THE MYTHS AND METAPHORS OF MUSIC AND DANCE
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN
At the end of the elaborate spectacle "The Broadway Ballet" in Singin' in the Rain, the movie producer R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) says of the number just visualized, "I can't quite visualize it. I'll have to see it on film first." Perhaps just a flippant, throwaway funny line in the film, the comment nevertheless implies a fundamental aspect of the musical genre and its role as the purveyor of show business values and the myths of popular culture: Musicals create their meaning through song and dance. No matter how specifically described, irrespective of the placement in a screenplay, for example, and even though excised for presentation on television (as often happened in the past), the song and dance numbers of a musical must be seen and heard in order to bring the film to life. The musical numbers, usually functioning mythically to reconcile oppositions and contradictions, serve as metaphoric rituals to show changes in the narrative while, paradoxically, actually making those changes occur. "The Broadway Ballet," therefore, epitomizes what certain musicals are all about: hoofers going to Broadway (the term being a metonymy for New York's theater district and a metaphor for show business in general), striving for success and stardom, and finding salvation in performance. The number is the ritual by which the characters played by Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) convince Mr. Simpson that making a musical film will solve the problems of their disastrous first sound film. As a result, there is a change in the film's narrative, but "The Broadway Ballet" also serves the larger function of explicating Hollywood's assumption of Broadway's show-business metaphor, an idea implicit in Singin' in the Rain and in the movie musical as a whole.
Almost everyone writing about film in recent years has relied on myth for certain avenues of investigation and analysis. The traditional tales that explained phenomena to pre-literate cultures have come to embody our society's values in the form of manufactured narratives for film and television. Perhaps the strongest connection between myth and genre derives from the writings of the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss who has argued that myths function to mediate oppositions, to overcome conflicts and contradictions. Most genre films establish narrative conflict between forces that represent opposing cultural values, and in the course of the film those values, represented by certain characters (often--but not always--by a protagonist and antagonist), become resolved either by the suppression of one of those values or by a seeming reconciliation between them. Indeed, those characters usually function metaphorically, metaphors being arbitrary relationships in which one concept represents another without an intrinsic connection between the two. (The related term metonymy, by contrast, suggests an intrinsic relationship whereby there is a direct connection between two ideas. Hollywood, for example, is a real section of the city of Los Angeles where some film production takes place and, because of historical associations, therefore, has become a metonymy for the American film industry and its informing practices, but Hollywood has also become a metaphor for American entertainment.) While it can certainly be argued that all films function metaphorically to a degree, in the musical the ritualized nature of the songs and dances and their stylization and repetitiveness make them the very embodiment of myth and metaphor.
Individual genre films operate within the constraints of their genre, using the conventions and formulas that have become expected by audiences over the years, yet they vary the general elements in ways that also make each film unique. Singin' in the Rain, then, like all classic genre films, is both traditional and original. Traditionally, it tells a story of young love, present in the two lead characters, and of putting on a show. It also has become the film that, by telling a tale of the beginning of the musical film in the late 1920s, embodies the traditions of that entire genre and represents the musical as a whole. Originally, it makes the show into a film rather than a Broadway production; moreover, it reconciles the romantic conflict early in the film's narrative and displaces that conflict onto the problems of overcoming the film industry's trepidation about adopting sound. Through songs that for the most part were written for early film musicals, Singin' in the Rain reconciles the difficulties of making movies into a myth that creating entertainment is an apparently simple communal effort that needs only a star's innate talent and a couple's reciprocal love to achieve success.
Even before the credits, Singin' in the Rain opens with its title song and immediately establishes its relationship to films of the past and demonstrates the mediating function of myth. As Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor, the stars of the film, not yet identified as their subsequent characters, sing under a downpour, they recapitulate the scene in which the song was first presented in the film Hollywood Revue of 1929, thereby establishing a direct connection between the film's subsequent setting and the actual events that the film will explore. Moreover, the contrast of three people getting drenched while cheerfully singing reflects the optimism implicit within the musical genre, an optimism that will be one subject of the film itself. The use of the song also recalls the changes within the musical genre that had occurred in the twenty-five years since the arrival of the first sound films. The apparent inconsistency between singing happily and getting soaked in the rain furthers the sense that the purpose of this film is to show how myth, as Lévi-Strauss put it, "provide[s] a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction."
