Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Vegetable Equivalent: Beans, the musical vegetable
Nutritional Value: Recognizing emotional authenticity in the midst of artifice
Recommended Serving Size: All at once, preferably while you’re cozily sitting at home; bonus points if it’s raining outside
“Dignity. Always dignity.” ~ Don Lockwood, the movie’s protagonist
Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) has not always been so dignified. At the premiere of his new film, Don talks to his adoring fans about his privileged childhood and education. But it all jars humorously against the film’s flashbacks of Don dancing in bars, sneaking into tawdry movies, hoofing it in middle-of-nowhere burgs, and riding motorcycles off cliffs. He’s a working class boy who made good because of his body, and he’s sensitive about his humble beginnings. The silent movies — with their pantomime and empty show — have only made him feel more like a phony.
In this movie, dignity equals an authentic and unified body and voice. When those two things get separated, you lose face.
As a result, Singin’ in the Rain’s tone is deeply ironic: We’re constantly seeing a gap between what is said and what is meant, or between what is heard and what is seen. Fortunately, this is a formula for great comedy. Irony can be very, very funny.
But the film wants to have a heart too. Does it get to have it have it both ways?
Don’s problems are Hollywood’s problems. Hollywood wants to traffic in authenticity and realism. The film takes place right as Hollywood films are transitioning to sound, and the implication is that since real people talk, Hollywood needs to replicate that reality. But the “realism” of movie sound is just as manufactured as the stilted acting of silent films. Monumental Pictures’ first foray into talkies includes a lead actress whose voice is not her own. You can still fake sound, and as a result, films still sound fake.Hollywood uses illusions that have a whiff of truth. There’s the romance between Don and Lena that’s a bunch of hooey. There are the numerous doubles that do all the risky stunts for their far more famous counterparts. And then there’s the gross disparity between the real-life actors and the onscreen roles they play.
But Singin’ in the Rain admits all this. That’s what so glorious about it. The film revels in its own artificiality. This is, after all, a musical, that most fantastic of all non-fantasy genres. People spontaneously break into song and find orchestral accompaniment with nary an oboe in sight. In fact, the movie’s title comes from the ability to maintain an ironic distance from the world. ”It may be raining outside,” the title song implies, “but it’s sunny in my heart!”
This impulse for authenticity within illusion is most clearly seen in Don’s declaration of love to Kathy (Debbie Reynolds). He admits that he’s “too much of a ham” to say the proper words out in the open, so he has to set the appropriate scene in a bare studio. It’s all so horribly fake: the moonlight, the breeze, the stars, the bower. And yet Don sings his heart out before he and Kathy break into synchronous dance. There’s real emotion there.
Only in the movies.
Correctly discerning the gap between what we see and what we feel: That’s where we find dignity. It doesn’t just come from a unified body and voice. It can come from copping to the disconnect between the two. It’s something Lena (Jean Hagen) never admits, and as a result, she becomes the classic comedic scapegoat. Don admits that he’s not the man in real life that he is onscreen, and it lands him his girl. It took the singularly unreal world of film for Don to discover who he really was. As “The End” flashes on screen, it’s no longer raining outside. The ironic disjunction between appearance and reality has evaporated in the noonday sun.