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. 

Film Response #2 – Citizen Kane

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For our second response paper, we were asked to view Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) and analyze a scene and/or cinematic technique. Here’s what I submitted. I do really like the film, but there are some glaring plot holes that disturb me to my non-critical core.

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Within its non-linearal structure, one significant two-minute flashback in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) that takes place during the interview of Mr. Leland (Joseph Cotton) at the hospital includes six brief scenes demonstrating the breakfast time exchanges between Kane (Orson Welles) and his first wife Emily Norton (Ruth Warrick), and these scenes feature clear and subtle clues to the sour trajectory of Kane’s first marriage. As the camera dissolves from Leland in the foreground to the early days of Kane’s marriage to Emily in what critic James Naremore identifies as the “celebrated breakfast table montage,” Leland states in a matter-of-fact fashion that, after the first few months, their marriage was “like any other marriage.” Through these six brief scenes, we learn that Leland’s observation of their relationship implies that most marriages begin with passion and dwindle into silent despair and contempt.

Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane (1941)

The first scene within this two-minute flashback opens with Emily sitting daintily at the breakfast table and pours herself tea. Her bright formal gown, we realize, has been worn since the previous evening, and Kane enters jovially with a cloth napkin and food for each of them. His tuxedo and demeanor are clearly aligned with his adoration of his young wife. Throughout this exchange, Kane appears to be so enamored by her beauty that he rather rudely interrupts her speech as he repeats a compliment. The shots cut back and forth on each character during this first scene, but the indication is clear that they maintain intense eye contact. Kane’s boyish body language exhibits his helplessness against her pronounced beauty. The sexually suggestive conclusion of this first sequence implies Kane’s willingness to sacrifice time from work in order to stay with his wife. Yet, this brief moment of mental and physical attraction is never superseded in the following five scenes within this flashback, during which the contents of the breakfast table and each character’s body language serve as two key unstated changes that support Leland’s claim of the marriage’s typical downward spiral of passion. 

During the subsequent five scenes, all of the food and drink are already on the table, which suggests that Kane’s cordiality has floundered. There is no physical contact, and each character experiences an increase in stress, though Kane attempts to insert self-serving wit to wash away the building discontent. Flowers appear between them in the foreground during the opening three portions, but they are absent remaining scenes, serving as a clear metaphor for their relationship. Though we are naturally drawn to each character’s face during each interaction, the removal of the flowers creates a void between them and seems to broaden and lengthen the physical space between husband and wife. This subtle space-generator signals the growing distance among two former lovers.

Consistently, each scene opens with a medium shot of Emily always facing Kane directly; however, Kane’s position across the table moves slightly to his right over the next two medium shots on him. This “turning away” indicates a departure from the giddiness we see in the opening scene. In the fourth scene, Kane is formally dressed for his day and faces her squarely, but this repositioning is overshadowed by his business-like demeanor. Emily questions Mr. Bernstein’s presence in the nursery, but Kane coldly rejects this concern. In the penultimate exchange, each character’s facial expression has drastically shifted to concern and defense. Emily’s hopefulness to discuss matters of concern has been replaced with a clear indication of her growing frustration. Kane’s squinted eyes demonstrate his equal amount of angst. The final wordless exchange, though, serves as a powerful microcosm of their marriage’s demise. Emily’s intentional choice of her husband’s rival newspaper implies her eventual departure, and Kane’s sneer over his copy of the Inquirer echoes his selfishness. 

Naremore identifies Citizen Kane as “a series of reminiscences by witnesses to Kane’s life,” and suggests that viewers are being presented the truth through these interviews. Though Mr. Thompson’s interview with Mr. Leland creates an opportunity for this flashback, the scenes potentially misrepresent the “truth” they attempt to exhibit because they are, notably, conjecture from someone who was not in the room during these alleged exchanges. If we assume these six brief moments were constructed in Leland’s mind through a variety of Kane’s comments, we must then understand that these scenes are subjective and not objective. Thus, the subtle strategy of this flashback further emphasizes Kane’s tireless protection of his ego and appearance to the world.  Naremore also centers on the ironies of the five distinguishable extended flashbacks. The six short scenes in the singular montage between Kane and Emily include examples of irony as well. Kane and Emily appear in either contrasting colors or clothing choices. Furthermore, viewers experience dramatic irony in this flashback since neither Kane nor Emily know that their marriage will dissolve before its tragic and sudden end in her death.