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Film Class II: 'Singin' in the Rain' and 'Sunset Blvd.'

If Singin' in the Rain represents the ultimate happiness to be found in a great work of art, then Sunset Blvd. shows its dark side.

Like Modern Times and Fury, , Singin’ in the Rain (1952) employs the device of movies-within-movies, for it is the ultimate paean to movie-making. Yet it is not a naive tribute.

On the one hand, Singin’ portrays the Hollywood ethos as nothing less than pure dissimulation. When Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) romances Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in a Dueling Cavalier scene, he actually declares his loathing for her.

Onscreen, only the cards on which Don declares his love are seen; he is never heard speaking them. Lina subsequently believes the cards—and studio publicity—not reality.

In its final scene, Singin’ seizes upon the ability of movies to trick audiences in a way Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder would have appreciated. Don’s girlfriend, Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), has been secretly overdubbed as Lina’s singing voice, but at the premier of The Dancing Cavalier the audience demands that Lina sing.

Don forces Cathy to stand behind the stage curtain and sing for the lip-synching Lina. Don, Cosmo (Donald O’Connor), and R.F. (Millard Mitchell) pull up the curtain and humiliate Lena. Cathy is the real star of The Dancing Cavalier and can now marry Don. The traditional Hollywood ending; the walk into the sunset.

This scene actually produces a reversal that undermines how much we can believe what we see. It is commonly known that Reynolds lip-synched her own songs in the film; thus The Dancing Cavalier's dubber was in fact being dubbed.

The voice was actually that of Jean Hagen—who played Lina! Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen unflinchingly accept the Hollywood Dream Machine, kowtowing to movie make-believe.

And is there any happier work of art than Singin’ in the Rain? Gene Kelly’s character, Don Lockwood, overcomes Hollywood treachery and is “ready for love.” Within a jaded world, he discovers innocence in the form of a woman. Sometimes, my students complain that the film are simply too happy, but the triumph of Singin’ in the Rain may be that it is the greatest work of art to celebrate unabated joy.

Its permanent happiness can be derived from the multiple meanings of its title. It is a song that appears twice in the film, although the first time best serves our theme. Gene Kelly sings it once he knows for certain Kathy Seldon loves him; that is, he has found true love beyond physical attraction and momentary gratification, in a sense, beyond happiness. Its words belong to a vocabulary of happiness.

(Dylan Thomas writes in his poem “Fern Hill,” “singing as the farm was home,” repeatedly expressing joy through a song metaphor. The difference between the poem and the movie is that the speaker in Fern Hill couldn’t sustain his happiness. The joy became a memory, and then an aching nostalgia; his vocabulary of happiness becomes exhausted. Singin’ in the Rain, however, is permanent joy.)

At the film’s end, Don and Kathy stare at a billboard referring to a film they have starred in called Singin’ in the Rain. We can only guess its contents: the movie we have just finished watching! However, it represents an emboldened enlargement of the field of joy: not only are the couple together, in love, but they also star in a movie about them being in love.

Singin’ in the Rain is not only the title of the movie itself, but also the song and movie of the same name within the movie. The artist’s joy reaches out to the audience and captures the original essence of the film: the creation of pure unending joy.

It is difficult to discern a flaw to Donen and Kelly’s vision of happiness. Even the film's paradox serves to secure a lasting illusion. Kelly’s happiness is expressed not in words, but in dance. Before and after, reaching the crescendo in the title song outside Kathy’s apartment, the film embodies several numbers noted for their speed (“Moses”), chaos (Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh”), and grandeur (the love dance with Cyd Charisse).

In the song “Singin’ in the Rain,” this joyous language evolves from words of love and joy into a childish stomp of ultimate gratification through the deep puddles of a Hollywood boulevard. The dance endures in the movie we cannot stop watching because, like Don/Gene, we want our innocence to last forever.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) makes a good foil for Singin’ in the Rain. Joe Gillis (William Holden) followed the Hollywood Dream to become a screenwriter, with an emphasis on “writer,” just as his creator, Billy Wilder, insisted on being called a writer and not a director.

