Yes, the alteration is intentional.

Introduction

Singing in the Rain has long been my favorite movie musical. A fun story, awesome dancing, catchy music, great gags and jokes, a wonderfully wicked antagonist, and a look at filmmaking by a film.

But this isn’t going to be a standard movie review; hopefully something deeper. I’ve been trying to wrap my head more and more around how story is told. A while back I stumbled on something I don’t think I’ve seen anybody else talk about with regards to this film. The expectation I have as I write this is that you’ve seen Singing in the Rain – indeed that you are well familiar with it. Because I want to look at the way this story was told, not the story itself.

Meta

And that brings me back to the title of this post – the Most Meta Of Movie Musicals.

Meta is a word that’s shown up a lot recently in my social media streams and in the collective creative consciousness around me. My first understanding of the word was similar to this definition from Wikipedia:

Meta (from the Greek preposition and prefix meta- (μετά-) meaning “after”, or “beyond”) is a prefix used in English to indicate a concept which is an abstraction from another concept, used to complete or add to the latter.

Another way I heard it described was that “meta” was for talking about something, in the abstract. So “metalanguage” is language that talks about how language works; “metacommunication” is communicating with someone about how to communicate.

And that leads to the more popular definition that I have been seeing recently:

Meta – (of a creative work) referring to itself or to the conventions of its genre; self-referential.

Singing in the Rain – a movie musical – is chock full of references to the genre of movie musicals and the process of making a movie musical. It abstracts the very idea of the movie musical. It makes fun of the absurdities that come from film, from musicals, and from the combination that is the filmed musical – not just for the sake of a laugh – but to point critical fingers, while also celebrating the uniqueness of the genre.

So how does all this meta-ness play out? Let’s jump in and see.

A Star is Born

As the movie opens we the viewers are introduced to Don Lockwood, movie star and leading man at the height of his career (played by the suave and svelt Gene Kelly). And if we’re honest, he seems an ass. Constantly interrupting his co-star and making standard Hollywood small talk about the gossip surrounding he and his co-star, he is anything other than straight laced and straightforward. His self-deprecation is not deprecating, he hogs questions, mic, and spotlight, and he focuses completely on his own story, save for the inclusion of his friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor).

And yet, once we start to see in flashback his “inspiring” backstory, we learn that he’s just as much an actor in front of the mic and crowd as he is in front of the camera. It wasn’t Julliard or the opera. We see just how different and worse his and Cosmo’s story was compared to his snippets of voice-over.

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That’s the first meta moment. Don’s rags-to-riches mini-story is a common trope in musicals: Gypsy, My Fair Lady, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Aladdin, The Muppet Movie. Even Bugs Bunny lampooned this trope in his own “coming to stardom” short, What’s Up Doc?

A star being born in Singing in the Rain is not your standard story. They take the same basic idea and twist it right from the start. “You’re not going to get the standard movie musical,” they seem to say. You’re going to get something different. Take nothing at face value.

Glamorous or Glamour

Don’s backstory and the disconnect between the visual and his narration should immediately put us as viewers on guard, as we can see that all the beauty presented is not as it seems. Stardom and fame is less glamorous and more glamour (i.e. a magical spell that presents a lovely vision to trap and ensnare its victim). The film constantly plays with this idea – presenting one facet of plot, character, or theme only to violate that facet later when it twists to reveal something deeper. Something real.

This plays out almost immediately as the scene changes from the fan meet-and-greet. Don and his co-star are whisked safely inside the theater away from the public, where we finally get to meet Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen).

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Lina – this beautiful, glowing star – has a voice and personality like nails on a chalkboard. She’s horrible to work with. She conflates personal attraction with professional courtesy. She’s unable to maintain the division between reality and tabloid fan magazines. She’s presented as someone who can’t recognize truth even when it is delivered point blank, as in the moment when Don reiterates his complete dislike of her.

“There is nothing between us. There’s never been anything between us; just air.”

She’s convinced herself that everything which her fame says is real is in fact, real. And the film suggests very openly that she believes all this because she’s not smart. It even draws attention to it by having her shout the accusation, “What do they think I am, dumb or something?!” in such spirited tone that, well, obviously, she must be dumb, right?

But the film never plays it straight; the deception is two layers deep.

Later in the film when Lina’s world starts to unravel, she is smart enough to immediately realize what the results of having another actor do voice-over performance will do to her fame and career. You see it in her eyes – she knows exactly how fickle her public can be. But does she try to fight it on her own? No, she’s shrewd. She quickly summons an expert (her lawyer) to attack the studio with something she already knows is in her contract – a clause that says she controls her image. And in an instant Lina goes from flippy-dippy to shark-in-the-water. Suddenly, she’s the one with the power. Lina Lamont Studios, indeed. Yes, she’s over the top and yes, she’s emotional. But she’s not dumb, or something.

And it’s not just Lina that has this flip, where reality is allowed to peak through the glamour of film.

The scene of Don getting mobbed by his fans starts out full of glee. Oh, hey! It’s Don Lockwood. It starts like any other presentation of fame, complete with a cliched group of adoring fans. And then it takes a lightning fast turn into darkness when the fans start attacking their adored star, destroying his clothes, and even hurting him as he calls out for them to stop. The twist in message is clear. Fame isn’t glamorous – it’s dangerous. Reality isn’t nice.

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Reality vs. illusion plays out again only moments later with Cathy Seldon’s immediate rejection of Don’s fake persona which he puts on to try to make a romantic move. She (played by the glorious Debbie Reynolds) calls him out – he’s nothing, just a shadow on film. And she laughs him on his way when his illusion is literally torn from him as he closes what’s left of his jacket into her car door. It’s as though Don’s starting to fall into the same trap as Lina, unable to separate himself from his public persona, and Cathy is that wake up call he needs.