Each subsequent song in the film continues the pattern set by the initial presentation of "Singin' in the Rain": It functions to explain a narrative situation and to effect the change necessary to resolve it. In general the musical numbers connect the narrative and thematic components of the film, especially the lead couple's courtship and romance and the group's overcoming the obstacles of the coming of sound to Hollywood; by fulfilling the traditions of performance, Don convinces Kathy of his love and together they make a musical film. The rituals inherent in the numbers operate at the specific narrative moment, but they also connote the show-business legacy underlying them, refer to other musicals and other genres, and imply connections between the film's diegesis (its fictional narrative world) and the real world about which--and within which--the film was made.
Beginning at the premiere of Don Lockwood's and Lina Lamont's latest silent film, Singin' in the Rain professes its faith in the superiority of movies as the culmination of its show business ancestors--not just movies, but movies with sound, movies that use all the resources Hollywood had developed by the early fifties. By combining color images and sound, movies reveal more than either black and white images alone (silent films) or sound alone (radio); by exploiting the camera, editing, and special effects, movies can achieve more than vaudeville and the theater in general; and by synthesizing all prior forms of entertainment, movies can appeal to a large, popular audience in ways that highbrow (symphonic music, for one example) or lowbrow (beer-hall honky-tonk, for another) forms by themselves cannot. For the implied radio audience within the film Don tells a fabricated story of his highbrow background that emphasizes "dignity, always dignity" as the motivation for his commitment to entertainment, whereas the combined images and sounds reveal to the audience watching Singin' in the Rain that he worked his way to stardom through a lowbrow apprenticeship in cheap dives, small town vaudeville, and movie stunt work. This suggestion that movies show the truth becomes one of the underlying myths of cinema because the very means by which films operate--those practices that are part of Classical Hollywood Cinema, including continuity editing--camouflage the innate deceptions of filmmaking. When Don and Cosmo are performing "Fit as a Fiddle," for example, what is sometimes called a "cheat cut" hides the fact that they are in a different place at the beginning of the second shot than they were at the end of the first. The seeming spontaneity of their performance (supported by cutaways to the diegetic audience's negative reactions to their show) hides the hard work behind their extraordinary artfulness, appreciated by the film's audience. More importantly, perhaps, the irony of Don's career path glorifies the star he has become--and Gene Kelly's star persona--by showing that at heart he is just an ordinary guy who has made good, another myth important to popular entertainment.
The primary metaphor in all musicals, recurrent almost without exception throughout the genre, is lovemaking. Protestations of attraction between the romantic leads, their courtship, the reconciliations of their often opposed values, and ultimately the implied consummation of their romance are accomplished by singing and dancing. Unable to contain their feelings, the characters move to a different performing plane on which they exceed the normal boundaries of speech and movement. This shift into moments of excess during which music predominates over other narrative and cinematic elements becomes the defining characteristic of the genre. Not all moments of excess are metaphors for romance, but they are the ones that validate Rick Altman's remark "that the musical fashions a myth out of the American courtship ritual." In Singin' in the Rain the major courtship number is "You were Meant for Me," but two others, one sung shortly after they meet and the other at the culmination of their final triumph, also show the importance of desire emerging metaphorically. When Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) emerges from the cake at Simpson's party after the premiere, she leads a chorus in singing "All I Do Is Think of You," a song that will become the articulation of Don's obsession with her. At the end of the film, afraid of losing her again, Don sings to Kathy, "You Are My Lucky Star," which is a direct statement of his feelings of the moment but which by punning on the word star also suggests (1) her feelings for him, (2) his role as a movie star who helped her to achieve success, and (3) his similar recognition that on her path to stardom she helped him overcome the ordeal of the transition to sound film. (These interpretations may be enhanced by the filmmakers' own awareness of the songs' implications: The final cut of the film omitted scenes of Kelly's performance of "All I Do Is Think of You" and Reynolds's of "You Are My Lucky Star.") These two songs have the double function of being the expression of the character singing and of the one being sung to.
