Rainsong of the Dumbshowman

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Revisiting SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN — it doesn’t change, and neither do you when you watch it — you’re basically the same age as whenever you first saw it. The only minor difference is that THE ARTIST has happened inbetweentimes, which provides some minor irritation. CLOCKWORK ORANGE’s use of the title song may be calculatedly blasphemous, but it can’t actually taint the Gene Kelly song-soliloquy, but spotting yet more bits Hazanavicius pilfered and got wrong (hey, look — the entire opening premier sequence with the upstaged leading lady, only in the modern de-make it doesn’t have any point to it!). Bits of THE ARTIST seem really inventive (unless they’re swiped from something I haven’t seen) but its main effect now seems to be to point up by idiotic contrast how clever Comden & Green’s depiction of the fall of the silents is — an accurate comic picture of the panic and floundering that consumed the industry (nobody held back from making talkies out of “pride”). And I think misguided reverence is more destructive to art, or divinity, that deliberate sacrilege.

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As a kid, although I definitely projected myself into Gene Kelly splashing in puddles, it was Donald O’Connor I identified with more, which worries me slightly now — the “friend” role is showy but where is Cosmo’s satisfaction in life? I feel like the Good Morning number, which I also loved, shows that dynamic where two guys are with a pretty girl and they’re both trying to be at their most entertaining, which is to say there’s a certain competition going on. So Cosmo isn’t sexless. But he seems not to be interested in succeeding romantically. In fact, we see him trying the old “I can get you in movies” line on a Sweet Young Thing at a Hollywood party but it’s played very innocently, like he has no real interest in following up on it, and the line is perhaps just intended to make it clear that he’s not gay for Don Lockwood. The life of the comedy relief is largely devoid of romance.

Speaking of seducing starlets, I did get a new perspective when Debbie Reynolds’ character is mooted as “perfect for Zelda’s kid sister.” Was it Raoul Walsh or Errol Flynn who said that the role of the little sister was always invented just so there’d be a starlet to sleep with? You can spot the true little sister roles, the ones that have no story purpose at all, a mile off. This seems like a sly Comden-Green inside joke.

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By the way, who was teenage Rita Moreno dating to get such a prominent credit? I don’t mean to imply any sexual skullduggery, it’s just that she’s onscreen for two minutes, gets about two lines, and gets a credit on the same card as Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse. She has less to do than the wonderful Kathleen Freeman (totally uncredited). You’d think, if MGM were trying to build her up, they’d let her sing or dance. It’s always kind of astonishing to discover she’s in the film, because I still don’t think of her as old. And I guess she earns her credit just by the hilarious way she walks through her first shot. The movie is so bursting with new talent and less-familiar character players, I feel it must have been Donen and Kelly’s deliberate policy to avoid familiar faces. Douglas Fowley, as the explosive director, would normally have lost out to James Gleason or Sam Levene, who would have played it exactly the same. Fowley was probably in as many films as either, but never so prominently.

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Of course, Jean Hagen is the performer who goes above and beyond — so do the dancing stars, of course, but we could expect no less. Craftily written, Hagen’s Lena Lamont is a true rarity, a stupid villainess. She manages to be formidable enough to function for plot purposes as a credible dramatic threat — because she’s a powerful movie star with a strong sense of self-interest. The character, who ought to, by rights, be fairly sympathetic — she has more to lose than anybody, and is facing extinction by microphone like Clara Bow — is positioned just so in the narrative and turned loose, and so is Hagen, who gets laughs by the accent (already deployed in THE ASPHALT JUNGLE to different effect) and shrill voice, but isn’t content with just that — she starts doing weird things with emphasis and timing, always coming out of a different door, verbally speaking, so the character succeeds as a series of amazing variations on one note.

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I was wondering all over again how the hell musicals work. Most movies lean heavily on story. Musicals seem to crave slight narratives, which they then suspend totally for minutes at a time while the characters simply embody a moment of sublime emotion, extending it far beyond any dramatic meaning. I think it has to do with our love of performance — we love stories, but for short bursts we are able to love singing and dancing more. That’s why the increasingly long ballets in Gene Kelly’s stuff risk fracturing the delicate balance, because the story has to be given some opportunity to hold things together, and it gets stretched cobweb-thin if the dancing goes on for twenty minutes at a time. I think the Gotta Dance! routine here only works because so much goodwill has been built up throughout the movie, we trust them to get away with anything by now — and also, it’s a very nice sequence…

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18 Responses to “Rainsong of the Dumbshowman”

  1. Chaplin held back from making talkies out of what, stubbornness?

  2. chris schneider Says:

    Lina Lamont ‘n’ me, we’re like Fred MacMurray and Edward G.Robinson in DOUBLE INDEMNITY, we’re “closer than that.” I also have a friend whose daughter claims Lina as her “spirit animal” — but that’s another story. Part of the source of Lina’s inflections comes from the double fact that (1) Comden and Green were part of a comedy revue group with Judy Holliday; and (2) Hagen had just finished touring in the Holliday role for the play BORN YESTERDAY. What C&G were writing for was a skewed version of Holliday’s dumb/smart *schtick* (see the scene with “only a dope would wear something like this “)

  3. Randy Cook Says:

    I would say that Cosmo was anything but innocent in the scene mentioned. Seems like this was about the hundredth time he’d played this scene, always with the same result.

