Tuesday, January 22, 2008
The appeal of Hollywood in the '20s is that it has no traditions yet. So it's the place where those with show-biz talent can land when vaudeville and Broadway become dead-ends. Hollywood is depicted as silly and benign -- it's a '50s view of the '20s, able to appreciate its energy and style while able to smirk at its pretensions and quaintness. And for happy-go-lucky smirking there's no one better than Gene Kelly. As our hero he exudes charm, vulnerability, brio, and a kind of guy next door normality that goes a long way to make him believable as the dancing Everyman, the kind who makes it all look easy as breathing. And for comic exuberance there's no one like Donald O'Connor who mugs gleefully and walks up walls and wrestles with dummies and delivers fast comebacks with Groucho-esque timing. Which leaves Debbie Reynolds as the gal who's practically one of the guys, gifted with the ability to blend perfectly with the one-two punch of Kelly and O'Connor. The feel-good numbers "Good Mornin'" and "Singin' in the Rain" work (i.e., you actually feel good) -- and what's more the whole notion of "Singin' in the Rain" comes more and more to seem emblematic of a devil-may-care optimism that seems uniquely American -- no matter what kind of shit-storm is going on or how far DOW plunges.
The plot of the star whose voice is a travesty of her romantic image was true to some careers that couldn't weather the transition to "talkies," but the character gets a bit tiresome, as do some of the romantic numbers. But the opportunity to have fun at the movies in such a relentlessly wholesome way is rare, and the glimpse of a quaint older era's take -- in terms of gender and romance and what to poke fun at -- on a quaint era even older seems to become more priceless, more worthy of preservation the further we go from that post-WWII, pre-Vietnam era. It's a time when adults could enjoy movies that made them feel young without having to feel that youth had its own ax to grind or its own arcane sense of what was 'cool' or 'hip' or 'real.'
One of the perks of seeing the film with a packed house of mostly undergrads is that the enthusiastic applause after Donald O'Connor's numbers and when the film ended added a kind of reassuring promotion of the film's credo: physical legerdemain to music exerts an almost timeless fascination, the more so because the dancing is only occasionally choreographed as arty or expressive. Primarily it's presented as pure spectacle -- something which you have to turn to animation to find in films these days. The '50s were hardly the Golden Age of cinema, but the period did produce a few notable entertainments "for the whole family": the kind of film Ozzie and Harriet could see with the Nelson boys, or her TV parents with Gidget. Everyone's a clown, everyone can sing (except that evil glamour queen), and everyone can dance!