WEIRDLAND: March 2012

Friday, March 30, 2012

MGM's musical "Singin' in the Rain": 60th Anniversary (An Analysis)

Kathy Selden: I said some awful things that night, didn't I?

Don Lockwood: No. I deserved them. But I must admit I was hurt by them. So hurt in fact that I haven't been able to think about anything but you ever since.

Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain": This month marks the 60th anniversary of its release in U.S. theaters (April, 9, 1952).

Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds as Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden in "Singin' in the Rain" (1952)

Don Lockwood's encounter with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) after the premiere continues the demystification of his stardom. Escaping from a crowd of zealous fans, he leaps onto the top of a streetcar and jumps into her convertible. Then, in trying to impress her, Don carries over the egotistical persona that he displayed for his public at the premiere. Unimpressed when she learns his identity, Kathy dismisses Don's acting for its inauthenticity. "The personalities on the screen just don't impress me," she declares.

Since these opening scenes satirize Don's star image, highlighting its fabrication along with Lina Lamont's (Jean Hagen), in order subsequently to validate his transformation into a song-and dance- man just like Gene Kelly, "Singin' in the Rain" must also depict the greater authenticity of that other kind of stardom. As Stephan Prock observes, despite the visual demystification of "Don's revisionist and misleading narrative" when he recounts his biography at the premiere, "the film becomes increasingly caught up in revealing the falseness, the very constructedness, of the 'feminine' and the inability of women in the film to present or control their own representation".

For instance, when he and Kathy meet again several weeks later, Don reveals that he cannot tell her how he genuinely feels. "I'm such a ham," he confesses. "I'm not able to without the proper setting." So he goes into the number "You Were Meant for Me," which measures the sincerity of his singing and dancing against the insincerity of his phony speech and hammy acrobatics.

Frank Sinatra, Kathryn Grayson and Gene Kelly in "Anchors Aweigh" (1945) directed by George Sidney

The setup of this number borrows from the similar one on a soundstage in "Anchors Aweigh", but whereas the swashbuckler fantasy ballet in that earlier film shows the dancing matinee idol beneath the inarticulate ordinary Joe, this time out it proves just the opposite. Don introduces his love song by calling attention to its theatricalized setting on a soundstage, using studio technology to simulate a suitable romantic atmosphere.

What is immediately striking is how the Kelly numbers in "Singin' in the Rain" differ from those in his other musicals. Absent are the spectacular solos for the star that serve as camp highpoints: there is no equivalent of "The Worry Song" or "Niña."

The title number, while Kelly's most famous, is perhaps the least innovative solo of his entire career, an unabashed declaration of joy more unified in style, and much simpler in its execution (as Kelly himself commented), than any others that come to mind. Further distinguishing "Singin' in the Rain" from the 1940's musicals is the greater extent to which Kelly is partnered in his dances.

The version of the title song performed before the credits, as Patricia Mellencamp notices, includes all three stars singing and dancing together, unlike the finale at the end, which briefly pairs Kelly and Reynolds in "You Are My Lucky Star," the lyric punning on their characters' future coupling, professional as well as romantic.

"Singin' in the Rain" achieves its closure, Mellencamp points out, by pushing O'Connor's character, Cosmo, out of the story along with Lina. Always marginalized as Don's best friend who has no private life or professional ambition of his own, Cosmo moves into the orchestra pit to conduct the musical accompaniment of "You Are My Lucky Star" when Don and Kathy reunite and then disappears.

Underscored by a heavenly chorus continuing the song, the final shot shows Don and Kathy beneath a billboard advertising their teaming in a new "Singin' in the Rain" which, unlike the "Singin' in the Rain" we have been watching for nearly the past two hours, does not feature a star trio.
Much like "Anchors Aweigh", in short, "Singin' in the Rain" begins with Don already coupled-and "fit as a fiddle," thank you-with his life-long friend, constant companion, first dance partner, and collaborator: Cosmo. The buddy, more than Lina, poses the serious obstacle to the normative heterosexual masculinity that Don comes to represent in the film's closure when he and Kathy star in their own version of "Singin' in the Rain".

