Note to the reader: WARNING: Serious film stuff ahead. This is an update of my master’s thesis from Columbia University. I WANT IT PUBLISHED, with pictures and the whole thing! If you can help, let me know!
I want it published because I’m a serious film person AND a serious musician, and what I bring to the dialogue of the film study of the musical–and in particular the collaboration of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen–is (to use a word I rarely use) unique. I would like my observations and analysis to be part of the critical dialog.
So if you can help me get this published, great! If you just want to read a serious but FASCINATING study of the three films of Kelly and Donen, read on! I appreciate all your thoughts!
SINGIN’ AND DANCIN’ WITH KELLY AND DONEN
Ah, the great movie musicals! The songs, the dances, the costumes…the moments! Julie Andrews swirling on a mountaintop, Jennifer Hudson wailing in exquisite musical pain, New York gang members snapping their fingers in anticipation of battle. What we tend to remember are the moments, the component parts—the rousing anthem, the aching duet, the way Travolta moved across the blinking floor and made disco bearable for a moment.
Love of the component parts of musicals is the standard way of evaluating our enjoyment: “I liked the songs.” “I liked the story.” “The dances were well done.” Yet focusing on the individual parts has led to a limit in a critical evaluation of musicals, often leading to a simple arithmetic formula: story plus songs plus dances plus color plus acting plus directorial skill (or style) plus performance equals a critical judgment.
This book began in a film class years ago in response to a statement made by an internationally esteemed professor that The Band Wagon (1953, directed by Vincent Minnelli) was a better film than Singin in the Rain, the second of the Gene Kelly/Stanley-directed films, because its songs were better. I disagreed immediately, but couldn’t say why. The Band Wagon’s music is superior—no argument there: the sublime “Dancing in the Dark,” and “You and the Night and the Music,” the rousing “That’s Entertainment.” Yet, after struggling through my vague objections to a clarity as to why I thought he was wrong, I come down on the side of Singin’ as the superior film. Why? Because of how its generally second-rate songs are shaped, performed, and integrated cinematically. The songs are OK; the way they are used is brilliant.
Singin’ is regarded by many, my former prof notwithstanding, as the greatest Hollywood musical ever produced. Usually words such as exuberant, joyful, inventive and smart end up following this evaluation. Yet the judgment is still expressed as an exaltation of its constituent parts. My perspective is that behind its visual treats is the real reason for its greatness: its integration of song and dance into the very fabric of the story and the film’s structure itself. Song and dance in these three films do double- if not triple-duty in their films, and they create resonances that simply don’t exist in most other musicals.
Dancer/singer/choreographer/actor/director Gene Kelly and dancer/choreographer/ director Stanley Donen co-directed three musicals –On the Town (1949 release date), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955). That’s fun stuff on a number of levels: Obviously, studying the work of two film directors who went on to individual successful directing careers is an auteurist’s dream. Yet it’s within the history of the musical, however, that the three films have most to share.
The time in which they were made is part of the reason. They came at the peak and continue through to the end of the golden age of the Hollywood musical. They represent America at its most confident (On the Town and Singin’) as well as its turn toward the ossified and cynical (It’s Always Fair Weather).
The three films also offer a look into the development of a kind of dance musical where dance is more than spectacle. Beyond the simple pleasures of enjoying an Ann Miller or an Eleanor Powell, dance in the Kelly/Donen films offers more than a joy to behold. It becomes increasingly interwoven into the progression of the story itself, takes center stage in creating the central couple, and even makes its way into the film’s structure. Extending the romantic and sexual connotations of dance in the Astaire/Rogers series, where the push-and-pull of Fred and Ginger’s fine romances found expression in the choreography, the Kelly/Donen films go one better. They give dance the power to bring communities of people together, the power to cover “impossible” spaces and blocks of time, and the power to overcome personal, internal restrictions and problems. And yes, they were also a joy to behold.
To be better understood, the first two Kelly/Donen films need to be seen in the light of Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948) and An American in Paris (1951). These two films demonstrate the growing scope of dance within the musical, with Kelly at the center. Even with the vocal powerhouse (and strong film presence) of a Judy Garland, The Pirate is remembered now more for its robust and breathtaking dance moves than its vocal numbers. By the time they reached An American in Paris, Kelly and Minnelli had almost completely subordinated song to dance. (Such audacity—with a music book by Gershwin!) With Donen, however, Kelly took the dance musical in still a different direction. Donen and Kelly retained, and in some ways, broadened the scope of dance’s influence that Kelly had been developing with Minnelli. Yet the Kelly/Donen films represent more than the triumph of dance over song; dance becomes a force working on a multitude of levels within the film.
The Kelly/Donen trilogy is also unique in that the two directors were performers, a factor of major significance often overlooked or underappreciated. Until the work of Barbra Streisand, Kelly was the only musical performer of his stature to direct his own films, and only Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz) came closest to inheriting his mantle in the dance musical (though the young Fosse was more of a choreographer and stage performer than a film dancer). The Kelly/Donen films are, to a great extent, performers’ films. A performer’s sensibility permeates the films, adding the joy of their participation to our joy of observation.
Some historical background is needed here. Donen was a 16-year-old chorus dancer when he met Kelly in 1940 in Pal Joey, the Broadway musical that made Kelly a star. Donen and Kelly worked together on the musical numbers in Cover Girl with Rita Hayworth (1944), and then in Anchors Aweigh (1945). Before On the Town, they directed the musical numbers in Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), a precursor to On the Town in terms of cast: both starred Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, and Betty Garrett.
Because of Kelly’s previous experience as choreographer and Donen’s subsequent career as director, it might be assumed that Kelly handled the musical numbers and Donen the dialogue scenes. Not the case. In interviews, neither director indicates that the workload was anything other than totally shared. Kelly describes the process in Singin’ in the Rain: “Stanley Donen and I did the whole movie, the direction and the choreography.” In another interview, he clarifies his stance:
“As a choreographer, Stanley actually did not make up any steps, or enchainments, a dancer’s word for a dance phrase. But his value was just as great as if he had made up half the steps….I thought we complemented each other very well. On the last picture we had together—It’s Always Fair Weather—we were so used to each other, that we didn’t need each other. It was almost dull doing it together …..But on the other pictures we did—On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain—we were a good team. We were one mind working toward an end.”
A Donen interview on the same subjects provides a similar response:
“We really worked as a team. We didn’t say, ‘I do this and you do that.’ No, not a bit. Even through rehearsing the numbers, when everything would really get complicated, I would be with him. When there was really pressure to get a lot done in terms of rehearsal, I would rehearse in one hall and he would rehearse another number, but then we would switch and I would go supervise his number and would come and do mine. So it was really a collaboration. There was no question about it.” 3
Even as late as their last film together, Donen comments that “Gene was in all the numbers, practically, so they were filmed in such a way that we could collaborate on all the dancing.”
The fact that the two worked on both the numbers and the “straight” scenes is important. The performer mentality in the films is not limited to the musical numbers, but is shot through every part of each film. The joy of performing saturates Kelly’s acting performances, and helps to explain Kelly’s specific kind of energy—the energy of an excited performer; what is often called Kelly’s joie-de-vivre is really more of a joie-de-danse-et-chanson. Performance is also at the heart of the two leads’ romantic union, with the call of performer to performer serving as a part of the mating ritual.
Closely related to the question of performance is the use of the musical numbers in the films. There is, at least from On the Town to Singin in the Rain, an increasing flexibility toward the interpretations of the numbers. This is due in part to a developing sense of character as performer , and the songs are sometimes used less for what they say than for how they can be performed. Yet that flexibility of interpretation is also due to the three different ways in which each film’s music made its way into the final film. On the Town was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was based on Fancy Free, a Jerome Robbins ballet. Singin’ was based on the song catalog of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, the latter being the head of the legendary Freed Unit at MGM and the producer of the three Kelly/Donen films, the Minnelli films mentioned earlier and other landmark musicals such as Babes in Arms, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Show Boat and Gigi. It’s Always Fair Weather had music written at the same time as the script, with lyrics by the Singin’ scriptwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Those are three very different pathways to a completed musical, and the distinct origins of each yield a difference in how each film uses music. How the music and dance are used in these films—rather than the greatness of the songs/dances or the quality of the performances—is the under-explored reason for their success and the focus of this book.
For far too long, musicals have been judged according to their constituent parts. Films with good music, or more precisely, films that yielded good cast recordings, were determined to be better than ones with inferior music. Or the film with superior dance performances was considered better than the one with less skilled dancers. The Kelly/Donen films demonstrate that the musical can be a gestalt, a geometric mélange of song, film, and dance.
Finally, the three films are not esthetic equals, and understanding why raises a number of issues. These have to do with Kelly himself, the rise of Donen as a “more equal” partner, and perhaps most importantly for the study of the musical, a loss of confidence in certain musical forms combined with an inability to discover newer, more pertinent ones.
In spite of their artistic inequalities, the Kelly/Donen films possess a great unity. Besides the co-directors, the three films also have screenplays by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Because of these similarities of directors and script, dance’s growing power in these films stands out all the more. Watching the evolving role of song and dance sheds light on the understanding of these three collaborations, of course. They can also lead us to a greater knowledge of the development of the musical in the early fifties, shedding new light on the inner workings of the musical in general.
On the Town: The Rise of Performance
On the Town began life as Fancy Free, a Jerome Robbins ballet with music by Leonard Bernstein. In 1944, Betty Comden and Adolph Green supplied the book and Bernstein the score for the Broadway musical On the Town. Robbins choreographed the show and kept the balletic heart of the original Fancy Free. By the time the play was filmed in 1949 by Kelly and Donen, a pattern was established: dance first, songs added later. With that in place, two other elements entered at the filmmaking stage that more specifically defined the role of dance in these three films.
The first element was casting. The original sailors in the ballet and play had been innocents. According to Green, “With Gene as the leading character and the star of the picture, the angle of the story had to be changed. He couldn’t be a helpless, naive type. The whole structure of the story had to be changed to suit the people who were going to play the characters.” Kelly’s character, Gabey, was thus changed from a passive one to an active one—a watershed moment.
The other element was the switch from stage to film, from the proscenium to the great outdoors. In the two stage versions of the piece, dance was spatially contained by the proscenium arch, creating a world defined choreographically. In this world, everyone danced; meaning and story were expressed through movement. When the Broadway musical was “opened up” in the film version, more changed than moving the action outside or to a sound stage; the role of dance changed as well. It became free from the conventions of ballet, where everyone—or nearly so—was a dancer. Dance was reinterpreted, with new values and specific associations, even new responsibilities.
Considered dynamically, dance normally undergoes one of two different directions on its way to the screen. The more common occurrence is that the stage choreography implodes into discrete bits called musical numbers, the “spectacle” portion of a musical. But dance can also be rearranged, parceled out to some and not to others and given values not possible in a stage world. Kelly and Donen took dance in the latter direction.
