Tuesday, January 22, 2008


The WHC Film Series kicked off the new semester Friday with a screening of Singin' in the Rain (1952), one of the most celebrated films of all time -- at least by those for whom motion pictures are, at some level, synonymous with entertainment. It's often remarked that the Oscars favor drama and "serious" films, and that comedies and musicals get less respect. That's so, as a general rule, but then it's rare for a comedy or musical really to transcend the limitations of the genre. What limitations? Well, for one, the tendency to be silly or cartoonish or parodic. Singin' is all those things, but it still shines because it wears its limitations with utter insouciance. It can afford to because it bases its appeal on the old idea of talent being its own reward, but it also presents talent as the only commodity that ultimately matters in show biz. As such it's a show biz parable that never ceases to be applicable -- yes, it's the standard "a star is born" scenario, but, the film insists, being a star is not a question of means (how to work the system) but a question of ends (how to give the people what they want when what they want is genuine talent).

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!

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