"Singin' in the Rain" as a set piece that characterizes the quintessential Gene Kelly musical, openly heterosexualizes his dancing by pairing him with an equally expert female dancer trained in classical ballet: Vera-Ellen in "On the Town", Leslie Caron in "American in Paris", Cyd Charisse in "Singin' in the Rain". But in each film this number just as repeatedly depicts heterosexual loss, recounting an inner narrative of Kelly's losing the woman with whom he dances.

In "Broadway Ballet," the hoofer fails to sustain his erotic rapport with the seductive vamp played by Cyd Charisse; both times they meet in this number, after they dance up a storm, the vamp leaves the hoofer for her gangster-lover. When the vamp rebuffs him, all the hoofer has to console him at the ballet's end is his success as a dancer, but that success is considerable since he is now a bona fide star.

Cyd Charisse may have been needed for "Broadway Ballet" because Debbie Reynolds was not a trained classical dancer, but the substitution only makes the pattern clearer: whereas the camp female figure is punished (Lina) and redeemed (Kathy) in the plot, she is completely silenced and eroticized as pure spectacle in the ballet (Charisse). Prior to Charisse's entrance, the first part of "Broadway Ballet" is actually more in keeping with Kelly's camp solos from the 1940's musicals.

Arriving in New York, his bespectacled young hoofer is decked out as the primary object of visual interest in his own right, what with his straw hat, yellow vest, reddish tie, and pink-and-blue checked jacket. Don's stardom as a song-and-dance man in "Singin' in the Rain" is not fully authenticated until his dancing is overtly heterosexualized in "Broadway Ballet" through the duet with Charisse, which engenders it as a more traditionally masculine activity.

"...With regard to the vamp dance, a note from Breen mentioned an "understanding" that the dance "will be shortened on the basis of the elimination discussed." Although there is no record of how and where it was shortened, careful observation of the vamp dance shows an abrupt cut when Charisse is wrapped around Kelly, indicating that a particular pose or sequence that the Breen office found objectionable might have been cut at this point." -from "Singin' In The Rain: The Making Of An American Masterpiece" (2009) by Earl Hess and Pratibha Dabholkar

Kelly (clad all in black) and Charisse (in white) dance a conventional pas de deux which, in its arty seriousness, belies the jauntier tempo and wittier tone of the number as a whole but more firmly establishes the gender asymmetry of their duet. Unlike their first meeting in the speakeasy, this time Kelly lifts Charisse a lot more and, instead of wrapping her legs around him seductively or leaping into his arms, she falls passively to his feet; he also keeps his back to the camera during much of their dancing, and when he faces front, the veil wrapping around the two of them obscures his body, but not hers. Thus, even though the hoofer loses the vamp, at the finish of "Broadway Ballet" Kelly's close-up confirms the authenticity of the star who knows he's "gotta dance!" - and can do it in the right way.
Ironically enough, though, "Singin' in the Rain" proved to be more of a valediction to Kelly's career than a benediction. It was the last of his big hits, and at the time of its release was eclipsed by the greater prestige of "An American in Paris". That situation has of course been reversed with the growing reputation of "Singin' in the Rain" as the greatest movie musical of all time. It is in perfect accord with the film's revisionist view of what his star image ought to represent: not the matinee idol's gender-sexual indeterminacy, but the ordinary Joe's heterosexual normality; his own partial authorship of "Singin' in the Rain" gave him greater leave to insert his views of dance as a "man's game."

Vera-Ellen and Gene Kelly as Ivy and Gabey in "On the Town" (1949) directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly

Comden's and Green's more heterosexualized understanding of the Kelly persona, already evident in "On the Town"; Some twenty years after its release, a BBC interview with Kelly could simply treat "Singin' in the Rain" as if it were telling his life story. "Much of the film Singin' in the Rain is drawn from incidents in Kelly's own life or known to him," the interviewer, Gavin Millar, says in voiceover. "And the image of the small town boy looking for both success and culture runs through most of his films."

As Kelly's voice describes his background-mentioning, for instance, how he and brother Fred first did a dancing act together-the documentary shows "Fit as a Fiddle," the vaudeville number Kelly performs with Donald O'Connor in the biographical montage. "The Broadway Ballet" is likewise shown to portray Kelly's later career. This number "says it all. An eager young hoofer from out of town. The first job in a speakeasy. In his dreams he will advance from vaudeville to modern dance; and like Gene Kelly, and the image of dance itself in America, he's going up in the world."