Only Joe’s stories didn’t find their mark. In a scene echoing Don Lockwood’s first meeting with Kathy Seldon, Joe Gillis hears what is wrong with his writing from a young woman, Betty Schaefer (Nancy Olson), who does not see him in the room.

Their inauspicious encounter sparks their romance, which is later kindled while working together on a screen treatment of one of Joe’s stories. The couple walk the fake streets of Paramount studios (just as Don serenades Kathy in a stage at Monumental Studios). Betty is even willing to dump her fiancé, who is Joe’s best friend, for him.
 
But a ghost of Hollywood’s past has her claws deep in Joe’s psyche. If you can imagine Singin’ in the Rain showing Lina Lamont at age fifty-five, watching her old movies and dreaming of a comeback, you can picture Norma Desmond. One could nearly accuse Singin’ of treating Lina callously with her lip-synching humiliation after the premier of The Dancing Cavalier; she is both the comic relief and comic villain standing in the way of Don and Kathy’s love.

Norma Desmond stands in the way of Joe’s love for Betty, but only because Joe hasn’t the will to dispense with her. He feels sorry for her, yes, and may love something about her; yet, there is something deadly about her. She personifies a past that will not fade quietly, the American surrender to a superficial ethos centered on illusion and narcissism. Joe recognizes his rotten self in Norma, which is why he denies himself the potentially soul-saving relationship with Betty.

Can we imagine Don Lockwood giving himself up to Lina Lamont? Not a chance. Singin’ allows the possibility of Don harboring illusions and having a shade of dishonesty, but his happiness and liveliness are the essence of his soul.

Modern Times and Fury also resolve themselves through the romantic relationships. The Tramp and Gamin walk down the road at the end of Modern Times without much promise of better times, but are certainly able to face their predicament together.

In Fury, Joe Wilson declares his lost faith in the American justice system, and in the goodness of the people. But he does so beside Catherine, his financé, with whom he has a future. Chaplin and Lang treat The Dream skeptically but not nearly as cynically as Wilder does in Sunset Blvd.

The last scenes of Sunset Blvd. have Joe Gillis fished from the pool outside Norma Desmond’s house. Worse, the mentally broken Norma, while being taken to jail for killing Joe, believes she’s being filmed by Cecil B. DeMille. Joe's final words are: "The dream she had clung to desperately had enfolded her."

It’s a moment far removed from the Hollywood dream of eternally happiness; rather, it is a close-up of the American Dream behind the desire for life, liberty and pursuing entertainment.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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Ned Bulmash July 17, 2012 at 06:40 PM
What more can I say. You write eloquently. Was Jean Hagen the real singer in the Lina-Kathy "Singin" finale? The voice sounded like Debbie Reyolds.
Robert Castle July 17, 2012 at 06:47 PM
Betty Noyes did Debbie Reynolds singing. Don't know why it was decided to have Hagen dub Reynolds dubbing Hagen in the 'Dancing Cavalier' scene. The movie embraces Hollywood illusions with a flourish.
Maryann Campling July 17, 2012 at 10:02 PM
I saw "S I I saw "SITR" last week at the Rave....I'm still smiling!
John Reynolds July 19, 2012 at 02:11 PM
Bob, I'll give you an even darker side, and throw another movie into the mix. How about Kubrick's take on manipulation in "A Clockwork Orange." His version of Singing in the Rain, delayed 20 years, with the thug kicking the intellectual in the ribs in perfect time while singing – "I'm sing(KICK)ing in the rain" – and doing a Gene Kelley soft-shoe. I don't think Gene Kelley envisioned this:) The one movie dealt with Hollywood's misdirecting their audience, while Kubrick's extended that to government control of the masses. Add in the electronic synthesized version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", the Nazi visuals, scientific "methods" , and you have a modern, corrupt, love-of-power story pulled off on a scale that Hollywood could only dream of! "What a glorious feelin', I'm happy again ... "
Robert Castle July 19, 2012 at 05:28 PM
John, Thanks for the Clockwork reminder. Can't show that one in my film class (I teach at an all girls high school. However, in an article I wrote for an Internet film journal, I dealt with Modern Times, Fury, and A Clockwork Orange. In particular, I linked the scene when Alex is being shown the violent movies to the Modern Times scene when Chaplin is being fed by the eating machine.

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