Film Response #4 – Singin' in the Rain (1952)

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This was yet another American classic that I had yet to view, and I really enjoyed it overall. Below, I focus on how a five-minute sequence about a third of the way through the film the film appears to comment on how the film industry has curated the public’s definition of “beauty” and has centered on the sexual appeal–and not the artistic craft–of female performers.

Left: A dancer (Cyd Charisse); Right: Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) in Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

For all of the glamorous and glorious theatrics that Singin’ in the Rain (1952) includes, which have been the basis for its legendary stature, one particular sequence during a crucial transition in the main plot is seemingly awkward and forced but is woven into the narrative in a clever manner. At approximately a third of the way through the film, the sudden success of the first “talkie” The Jazz Singer has motivated the studio’s president R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) to halt production of the next Lockwood and Lamont film The Dueling Cavalier and upgrade to creating their own talking picture. Just before this plot transition, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) informs Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) that she was responsible for the firing his new love interest Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), which further divides Lockwood and Lamont as a congenial working couple. This desire to add synchronous speech to their films presents a problem for the studio and Don: Lina’s nasal voice and crass vocabulary will make the transition to talking pictures a seemingly insurmountable task. At 00:34:30, the film director, studio president, and Don Lockwood slowly turn toward her, and each man’s non-verbal expression–perhaps a cinematic nod to the silent film era–clearly represent their collective realization that Lina will complicate this shift.

The scene cuts to three brief spinning-newspaper swish pans, providing viewers with barely enough time to see the Variety headlines touch on the success of the talking films. The sequence that follows–which concludes with an extended scene of what appears to be the filming of a women’s clothing advertisement supplemented by the song “Beautiful Girl”–seems to interrupt the existing plot lines, but it symbolizes Don and Kathy’s relationship while providing an exaggerated synopsis of the advanced technology within the film industry in the 1920s. 

This sequence opens with an extreme close-up of three women jovially and synchronously singing the lead-in of an upbeat tune (00:34:40) and becomes a montage of various samplings of songs that feature synchronous and asynchronous singing. The second shot is a medium close up that features a series of women in matching musical note dresses and dancing with the upbeat rhythm. This cuts to four men, seemingly on their backs and with their heads in close proximity to one another in a high angle shot while singing synchronously. A second upbeat song shifts simultaneously into a long shot of over a dozen women dressed as toy soldiers. The camera zooms in quickly on the face of the faux-marching woman at the apex of the inverted V formation. At 00:34:55, the image shifts to a bizarre shot of a string of women’s uncovered legs rapidly placing right feet upon left knees on top of a vibrant green speckled background. Two seconds later, the song and image changes again, revealing a bowtied man bellowing a ballad through a megaphone. The megaphone is brought into an extreme close-up, and the chorus of showgirls–now in bright pink hats and dresses–are superimposed within the centralized close-up of the megaphone’s amplifying end. The next brief cut reveals a dancing woman in a flapper dress appearing to the left of a saxophone held by disembodied hands. The series of bare women’s legs reappears in the same angle as before but in standing position in what could be a dance studio. As the montage heads toward its close, the rapidity of images increases, first with a candy-stripe-suited man and woman in the midst of a dance performance, then a return to the toy soldiers, the megaphone ballad, the candy-stripe suit, a new trio of men locked together and tap dancing on an invisible platform, the musical note-dressed ensemble, and a mix of a few others before the culminating swipe-out back to the ballad singer surrounded by the chorus girls, one of whom is, we ultimately see, Kathy Selden. 

This sequence is highly sexualized, which nods at the public fandom toward Don and Don’s attraction to Kathy. However, embedded within this sequence are song snippets that match the imagery and action, but jar the viewer until the camera zooms out to reveal that Simpson is supervising a non Lockwood and Lamont production. Pointed out as “That girl on his right [who] looks familiar” (00:35:42), Simpson brings attention to Selden, and Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) realizes she’s the mysterious woman for whom his best friend Don has been searching for several weeks. This plot point was necessary to reunite Selden and Lockwood, and it also provides an opportunity for what Jane Feuer notes as the true basis for the film’s creation: the song catalog (487). The cache of song samples during the sequence (00:34:30 — 00:39:32) includes bubble-gum tunes concerning a man’s anticipation a relationship ending, a woman’s wedding day, a ballad expressing a man’s hesitation to be forthright in his feelings, and the extended ballad “Beautiful Girl”, the lyrics of which seem to prioritize the subject’s looks over her intelligence. While the specific lines of “Beautiful Girl” are arguably quite reductive toward women, they emphasize the parallel of Don and Kathy’s relationship. 

Thus, in a film that tends to “wink” at itself and poke fun at Hollywood’s misrepresentation of real life and real interpersonal relationships, Singin’ in the Rain further complicates its stature by incorporating existing songs like “Beautiful Girl” in a thinly veiled commercial manner while attempting to de-sexualize silent film stars like Lina and promote multi-talented performers like Kathy.