Singin’ in the Rain (1952)—A Broad-Shouldered Melody?

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

There is a ballet built into Singin’ in the Rain. The ballet’s title, according to the characters in the film, is “Broadway Melody.”

Singing’ in the Rain is the story of actors and a film studio head making a movie in the 1920s. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagan portray two superstar silent movie icons, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont. For public consumption, the two pretend to be in a romance. To Lockwood, this is entirely a fiction and he seeks to keep distant from Lamont. But Lamont both presumes and expects an actual romance with him, and she is willing to advance schemes in order to have this. Meanwhile, a disruptive new technology has appeared: movies with sound. Lockwood is able to adapt into the medium but Lamont cannot. Unknown to her fans, her voice is shrill and her dialect uncouth. Therefore, in the talking movie these characters are preparing to make, Lamont will lip-synch the lines and the singing delivered by a new discovery, Kathy Selden, portrayed by Debbie Reynolds. Lockwood (Kelly) loves Selden (Reynolds), and the movie’s tension turns on Lamont’s efforts to sabotage Selden’s hope of being with Lockwood or having a career beyond being the famous star’s hidden voice. There is, of course, a happy ending in which Lamont’s machinations are gloriously defeated and Lockwood and Selden go forward together happily, Selden becoming a screen icon whose romance with Lockwood is no fiction.

That is the movie. But inside the movie, as I say, is a ballet. I call it a ballet because, though some of its songs have simple lyrics, its story is told almost entirely through dance. This segment is a portion of the movie the characters are producing as part of the real movie’s story, and we get to see this much of their movie as they intend for it to be seen. In other words, there is a ballet within the movie within the movie. Got that?

The ballet within the musical. Charise
as the woman in the green sequined
dress and Kelly as Lockwood
portraying the hoofer.
Here is the story told by that ballet, “Broadway Melody”:

A young “hoofer” (dancer) portrayed by Lockwood (who is portrayed in turn by Kelly; still got it?) comes to New York City from far away to pursue a career in dance. He is awkward, and dressed strangely. In stylized encounters, he finds his way to one talent agent after another. To each he proclaims in song, “Gotta dance!” To each he gives a demonstration of his talent. One agent ultimately accepts him, rushing him into performing in a club, which—we soon come to realize—is run or controlled by crime figures. We learn this when the hoofer comes upon the woman in the green sequined dress, portrayed by real-life actress Cyd Charise.

Through dance, we understand that the hoofer falls in love with her. Or is captivated by her. We do not know precisely; a ballet’s beauty is realized partially in our own inferences. But she is less devoted to him. The scarred gangster whose signature move in the dance is to methodically flip a coin leads her away by laying riches (jewelry) before her, as two silent henchmen, also flipping coins, bar the hoofer from going after her.

In vignettes, we see the hoofer’s career advance. He gives essentially the same performance in one setting after another that is better than the one before. He becomes a star. At a stylish and elegant party, he is the toast of all in attendance.

The imagined dance between the
hoofer and the woman last seen
in the green sequined dress.
And he is heartbroken. We see this when the woman in the green sequined dress appears at the party. There is an expression on her face; what are we to infer there? She feels something: regret over her choices, or remorse for hurting him, or resentment toward those who drew her away. And then there is a dance between the hoofer and her, with the audience understanding that this dance is being imagined by one or both. The imagined dance is the enactment of the characters’ recognition of what might have been and what now cannot be. Dejected, the hoofer returns to the street, the streets of New York City.

And this is what he finds: He finds a young hoofer, awkward and strangely dressed, who has just arrived from far away to pursue a career in dance. This familiar stranger proclaims in song, “Gotta dance!”

There is a notion that lavish Hollywood musicals date from a simpler time. A contrived and superficially upbeat story such as Singing’ in the Rain could only appeal to simpler audiences ready to be fed on simple themes. Or so the thinking goes. But inside of Singin’ in the Rain is “Broadway Melody,” a shadowed story speaking poignantly about human longing, disappointment, love, and hope. That allegedly simple audience for the film must not have been so simple at all, because they were the same audience prepared to receive this ballet.

In “Broadway Melody,” Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood also portrays the singer introducing the ballet’s story. The lyrics of the introductory song offer a clue to why we might misperceive what the audiences were seeing when they were witness to a movie like Singin’ in the Rain. That song says:

Don’t bring a frown to old Broadway
Ah, you gotta clown on Broadway
Your troubles there, they're out of style
'Cause Broadway always wears a smile

Those lyrics shock today. Your troubles are “out of style,” meaning unacceptable to others? And therefore we should not frown, but instead we are to “clown” and “always wear a smile”? This sounds to us like repression. This sounds to us like being false about what we feel. Maybe it is.

Or maybe not. There is this passage from scripture: We are to “carry one another’s burdens; in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” but at the same time, and just as importantly, “each person will have to carry his own load” (Galatians 6:2,5).

Perhaps people at the time when this movie was created had a different sense of which portion of their lot was their load rather than their burden. Perhaps they had a different sense of what it was that was theirs alone to carry, smiling rather than imposing onto others. They knew pain; the ballet could not have spoken to them if they did not. But perhaps they also appreciated the lightness of the musical as a counterweight to the pain, a welcome rest against the various loads that each of the audience members—in all the seats within the darkened theater—were exerting the strength to carry.