Throughout Kelly's career, the extrafilmic commentary approached his dancing as a problem by implying that his profession undermined his outwardly virile physical appearance. For instance, a short magazine piece about Kelly recounted the following off-screen incident in 1946: It was lunchtime, so he ducked into one of the thousands of hamburger joints that dot New York's sidestreets, and ordered one medium rare. "Pardon me," the waitress breathed, "but aren't you Gene Kelly?" The sailor glared, and shoved his cap further over his bright brown eyes, very tough-like. "What?" snorted Gene. "Me, a sissy dancer? I should say not! I'm a sailor!" "Well, I'm sorry," she muttered, "I didn't think he'd eat here, anyway!" Referring to Kelly's leave of absence from Hollywood when he joined the navy toward the end of World War II, this anecdote has the ostensible purpose of showing that he is not "a sissy dancer," and it gives the star himself the opportunity of voicing the disclaimer.

Indeed, "The Broadway Ballet" works so convincingly to heterosexualize Gene Kelly and Don Lockwood alike because it characterizes the hoofer and the vamp through the narrow view of sexual difference. But as importantly, the film's other dance numbers retain disruptive traces of Kelly's provocative 1940's image, an image of camp masculinity still resonant in the biker number from "Les Girls" and still powerful enough to continue shaping the extrafilmic commentary after his MGM career in the repeated insistence that he is not and has never been a sissy dancer.

Taina Elg, Kay Kendall, Gene Kelly and Mitzi Gaynor in "Les Girls" (1957) directed by George Cukor

The camp dialectic of his screen presence as a dancer "with balls" at the height of his film career stands out in bold contrast with what he came to symbolize decades afterward as the MGM poster boy. "Singin' in the Rain" still registers that dialectic but covers it over by using Don Lockwood, that ersatz Gene Kelly, as its camp alibi.

Jack Cole (director of choreography in "Les Girls") criticized Kelly for using dance to project a reassuring image of "men dancing in the right way." What this "right way" required of Kelly was vividly recalled by his collaborator, Stanley Donen:

"I remember being impressed by Gene as soon as I saw him on the stage. He had a cockiness, a confidence in himself, and a ruthlessness in the way he went about things that, to someone as young and green as myself, was astonishing. I also found him cold, egotistical and very rough. And, of course, wildly talented. He was the only song and dance man to come out of that period who had balls. There were good dancers around, like Don Loper, Jack Cole, Gower Champion, Charles Walters, Dan Dailey -even Van Johnson. But they somehow weren't as dynamic as Gene. No one was. That's why he was such an explosion on the scene." ("Gene Kelly" biography by Clive Hirschhorn, 1974)

"What I wanted to do," Kelly explained, "was dance... for the common man. The way a truckdriver would dance when he would dance, or a bricklayer, or a clerk, or a postman... I grew up with all these kind of peoples, you know" (Reflections on the Silver Screen). After his death in 1996 the obituaries evoked the same virile image. According to the headlines, the star was "the athlete who danced our dreams" (Matthews).

Choreographer Twyla Tharp made the same point in a Los Angeles Times memorial, claiming that "Gene Kelly is rightly credited with bringing a massive and much needed dose of vitality, masculinity and athleticism to American dance." John McCullough's criticized the Kelly image as "an image of hysteria and anxiety" about patriarchal masculinity. -"Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical" by Steven Cohan (2005)

"When asked about making film musicals, Gene Kelly once said, “You are commenting on the human condition no matter what you do. A musical may be light and frivolous, but by its very nature, it makes some kind of social comment.” Indeed. The musical did then, and it does now. And so does Gene Kelly, in ways he probably never imagined". Source: www.kellimarshall.net

Thursday, March 29, 2012

POETIC STORY DEDICATED TO GENE KELLY

Debbie Reynolds dancing with Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain"

Debbie Reynolds grew up dirt-poor in Texas during the Depression. As a teenager in Burbank, California, she became the class clown, and, in 1948, she was crowned Miss Burbank by imitating Betty Grable. Warner Bros. signed her first, but Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer made her a star in SINGING IN THE RAIN. Gene Kelly (a tough taskmaster) taught her to dance from scratch.

