The movie Singin' In the Rain is such a wonderful experience it seems almost impervious to any kind of serious structural study, as any viewing that starts out trying to be critical can seen devolve into gleeful wonder at the magic of Gene Kelly and the overall good feeling of the story. But a glance beneath the considerable superficial delights of the film reveals a richly-textured and tightly-focused subtext where virtually every element revolves closely around the same themes. Most rightly see the film as being about the artistic voice, but this essay is going to focus more on the emotional undercurrent of the story, with a special focus on the 14-minute ballet sequence near the close of the film, a sequence most critics see as completely unrelated to the larger themes and action of the main subject.
The film was made in 1952, but takes place in 1927, at the invention of film sound and the transition from silent films to talking pictures. We open at the opening of a new silent film featuring the reigning stars of the day, Don Lockwood [Gene Kelly] and Lina Lamott [Jean Hagen]. We see a few stars arrive, most of them conspicuously silent, despite the presence of a red carpet journalist broadcasting with a microphone. The crowd goes crazy when Don and Lina arrive, and Don is invited to tell the crowd the story of his rise to fame. Lina says absolutely nothing.
The sequence of Don telling his story is one of the most important in the film, and provides the contrasting counterpart to his wordless ballet sequence toward the end. Don first introduces his childhood friend Cosmo Brown [Donald O'Connor], and states that he has always lived his life according to his motto: "Dignity, always dignity." The film then takes the approach of showing us scenes from Don's earlier life that belie his words. When he says he received rigorous musical training at the Conservatory of Fine Arts, we see that he and Cosmo are playing at a dive juke joint. When he says he was brought up on the drama of Shaw and Moliere, we see he and Cosmo sneaking into a B monster movie. It goes on, and although the effect is light and humorous, the director is communicating important information about how to watch the film; he is telling us that the characters in the film exaggerate, embellish and outright lie, but he, though the visuals of the film, will be telling the audience the truth. The film plays a great deal with the many layers of illusion the movies can deal in, but it's important to note that the movie itself is never dishonest to us, the audience.
Thematically important to keep in mind about Don's story is that his original dream about coming to Hollywood was to be a dancer. He only moved into acting when he saw a break and was unsuccessful at dancing. We also find out the truth vs. fiction of Don's relationship with his co-star Lina. They are portrayed as a real-life romantic couple in the fan magazines, but in reality Don despises Lina. In a humorous inversion, Lina believes the fan magazines, and is convinced that she and Don are actually having a long-term affair. When he says "There is nothing between us, just air," she laughs dismissively and responds "Oh Don, you don't mean that." Further reinforcing the ways the public is subject to the illusion of the movies, a woman in the silent film audience remarks on Lina: "She's so refined. I think I'll kill myself." We are about to find out that Lina is anything but refined.
We see a few minutes of the silent film, which demonstrates the form for the viewers of 1952, with its pared-down, declamatory dialogue and exaggerated acting, while also humorously ribbing on the form. After the film, Don and Lina step out to take their bows, and once more only Don speaks. We see Lina coming forward to say something a few times, but on each occasion Don steps forward and silences her. Once offstage, we find out the reason why: Lina speaks with a horrible, screeching New York accent.
Don and Cosmo are on their way to a premiere when Cosmo gets a flat, and Don is attacked by fans. Escaping, he lands in the passenger seat of Kathy Selden [Debbie Reynolds]. She recognizes him from somewhere, but can't place him until a policeman identifies him as the famous star. They are getting along quite well until he attempts to seduce her, putting his arm around her and telling her how lonely it is for an actor. Resenting his intrusion, Kathy starts belittling screen acting, calling it a "dumb show," saying the theater is where real acting happens and is a "dignified profession," directly tweaking Don's earlier professed—and false—ideal of "dignity, always dignity." She then focuses specifically on his acting, saying he's "nothing but a shadow on film. A shadow! You're not flesh and blood." Kathy lies and says that she is a stage actress. Don gets out and repairs to his post-premiere party, where the studio head, Mr. Simpson, shows a short demonstration of a "talking picture." Let me digress for one second and merely observe that the demonstration film is absolutely hilarious, a real highlight. The guests refuse to take the new technology seriously, and Simpson predicts that it will be an expensive flop. A few moments later Kathy jumps out of a celebratory cake, much to the cruel delight of Don, who mocks her about her professed serious acting skills. She ends up accidentally throwing a pie in Lina's face, drawing Lina's ire and forcing her to flee, making Don unable to find and talk to her.
Three weeks later, Don is depressed. He's thinking about Kathy, who Lina had fired from her job, but he is also shaken, as he has taken her critique of his acting to heart. One of the things we have to wonder about up front is why Don should be so concerned with the criticism of Kathy—this woman he just met and has reason not to respect. Interestingly, he focuses on her feeling that he is not a very good actor, although the vast majority of Kathy's criticism was about the profession and form of screen acting, with very, very little about Don's performances in particular. His centering on the phony nature of his own acting, when that is something she barely referenced, tells us that this is something he privately believes about himself. He is, in a sense, acting as an actor.