Some Like It Hot (1959)—Almost

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Women’s clothes are frequently impractical and uncomfortable. Even more uncomfortable is the experience of being the object of the covetous attention of men.

These were some of the points raised and illustrated by Some Like It Hot. But the movie took notice of these points as humor. They were happening to men.

In the end, the two main characters of the story—men hiding from pursuers by dressing as women and joining an all-female band—escaped their predicament by revealing their identities. The movie never quite made the leap of acknowledging all the other characters in the movie, the women, who were left still living with the challenges these men had fled for lack of a similarly effectual escape.

Rear Window (1954)—What Limits You Is What Empowers You

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Jesus said to love your neighbor. He went on to explain who your neighbor is. A neighbor, he said to a critic who was looking for a loophole, need not be someone you have known or seen. Your neighbor might just as well be a stranger from far away. The teaching still applies to us today, of course. But today, I wonder if there isn’t an extent to which we need the opposite message. Who is my neighbor? What if he is, well … my neighbor?

To be a believer in Jesus Christ is to have been chosen. We can succumb to exalting ourselves over this, as in: He chose ME. But that exalting places the emphasis in the wrong place. The truth is, He CHOSE me, because I could not have chosen for myself. The Lord renewed my mind; he gave me eyes to see. He called me out of darkness because I couldn't find the way.

As a direct result of exalting ourselves over the fact of having faith, we overcomplicate the question of what the purpose of our redeemed lives should be. We seek exalted missions for these presumably exalted selves. But what if God is giving simple assignments? What if the creator of the universe, the creator of your purpose and mine, has arranged the universe so that we are near to the purposes he has for us? What I am suggesting here is that the purpose you have the means and opportunity to fulfill right now, quite possibly the one you are already fulfilling, might be the work or the role God has in mind for you in advancing his kingdom. And I am further suggesting that the people near you right now—your neighbors, maybe—are the people God has given you to serve.

The movie Rear Window is about a man who discovers something like this. He discovers his neighbors, both literally and in a sense near to what Jesus meant. L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photojournalist accustomed to traveling the world, but a broken leg in a rigid plaster cast has trapped him in a wheelchair and in his small apartment. To pass the time, he watches his neighbors out the window that faces a courtyard into which many other neighbors’ windows open. And through one of these windows, he believes he sees a crime. The plot and drama of the movie turn on this.

But more broadly, Jefferies sees people. He comes to know them, comes to love them, comes to care about them. And in the case of that one scene in one of those apartments, he becomes personally involved and sees something he can do.

It is not hard to discern the message in all of this. Stewart’s portrayal of the adventurer suffering and bored because of the injury that traps him in a chair gives me an image I can summon the next time I am afflicted, the next time I feel I am stifled because of a development that keeps me from progressing the way I would choose. When I am halted in this way, brought down by circumstance or setback, I can wait, as this character waited. I can watch. I can ask what—or whom—the Lord has for me to see.

*   *   *

A few other observations about this film. I have been watching movies and writing this series of posts to infer what the 20th century was all about. This movie dispels two assumptions I might have made about the people of that century who lived before me:

1. I thought the phenomenon of not knowing the people who live in close proximity to us is a modern strangeness, something we have come to only recently. However, this movie accepts that state of affairs as a situation that all of the audience would have known well. One of the characters at one point (railing to the community about her dead dog, the cause of death she suspects one of her neighbors of knowing) delivers an impassioned speech about the selfishness of people not caring whom they live near. This speech would have fallen flat unless theatergoers then were as guilty as I am of living close to people and knowing little about them.

2. I might have been tempted to think that the practice and awareness of Christian faith were more common and more public in the past. But no, when the verse about “love your neighbor” is mentioned in this movie, it is not as a biblical verse. Female lead character Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) says, “Wasn’t there an old saying about ‘love thy neighbor’?” Of course, to me and to others who feel as I do, this verse amounts to more than an old saying; it is a teaching of the incarnate God. But I think this line delivered by Kelly’s character hints at how there were more churchgoers in the past, which is something apart from there being more lives renewed by faith. Her “old saying” line reveals scripture having been taught as literature, blending in with other books taught to this character as a schoolgirl. The instruction stuck with her sufficiently that it was recalled to mind, but it had no impact on her except as a curiosity that seemed to fit the occasion. Since the movie did not aim to make any point about faith or scripture, this detail from the character strikes me as credible. In the past, there was a larger share of the populace who had heard scripture and more who had attended church, but then as now, the Lord was choosing for faith those whom he would choose.

And one more observation that seems worth making about Rear Window:

3. The premise of the story could never work today. It could not have worked just a couple of decades after the film premiered. The reason is air conditioning, which would soon become commonplace. In the heat of the summer, people would no longer open their windows. Today, we speak of the problem of technology isolating us, but we tend to have in mind the technology in our pockets. Technology having this effect is actually a much older problem than our electronics. In incremental steps, it has been sealing us off. Beginning with control over our personal climates and the way that this removed us from our windowsills and porches, the advance of technology has steadily been taking us away from one another.