As the critics at Cahiers du cinéma maintained, the "how" is as important as the "what" in the cinema. The look of an image, its balance of dark and light, the depth of the space in focus, the relation of background and foreground, etc. all affect the reception of the image. For instance, the shimmering Technicolor of a musical such as "Singin' in the Rain" suggests an out-of-this-world glitz and enchantment.

Gene Kelly kissing Janet Leigh in "It's a Big Country" (1951)

Leslie Caron kissing Gene Kelly in "An American in Paris" (1951) directed by Vincente Minnelli

Paris defined by the Impressionists was immortalized by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec with his paintings of disreputable nightspots such as the Moulin Rouge. Artists Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Paul Cézanne all painted the Moulin de la Galette on rue Tholozé. “Everything is about to disappear. You’ve got to hurry up, if you still want to see things.” -Paul Cézanne

Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly danced along the banks of the Seine to the strains of George Gershwin's "Our Love is Here to Stay."

"Together, Donen and Kelly directed some of the wittiest, most stylish and energetic musicals to emerge from MGM. Donen's elegant visual flair was the perfect accompaniment to Kelly's dynamically balletic choreography... Outside of their collaborations the pair's directing achievements were variable... The joint offerings, however, exude brio, style, and intelligent, appealing optimism." - Geoff Andrew (The Director's Vision, 1999)

-"If we remade "Singin' in the Rain" today, when Gene Kelly sings in the rain I think he'd be looking around to make sure he wasn't going to get mugged." -Stanley Donen in The New York Times, February 9, 1996.

A POETIC STORY DEDICATED TO GENE KELLY:

The clouds tumble and the raindrops gleam in his hair. A rutilant backdrop, a deserted nighttime street. His smile is wet and his wit is dry. He doesn't live in one world, but in two. The outer world consists of other people, buildings and rules, while the inner world is made up of his feelings, beliefs and dreams. Wearing a tigh sailor suit, going the subway, or tilting a straw hat, jumping high with a shiny cane, the only sounds that emanate from these cinematic halls are his soft musical murmurs, so far away that feel like champagne bubbles in my mind's ear. With rue my heart is laden when walking through one deserted filmstrip after one.

Strolling along Memory Lane I find him, numbingly mincing down this unique street. He arrives hotfoot from the studio lot, he stands alone outlining a splendid step, a nervine dance, wandering steadfast, performing tap at an unimaginable speed, awash with spotlights, glowing in the warm night. His reasoning is unerring, his weakness turns into kindness. He's Gene Kelly, whether in the European fairyland singing stiver-a-dozen ditties, or in the American heartland of the popular culture, holding romantic adrenaline, gazing at the flickering lights of the skyscrapers On the Town. The obscure stars above us light up and they drop down one by one while we dance, his words eventually latch onto my memory, and leave me no doubt his dream is not to envy, but to aspire, so I don't want to lose sight at what still could be.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Jake Gyllenhaal leaving Urth Caffe

Jake Gyllenhaal leaves Urth Caffe after having lunch in Beverly Hills on 26 March, 2012

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gene Kelly: the Lone Hoofer

“Everything that Gene was, or was later to become, was already there in that act [‘The Magazine Page’ show in 1939]. His qualities were immediately apparent, and the surprising thing was, when you first looked at him, what struck you most was his charm and his clean-cut good looks. He was full of grace and vitality, and what I remember most of all was the effect he had on an audience. They just loved him. He could do no wrong. There was this magic - this “star quality” he exuded. His dancing was very athletic and he had the wonderful ability to make the most complicated things look ridiculously simple.” -Adolph Green ("Singin' in the Rain" screenwriter) on Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair with daughter Kerry (born on 16 October, 1942)

Betsy Blair had met Gene for the first time when she auditioned for Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe in 1940. She had borrowed a cousin's fur jacket plus a pill-box hat with protruding violets and, looking like Ann Sheridan, made her way to the Capitol Hotel. When she arrived, the ballroom was deserted. She looked around and saw Gene, 'I have a call from Mr. Rose', she said. 'He´s auditioning for dancers'. 'That's not until tomorrow', Gene said, 'You´ve made a mistake..., Are you a good dancer?' Betsy looked at this total stranger, whom she took for a busboy, thinking he was quite fresh! 'Actually I happen to be a very good dancer', she retorted. 'In that case', said Gene, 'I´ll see you tomorrow'. And he smiled at her. It wasn't until she returned the next morning that she realised he was the choreographer.