Kelly, alone and with Donen, had already been experimenting with the role of dance in film, carrying it beyond the merely passive, entertaining, or expressive. As far back as Thousands Cheer (1943), a wartime M-G-M revue, Kelly was developing dance as an active force. In the “Mop Dance,” Kelly uses an ordinary mop and the diverse elements of a soda fountain as props in his number. Nothing new here; Astaire often did the same thing. Yet where Kelly ended up taking dance in his films indicates that using everyday, familiar props reflected more than his ingenuity as a choreographer; it signaled the beginnings of a relationship between his dance numbers and the world around him. In her book The Hollywood Musical, Jane Feuer describes the kind of number that uses apparently “handy” items as the bricolage number (using Levi Strauss’ term, meaning “tinkering,” to describe the tendency of pre-scientific cultures to use any easily obtained object for the purpose at hand.) 2 She also refers to this as “environment choreography,” dance that makes use of the elements belonging to the space in which the dance takes place.
Feuer describes such dances in other Kelly films such as Living in a Big Way, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather and Summer Stock, making a keen distinction between his and Astaire’s use of props. Astaire, she says, “appeared to use the prop dance out of a kind of despair—no partner of flesh could match his grace. Kelly made of it a peculiarly American institution, giving bricolage the stamp of good old American inventiveness.”3 The “Americanism” of Kelly will be discussed later. She is correct that there is a difference between the two kinds of “prop dances,” but what Feuer terms “good old American inventiveness” is actually the conquest of Kelly’s environment through dance. Kelly gives the mops and the parts of the soda fountain whole new functions, transforming the setting.
We see this transforming aspect expressed clearly in the first Kelly/Donen collaboration at M-G-M. Kelly asked Donen to assist him in creating a follow-up to their successful “Alter Ego” number in Columbia studio’s Cover Girl, where Kelly had danced with his own image, leaping and whirling around himself with the help of special effects. That follow-up was part of Anchors Aweigh (1945), where Kelly was paired with Jerry Mouse of the cartoon characters Tom and Jerry. In the story-within-the-film, Kelly plays a sailor who magically stumbles upon a cartoon kingdom where music—here expressed in dance—is disallowed because the king (Jerry) believes that he cannot dance. Since the king reasons that, as king, he must do everything better than his subjects, he has determined that no one else may dance. Kelly as the sailor explains to him that dancing is not an acquired skill available to only the chosen few, but that “anybody whose heart is big and warm and happy” can do it. With that, he teaches the king a few steps, which quickly leads into a two-man dance number. The result: the king rescinds his order and music is once again permitted.
The number was Kelly’s and Donen’s to develop, as was the story line, and reveals a faith and hope in the power of dance that we find throughout the rest of their collaboration. Not bound by any ties to the film’s story, the tale of music’s release in the cartoon kingdom seems to spring directly from their convictions. In subsequent films, the same story is played out, but is broadened in scope and brought into the world of the film. A value judgment is also given to dance: it’s done wherever people are “big-hearted, warm, and happy.” As an apology for how dance operates in Kelly’s and Donen’s films, no statement was ever so direct, explicit, and precise.
In The Pirate (1948), directed by Minnelli and made a year before On the Town, Kelly takes the role of dance in the musical a few steps further, pun intended. It becomes an integral element in the creation of the central couple, nothing unusual after the Astaire/Rogers musicals, of course. But it is also used here to subdue, unite, and entertain a community of people. And lastly, performance—now including both dance and song—becomes a major aspect of the numbers in two ways. The numbers The Pirate are performances within the world of the film, but not just for the spectator’s eyes. One performer relates to another performer by performing, and it’s all integrated into the plotline. Performance, like dance in Anchors Aweigh, is the dormant force awaiting Kelly’s releasing touch.
“Nina” is Kelly’s first dance in The Pirate, and it serves to establish the element of performance in the film as well as the role of dance. Kelly’s plays Serafin, a magician and entertainer, and “Nina” marks his entrance into the Caribbean community. It also serves as a display of his—Serafin’s, not just Kelly’s—abilities as an entertainer. He leaps from balcony to balcony in a style deliberately evoking Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s athletic grace. As Serafin defies the laws of gravity with his leaps and stunts, he is also taking the town by storm—the storm of dance. His potential partner in the dance is every “nina,” or little girl, and by the time his dance is over, he has choreographically seduced all the young and beautiful women who have spilled into the town square and onto the balconies. By drawing in the onlookers and “ninas” into his dance, Serafin has ignited the choreographic potential under the town’s surface. It is as if the town had been waiting for someone like him to come along to conjure up its performing spirit.
A number of precedents are established here. Kelly is presented as a performer, which will be an underlying characteristic in many other roles, even those where his character is not a performer. An element of power is also introduced here—through dance, Serafin has been able to put the town under his spell. A connection with magic is made, too, but it is the magic not of illusion, but of persuasion and power. Dance begins to dominate and envelop, and the arena has moved from the detached cartoon world in Anchors Aweigh to the world of the film’s main story itself.
It turns out, however, that there is a person in the town who has not succumbed to the magic. It is Manuela (Judy Garland). The film’s plot concerns Manuela’s impending marriage to the fat, older town mayor (Walter Slezak) and the true identity of a pirate called Macoco. But there is a strong subtext concerning Manuela’s resistance to Serafin’s power, and her inability to release her own power. Under hypnosis, Manuela is liberated in the number “Mack the Black,” demonstrating her own power as a dynamic performer. Her repression as a performer returns after coming out of the trance, but her imagination is fired. Later, in “The Pirate Ballet,” Manuela’s sublimated imagination is released in a highly erotic and violently charged way that “transforms” Serafin into the coveted Macoco. Finally faced with the reality that Macoco is the fat mayor, Manuela willingly becomes a partner with Serafin. Released as a performer outside the realms of hypnosis and imagination, Manuela joins Serafin as performer. Her decision to do so in turn affects the quality of the power he had wielded. Once used for purposes of domination and conquest, (“Nina”), that power, joined with Manuela’s power of song, is used to unite and entertain, as exemplified in “Be a Clown,” the final number in which Serafin and Manuela sing and dance.
On one hand, the subtext in the film is the release of imagination, a subtext common to many of Minnelli’s films (Yolanda and the Thief, Zeigfeld Follies, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). Yet it is also the story of the dance-power held by Serafin. What that power summoned choreographically in the “ninas,” it invoked vocally from Manuela. What the two responses have in common is that they are both performance. Clearly, Kelly’s performance is more than just contagious; it is provocative. His dancing affects both the object of his affections and the world around him.
Other associations are made with dance as well in the course of the film. The connections with being “big-hearted, warm and happy” expressed in Anchors Aweigh continue. Those on the side of the protagonist either cooperate with dance (e.g., the “ninas”), are dancers themselves (e.g., the Nicholas Brothers, who team with the protagonist in the first rendition of “Be a Clown”), or complement dance with song (Manuela). The enemy of the film is the real Macoco, the mayor. He is a rotund, lumbering man incapable of dance. Neither he nor any of his associates ever participate in a dance. The division between protagonist and antagonist is the same one that separates the performer from the non-performer.
Performance is crucial to creating the couple. Manuela is released as a partner for Serafin at the same time that she is released as a vocal dynamo. Indeed, her ability to perform firmly establishes her as the partner. Her rendition of “Mack the Black” is as mesmerizing a performance as “Nina;” the listeners are as entranced by her story as the townspeople were by Serafin’s number. The consummation of the couple’s relationship is also seen in terms of performance. “Be a Clown” is their only performance together, and is as much of a marriage ceremony in the form of song and dance as any scene of the two before the local priest.
Many of these same associations are found in On the Town. The scope of the influence of dance is enlarged with On the Town in as much the same way that The Pirate enlarged it over its role in Anchors Aweigh. The setting has moved from a Caribbean port to New York City, where three sailors (played by Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin) are on a 24-hour leave from the Navy.
The conflicts in the plot also serve to increase the scope of dance’s power. In The Pirate, the primary plot conflict pitted the dancing Serafin against the fat, slow-moving mayor. The subtext involved Manuela’s resistance to Serafin’s power of performance, her gradual release in the imagination, and her eventual submission to that power, causing her release as a performer. On the Town places the sailors in New York for one day, and pits them against the limits of time (24 hours), space (How much ground can they cover in that short period of time?) and energy (Can they race from here to there, find companions, form meaningful relationships, see all the sights, help Gabey find his dream girl Miss Turnstiles, and still have enough get-up-and-go to face the next day’s work on ship?) The power play changes from the domination of a small, Caribbean city and a woman to the conquest of the country’s largest city and the limits of time and space. And all done through dance.
“New York, New York” is the first number performed by the sailors, and it has much the same function as “Nina.” Yet instead of conquering every corner of the town square, “New York, New York” takes the sailors all over the city, from atop the Woolworth Building to Chinatown to Grant’s Tomb to Central Park and more. Anyone even remotely acquainted with the city would be able to see the physical impossibility of visiting all these places in the time allotted. It is the number that allows them to cover the area. Through their song and dance the men are able to “take the city.”
The reality of the setting places dance in a slightly different context than it has in The Pirate, however. While “Nina” was performed in the town square, the square was obviously a set. In the hands of Minnelli, a former stage designer, it became a highly designed and theatrical setting. Kelly and Donen’s interest took another direction. The world that dance would conquer in On the Town would be as close to the real world of the spectator as possible. Their original intention was to shoot the entire film on location. That request was denied by M-G-M, but in the short time they were allowed to shoot in New York, they were able to capture enough footage to create a number in which the real city was shown. Their vision was dance and its affect on the real world.
Once the city has been conquered, the sailors go down into it as the three meet their partners, releasing the choreographic potential there. The legal restrictions of the cartoon kingdom and Manuea’s personal inhibitions are replaced here by a variety of individual and social restrictions. Claire (Ann Miller) is temporarily repressed. Ivy (Vera Ellen) is shy and attempting to cover a socially embarrassing employment predicament; studying ballet, she is forced to make a living as an exotic dancer. Brunhilde (Betty Garrett) is the exception to the rule: she has no apparent problem, and spends the entire film pursuing Chip (Sinatra).
Richard Dyer notes the particular way the men affect the women in the film: “The sailors release the social frustrations of the women…not so much through love and sex as through energy.”4 The energy that Dyer and other critics point to in Kelly’s work (and which is often credited with being the active force in so many of his films) is not so much energy per se as it is the gusto with which he attempts to change the world around him through performance, most often expressed in dance. Kelly is not trying to bring simple energy to bear upon his circumstances and those of others; he is merely working hard at conjuring up a spirit of dance, both in himself and from beneath the surface of the world around him. Martin Sutton comes close to expressing this in “Patterns of Meaning in the Musical”:
Open space in the musical is the most expressive of media–it gives the body room to move and, through this, the mind to expand. Neutral space is charged with vital meaning by the dancer’s movement, it is encompassed by the individual or couple and becomes transformed into another world (their world)…. The transmutation of objects, of the quotidian, is achieved by sheer force of imagination in the protagonists. 5
The world that Kelly’s dancing creates is a world of performance, and more specifically with On the Town, a dancer’s world. Kelly is certainly one of the most energetic dancers ever to appear in cinema, especially in comparison to Astaire. Comparisons between the two are simultaneously unfair to the two of them and helpful to the rest of us. Leo Braudy, the writer most associated with the concept of energy in the musical, moves beyond the difference in style to focus on the difference in intention:
The energy that Astaire defines within a theatrical and socially formal framework Kelly takes outside, into a world somewhat more “real” (that is, similar to the world of the audience) and therefore more recalcitrant…. Astaire may mock social forms for their rigidity, but Kelly tries to explode them… Kelly dances on streets, on the roofs of cars, on tables, in general bringing the power of dance to bear on a world that would ordinarily seem to exclude it…. far from taking refuge in theater, [Kelly] wants to make theater take over daily life …[he] wants to galvanize a community of nondancers as well . . . . Kelly and his partners are often amateurs, but everyone they meet knows the steps to their dances and the words to their songs.”6
Such classical musical personalities as Mickey Rooney, Eleanor Powell, James Cagney (especially in Yankee Doodle Dandy) and Betty Hutton are tremendously energetic, but it’s only Kelly who consistently brings out the dance in the world around him.