"You Were Meant for Me" elaborately ritualizes the reconciliation between Don and Kathy that seals their personal and professional relationship. Having finally found her after weeks of obsessively searching, Don must sing his love and convince her of his sincerity through dance, but he does so on a movie set that serves as a metaphor for the real world just as the song serves as a metaphor for their romance. Anthropologists propose that rituals have three phases, the first providing the transition into a world apart from society, the second being the period during which the initiate(s) undergo a ceremony that represents a change in status, and the third reincorporates them, now transformed, into the world. During the first phase of this musical ritual, Don sets up the props, thereby turning his normal world into a site for courtship. Standing on a balcony (ladder), bathed in the glow of the moon (banks of colored lights), caressed by a soft summer breeze (a wind machine), Kathy looks down on Don as he hesitantly sings that they were meant for each other. Thus professing his love, and initiating the second phase, he summons her from the balcony and begins to dance with her. Oblivious to their surroundings, Don and Kathy, dancing for each other, metaphorically accomplish four important narrative goals. They overcome their apparent differences and previous antagonism; Don's abrasiveness gives way to his innately attractive, all-American song-and-dance man; Kathy begins her movie career; they complete a courtship. At the end of the number, the brief third phase, positions now reversed (Kathy is looking up at Don; he has won her over), they have become a romantic couple. The heightened expression of music and dance collapses multiple aspects of the narrative into five shots; as a metaphor "You Were Meant for Me" embodies all the film's concerns with reconciliation, love, and entertainment.
Throughout Singin' in the Rain the characters celebrate the glories of show business and simultaneously learn that relying on those glories solves their problems. Moreover, they realize that working together, creating song and dance communally, is one of the chief virtues of popular entertainment. Three particular musical numbers, "Make 'Em Laugh," "Moses Supposes," and "Good Morning," demonstrate this celebration and realization while also fulfilling specific diegetic roles. The lead-in to "Make 'Em Laugh" makes it clear that while on the obvious level Cosmo is cheering up Don, who is obsessed with Kathy and unable to find her at that point, he is, just as importantly, reminding Don that entertaining people is an actor's primary responsibility. Subsequently, by performing a series of facial and bodily tricks, slapstick gags, and athletic stunts, essentially old vaudeville routines, Cosmo draws on show business traditions to prepare them to overcome an impending obstacle they are not yet aware of: making sound films. Initially "Moses Supposes" displays Don's facility in dealing with speech, that new hurdle for the silent-screen actor. As the number progresses, however, and Cosmo joins Don, they exploit their other talents, especially tap dancing, and the song and dance assume greater resonance. Talking is important but so is singing and, of course, dancing; one implication is that the truly successful sound film performer will be an actor-singer-dancer, unlike the untalented Lina Lamont who is incapable of controlling her shrill voice and, unpardonably, can neither sing nor dance. By the time "Good Morning" appears, Kathy has joined Don and Cosmo, and the number embodies group values. Exploiting a new-found discovery (that they can turn The Duelling Cavalier into a musical), "Good Morning" turns the literal new day into a metaphorical one, and they celebrate their good fortune by donning costumes, dancing in different styles, and assuming different guises. Participating in the musical ritual and glorifying aspects of song and dance help them achieve another important discovery--that Kathy can dub her voice for Lina's; resolving one dilemma motivates the "Good Morning" ritual which in turn becomes the means for resolving another. Finally, the solo to duet to trio sequence of these three performances--Cosmo alone, Cosmo and Don together, and then the two of them with Kathy--reinforces the film's increasing commitment to the group as the means to make a musical and to achieve true success as popular entertainers.