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Well! If it isn’t Ethel Barrymore.

We love and admire Cathy for her straight forward assessment of Don and his fame-induced idiocy. Finally, somebody who will stand up and tell people to just be their real selves, embrace who they really are. And then the twist. At the very party Don was rushing off to, Cathy jumps out of a cake. She’s a dance girl. She’s no higher, mightier, or nobler than he. She’s an up-and-comer, climbing the rungs of showbiz hoping to make it as more than just a face in a crowd of other dancing girls. She seeks the same fame and success that she’d called Don out for only hours before.

Nearly every chance the story could take the cliched or trite road, it twists. It recognizes that these roads are often traveled and it wants to make its own way.

Movie Musical Inception

Back and forth, the film plays with this idea that what we see isn’t to be taken at face value. And that’s part of the “meta” of this film. This is a movie musical about making movies, and then eventually, about making a movie musical. It knows it is fiction and that it’s whole genre is fiction. And it constantly references this.

For a moment, consider the following levels this film goes to referring back to movies, musicals, and movie musicals.

  • Singing in the Rain is a movie musical about making a movie, The Dueling Cavalier, the first “talkie” Don, Lina, et. al have ever made.
    • But when reality intrudes (Lina’s voice and their over-the-top silent acting style), the film flops and they have to change it into The Dancing Cavalier, a movie musical.
      • Don and Cosmo try to explain how their going to do this in scene with studio head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) which then plays out as an imagined scene of a staged production of:
        • Broadway Melody which shows basically an encapsulated version of Don’s story – up-and-comer into not-very-nice-guy into redeemed-artist – and then within Broadway Melody,
          • there’s a second musical number – an idealized flashback in the form of a ballet interlude.

It goes on and on, layer after layer.

R.F.’s response to this?

I just can’t quite picture it.

It’s turtles all the way down.

And that’s the genius I think in how they pull this off. Each level of the film is self contained. Broadway Melody is a musical number that tells a complete story, as is The Dancing Cavalier, as is Singing in the Rain. But they all interact and interrelate.

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The first few times I saw the film, I thought Broadway Melody was the least interesting sequence. It certainly seems to be sort of stuck in there – like the filmmakers thought it had been too long without a song. But the older I get and the more I study story the more I realize that decisions like that aren’t happenstance. And when I saw how self-referential the rest of Singing in the Rain really is, Broadway Melody makes so much more sense because it connects to this idea of linking back through all these levels.

Pulling Back the Curtain

Musicals have music. They have dancing, They have song. Characters sing their wants, hopes, wishes, and desires. Music advances plot and conflict, and it illuminates character. Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, The Music Man, Oklahoma, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. On and on.

Singing in the Rain knows this. And it can’t follow the same course as everyone else because it’s too smart for that. So what do you do when your main song means absolutely nothing at all in the context of the show?

Singing in the Rain, the titular song of the film, means nothing. It’s a song about how happy the main character is after realizing he’s in love and that nothing can dampen his spirits, even if the weather does dampen his shoes. It doesn’t advance plot, provide motivation, or develop backstory. It seems to exist solely so let Gene Kelly work the magic of dance on the audience.

So what do you do in this case? You turn the song INTO plot.

In musicals, the reprise is the call back moment to the main song of show, usually with some changed lyrics to reflect the story’s progression. The reprise of Singing in the Rain could do that – it could take the gloom of the end of the film where it looks like the antagonist has won and rephrase everything to show how down everyone is. But that’s not what they do.

Instead we have Lina Lamont, triumphant, standing on the stage, her star ascending higher and higher as she bows to the debut audience for The Dancing Cavalier. She thanks them and suddenly, the cat’s out of the bag – her voice. Confused, the crowd calls out – they want to hear her sing, not talk. In a fit of panic she retreats to those she’s bullied and beaten and demands their help. Don suggests Cathy return to do her voice over work because “the show must go on” and he puts on a show of his own sufficient to make Cathy angry at him, perhaps thinking he’s back to wanting game and fortune again instead of her.

Hidden by a curtain, Cathy tells Lina they will sing for the audience Singing in the Rain, in A-flat. The reprise.

The reprise is as bright – brighter even – than the original, somehow transitioned into an in-world song that apparently everyone in the orchestra pit knows. And off they go. Right up until Don springs his trap where he, Cosmo, and R.F. raise the curtain and reveal Lina for the fraud that she is, literally beaten with a song.

It’s the last moment, the last real joke that the movie seems to tell.

Watching the movie through, especially if you are familiar with the tropes and traditions of musicals, you’d be mistaken for trying to figure out what the first pass of the titular song was trying to say. But it wasn’t trying to say anything – its purpose was to be the jaws of the trap that catch the antagonist. It IS plot. (Well that, and to make pretty noises for a master dancer to move to.)

Often, I hear writers get criticized (and rightly so) for just throwing something into a story “because it would be cool” but which doesn’t have any real connection to the rest of the story. There’s also lots of recommendations for making each scene in a story pull double or triple duty – advance plot, reveal character, deepen mood, etc. Singing in the Rain somehow manages to get away this with regards to the main song. It doesn’t do anything really.

And I think that’s pretty cool.


So that’s my little think piece about Singing in the Rain. It’s probably wrong. About the only things I researched were to see if anybody else has called Singing in the Rain “meta” (I couldn’t find any) and to determine if milk really was added to the water during the rain scene to make it show up better on camera (it wasn’t).

Let me know where you think I’ve gone off the rails. Also throw out some love to the musicals – staged or filmed, live action or animated – that you love in the comments below.

Looking forward to your thoughts.

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