While Don and Lina are preparing to shoot a scene in their next film, he learns that Lina is responsible for having Kathy fired. Just then they begin shooting, and Don and Lina mine expressions of passion and romance while speaking words—that will never be heard by the audience—of deep hatred. Immediately after, Lina reinforces that she believes the tabloid version of her and Don's supposed romance, considering what she reads on fan magazines more "real" than the reality she is currently experiencing. They are interrupted by Simpson announcing that the production will be shut down and converted into a talking picture, suddenly the rage in Hollywood.
A few days later, Don comes across Kathy again, and helps her land a small part in a movie. They make up, and Kathy admits that she has actually seen several of his movies, and also buys the fan magazines. She apologizes for the "horrible things" she said, but he says that he deserved them. Immediately after discussing that he feels several of the things Kathy said about his acting were true, Don says to her "There's something I'm trying to say but… I'm such a ham. I guess I'm not able to without the proper setting." The "proper setting" turns out to be a movie soundstage, with a fake sunset, fake breezes, fake backdrop, and fake moonlight, where Don is able to say what he would like to say, which turns out to be the song "You Were Meant For Me." Please note that when Don wants to speak sincerely, he ends up reverting to his most comfortable mode, singing and dancing, not speaking per se. They share extended silent dance passages together and this is seen as cementing their relationship.
After some newspaper headline exposition telling us that stars are going to diction coaches to learn to speak correctly, we join Lina with instructor Phoebe Dinsmore, who is trying in vain to get her to speak with "round tones." Elsewhere Don is getting instruction from a stuffy male diction coach, but is having no problem mastering the language. Cosmo shows up and they engage in a little ruffling of the coach while they dance together, making up tongue-twisters as they dance in perfectly harmonious dances.
So it's time for the premiere of Don and Lina's first talking picture. Incidental noises such as Lina's playing with her pearls are massively amplified, the mike only picks up parts of her lines, and her nasal screech is still very much in evidence. Don doesn't emerge unscathed, however, as the audience laughs hysterically at lines that used to work—when no one could hear them. Finally, the sound goes out of sync with the picture, making a male scoundrel appear to say "No, no no!" in Lina's voice and Lina seem to say "Yes, yes, yes" in the male villain's voice. The film is a disaster, and Don, Cosmo and Kathy repair to Don's house, sure the entire thing will have to be scrapped.
But Don's not just unhappy about the movie. He takes the film’s poor reception as confirmation that "he's no actor." Cosmo jokingly suggests that he go back in vaudeville, but Kathy takes the suggestion seriously: she suggests that they turn the film into a musical, wherein Don can display his heretofore publicly unseen singing and dancing talents. It is important to note that this is Kathy's suggestion. They all dance and sing, then Don becomes dismayed again, thinking of the impediments Lina's voice would cause a musical. Now it's Cosmo's turn with an idea: Kathy will dub Lina's speaking and singing voice. Don is reluctant, because it means that Kathy will not achieve fame in her own right, but agrees if it's only for one picture. You can see how, between the dislocated sound in the premiere and the idea of Kathy dubbing Lina's voice, the theme of sound matching with vision is being developed.
Don takes Kathy home and then follows the title dance sequence, justly famous and entirely glorious, but alas, not strictly in the purview of this essay. After a scene in which we see the process of dubbing Kathy's voice onto Lina's image, Don describes a large new dance number to be inserted into the musical part of the newly-retooled film. This 14-minute ballet sequence is most often considered to have 'no direct relation to the plot' and to be 'out of place in the film.' Roger Ebert says "the story line is suspended" for the piece and that it makes one "wonder if it's really needed," and even Gene Kelly's co-director Stanley Donen said that the sequence was “an interruption to the main thrust of Singin’ in the Rain.”
However, with a little examination, it becomes clear that not only is this scene the climax of the emotional current of the film, it represents the crucial turning point in Don Lockwood's ability to reveal his emotions and his internal crisis about his dramatic ability. Recall the opening sequence of the movie, in which Don recounts his life story for the crowd. He told us about his slow ascent from vaudeville houses to becoming an actor, leaving his musical background behind, and meeting Lina. We also found out that most of what he was telling the public was a lie, a highly-sweetened version of the truth. The ballet sequence can be seen as an unvarnished version of Don's story, one that includes music more heartache and disappointment than he had let on at first.
Like the biographical sequence at the beginning, we are watching an enactment of a story told to someone else, in this case Don describing the big number of the now-musical to Simpson. But also like the biographical sequence at the beginning, the sequence is communicating to the audience in a way it isn’t to any of the characters. Even Simpson, after Lockwood’s description of the piece, says he “can’t quite visualize it. I’ll have to see it on film first.”