One of American cinema's enduring contradictions (reflective of American culture as a whole) is its loyalty to both community and individuality. Although most fully explored in the Western, mediating this contradiction makes all genre films mythic. Thomas Schatz proposes a two-part schema of genres, one of which, rites of order, operates with an individual hero who "mediates the cultural contradictions," whereas the other, rites of integration, has a couple or collective hero whose "conflicts . . . [yield] to the need for a well-ordered community." The musical clearly falls into the latter category, for a basic premise of the genre is that the particular character's desire for independence must be subordinated to the group's collective goal--completing a successful musical film in Singin' in the Rain. Interestingly in certain films Gene Kelly's character reverses roles from the conventional ones of the genre. Whereas the female lead is usually the domesticating force who must get the independent male to relinquish individuality to the values of community, the all-American Kelly persona occasionally performs this role, exhibiting characteristics reserved for women in other musicals. Early in those films he presents a brash face associated with the traditional male role, but that false front hides his true nature, which comes to the fore before he can sing and dance his way to romantic fulfillment. As the established star in Hollywood, Don Lockwood needs to make Kathy Selden part of the film community, and much of the narrative action revolves around that process of integration from, first, his attempt to recuperate her expulsion from the community after throwing the pie in Lina's face, through, second, the scenes of her dubbing for Lina, to, third, the final declaration that she is the "real star" of The Dancing Cavalier. Musicals frequently give each member of the couple a solo number. In Singin' in the Rain, however, only Don Lockwood has that honor, perhaps to emphasize his individual talents and his star status, both challenged by the disaster of The Duelling Cavalier, but renewed by his relationship with Kathy. "Singin' in the Rain" is his jubilant soliloquy, which revels in falling in love and putting on a show. A reversion to childhood actions, the song reaffirms the group's ideas in the immediately preceding "Good Morning" and is a ritual purification, a washing away of Don's single, silent-movie-idol state, that allows him to emerge as a loving--and loved--sound film star. The character celebrates the change in his personal and professional life by singing and dancing, the very actions that will renew his career. He makes a stage of the street and incorporates every object on the street/set into his performance; he jumps onto the lamp post, strums his umbrella like a guitar, and splashes in the puddles, among other actions. Although a solitary number, "Singin' in the Rain," nevertheless, demonstrates the film's participation in the communal traditions of show business. Carol Clover, for example, points out that "the street-dance-interrupted-by-policeman" has its roots in African-American street corner dancing, and the imitation of Charlie Chaplin's walk and the impression of a tightrope walk on the edge of a curb further enhance the number's (and the film's) bonds to various entertainment antecedents. As the number concludes, the policeman and a passerby, forcing Don back to reality from his excessive moment of happiness, become his means of ritual reintegration into the larger community. Having joyously danced and sung in the rain, Don is now a new man, prepared to assume his personal responsibilities as half of a lovemaking couple and his professional duties as a member of a showmaking team.
The conflicting values that each member of the couple usually represents are among the more enduring attributes of the genre. Indeed, over the years certain recurring themes have occupied the musical and reinforced its loyalties to the pleasures of entertainment. One of these is the dichotomy between elite culture and popular culture. Certain musicals have generally associated high art forms like opera, ballet, and classical theater with the traditional, the clichéd, and the pompous. The results of an outdated world order, high art stood in opposition to the young, the innovative, the pleasurable, and the natural order of popular entertainments like jazz, tap dancing, and, of course, the musical itself. In the beginning of Singin' in the Rain, for example, Don's verbal protestations of "dignity, always dignity," undercut by the "truth" revealed in the images, and Kathy's claims to be a serious actress, which at first make Don doubt his very reason for being, are clearly presented as pretentious, and their easy assimilation of each other's values places the film firmly in the popular arena. Moreover, being able to sing and dance spontaneously also epitomizes another opposition: work versus pleasure. If one character represents work and the other pleasure, the making of music must prevail as an activity of pleasure with that character's values predominating as the genre conceals the work required to create entertainment. Nevertheless, in both of these pairs of contradictory values, each figure of the couple assumes some of the other's qualities in order to succeed as a couple. In Singin' in the Rain, however, Lina Lamont, rather than either Don or Kathy, embodies the negative connotations of work: Incapable of singing and dancing spontaneously, Lina can never be part of a couple and can never participate as a member of the film's music-making team.