Creating the couple is the province of most rom-coms and musicals, and here is where dance excels. Not only is dance released in the partners, but as in Manuela’s “Mack the Black,” performances express suitability as partners. This is particularly evident in the “Miss Turnstiles Ballet” and “Prehistoric Man.”
The “Miss Turnstiles Ballet” does not occur in the diegetic world of the film, but in Gabey’s imagination. The sailors note a poster of the “Miss Turnstiles” of the month, which is mounted in a subway car. Ivy Smith is described on the poster in terms that demonstrate her talents and varied interests. As Gabey gazes longingly at Ivy’s picture, moans, “She’s wonderful,” and begins to read about her, the film switches to a world of imagination. As Gabey continues to read, Ivy is seen in an undefined space, demonstrating routines those qualities and characteristics that Gabey is listing, foreshadowing Lise Bouvier’s (Leslie Caron) introduction two years later in An American in Paris. The woman does everything: she appreciates the Armed Forces (“She goes out with the Army, but her heart belongs to the Navy”), is a home-loving girl who is just as comfortable in “high society’s world,” studies painting and dance at Symphonic Hall, and is a frail, flowerlike girl, but “Oh, boy, what an athlete!” Ivy is seen in ballet attire, formal dress, casual clothing and athletic outfits. The last part of the number consists of a sports-inspired set of routines with Ivy dancing out games of football and boxing.
While the number demonstrates Ivy’s breadth of talent, it just as obviously demonstrates Vera-Ellen’s dance skills. Ivy is already shown as a partner for Gabey through his evident interest in her poster. But the Kelly persona demands a partner with the range and energy that can match his. By going outside of the diegetic world, Kelly and Donen can demonstrate a range of different dance styles that demonstrate the performer’s skill in a way nearly impossible to show in a number in the film’s world. Through a display of her skills, especially in athletic choreography, the directors are able to pair Vera-Ellen the performer with Kelly the performer. Having their characters be from the same home town is one happy thing; being choreographic equals seals the deal. The central couple is thus created in part through allusions to the persona of the actor playing the lead.
This is a sea change. Earlier compatibilities were demonstrated by complementing Kelly, not mirroring him. Garland’s demonstration came vocally, which made for a more complete musical balance. Both Kelly and Garland could sing and dance, but their strengths obviously lay in different areas. “Be a Clown,” their one number together in The Pirate, showed the strengths and limitations of each. The number was both a song and a dance, but the steps were limited and simple compared to those in a typical Kelly number. But vocally, Garland carries the number; even though both are singing, Kelly’s voice is weaker and softer. But once Kelly assumed the mantle of director, his dance partners became more like him. They were dancers, not singers, and their talents encompassed a wide range of dance styles, from ballet to Kelly’s own brand of athletic dance.
Once established as a suitable partner for Gabey, Ivy is still defined in terms of dance as her relationship with him progresses. Their one dance in the diegetic world of the film is “Main Street,” which occurs after Gabey has scoured New York and located Ivy in Symphonic Hall at a dance rehearsal. In the course of their conversation, Ivy discovers that Gabey is from her hometown of Meadowville, Indiana. Maintaining the illusion that she is a New York sophisticate, Ivy conceals her origins, but still accepts a date with Gabey. “Main Street” confirms and strengthens the budding relationship. Lyrically, the song evokes scenes from daily life in Meadowville, where life is slower, friendlier and simpler. Musically, the number reflects the lyrics with its own gentle lines and shuffling rhythms. The choreography is generally slow and easy, with no daring leaps, no long and expressive balletic lines, no agitated short steps—an dance equivalent to the gentleness of shared Midwest memories. Yet there is a moment in the dance when the two share just a few steps of tap, look at one another with a quick smile, and then resume the slower dance. It’s if the two had suddenly taken a step back, noticed what they were doing (the taps), mutually taken enjoyment from it, and then just as quickly gone “back to work.” In the context of the dance and the status of the new relationship, the smile seems out of place; it is the smile of two familiar performers rather than of two characters. That moment of intimacy has no foundation in the narrative, but can only be understood as the joy shared by performers. It’s not so abrupt as to break the characterizations, but it adds a dimension of performance to the relationship, as well as a dimension of performer to the characters.
Performance plays an even larger role in creating the Claire-Ozzie (Miller-Munshin) couple. Claire is initially presented as a lovely but repressed woman whose wild libido is sublimated through anthropological studies. Her number, “Prehistoric Man,” functions on several levels. It also satisfies musical comedy tradition by showcasing Miller’s prodigious talents as the second dancing lead in the film.
The number functions narratively and as a performance—and the points are related. The number is a dazzling display of Miller’s skills for the spectator, but is played as an equally dazzling display of Claire’s talent for the other characters. Beginning as a solo, the number eventually draws in the others as back-up dancers. When the dance is finished, there is an enthusiastic response of appreciation from the others, with Brunhilde giving her a hearty, congratulatory shake. Brunhilde had been suspicious of Claire and her motivations, especially vis-à-vis Ozzie, and the handshake expresses both acceptance and respect for her performance.
Narratively, the pause for appreciation is short-lived. Ozzie reacts to her performance with the others, and in his excitement, accidentally knocks down the dinosaur skeleton behind him, sending it to the ground and setting up the grand chase that figures in the rest of the plot. It’s a good example of integrating dance into the narrative, but a curious one given that dance had previously been presented as a creative force. A dinosaur skeleton could stand for history, antiquity, outmoded actions or thinking, or even the status quo. Its demolition turns dance into a force inciting revolution, albeit accidental, involved as much in tearing down as in building up. The number could also be interpreted as representing the darker side of dance, with free expression that is effectively destructive. Or as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, this plot point may be no more than that.
By contrast, this kind of performance plays no part in the creation of the third couple, Chip and Brunhilde. Brunhilde has no inhibitions, and is the aggressor in the relationship; she doesn’t need a release—from dance or anything else. Their relationship is expressed and advanced in two sequences. Brunhilde from the outset has been attempting to lure Chip up to her apartment. “Come Up to My Place” is a comic duet, almost more screeched than sung, and finally seduces Chip away from his sightseeing agenda. Later, after realizing that his insistence on playing the tourist is threatening his relationship with Brunhilde, Chip throws his guidebook away and sings the ironic love song “You’re Awful (Nice to Be With).” Both numbers are completely integrated into the narrative, with the singing presented as naturally as speech. There is no recognition of either of the songs as performance outside the world of the film.
Once the three couples are created, dance again sends them out down into the city in the same way that “New York, New York” had dispatched the three sailors. The musical number “On the Town” begins on top of the Empire State Building, providing a similar overview of the city provided by “New York, New York.” The number is sung and danced by all six main characters, and sends them down the elevator to the street level, and on into the city night. In terms of story, the number launches them upon a new round of adventures. In terms of couple development, the number establishes the group as three sets of partners for the evening, and the partners as a united group; a community is built.
Yet like the earlier numbers that helped create the couples—”Main Street” and “Prehistoric Man,”—”On the Town” furthers the characters as performers. Much of the number consists of the men performing for the women, and then the women responding by performing themselves. The sailors do a mock tribute to Navy life, followed by a mock song of sympathy from the women. Each group uses the other as audience before the final group chorus.
The “Day in New York Ballet” has several tasks in the film. Couple creation continues, though the plot of the ballet is essentially a recapitulation of the plot line up to that point. Yet here performance becomes more explicit and actually overrides narrative. And it functions as well as a kind of repository for the kinds of dance that Kelly and Donen had only put in a non-diegetic framework up to that point.
It’s this last point that must first be understood to see how the ballet expresses the situation of the central couple, and how performance is favored over narrative. The ballet is a wordless dance with long, slow movements. The number recounts the basic plot points, but spends a disproportionate amount of time expressing the love relationship between Gabey and Ivy. The expressions of deeply felt love and passion that were never part of the diegetic world are contained in the romantic pas de deux of the ballet. While Gabey was disappointed when Ivy had to leave him in the diegetic world of the film, the moment was lighter in tone. Here in the ballet, with near slow motion movements and a wailing instrumental in the background, the tone is close to grand tragedy, with the yearning and longing of Gabey set in relief. The sequence contains the more rarified, exquisite emotions not expressed in the film’s storyline. Narratively, the number adds nothing new; emotionally, it paints a rainbow.
Donen was apparently not in favor of either this ballet or the subsequent one in Singin’ in the Rain. He later expressed strong opinions about them both:
They (the ballet sequences) were never an integral part; that’s their problem. I don’t think they are even now—I never thought they were. I’d like to take them out of the pictures. I wish they weren’t there. The one in Singin’ in the Rain is actually less objectional (sic) because it has less phoney pretension about it than the one in On the Town. They both feel like something added to me, but the one in Singin’ in the Rain is less sort of horseshit. And it’s helped by the fact that it’s done with some humour. We always knew we were going to have to do something and we never knew quite what. It’s true of every sequence; some of them just came out better. First of all, if they had been shorter they would have been less of an intrusion. It’s because they are so heavy, in length, that they feel something of a wart.” 7
While Donen seems more concerned here with structure (a trait especially recognizable in his solo work, especially Two for the Road), Kelly was seeing something entirely different in these ballet sequences. What he saw appears to have had to do with Kelly’s being a performer, plus a specific aspect of his personality that manifested itself in dance. As a performer, Kelly was aware of the myriad of expressions available to him. If as a director, Kelly could not put these expressions in the diegetic world of his films, then he could at least create a world in which these expressions could be presented. Kelly’s cynical persona may have worked against the expression of such sensitive emotions in the narrative, and would certainly have been out of place in the equally cynical screenplays of Comden and Green. The movement out of the story’s space and time was Kelly’s choice.
