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 #3 – Rear Window (1954)

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Week 3’s discussion was of Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. I am falling in love with these films more and more each week! I chose a brief one-minute “pan” to analyze in the paper below. This brief transition appears right before the end of Jeff and Lisa’s second night together in his apartment.

Left: Lisa (Grace Kelly). Right: L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) – Rear Window (directed by A. Hitchcock, 1954)

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), James Stewart plays an injured renowned photographer named L. B. (“Jeff”) Jeffries, who, at the tail end of a seven-week recovery for a broken leg has been limited to people-watching through his apartment windows during the peak of summer. Hitchcock quickly conditions the viewer to believe that every time the various neighbors and their apartments are shown, they are seeing shots in Jeff’s point-of-view. Additionally, the camera pauses at various medium shots of the various apartment dwellers, then the camera cuts to a close up of Jeff’s reaction to these images or micro-scenes. At the beginning of the second night of the main narrative, however, Hitchcock departs from that conditioning and simultaneously satisfies the addicting quality of voyeurism that has arrested the entire narrative. Laura Mulvey discusses the “pleasures” that cinema offers, and it seems clear that Hitchcock explores this effectiveness of scopophilia in at least one key turning point in the film.

In the opening phone conversation with his editor and through the initial dialogue with his nurse, Stella, Jeff establishes his disconcerting views of marriage. During the first evening, Lisa enters Jeff’s apartment jovially, advertises the coming seven days to be a week Jeff will never forget, and their contrasting views toward the trajectory of their relationship are earmarked to become the core conflict of the narrative until after her departure when Jeff, immobile and alone again, watches the peculiar activity of the salesman, Mr. Thorwald, across the courtyard. From Jeff’s POV, we see Thorwald leave and return twice; then, in what becomes a departure from the established point of view, we see Thorwald and a woman leave the apartment before the camera pans to a sleeping and oblivious Jeff. This momentary POV shift is crucial to the entire narrative, and it is the first key detail that makes viewers just as much voyeurs as Jeff has become. Through dramatic irony, we are now even more helpless to communicate concerns and theories to Jeff as he is to Stella or Lisa. 

The second departure from Jeff’s POV recycles a shot on the thermometer, suggesting that both Jeff and the activity within his vantage-point have cooled a bit. The camera pans left and slightly up and down throughout what seems to be his POV which exhibit a series of symbolic nods to Jeff’s stated concerns of his future. The first image is that of the shirtless (vulnerable) pianist, who mops around the piano and is apparently cleaning up a past discretion–likely the drunken one he had had while alone the previous night. He pauses his work momentarily during an obvious flash of inspiration, keys a few chords, but unsuccessfully capitalizes on that flash and angrily returns to his obligatory duty. Symbolically, this parallels Jeff’s own artistic drive as a photographer and how his physically disabled state has stunted his growth as an artist. Notably, though, the pan pauses here, capturing an unsavory moment of self-loathing and frustration. Secondly, in a brief high-angle shot during the right-to-left pan, we see a father assisting a child with pajamas on the balcony. This wholesome scene is clear but never stops (as it had with the pianist), and it is also the most distant in space from Jeff’s point of view. This glimpse is a probable microcosm of the images Jeff has seen over the past six weeks on this balcony. He may envision himself as a father, but because these characters are so minimally featured, it becomes clear that Jeff does not anticipate positioning himself into domesticity and parenthood anytime soon. 

The camera pans down and left and blazes past the salesman’s empty, but lit, room as we hear the whistling from the dog owners above. The flowing pan finds the whistler, then cuts downward to find the dog running toward its retrieval basket. By now, the camera pan has mirrored the natural instinct to spot movement and immediately discern whether the movement is either arbitrary or threatening. Lastly, In a continuous stream, we see brief glimpses of the harmless women near Thorwald’s apartment opposite Jeff: “Miss Lonelyhearts” (sewing), “Miss Torso” (grooming), and the spinster artist below Miss Torso (sculpting). These three women also represent various aspects of Jeff’s life and desires: repairing/healing (sewing); independence and self presentation (grooming); and returning to his artistic craft (sculpting). The flowing pan continues left and withdraws back into Jeff’s apartment to reveal that these images were not observed by Jeff at all, but rather by the audience alone. Lisa sits on his lap, obstructing his view as they engage in amorous activity, but she is also obstructing his concentration on the Thorwald narrative he’s been constructing since the previous night. This second “departure” from Jeff’s POV further deepens the viewers’ investment in this neighborhood. Interestingly, the scene unfolds as Lisa attempts again to engage in romantic exchanges, yet Jeff struggles to reciprocate fully because he has become so immersed in the mystery across the courtyard. As the scene develops, we watch a frustrated artist wrestle with his desire for Lisa and his moral obligation to protect a stranger. Hitchcock uses this scene to demonstrate that at least some men are not driven solely by conquering sexual desires. This exchange challenges a stereotype and complicates the relationship he has with Lisa, but moments later, she finally sees what he has been seeing and becomes just as enamored as Jeff has become. 

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.