The mythic compromises between different sets of opposing values, however accomplished in particular films, are the basis for the resolution in musical films and reflect the assimilation process implicit in the genre as a whole. Historically the musical grew from dual roots and incorporated seemingly contradictory elements. On the one hand, the musical was the result of folk culture forms that were a natural part of a community spirit, but, as in the ante-bellum minstrel shows, those folk elements became popular with a wider audience as a result of being institutionalized by the professional entertainment industries of the nineteenth century. On the other hand, as the industrial revolution created an ever-growing middle class, high art forms, opera and ballet especially, became democratized, so to speak: Popular entertainers chose to sing and dance in a vernacular that would appeal to the average person. In the musical the professionalization of folk culture was combined with the popularization of formerly elite musical constructs, and every movie musical reenacts that marriage with its own particular celebration of the union of couple and community.
The two primary spectacle numbers of Singin' in the Rain fully exploit the film's connections to the history of the musical on stage and screen and embody the symbiosis of professionalization and democratization that the genre has been attempting since its earliest progenitors. The first is a montage sequence using the songs "I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling," "The Wedding of the Painted Doll," and "Should I?" that segues into an ostentatious production number, "Beautiful Girl." The entire spectacle parodies the earliest film musicals, either by direct reference (each song was used in a different early musical, including the films The Broadway Melody, Lord Byron of Broadway, and Going Hollywood) or by visual implication (surreal effects like disembodied legs and overhead shots of performers in geometric patterns, one inside a megaphone, allude to the famous motifs created by Busby Berkeley). The "Beautiful Girl" fashion show has its origins in such films as Fashions of 1934 and Roberta but connects to the main narrative action by rediscovering Kathy Selden, who is dancing in the chorus line, for Don. The overblown style being mocked in the montage and the emphasis on bevies of beautiful women that populated many early musicals give way to a natural, individual musical leading lady, representative of the simpler, more personal films with which Kelly and his cohorts were attempting to redesign the genre.
"The Broadway Ballet," a highly stylized performance that showcases an entire show business tradition, recapitulates the musical genre. The career path of the young hoofer who feels he's "gotta dance, gotta dance" reflects changes in theatrical respectability and the move up the scale that the genre took during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In the course of a brief phrase from a song ("When I hear that happy beat--Feel like dancing down the street") repeated three times, he goes from a baggy pants burlesque buffoon to a more refined vaudeville dancer to a Ziegfeld star in top hat and tails. He dances in a variety of styles, highlighted by the modern dance/dream with Cyd Charisse (coiffed to look like the silent film star Louise Brooks), and even participates in an homage to George Raft's coin-tossing gangster in Scarface. As Peter Chumo asserts, this extra-generic reference "illustrates the musical's capacity to incorporate other genres." Beginning as young and inexperienced, the hoofer nevertheless has natural talent and inevitably becomes a successful professional; but the democracy of talent will prevail and another young hoofer, also committed to breaking into show business because he's "gotta dance," enters to take the older dancer's place. By envisioning this ironic interlude for their impending correction of The Duelling Cavalier into The Dancing Cavalier, Don and Cosmo acknowledge their debt to the theater but display the musical's fulfillment in the movies.
Singin' in the Rain ends as it began--with a successful film premiere--but life has changed for the characters. The Dancing Cavalier, purposely similar to the highly admired early fairy-tale musicals directed by Ernst Lubitsch and Rouben Mamoulian, proves the success of the group effort. Nevertheless, the one who can't act, can't sing, and can't dance, Lina Lamont--whose values (present in her awful voice) are in such contradiction to those of Cosmo, Don, and Kathy--cannot be integrated into the group. They are the initiators of a long, successful genre history; she is at the end of a career, limited, according to the values of the film, much as silent film was limited. The reconciling function of myth brings together everyone who recognizes that romance and community, combined with spontaneity and natural talent, are necessary to create entertainment. As Don intimately sings to Kathy as his lucky star (nevertheless performing on a stage in front of an audience), a close up of his face dissolves into his image on a billboard announcing a new film, Singin' in the Rain, starring Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden. The contradictions of twenty-five years of Hollywood musical history have been resolved by a film that investigates itself and concludes that singing of love and dancing for joy are the perfect metaphors for personal happiness and professional success.