Kelly also seems to have had a synthesizing aspect to his personality that endeavored to incorporate as many kinds of dance as possible; he wanted to explore all the possibilities. As early as the summer of 1939, when Kelly was working with Comden and Green in their act “The Revuers,” Kelly was finding ways in which to include all forms of dance. His act with them has been described as follows:
… [It consisted of] a series of satirical take-offs on how various types of dancers would negotiate a tap-dance. He demonstrated how, for example, a ballet dancer might approach some basic hoofing; or how a ‘flash’ dancer might cope with an elementary time step; or how the “personality” girls would handle a single tap-dance…. The big finish to his act was a highly effective combination of dance and acrobatics as he sprang across the floor bouncing on the palms of his hands, with his legs stretched out behind him. 8
Seeing the potential of ballet expressively, he may have incorporated it simply because “it was there.”
A similar expression of ballet, though on a much smaller scale, occurs in “Prehistoric Man.” Claire does a tap en pointe for a few seconds. She also has a moment in the number where she sits and executes a rapid series of steps on tiptoe, simulating en pointe. Here there are no emotional attachments. It is a choreographic reference to another dance style. The steps are saying that the dancer is capable of a broader range than is currently being demonstrated; she is merely choosing not to show it. It is Miller’s equivalent of Kelly’s dance with “The Revuers,” and indicates that Kelly, as the choreographer, was still very much the synthesizing spirit.
“Main Street,” “Prehistoric Man,” and “On the Town” involve characters dancing before the others. In numbers favoring the vocals, we find the same sense of performance, which also affects how those numbers of are interpreted.
Except for “Come Up to My Place,” the numbers emphasizing vocals were written by Roger Edens, with lyrics by Comden and Green. Edens was associate producer of the film, and a strong musical force in the musicals produced by Arthur Freed at M-G-M. He worked closely with the singers in these films, and was a key player in developing vocal arrangements. His contributions to On the Town were numbers featuring voice over dance, with the one exception of “Prehistoric Man,” which would obviously feature Miller’s dancing more than her voice. His other songs in the film include “On the Town,” “You’re Awful,” “You Can Count on Me,” “That’s All There is, Folks,” and “Pearl of the Persian Sea.”
“You’re Awful” is the love song uniting Chip and Brunhilde. It is technically a duet, but Sinatra, possessing the stronger voice, sings melody to Garrett’s soft harmony, not unlike Grace Kelly’s harmony to Bing Crosby’s melody in High Society. As stated before, the element of performance before the other character isn’t here. The sequence provides Sinatra his showcase as “Prehistoric Man” gave Miller hers.
Once they have moved away from the vocal showcase, however, the directors begin to express some flexibility toward the music in the numbers favoring vocals. Performance now takes on the form of comic interpretation, both in song and dance. In “You Can Count on Me,” for example, the characters—including Lucy Schmeeler (Alice Pearce), Gabey’s unattractive substitute for Ivy—are trying to cheer up Gabey after Ivy leaves him. The lyrics themselves are sufficient to get the point across. They consistently reiterate the group’s support of Gabey and their loyalty to him. Gabey is also invited into the clowning dance routines that accompany the song—another example of the creation, or here, the re-establishment, of the community through dance. But it is neither the words nor the dance that brings Gabey back into the fold. It’s Lucy Schmeeler’s performance.
All the other characters have sung before Lucy, and while the words are humorous, the singers stuck to the melody line and allowed the quality of their voices to come through. Lucy clearly has a comic role in the film, and Alice Pearce possesses a definite comic talent. Yet in theatrical circles she’d be called a comic actress who sings and moves well; she can carry a tune and move expressively, but could not legitimately be called either a singer or dancer. When Lucy performs, she makes no pretense at being able to sing or dance as well as the others. She energetically tears into the vocal line with full throated timbre breaks, the kind of catch-in-the-throat sound marking internal vocal changes that any singer would otherwise work hard to cover over. Pearce’s trademark, a screaming, almost witch-like “Ha-HA,” is made part of the interpretation, doing violence to any semblance of continuity in the vocal line. The dance also turns parodic, with Lucy grabbing Gabey and leading him in an exaggeratedly performed tango. It is her performance rather than her words that finally brings Gabey out of his mood and back into the group. As Claire’s performance of “Prehistoric Man” was integrated into the plot by demonstrating Claire’s acceptability to the group and by indirectly causing the downfall of the dinosaur, so Lucy’s performance drives the narrative forward here.
So far in the film, performing before other characters in dance has been expressed skillfully, demonstrating the range of the dancer’s talents. Performance in song has not yet existed up to this number. When it finally appears, it partakes of an extremely flexible attitude toward the structure of the vocal line and toward the traditional rules of good vocalization.
“You Can Count on Me” also provides the film’s first example of parodic dancing, with exaggerated gestures and a near-total lack of technique. Kelly and Donen appareantly allow satiric choreography, but only in the context of a comically sung number. Two other numbers reflect the same treatment.
“That’s All There Is, Folks” is sung three times in the film, each time by a different chorus line in the various nightclubs the three couples attend. Each time it provides the exit line and is sung as the chorus, out of sync with one another and grinding their heels in the most awkward way possible, concludes the evening’s performance. The vocals are done with little enthusiasm, and the last lines end with an abrupt instrumental “sting,” indicating a flippant attitude toward the entire endeavor. The couples also demonstrate a marked decrease in their own appreciation of the performances, as they applaud less each time as their level of boredom increases. The performances are a running gag on the similarity among all second-rate musical performances; hence the sloppiness of song and dance.
The most dramatic example of flexibility toward song structure and good choreography comes with “Pearl of the Persian Sea,” the number Ivy performs on Coney Island where she is discovered by the sailors and the two other women. Ivy has presented her work as a kind of necessary evil; she continually attempts to cover up her job, and she pleads with her dance teacher not to tell her parents about it. The film makes it clear we are not supposed to endorse or enjoy Ivy’s predicament. The music she is dancing to has a thin and pallid arrangement, and it is dragging its tempo mercilessly. Her dance is equally as ludicrous; she is bent over almost completely backwards when Gabey discovers her. When lyrics are finally put to the music, they don’t come from the so-called “professionals,” but from the mouths of the three sailors in harem outfits. Not only does the sense of comedy obliterate attempts to understand the lyrics, the pinched falsetto voices of the singers render the lyrics all but incomprehensible. Finally, the wild chase scene going on around them reduces the song to little more than a melody and set of words on which to hang the final comic climax. No musical respect at all is rendered the lyrics or vocal line.
In the context of a badly performed song, Kelly and Donen will allow badly performed dance. In “You Can Count on Me,” Lucy’s comic performance was integrated into the narrative by bringing Gabey back into the community of fellowship. “That’s All There is, Folks” is a structurally integrated running gag, and “Pearl of the Persian Sea” is almost tossed aside as a musical piece in the tidal wave of comic activity both in the performance and around it. Well-performed dance is acceptable at any time, but badly performed dance, apparently, only in a comedy context.
Where dance is not performed humorously, it is so respected as performance within the film that it begins to act as a pivot point for structural changes. “New York, New York” and to a lesser extent, “On the Town” present evidence of the beginning of an interplay between dance and film form. Referring specifically to the first number, Kelly remembers the editing rhythms:
We did a lot of quick cutting—we’d be on the top of Radio City and then on the bottom—we’d cut from Mulberry Street to Third Avenue –and so the dissolve went out of style. This was one of the things that changed the history of musicals more than anything. 9
Bombarded as we are with current rapid cutting patterns of TV shows like Glee and films like Chicago, it’s easy to forget that the norm for dance musicals in terms of filming the performance back then was the Astaire dance, photographed to allow a continuous head-to-toe viewing by the spectator. “New York, New York” is filled with high and low camera angles, rapid cuts and shots only a few seconds long, and a few rapid pans that convey a sense of dizzying exhilaration and speed. Kelly and Donen allow the cinematic treatment of the dance rather than the dance itself to operate upon the spectator; dance goes from creating couples and communities to affecting the way it’s presented in the film. “On the Town,” which functions in a similar way narratively to “New York, New York,” also contains the same kinds of quick cuts and pans.
On the Town defined and developed the role of dance beyond its functions in The Pirate. Dance was removed from its context of magic, hypnosis, imagination, and theatrical setting, and placed in as real and contemporaneous a world as the directors were allowed to create. Dance retained its ability to create communities, but the scope of its power was enlarged, breaking out of its limited expression in Anchors Aweigh and The Pirate to transform the biggest city in the country. The personal and political conflicts in which dance became expressively involved in The Pirate grew to more universal concerns in On the Town; dance helped overcome both time and space.
Creation of the couple(s) increasingly became a series of events involving dance alone, and not song and dance. Two out of the three couples in On the Town were created choreographically. Kelly’s partner under his and Donen’s direction was defined in terms of dance and became his equivalent, or in a sense, his reflection, instead of the complement that Garland was.
The element of performance remained from the earlier films, and in a way became a stronger element, in that the characters were no longer all performers, as they were in The Pirate. Only Ivy was a performer by profession in On the Town, yet many of the numbers, especially “Prehistoric Man,” “On the Town,” and “You Can Count on Me,” were performed in front of the other characters as much as they were performed for the spectator.
Integral to the importance of performance is the willingness to compromise vocal lines and rhythms in such comic numbers as “You Can Count on Me” and “Pearl of the Persian Sea.” This is an integration of music into the film that uses, rather than showcases, the music. It is a tendency that will reach its height in Singin’ in the Rain. Similarly, the affecting of film form by the music, as seen in “New York, New York,” will play an even greater role in Singin’ in the Rain.
Two different expressions of dance are held in a kind of suspension in On the Town. There is the outward, extroverted dimension of dance, in which dance conquers space and time, and is able to create couples and communities. There is also the dance of performance, of dance within the film, which not directly presented to the spectator, but to the characters in the film. In the next two Kelly films, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, the two kinds of dance begin to separate.
An American in Paris: Dance as Power
The centrifugal, explosive dimension of dance reaches its peak in An American in Paris (1951). In On the Town, two numbers, “New York, New York” and “On the Town,” established the pattern of dance creating communities and extending its scope of expression. Both numbers began with a group of people literally at the top of the city. The songs united the groups and then sent them down into the city, first to find companions, and then to “paint the town red.”
An American in Paris sets up a similar pattern, with four numbers also using a large city as its setting. As with On the Town, Kelly wanted to shoot the film on location in Paris. But this was not his film to direct, and Paris was created on the studio lot.1 But staged in a real setting or not, dance’s reach into the city was as unmistakable and dynamic as in On the Town.
The first “number”isn’t really a number at all. It’s a bit of choreographed movement detailing Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) in his early morning routine. Jerry arises from bed and gets his breakfast—a simple bit of action. Kelly performs it as a silky-smooth dance routine, with doors opening and closing, the bed being hoisted up and out of the way, and with body movement that combines every action into a fluid whole. Because Jerry also uses household utensils in the number, the dance takes on the quality of a bricolage number in reverse. He does not borrow from the environment for purposes of performance, but imposes dance on the environment; every household item, the act of awakening and the physical necessity of eating all bow to the fluid choreographic line. It expresses the triumph of dance in Jerry’s personal world. The other numbers chronicle the extension of that triumph out onto the street and into the rest of Paris.
