planned out. It’s hard to make something look this easy. Violently anarchic, this elocution lesson ends up, as in the “Alter Ego” number, with up-ended trash cans and a feeling of ecstatic release. This is pitched in a comic rather than dramatic mode, with Kelly and Donald O’Connor parodying the nasal stuffiness of the teacher by inventing a nonsense rhyme and tap-dancing the room into submission.This introduces another favored Hollywood trope, that of upsetting the apple cart of “high art” with the more spontaneous, communal pleasures of the low arts; in Singin’ in the Rain, it’s vaudeville. This theme is brought to its apex in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, but it’s present here too, most famously in the opening montage, in which Kelly’s gaseous voice-over about “Dignity, always dignity”, is replaced with the reality of his hoofing it as a vaudevillian and stunt man.

“Alter Ego” allowed Kelly to cut loose without the less schooled dancer Hayworth, and the same is true here, with Kelly paired with the astoundingly athletic O’Connor, and they end up stamping an office table, tapping on a pair of wooden chairs before trashing the room. When Kelly is paired with a classically trained dancer in Cyd Charisse for the “Broadway Melody” routine, it can only be done in a fantasy sequence, so the down-to-earth quality of Kelly’s character is not upset by the delicacy of his sublime work with Charisse. Her impossibly sharp angles and Kelly’s rounded movements melt into an inflammatory erotic reverie, punctuated by those delirium inducing ascending crane shots. It is another privileged moment when Kelly loses his grip, and it is moments like these that make up  It’s Always Fair Weather, in which army buddies reunite and realize their past friendship may have been a sham.  Kelly threatens to finally fall apart completely, but instead he simply loses his audience, and that film signaled the end of the classical Hollywood musical.

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