Betsy Blair visiting Gene Kelly during the run of "Pal Joey" (1940)

During the run of "Pal Joey" Gene Kelly was dating Betsy (who was 17 years old). By now her relationship with Gene was becoming serious, but remained 'pure'. 'I was doing everything in my power for it to be a bit less pure, but until Gene considered it was serious enough, he didn't touch me. His not making love to me was his way of showing me that he did love me, though at the time I didn't understand that and wondered what the hell was wrong with him - or me for that matter. I wasn't used to being treated with such consideration by men - particularly not men in the theatre. So I just had to be patient and wait'.

Gene Kelly's contract with David O. Selznick would begin, officially, in November of 1941. Gene decided that he was definitely 'serious' about Betsy and proposed to her. He said he couldn't go off to California without her and that, with a movie contract all signed and sealed, the time was at last right for him to marry and settle down. So, at 5 am one morning, outside the all-girls hotel at which she was still staying, he proposed to her. They got married on September 24, 1941. On November 11, they arrived in Los Angeles and made straight for the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

In her autobiography, "The Memory of All That: Love and Politics in New York, Hollywood, and Paris" (2003), Betsy Blair wrote with notable affection towards Gene: “He treated me like a little angel... Gene was an honorable young man. What remained of his Catholicism manifested itself in his attitude to women. There were ‘good girls’ and ‘bad girls’, and I was an exaggeratedly good girl. He never made me feel rejected, rather that he was taking care of me. He’d let me spend the night sometimes, but he didn’t make love to me... He’d kiss me gently and explain that I was too young for more than that.” Gene said to her: “What I want is what I have, you — to pick flowers and read by the fireplace and sing around the house — my little white dove with the burnished feathers that wakes up every morning smiling.”

Gene Kelly and Betsy Blair in Central Park, 1941

Saturday and Sunday were the Kelly's volley-ball days, a sport Gene took as seriously as his work - and according to Bob Fosse, Gene played to win: 'He had a competitive streak in him that was quite frightening. At the same time, he had this tremendous Irish charm, and if he saw you were unhappy, he'd flash that smile at you and all was well'.

Kerry loved the idea of her father being famous, but again the 'prevailing ethos' in the Kelly household was that one must not be too proud, or boast. 'Though he was always surrounded by people who believed him to be as outgoing in his private life as he was on the screen, he was very complex and really rather lonely', Kerry recalled of his father, 'He was always restless - trying to prove something to himself all the time'.

Because Betsy was aware what the failure of their marriage would mean to Gene, she felt guilty about having to go through with the divorce. She also felt bad that their break-up coincided with the virtual disappearance of the screen musical. Now there wasn't even that to which he could cling. Nor did he have any really deep friendships.

'For all the scores of people he surrounded himself with', Betsy said, 'he was a very private man. People liked, respected and enjoyed him. But few people understood him. I always thought this was a pity, and never more so than after the divorce when, apart from Kerry, the only other person he could turn to was Jeannie [Coyne]. But he had no real close male friends. After Dick Dwenger, his best friend, was killed in the war, I felt that he should have another 'best friend'. I even introduced him to Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote 'Marty', because I knew that politically they were on the same side of the fence and should have a lot in common. But it didn't happen. After fifteen years of marriage and hundreds of people passing through our lives, I had to face the fact that Gene was a loner.

"Gene Kelly liberated the Hollywood musical and infused it with an infectious joie de vivre. He is one of the rare handful of originals who brought to the American cinema individuality and style. In a world starved of the special brand of innocence with which he invested Harry the Hoofer in 'The Time of Your Life' way back in 1939, Gene Kelly is more cherished now than ever before". -"Gene Kelly Biography" by Clive Hirschhorn