“By Strauss” occurs in the coffee shop downstairs from Jerry’s apartment. The number doesn’t move the story forward an inch, and in terms of musical tradition, it merely allows the lead and second lead (Oscar Levant) their first chance to perform together. But this number links Jerry’s personal dance expression with the community. The dance accompanying the vocals eventually attracts the spectators in the film—the other patrons of the shop and the local citizenry.
Of course, that’s only the second step. The third number takes place on the street itself, and brings children into dance with Jerry acting as Pied Piper. The song is Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Though no liberties are taken with the vocal line—no doubt due to the high reputation of the composer and the stature of the song—liberties are taken with the lyrics. The song is once more recast as a performance for the film’s characters, and not just for us as viewers. The children ask Jerry to dance, and he responds by giving them an English lesson, using the song lyrics. He substitutes “J’ai du rhythme, j’ai de la musique” for the classic first line, integrating the song more into the diegetic world of the film and aiming it even less toward the spectator. He invites the children to share the vocals with him, and then teaches them some of his dance movements, which are less traditional enchaînements than danced imitations of airplanes, trains and Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. He finally takes his leave, uniting them in delight at his performance and corporate approval of his talents.
The progression is made complete with “S’Wonderful,” a vocal duet by Jerry and Henri Bourel (Georges Guetary), with dance provided by Jerry. The two men are sitting at a café table discussing their current state of bliss: both are in love. Neither knows at this point that they’re in love with the same woman, a fact the audience is aware of and that undercuts the exuberance with an ironic undertone. The two men arise from the table and move down the street, collecting an appreciative audience along the way. The sense of community-building is much like that in “Nina,” but substituting shared joy for that earlier song’s more manipulative intent. The number is also a dance, with Henri moving rhythmically (Guetary is the vocal lead in the film, and is not a dancer) and Jerry doing more complex steps. The final overhead shot shows the two men, now at a distance one from another, with the local community between them, sharing in their joy and being incorporated as audience to Jerry’s dance. The progression of power is complete; from Jerry’s room to the shop, out onto the street, to the children in the street to the adult community sharing the joy of romantic joy, dance has been brought to bear on Paris.
Dance acts too to create the couple. On the Town presented Ivy through narration and choreography; Lise (Leslie Caron) gets the same treatment here. At her introduction, she is presented as Henri’s ideal—the total female. That completeness is presented in a world devoid of natural time and space, possessing only the same simple props and single-color lighting schemes used for Ivy in the “Miss Turnstiles Ballet.” Lise’s various qualities are demonstrated by a brief description by Henri and a snippet of dance, ranging in style from the Charleston (representing her fun-loving, vivacious side) to classic ballet moves (her studious, serious nature). She is first and foremost a creature of dance, and therefore a fit match for Jerry (and Kelly).
Creating the couple also implies eliminating of the competition, and here, that’s Henri. Though in the narrative he’s presented as a rival to Kelly, the romantic associations established for dance keep him out of the running from the start. Jerry and Lise can dance; Henri can’t. Though he is one of the only two in the film who is a professional performer within the film (the other being Adam Cook, played by Levant), and is by far the most talented vocally, the focus on dance eliminates him from the realm of consideration. This delineation helps pair Jerry and Lise, and solidifies the film’s preference of dance over song. Song in On the Town had been used to confirm and develop Chip and Brunhilde’s relationship (“You’re Awful”). Here song, even performed as well as Henri sings, serves to disqualify a character from the possibility of a romantic relationship.
When Jerry and Lise share their first number together, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” it follows the formula established with “Main Street.” In both, Kelly’s character sings to his partner, they dance while he sings, they continue dancing together while the instrumental carries the melody. It ends with Kelly again picking up the vocal. Yet a change has occurred. The balletic gestures and all their attendant emotions, reserved for the “Day in New York” ballet in On the Town, find a place here in the dance duet. The more delicate movements, the longer dance lines, the more fluid integration of parts into a whole, have moved out of the world of imagination and dream and into the diegetic world of the film. While the balletic movement in the 17-minute ballet later in the film contains even more dramatic choreography, “Our Love is Here to Stay” supplies Kelly with his most balletic expression in the diegetic world of one of his films.
The ballet at the end of the film demonstrates again Kelly’s propensity for using the non-diegetic world as a setting for a wide array of dance styles. In On the Town, the number was shorter and mainly gave expression to ballet. In An American in Paris, all kinds of dance are displayed, from bouncy jazz steps to George Cohan’s more open-ended forms to traditional, classical steps. The purpose of the ballet was not to extract the more exquisite feelings already found in the narrative, as had “A Day in New York.” It was dance intended to fit a changing background of French painters, in turn created as a backdrop to the film’s title song. But it also provides a space and time where the two leads can develop their relationship choreographically. Should there be any question left about it at this point in the film, the sequence displays their complete compatibility. The context of the sequence is what ties it tenuously to the rest of the film. It comes when Jerry has lost Lise and he is mourning. Most of the number is joyous, and only at the end does Lise slip away, allowing for the segue back into the narrative. The number thus takes on a utopian quality; it’s a dream of what could be in the relationship, interpreted through dance.
Kelly had designed On the Town’s “A Day in New York” to increase the emotional boundaries of the film through ballet. The “An American in Paris” ballet is almost a catchall, showcasing a vast assortment of dance styles and exploring their expressive possibilities. A more direct display of dance to the spectator may have been out of place in any other part of the film. But the ballet’s framing device of imagination, plus the placement of the ballet at that point in the narrative, tends to refract the vision of the various dance forms through suggestions of romantic utopia. Love covers a multitude of diverse dance styles.
The same kind of framing device surrounds the third movement of Gershwin’s “Concerto in F,” performed by Adam. Producer Freed had apparently declared that there would be no concert music, as “There will be no lulls in this film.”3 The piece was “shoe-horned” into the film through the back door of yet another framing device, used in the ballet and later employed much more extensively in Singin’ in the Rain. Called “Ego Fantasy,” the number begins with Adam’s daydream of performing the concerto on the piano, where he takes over the roles of conductor, every member of the orchestra, and every member of the cheering audience. The third movement is presented in toto, but is framed in a supporting structure of comic irony. If “Pearl of the Persian Sea” was too silly to be performed “straight,” Gershwin’s concerto was deemed too serious, and needed a similar framing device to present it.
An American in Paris continued to explore many the power of dance found in On the Town. Though not extended to every corner of Paris as it had been in New York, dance retained its ability to create communities and couples, now totally locking out song as a creative or bonding force. In this context, Kelly also brought more purely expressive balletic movements out of the non-diegetic world and into the couple’s relationship within the narrative. At the same time, the range of dance increased, with sequences containing styles not related to one another nor directly connected with a single event in the narrative. Lastly, the use of framing devices develops to include music that would otherwise not have had a place.
The framing of numbers, in fact, is at the heart of Singin’ in the Rain. They are everywhere, and there is more tweaking of the vocal lines of some numbers than in either On the Town or An American in Paris. Part of the reason lies in the songs themselves.
An American in Paris had been based on the George Gershwin song catalog. Producer Freed decided that Singin ‘ in the Rain was to be based on his song catalog, in which he composed lyrics to Nacio Herb Brown’s melodies. Most of the songs chosen for the film were written for early M-G-M musicals. According to Comden and Green, “It occurred to us that, rather than try to use them in a sophisticated, contemporary story or a gay nineties extravaganza, they would bloom at their happiest in something that took place in the very period in which they were written.”4 That may have been less of an inspiration than an answer to a dilemma.
Like An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain contained songs that could be integrated lyrically into the film (e.g., “Our Love is Here to Stay” and “S’Wonderful” in the former and “You Were Meant for Me” and “Singin’ in the Rain” in the latter) and others for which a place had to be found. Unlike Minnelli’s film, though, the song catalog did not consist of classics that demanded respect for the vocal line. Only the title number was a bona fide classic, and that due more to its reputation as a standard than to respect for it musically. So while the songs in themselves were not up to the Gershwin standard, their very lack of sophistication and musical stature gave opportunity for a much greater freedom of interpretation. Relying on the framing devices learned in An American in Paris, the directors found a myriad of ways to integrate the songs into the narrative. In certain ways, Singin’” is the integrated musical par excellence, going far beyond the traditional sense of integrated musicals, which are often nothing more than the integration of the lyrics of the songs into the narrative flow. Singin’ in the Rain integrates lyrics, too, but also integrates whole songs as performances, weaving the numbers in and around the role of dance, the film’s thematic concerns, and the comedy. The elastic approach toward the songs’ structures and lyrics leads to a breakdown of the song units as discrete musical elements, melding into a gestalt of story, comedy, and performance.
The world in which these numbers are presented has changed from that of An American in Paris, however. The direction dance had begun to take in On the Town—that more introspective, implosive aspect—comes to the fore in Singin’. Dance still unites communities, though the communities are much smaller. And it still expresses milestones in creating the couple. The element of performance, though, is brought to a peak here—both in the way the characters perform before one another, and in the theme of the ballet. And while there is a confidence about the use of song and dance, and a certain brazenness to the comedy, there is the beginning of a sense of self-doubt. We find in Singin’ the beginnings of a loss of faith in the conventions of musical comedy that expresses itself in a defense of illusion, comedy and artifice.
Singin’ in the Rain: A Turning Point
Dance progressed from individual to community in On the Town and An American in Paris. Singin’ in the Rain instead presents dance as performance for the character and/or spectator, as a major player in creating the couple, or as part of a comic routine. The first number, “Singin’ in the Rain,” sung over the credits, presents the cast of characters who embody the world in which dance lives in the film. Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds directly address the audience in a setting of Technicolor blue and yellow, with torrents of rain coming from nowhere. They deliver the song in a straightforward style, with no change in structure or lyric. The lack of specific context keeps the focus on the performers, and allows the possibility of developing the performance in any direction, by defining context, character, situation or style of performance.
The first treatment given to a number once the film begins its story is a comic one, and the number, “Fit as a Fiddle” is seen through another framing device as well. It’s shown as a flashback, as Don Lockwood (Kelly), famous silent screen star, tells the story of his rise to success to Hollywood interviewer and columnist Dora Bailey (Madge Blake). Lockwood’s theme is “Dignity, always dignity,” but the visual presentation shows us anything but. “Fit as a Fiddle” places Lockwood with long-time companion Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) as they perform a two-man dance routine before a vaudeville audience. The tempo of the song is speeded up for comic effect—essentially throwing it away as a piece of legitimate music—and a heavy one-two beat is imposed, working against any appreciation of the words. Their costumes are a loud turquoise plaid, and the comic gestures are bold, further distracting the viewer from the music. Lockwood’s story is always at odds with what we see, so the number is seen in a completely ironic light. Yet there is an inconsistency here based in Kelly’s refusal to laugh at dance. In On the Town, bad or comic dance was only seen in the context of a comic number or routine whose primary musical expression was bad or comic vocals. In “Fit as a Fiddle,” dance is clearly meant to be laughed at, as the diegetic audience of Lockwood’s memory is booing and the context is putting the lie to everything he’s saying. But the dance performance is superbly executed. Costumes and props notwithstanding, no audience could fail to appreciate the complexity, ingenuity and technical brilliance displayed. While the directors allow songs to be “thrown away,” the preference for dance over song prevents them from allowing dance that same flexibility. The high level of performance works against the narrative concerns of the memory sequence, and confuses the comic point. It’s not unlike the incongruity of Liza Minnelli’s performance in Cabaret (1972), where she is supposed to be a mediocre singer and dancer in a sleazy nightclub. Second-rate entertainment has already been shown to be entertaining in “That’s All There is, Folks” and “Pearl of the Persian Sea.” Either Kelly and Donen were reluctant to show badly-executed dance, or Kelly was reluctant to show himself performing it.