  4. Chaplin (and maybe Murnau) was the ONLY one to hold back (others were forcibly HELD back) out of artistic conviction. The more common situation was actors with no experience of learning lines, experiencing terror of the microphone.

    Is Cosmo maybe a little sweet on Reynolds’ character? Hard to say, as he’s not the most psychological of actors…

  5. Zelda may well have been originally scripted with a bigger part; or at least some featured dancing. It went through a lot of mutations even after filming began.

    At least one finished number was cut (Reynolds singing to a billboard of Kelly, which set up the closing shot where she’s on the billboard with him). Comden and Green recalled going to great pains to work in “Wedding of the Painted Doll” at songwriter/producer Freed’s command, only to return to NY and get called for an emergency rewrite to replace that with “Make ‘Em Laugh” (with its borderline anachronistic Chico Marx impression).

    Somewhere I recall reading that “Gotta Dance” was originally going to feature O’Connor, but he was scheduled to start a new film and it was reworked (how much?) to be just Kelly and Charisse.

    In a Broadway adaptation which filtered down to community theater, Zelda is a bit more visible. We see her informing Lina and sharing her scheme for revenge on the upstart ingenue, which felt like a scene that could have fit comfortably in the film. Maybe it was salvaged from some version of the movie script.

    I liked “The Artist”, lifts and all, but saw it as a different animal. Besides refusing to talk, the star was a one-man circus who refused to step outside his personal and professional comfort zone (he’s unconcerned that his wife barely stands him). It wasn’t just sound that was making him obsolete. He has to become part of a team — onscreen and off — to be saved.

  6. The billboard number is included as a welcome extra on the DVD — you can see how it would have tied up nicely with the ending.

    I presume O’Connor could have played the other fresh-faced guy in town singing “Gotta Dance!” but his appearance would have made questionable sense. Still, the entire number is imaginary so anything goes, I suppose.

  7. Singin’ in the Rain was the first movie I ever saw. When it opened in 1952. At Radio City Music Hall. I thought ALL movies would be tis good. In 1999 when I last visited New York I attended concert of chamber music by the ravishing John Corigliano. There was a reception afterwards and Adolph Green was there. I approached him and told him that “Singin’ in the Rain made me the man I am today.” His reply? “You’re welcome.”

    Donald O’Conner said he was basically playing the Oscar Levant role of the hero’s best friend in Singin’ in the Rain. Makes perfect sense, though he’s physically a lot livelier than Oscar.

    Jean Hagen was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but lost to Gloria Grahame in The Bad and the Beautiful (Sigh)

    http://www.anyclip.com/movies/singin-in-the-rain/linas-manipulation/

  8. Debbie had just played Jane Powell’s kid sister in Two Weeks with Love and with the help of Carlton Carpenter stole the picture

  9. chris schneider Says:

    The story is that Freed — or someone in power — wanted Levant himself as the Kelly sidekick, only this decision was nixed. With thoughts of Levant in BAND WAGON saying “Oh Tony, I’m so happy1” in mind, I’d say that the final choice was wise. Levant was far too acidic of a performer for this role.

    As for the “Gotta Dance!” hoo-ha … my assumption was always that they wanted to recreate the success of the Big Ballet for Kelly in the previous year’s prestige hit, AMERICAN IN PARIS, that where Kelly went “quality ballets featuring Kelly” were to be expected.

  10. Kelly and Freed were quite consciously out to top The Red Shoes, I think misunderstanding the difference between Archers and MGM forms of entertainment, but whatever — it produced gorgeous moments.

    Yeah, I can’t see Oscar Levant running up walls. He can just about crawl up a floot. I love him dearly, but O’Connor’s sunniness was what this one required.

  11. I love Terry Gilliam’s account of meeting Donen and saying “The unrealistic expectations of romance your films gave me nearly ruined my life!” and Donen replying “What do you think they did to me? I’ve been married five times!”

  12. Footnote: Browsed Rita Moreno’s memoir in a used book store today. She was hired to dance and act in the film, and she hung around on non-call days just to watch the other actors.

    She doesn’t detail what she did or whether it was cut; she was more interested in writing about Kelly (calm and pleasant when this mere contract player angrily refused to cut her hair; hence the wig) and O’Connor (who she felt was a tragic case of wasted talent, stuck at low-rent Universal).

    She also emphatically denied ever using sex for career purposes, although she owns up to some unwise relationships.

  13. Think what O’Connor could have done at MGM full-time! A musical star at Universal??

  14. chris schneider Says:

    Even Durbin’s musicals are problematic — and she was their *successful* musical star. Look what they did to ONE TOUCH OF VENUS! A friend, btw, says that Ophuls was interested in filming ONE TOUCH, which sounds unlikely yet intriguing. The goddess Venussay, as a sort of singing Lola Montes …

  15. Ophuls did a comedy fantasy about ghosts in his early European days, and a nice operetta-film, so it makes more sense than you might think.

  16. Jean Hagen’s Swan Song

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