The story is of a young dancer trying to make his way on Broadway. We see Lockwood as his younger self as a wide-eyed naïve young dancer newly arrived in New York. He is fascinated by all the different types in the city, including the sophisticated, beautiful women. He approaches booking agents with the call "Gotta dance!" and has two of them slam their doors in his face. The third likes his style and gets him a gig in a speakeasy. Lockwood sings "Broadway Rhythm" there, leading the dance, until he is suddenly stopped in his tracks by the shapely leg of a beautiful woman. This is Cyd Charisse, and she stands and engages in a steamy dance with Lockwood, whose pantomime lets us know that he has never seen anything like her. She removes his eyeglasses and steps on them, removes his hat and throws it away. It's all going very well for Lockwood until the woman's attention is drawn away by a diamond bracelet offered by her gangster boyfriend. She departs with the gangster, who repeatedly flips a coin [fickle fate], as do his bodyguards. Dejected, Lockwood is taken by his manager and pressed into a performing in a vaudeville show. Three incarnations of the same song demonstrate, not unlike his story at the beginning, Lockwood’s rise to ever-more respectable venues.
In the next major portion, Kelly is now a celebrated singer/dancer, and arrives at a party in his honor. He turns and sees Cyd Charisse again. Their eyes meet across the crowded room, and then we enter Lockwood’s fantasy about her. The rest of the crowd fades away, and they are alone on a surreal, Dali-inspired set, Charisse in a white outfit with a fifty-foot white veil that floats out behind her. Their dance is an expression of Lockwood’s deepest feelings, symbolized through the flowing movement of the veil as it envelopes them both, soars suddenly up into the air, or, most sensually, slowly runs its length over Lockwood’s body. This scene presents several counterpoints to the lead into "You Were Meant For Me" scene from earlier in the film. Recall that Don had trouble putting his feelings into words, and could not express them without "the right setting," which turned out to be the fakery of a movie set. Here, where Lockwood's most tender feelings are expressed, it is in an empty fantasy landscape—i.e. it's not even on a set, it's in a place that doesn't exist—and it is all pointedly expressed without words—only through the dance that is Lockwood's most sincere means of expression.
But it is not to last. Returning to reality, Lockwood rushes to greet the woman, but finds that she now flips the coin herself—whatever cynical view of life the coin represents, it no longer belongs exclusively to the gangster, but has been internalized in the woman herself. Whereas earlier Lockwood could have a fantasy of saving her innocent nature from the gangster, even that dream is gone, as she has become corrupted in herself. She flips the coin at Lockwood, who immediately passes it on to the coat check girl.
Immediately afterward, Don steps outside the casino, dejected. He is not the naïve young hoofer once dazzled by the brilliant lights of Broadway, he now stands amidst all the lights, an expression of grim resignation on his face. Then, passing by, he sees a young hoofer, exactly like he once was, heading to Broadway shouting "Gotta dance!" This revives his spirits, and he too joins in with "Gotta dance!" It seems that Lockwood is infected with the enthusiasm of the young dancer, but his reaction could also be interpreted as his remembering that regardless of his disappointments in love, he still has his dancing.
Which brings us to why this sequence is so integral to Don's full embrace of Kathy as his future partner. It was she who criticized his acting, which Don had compromised himself in order to pursue over his truest mode of expression, dance—although he seems to be unaware of it himself. The surprising degree to which he takes Kathy's criticism of his acting ability to heart is a screen for his own similar feelings: he also believes that he's not a true actor, he is a dancer. This is why it is crucially important that it is Kathy who first suggests that Don turn the failed film into a musical, as it is she who is telling him to follow his true passion, and, rather than give up on being a star, reinvent himself as a star by following the mode of expression in which he can express himself best.
This can also perhaps account for the feeling of intimacy the film engenders in viewers. Even though it is a beloved classic seen by millions, it doesn’t have the distant air of “a classic that needs to be seen and gotten over with,” but of a personal and lovely intimate experience—because the film expresses its deepest secret directly to us, the viewer, and no one actually IN the film. In fact, the one person in the film who hears of the sequence “can’t visualize it.” This is Don’s secret, perhaps the reason why he has trouble expressing himself sincerely without the fakery of movie sets, and he tells it to us alone.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the writers of the screenplay, have said that they had to retool the focus of the movie when Gene Kelly came on board, noting that he forced them to change the focus of the film from ‘a singing musical to a dancing musical.’ Perhaps this is behind the statement the film makes of dancing being the truest expression of emotion. In any case, the film portrays a tightly-focused statement about the vagaries of speaking, singing and dance as means of expressing truth and falsehood, and the 14-minute ballet sequence, far from being “completely unrelated,” is in fact the emotional climax of the film.
Willen, Peter. Singin' in the Rain.
London: BFI Publishing, 1992