“Fit as a Fiddle” is only one of two numbers used for satire. The other is “Beautiful Girl,” which is preceded by a montage sequence marking the arrival of sound to film. The sequence includes segments of “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Foolin’,” “Wedding of the Painted Doll,” and “Should I?” all played far too quickly, and presented with the most garish Technicolor costumes and backgrounds. The tempo slows and “Beautiful Girl” emerges at normal speed. The song is sung in a Dennis Morgan/Allan Jones style (anachronistic in terms of the film’s plot by at least a half-dozen years) and is presented as straightforwardly as possible, with no vocal exaggerations or tempo changes. The number in fact seems more of an excuse for two comic bits than a performance for the spectator. In the middle of the number, there is a fashion display highlighting the outmoded fashions of the twenties. Later, as the number ends, there is a slightly comic tribute to Busby Berkeley (Kelly’s first director in film, for For Me and My Gal), with overhead camera angles and kaleidoscopic patterns. The satire that pervades the rest of the film in a playful but respectful way comes to the surface here in the treatment of the number. Kathy Selden (Reynolds) is one of the “beautiful girls,” but that narrative connection is a weak one that fails to tie in the number to anything other than sheer satire. In the end, the number fails because its musical interpretation is not determined by the narrative or the role of performance, but simply by an attitude.
A more integrated number, and one that advances the tendency toward performance among the characters, is “Make ‘Em Laugh.” The number is actually not out of the old Freed/Brown catalog, but was created by the two men for the film, and was their last collaborative effort. Musically, it is a complete plagiarism of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” from The Pirate, and according to Donen, was intended to be a song “like” “Be a Clown.” Apparently, when the song was heard, few had the courage to speak up and note the similarity.5 Porter, too, was reportedly too classy to say anything publicly.
The purpose of that song is to prove a point. The audience consists of Don alone. The point? That entertainment—specifically clowning—is legitimate. Kathy has insulted Don and ridiculed his profession, and it’s Cosmo’s job to cheer him up by reinstituting his flagging faith. It’s similar in purpose to “You Can Count on Me” from On the Town. And as in that number, it’s the performance, not just the words, that is emphasized. “You Can Count on Me” had introduced Lucy as performer, and used Alice Pearce’s comic style and attributes to that end. Here, O’Connor’s talents as a dancer are brought into play, and the number accomplishes two tasks at once: it satisfies musical tradition by giving the second lead the chance to shine, and succeeds in integrating itself into the narrative, much like “Prehistoric Man.” Yet the number, for all its plot connection and technical genius, represents a change of direction for dance.
The audience for the number is just one person, though the first part of the dance has stagehands unwittingly involved in Cosmo’s routine. Had the number been in a Kelly film a few years before, it may well have ended up drawing an audience of those on the set, and concluded with a hearty round of admiring applause. But the audience is first Don, and then simply us as viewers as Don is removed from the sequence. The last half of the song is performed directly for the camera, which completely loses its identification with Don as it moves into a final overhead shot. The number reverses the progression in numbers such as “You Can Count on Me” and “On the Town,” which created communities and advanced the influence of dance within the film. The scope of dance’s effectiveness has been reduced here to two people, and the scope is rendered smaller yet by Don’s removal as spectator. That finally turns the number into a direct performance for the film’s spectator, a first in the Kelly/Donen series.
Aside from the narrowing of the scope of dance’s influence, the argument that Cosmo makes differentiates the number from all others preceding it in On the Town and An American in Paris. The dance itself is a response to Don’s wavering faith in his profession’s validity. Yet by shifting the spectator from Don to the film viewer, the number also seeks to convince the viewer as well. The question raised by Don emanates from the script, of course, and ultimately, from Comden and Green. The only answer offered is the performance itself; after Don is removed from the number, his reaction to Cosmo is not recorded, or even alluded to later. What speaks most loudly in the number is the brilliance of its execution and the obvious hard work involved, a common trait in Kelly’s choreography. The fact that the issue is not completely resolved indicates how dance’s power is narrowing its scope. The belief that dance is accepted by “anybody whose heart is big and warm and happy” is starting to crack. The energy that infuses Cosmo’s dance can be read as a striving to convince Don, himself, and the film spectator that entertainment is legit. Simple faith in it no longer suffices; an explanation, a reaffirming is necessary. Note too how dance has shrunk in power—the issue itself and the answer through dance only involves performers now. The new community, the one that understands and appreciates dance, has been drastically reduced.
Related to this entertainment defense is an elaborate celebration of illusion. Cosmo’s number is filled with it, from the dummy he tussles with and the phony hallway to the door that leads nowhere. The routine redeems illusion by first exposing it, then by using it for comic effect, thereby redeeming it.
Two other numbers continue the trend toward the limited audience for performance: “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning.” “Moses” begins as a comic takeoff on the problems of silent film stars having to adjust to the demands of sound films by taking vocal lessons; here the humor is derived from the tongue-twisters that Don has to master to satisfy the coach’s demand for proper enunciation. The sequence begins with Don’s diction lesson. Cosmo enters and engages the instructor in some tongue-twisters of his own. The leap to song is made from a sentence beginning with “Moses supposes his toeses (sic) are roses.” The spectator is ostensibly the speech instructor, but he is progressively removed as Cosmo and Don bury him underneath a load of props. The performance thus shifts to one for the film spectator, much like “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Unlike “Make ‘Em Laugh,” though, the number is not well integrated narratively. The burying of the instructor is a triumph over a minor inconvenience, and Don’s success with the tongue-twisters was never in doubt. His ability to get through the song lyrically is no victory, as his diction has always been superb. The number thus becomes a straightforward performance for the film spectator. It’s well executed, and provides the two great dancers their showcase, but it’s connected to the narrative by less than a thread.
Better related is the other number with a limited audience, “Good Morning.” It’s a celebration of the decision to turn a failed sound film into a musical, where Kathy will substitute her voice for the untalented, vocally repellent Lina. (Note that this is an example of the narrative’s doing what the directors have been doing with the numbers: creating frames and recasting the material to re-present it. Cosmo suggests that the sound film with Lina—a period piece—be framed with contemporary song and dance material. What had been filmed already could then be incorporated in a flashback sequence. It’s essentially the same approach used by Comden, Green, Kelly, and Donen with the Freed/Brown song catalog.) The tenuous narrative link is Kathy’s discovery that the film-saving decision comes in the wee hours of the morning. The number’s primary function is strengthening the community—here, a community of three, the largest in the film. The three dance before one another individually, and as a group. Kelly and Donen use the number to incorporate a variety of different dance styles, as each of the three takes a solo turn before the others. By the time the number is ended, the three are laughing and smiling at one another, having enjoyed the performance and celebrating the salvation of the film. It is the most creative and expansive work done through dance in the diegetic world of the film.
The title song indicates more strongly than any other, even more than “Make ‘Em Laugh,” why the world that dance can influence is becoming smaller. “Make ‘Em Laugh” posed the question of the validity of entertainment, but still made room for performance. “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning” were limited in scope, but found their audience. “Singin’ in the Rain” has no audience. Don and Kathy have expressed their love for one another, and Don is simply expressing his joy. Unlike “S’Wonderful,” where the joy was shared, “Singin’ in the Rain” has Don savor the joy by himself. But instead of ultimately handing the number over to the film spectator, as in “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes,” Don is stopped by the presence of a policeman, who causes him to shrug and slink away. The moment is given a socio-political interpretation by Leo Braudy:
The dream of the future that the musical could embody was being suffocated by the harshness of the present. The cop who stops Kelly’s exuberant dance in Singin’ in the Rain asserts the reality of the streets and the rain and the lamppost Kelly is holding on to—a reality that is in opposition to what dance would like to make of the world. Throughout the sequence our point of view is with Kelly, but at the end we stand behind the cop’s shoulder and watch Kelly walk away. Acting out, exuberance, energy, all seem suspect, both psychologically and politically.6
If this had been made years earlier, the cop would likely have been drawn into the dance instead. What the other numbers have hinted at is spelled out here. Non-performers can’t be trusted to understand or be touched by performance; it must be preserved for the initiated, for those of like mind and talent. With this number, Kelly and Donen have come full circle from the “King Who Couldn’t Dance,” with the cop and all he represents standing in for the tyrannical Jerry Mouse. As Don slyly skips off, it is as if he carries with him not only the secret of Kathy’s love, but the secret of the dance, a personally-held treasure.
Dance’s community-creating power might be shrinking here, but it maintains its power to create the couple, and even begins to direct its energies toward an unprecedented effect on film structure. Singin’ is like On the Town and An American in Paris in terms of how we’re introduced to the love interest. As Ivy and Lise were given numbers that demonstrated their talent, and the dancers playing them displayed their choreographic range, so Kathy/Debbie Reynolds has her number. The big difference this time is that it’s performed not in the imagination, but in the diegetic world of the film. As Kelly brought the more expressive balletic gestures into the diegetic world when the couple was created in An American in Paris, so here he brings the number that introduces the female lead into the diegesis as well. The number is “All I Do is Dream of You.”
The number may not be in the realm of imagination, yet it’s still seen through a framing device. Kathy has already met Don, insulted him, and indicated her own preference for stage over film. The number begins as Kathy steps out of the prop cake at the party Don’s attending, and proceeds to join a chorus line for the number. The scene includes enough cuts back to Don to link the spectator’s point of view with his perspective on the number. Instead of imagination, the sequence uses Don’s surprise, delight, and obvious respect for her performance as the filter through which we view the number. While the number fails to define Kathy as the ultimate woman in choreographic terms, it does demonstrate Kathy’s equality with Don as a performer.
Kathy’s performance, in fact—and not the song— is the raison d’être of the number, effectively burying its musical integrity. It’s speeded up in the same manner as “Fit as a Fiddle” and given the same heavy one-two beat, accentuated by a drum that distorts the melodic flow while providing musical accompaniment to the swinging legs and derrieres of the dancers, including Kathy. The words themselves are all but lost amid the vocal and visual noise. At the end, the song speeds up even more, and the last word is accompanied by a tonic/dominant below/tonic configuration, a trope usually reserved for calliopes at circuses or trombones at burlesque shows. Its net effect is the song’s quick dismissal, allowing for a rapid segue into the next scene. One wonders at times what Freed thought of the musically disrespectful treatment of his old tunes. Did he realize that his songs were being poked, pulled, prodded and distorted in ways that kept pointing away from melody lines and lyrics?
As a showcase for the song itself, the performance is abysmal; as a showcase for Kathy, the violence done to the lyrics and vocal line work to her favor, as does the framing device. Reynold’s personality is a bouncy, effervescent one, and the quick tempo and beat accentuate that. The cavalier treatment of the song also highlights the contrast between her earlier protestations about serious art and her present performance. The solid presence of the framing device of Don’s reaction also helps Reynold’s performance in that the surprise and delight tend to cover her limitations as a performer. Reynolds had had minimal dance training before working with Kelly and Donen, and her voice, never strong, was quite weak at this stage of her career. Her performance here is adequate, but no more. The flow of her dance is interrupted by the continual visual references to Don, and her voice is barely audible above the other dancers’ voices. It’s the flexible attitude toward the song’s interpretation that allows the moment to succeed.
After the female lead was introduced in On the Town and An American in Paris, the central male/female relationship was next expressed in a song-and-dance number—”Main Street” in the former and in “Our Love is Here to Stay” in the latter film. Singin’ follows the same format, but the song is a richer experience in that it also includes and explores some of the film’s other concerns. The number is “You Were Meant for Me.” Like its predecessors in the other two films, it’s respected musically; indeed it is one of Kelly’s most sensitively sung songs of his career. And like the other two songs, it begins with Kelly’s character singing, then singing and dancing with the woman, then just dancing, and concludes with song.
As in “Main Street,” the number extends the role of character as performer. The quick look shared by Gabey and Ivy when doing a little series of taps is repeated here with Don and Kathy. They share an even broader smile as they jointly execute a relatively rapid series of dance steps in what is generally a slow number with flowing dance lines reflective of the melody. The dance confirms the two characters as two performers who derive as much enjoyment from their shared dancing as they do from their growing relationship.
The number also addresses the question of illusion broached in “Make ‘Em Laugh.” The setting for the number is a Hollywood sound stage. Don has reached the point where he wants to express his feelings for Kathy, but finds he can’t do it directly. He brings her into the stage, turns on colored lights, starts a stage fan, releases artificial fog and aims a spotlight on Kathy, creating an overly romantic backdrop. Only then is he ready to convey his feelings.
Within Kelly’s career, the same kinds of expression were found in Anchors Aweigh with Kathryn Grayson on a film sound stage, and in Summer Stock, with Judy Garland on a theater stage. As one performer dealing with another, Don is merely using the accoutrements of (film) performance to express his feelings for Kathy. As a statement of the legitimacy of illusion, the number pretends to be able to use all manner of artificiality to make an honest statement. In fact, artifice here becomes the means through which honesty can be attained—a further indication of how faith in musical convention is eroding. The props and the setting must be exposed as artifice before they can be used to express real emotion.
In another regard, though, the song represents an apex of the directors’ ability to remake the worlds of their films. At this point, they can so easily reconstitute the reality of the diegetic worlds of their films through the artifice of dance that they’ve peaked artistically, and begun to rework the artifices as the film’s realities, as a mountain climber reaches a summit and descends down the other side. It seems a turning point of the same significance as the policeman’s arrival in “Singin’ in the Rain.” The policeman represented restriction of the expansion of dance: it couldn’t extend beyond the single individual. “You Were Meant for Me” represents a similar dead-end. The environment, even created by one of the performers, is now affecting the dancers instead of vice versa. The dynamics, instead of expanding outward as in On the Town and An American in Paris, now become implosive and centripetal.
Yet even with this new dynamic, dance begins even to affect film form—to an unprecedented extent. In this number and in the next love song, “Would You?”, dance determines the movement of the camera and the rhythm of the editing, incorporating them both into the dance as partners. In “You Were Meant for Me,” the camera begins in a high position, swooping and gliding with the same long lines and grace as the vocal and dance lines, moving around the dancers and the ladder, finally tracking back at the end of the number, creating a near-spaceless void reminiscent of the spatial context of the Kelly ballets in On the Town and An American in Paris.
Kelly, with and without Donen, had always been concerned with finding the proper relationship between camera and dance. For a still camera, Kelly felt that “a dancer rushing from a fair distance away can create some sort of kinaesthetic effect Both Clive Hirschhorn in his biography of Kelly and Barry Day note that panning shots used by Kelly often made use of vertical props (e.g., the lamppost in “Singin’ in the Rain” and the ladder in “You Were Meant for Me”) to create depth. According to Day, Kelly’s answer [to the question of the best way to photograph dance] was to create an artificial depth of field. Place objects between the dancer and the camera and you create a new visual dimension. With a few vertical props strategically positioned, the camera can wander at will. Instead of revealing everything at once, it provides a series of surprises, of frames within frames. Suddenly the dancer had depth.8
Kelly himself commented on the quest. He told Dance Magazine that
“as much of a contribution as I made, was the use of the camera for dance in big, broad movements outdoors, down the street, that couldn’t be done on stage.”9
And in describing the creation of the title number in Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly recalled his use of the camera:
Stanley Donen and myself decided to take advantage again of cinematic treatment, and we kept the dance coming into camera . . . I never had any weak movements. If I stopped, we would bring the camera up and cut and come sidewards so I could move back and forth. Always into camera. Always the forces were pushing, pushing, pushing the camera.10
The camera in “You Were Meant for Me” is so well integrated into the performance, so designed to move with it, that it partakes of it; it becomes the third partner.
There has been a critical tendency to see the camera movement in musicals solely in the context of the revealing or hiding artifice. According to Jane Feuer,
Singin’ in the Rain ultimately denies that technology is responsible for our pleasure. You Were Meant for Me, the romantic number on the deserted sound stage between Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, demystifies only in order to restore illusion. Although Kelly gives us a look at the hardware behind movie magic (the wind machine, the soft lights) in an introduction to the song, the camera arcs around and comes in for a tighter shot of the couple during the central portion of the number, reframing to exclude the previously exposed equipment. We regress from an exposé of romantic duets to an example of a romantic duet, which, along with all the others, lies about its past. 11
Feuer and other authors appreciate the complexity of the number, but seem to differ in their interpretations of intent of the sequence’s revelation of illusion and artifice. Kelly and Donen have demonstrated a rather consistent set of values and meanings connected with song and dance, and have shown their willingness to manipulate vocal lines, lyrics, and tempos to that end. It’s true they’ve spotlighted illusion in this number, but in a sense the revelation is just another segue into the performance. It is self-conscious, to be sure, and may well be rooted in an insecurity regarding the use of illusion. But the presence of the device does not mean the film is “about” the revelation of its own technology any more than it is “about” the interplay of dance and film form, creating the couple, or the diminishing scope of the power of dance in the films of Kelly and Donen. The attempt to expose some levels of illusion shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to expose them all; there’s no attempt, for example, to expose the lie of rehearsal—Kathy still joins Don in a perfectly executed dance duet that’s presented as spontaneous. The purpose in exposing illusion was to use it again. Ultimately, the camera movement in “You Were Meant for Me” goes beyond dealing with illusion. It’s part of the imploding dynamics of dance in the Kelly/Donen films that makes the camera a dance partner.
Technology is also exposed, to similar effect, in “Would You?” The song itself is a relatively saccharine piece, structured in a semi-classical manner. The vocal line is smooth to a fault, and the song builds to an overblown climax. Musically, it’s a first cousin to “Indian Love Song” as performed by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, and as ripe for satire. The song is not performed directly for the viewer, however, but is integrated into the film at several levels. It’s used to further the narrative: it reveals illusion only to use it again; and still retains the song’s original love expression for Don and Kathy.
Narratively, the song brings Kathy’s dubbing of Lina’s unacceptable voice from the initial recording stage to the final product on the screen. Kathy is first seen recording the song, under Cosmo’s musical direction. Lina is then shown mouthing the words in rehearsal, preparing to lip-sync the number in the actual filming, the next scene. The total effect is demonstrated in the final product itself, which is last seen in a screening room. At no point in the presentation of the song is it ever performed “straight” for the spectator, or directly to a character in the film. While the song is musically unbroken from beginning to end, what is shown to the film’s spectator is the technological process of creating a cinematic effect and illusion. The number is presented as a means to an end. When the final effect is presented, the emphasis is taken off the song itself by the musical interpretation. In the film-within-the-film, Lockwood raises himself from near death to sing the final chorus in a satiric move that comically distracts the spectator/listener from the song itself. At the final note, the camera within the film raises itself to focus on an image of Cupid, a move that again sacrifices song for satire. The “Would You?” sequence does not end with that camera move, however, but with a return to Don and Kathy, who view the successful dubbing of Kathy’s voice as a personally shared triumph. The song is transformed into a sequence that step-by-step displays a labor of love, thus redeeming the original intent of the lyrics by a recasting of the song.
Performance, again, is at the heart of this sequence. It is Kathy’s performance of the song that we hear, and that pushes the story forward. Kathy’s performance becomes Lina’s performance, with the end result— the aim of all the activity—being Don’s and Lina’s performance on the screen. The whole sequence uses the song as fodder for creating that performance.
The exposing of technology has to be seen in this context. The sequence focuses on the work involved in creating the illusion, much as “Make ‘Em Laugh” presented hard work as a justification for the legitimacy of illusion. Creating the illusion of Lina singing the song involves effort, and the technology display shows specifically what goes into it. Yet the intent is not to reveal the film’s mechanisms for its own sake; demystifying isn’t the point. The creation of the final result is the narrative’s sole concern here, and the display of technology merely demonstrates how it’s done. In terms of using a Freed/Brown song, the recording, lip-syncing, and final filming of the song is one more way to re-frame and perform another number. Finally, the number is also used in developing the relationship of the central couple, as the song, in toto, is “made theirs” by their having worked to create its final performance. All in all, the number works on several levels, and is one of the most reflexive, complex uses of song in the film.
[The reflexivity of the number is compounded by the facts of its actual production. Reynold’s voice at was not strong enough for the song, which requires a legitimate voice, especially for the full-bodied climactic measures. A singer named Betty Royce (sometimes written as Noyce) was called in to dub Reynolds as Kathy was dubbing Lina. In the scene with Kathy recording Lina’s nasal dialogue in the film-within-a-film —“Our love will last ’til the stars turn cold”–Reynolds voice was again not used. According to Donen, “We used Jean Hagen (Lina) dubbing Debbie dubbing Jean. Jean’s voice is quite remarkable, and it was supposed to be cultured speech and Debbie had that terrible Western noise…”13]
The song is a busy one. It moves the narrative forward, helps develop the central couple, presents song as performance for the characters as well as the audience, and it integrates itself into the structure of the film. As the moving camera movement became a dance partner in “You Were Meant for Me,” so the camera and editing of the song sequence become the dance partners here. The smooth panning and dollying in the various small scenes making up the sequence reflect the fluidity of the vocal line. The editing provides the rhythm to the camera’s motions, interrelating the scene changes with the lines of the lyrics, sometimes anticipating the change, and at other times holding a scene for a moment, creating a kind of cinematic “hesitation step.” We’ve now moved from the camera becoming a dance partner (“You Were Meant for Me”) to its joining song, dance and editing in a gestalt of movement, sound and meaning as resonant and meaningful as any sequence in film.
The ballet, on the other hand, is not so well integrated into the film. It is unrelated narratively, and is ostensibly present as a part of the film that Don and Lina are supposed to be working on. Yet it’s a classic example of the reworking and re-presentation of musical material seen elsewhere in the film, and reveals, as well as the more narratively-connected sequences, the shrinking of dance’s power. Indeed, like “You Were Meant for Me” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” the ballet represents yet another peak or dead-end in the development of dance within film.
The ballet is presented as a possible production number in the reconstructed sound film proposed by Don to the studio head. It is the visual expression of a verbal description of the sequence that Don is presenting to the producer. Like the ballets in On the Town and An American in Paris, it’s a product of imagination, with the attendant “anything goes” attitude. In Kelly’s first ballet in An American in Paris the action reflected the plot but allowed the events to resonate on a higher emotional plane. That ballet was less connected narratively, but in context, on one level, was presented as utopia. Both ballets related to the couple and emotionally developed their relationship.
The ballet in Singin’ in the Rain is also “thrown away” by its context as much as “Fit as a Fiddle” and “All I Do is Dream of You” threw away their melody lines and lyrics. The context redefines the entire sequence of the ballet as part of a grand joke. After the number is presented, the film returns to the room where Don has supposedly been explaining the number. The producer reacts, saying in perhaps the most understated comic statement in the film, that he can’t visualize it until he sees it on the screen. The distancing effect that such a comment produces is of little consequence, as the number has no bearing on the rest of the film anyway. The comic framework serves merely to extract comedy from the ballet, providing another example of the continual recasting and reframing of the musical material in the plot.
With a dance partner unable to mount the choreographic heights of the other two ballets (Reynolds) and a male buddy from the diegetic world of the film unable to be in the ballet because of the actor’s previous commitments (O’Connor), Kelly was forced to take the ballet in a different direction. Donen’s comment was that the ballet was “too far away from the really important situations of the plot.”14 Kelly himself expressed later that it “was out of keeping with the rest of the film. There were some arresting moments, but the overall conception seemed somewhat chaotic. illS Yet freed from having to connect with the diegetic world, Kelly was able to explore other avenues. He expanded the definition of the complete woman, explored other expressions of dance not found in the diegetic world of the film, and he recalled his own dancing roots, coming to terms with his own urge to perform.
In both their introductory numbers and the subsequent ballets, Ivy and Lise had been presented as very nearly the “complete woman.” Kathy had been limited because her introduction was as a character in the world of the film and because Reynolds was a limited dancer. The ballet expands the definition of woman with the introduction of Cyd Charisse, who countered Reynold’s effervescence with sensuality and sexual power. From the entrance of Charisse, with Kelly’s character’s hat dangling on the tip of her shoe, to the camera’s ogling of her famous long legs, it’s clear that the dimensions of woman in the film are being expanded from Reynold’s innocence to Charisse’s aggressive sexuality. This creature is a temptress, and the young man, on his way from small-town American to Broadway dancing fame, is nearly enticed away from his call. Her movements are slow and seductive, drawing him into her spider’s choreographic web. But she is greedy as well, and this is finally what breaks her hold on him; a diamond bracelet proffered by a gangster pulls her away, and the young man returns to his original quest.
This is the first time in the Kelly/Donen series that dance has been granted to anyone who could be classified as an antagonist. The harshness of the real world, seen only in the cop in “Singin’ in the Rain” up to this point, has made its way into the non-diegetic world as well. The ballet sequence, formerly the province of the most exquisite and sensitive dance expressions, is now the entry for the evil present in the world, the evil still not found in the diegesis. The ballet is also the setting in which the dark side of woman and the sexual aspects of man/woman relationships are addressed.
The presence of Charisse also helps to expand Kelly’s persona. Reynolds had brought out his sweetness, and O’Connor his athletic prowess and technical skill. But Charisse brought out his sexual fire. “The Pirate Ballet” in The Pirate had presented Kelly in a dangerous and explosive sexual context, and An American in Paris kept him inches away from the role of gigolo. The diegetic world of Singin’ in the Rain expressed none of that, however, and his sexuality becomes one of the elements he chose to explore in the ballet. His dance with Charisse is often little more than a choreographed mating ritual. Part of the number includes sexual thrusts so blatant that they might never have been allowed in the film had they not been “framed” by their integration into a dance routine.
The ballet also addresses the issue of performance, and makes a defense of it based on an inner compulsion, the song’s opening cry: “Gotta Dance!” Kelly has just danced balletically with Charisse in a spaceless void not unlike the backgrounds in the other ballet sequences. And like them, the ballet comes at the moment he loses the girl–Charisse the temptress. As he finds himself alone, the scene behind him changes to the one in which he was originally going to become a dancer. He spies another young man dressed as he was in the early part of the ballet. He shrugs, then returns to the performance of “Broadway Rhythm” with his manifesto—”Gotta Dance!” The shrug indicates two things: it stands for the character’s shrugging off the interchange with Charisse and the complexities, pleasures and pains associated with it. It also represents the giving up of the character’s attempt to understand either the exchange with Charisse or his own urge to perform. He is a performer. That’s his identity, and questioning it would be futile. He must give expression to it—that one thing is understood.
The rest of the number creates a Broadway community of performers, but the emphasis has changed from the time of such community-creating numbers as “S’Wonderful” and “On the Town.” The emphasis is on Kelly as the source of that power, and on the urge to perform welling up within him. Kelly is constantly kept at the center of the activities and the final shot is a rare close-up of him that offers the spectator only Kelly the performer. “Broadway rhythm, it’s got me, everybody dance.” The dynamics are the same as other numbers, but Kelly downplays the “everybody dance” aspect and favors the first half of the line: “Broadway rhythm, it’s got me.” The power of dance has now retreated back into its source, and exists solely as the urge to perform. The offering of Kelly to the spectator at the end of the ballet seems to present the performance for purposes of acceptance, but the raw urge to perform is not expected to be commented on, accepted, or rejected. It’s merely stated and demonstrated. Dance could not bring Charisse to Kelly; other factors got in the way. Dance has hence retreated, as it did in the diegetic world of “Singin’ in the Rain,” and is now only performed for those of like mind and sensibility. Yet the ballet takes the retreat even further. In the diegetic world of the film, dance remained a performance for those who understood. In the ballet, it is performed within the group of fellow performers, but not for them. Dance has retreated, finally, into the very soul of the performer.
As a single musical, Singin’ in the Rain uses and incorporates music with so much flexibility and on so many levels that it redefines the way in which music can be presented in a musical. The hard and fast divisions often separating the song from a film’s narrative, thematic concerns, or structure have here given way to a pliant attitude that softens the distinctions between a piece of music, a comic gag, or a development of the narrative. This is due to two things. The song catalog gave the directors a group of songs unrelated lyrically to the narrative. Only one song, “You Were Meant for Me,” is integrated lyrically into the narrative. The rest were integrated in other ways.
The second reason for that pliant attitude is the specific way in which most of the songs were treated—they became performances. It’s the element of performance, which began to show itself strongly in “You Can Count on Me” and “Pearl of the Persian Sea” in On the Town, that now comes to the fore. Most of the numbers are performances for the select group of Don, Cosmo and Kathy, (“Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Good Morning,” “Moses”) or for shows or films (“Fit as a Fiddle,” “All I Do is Dream of You,” “Beautiful Girl,” “Would You?”). “Singin’ in the Rain” combines performance with self-expression, and the ballet presents performance and self-expression as two sides of the same coin.
As a film in the Kelly/Donen series, Singin’ in the Rain shows a marked decrease in the power of film to build communities and to transform environments. The number of people affected by dance has shrunk drastically, and the environment has changed from major cities to the indoor arena of the movie-making world. Dance had once been poured out onto strangers, and had been allowed to flow down the street. Now it’s increasingly bottled and stored, and brought out to be enjoyed in small quantities on special occasions. Yet it hasn’t remained stagnant. It remains as instrumental as ever in the creation of the couple, always a function limited in scope. And like a body of water that has been blocked up, dance is beginning to overflow its banks and find its level elsewhere. The level was in the film structure itself. Dance began to enlist camera and editing as partners to replace the partners it had lost in the narrowing of its scope. No longer extending outward to people, dance’s influence is being absorbed by the structure of the film itself.
The ballet in Singin’ in the Rain is the “back door” through which the real world begins to enter, a trend opposite to that of the other two ballets before it, which served to heighten emotions found in the diegesis. The real world, found in the presence and effect of the cop in “Singin’ in the Rain,” is expressed in the ballet in terms of woman, or specifically, the other side of woman not found in the diegesis. Greed, sexual entrapment, and lust are acknowledged and explored. The fracturing of relationships, suggested in the other two films but always resolved in the diegesis, is presented as irrevocable. The urge to perform is the bottom line, however, and turns that loss into gain.
Kelly and Donen have managed to bring a number of the qualities expressed in the non-diegetic world in On the Town into the diegetic world of Singin’ in the Rain. The balletic gestures and emotional expressiveness of “A Day in New York” had found its way to a great extent in “You Were Meant for Me,” an emotionally vulnerable performance. The dark aspects of the real world found in the non-diegetic world of Singin’ in the Rain would ultimately find their way, with clear eyes and cynical heart, into the diegetic world of the directors’ next film, It’s Always Fair Weather.
It’s Always Fair Weather: The Death of Dance
It’s Always Fair Weather (IAFW) began as a sequel to On the Town, intending to follow the lives of the sailors ten years later. Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin were unavailable, however, so it was decided to emphasize dance in the film and replace the two men with real dancers. Thus arrived choreographer Michael Kidd and actor/dancer Dan Dailey.
The plot takes the three men (now soldiers) from the end of the war, sending them off on their separate ways with a group pledge to meet again in ten year’s time. The decade passes and they meet up again in a painful clash of culture, experience and class that almost destroys their friendship.
In tracking the changes the men go through during that ten-year period, the film follows the changes in post-war America. Personal defeats, the loss of dreams, the pain of deteriorating love relationships—the kinds of issues found in the Singin’ in the Rain ballet—are here part of the narrative. Ted (Kelly) is a cynical manager of a prizefighter, well acquainted with the sordid underworld of New York gamblers. Doug (Dailey) is a frustrated artist turned advertising executive working in television, trying to deny his feelings that he has compromised his talents. He’s married, but has no children, preferring to substitute material goods for family. Angie (Kidd) had dreams of being a gourmet chef, and now owns a pretentiously named hamburger eaterie in Schenectady, New York, a location as mockingly referred to as Buffalo is in common conversation. The film sets the mood right away by a montage of war scenes—hardly the usual upbeat musical opening. Ted gets a “Dear John” letter, and instead of a warm heroes’ welcome by the bartender, the trio is told there are “No more tabs—cash!”
Not only are these circumstances more realistically negative than the plot concerns of the other Kelly/Donen films, but the ways in which the stories and facts are presented differ as well. The songs came into the films differently, and again, the role of dance has changed. Having turned to new directions in Singin’ in the Rain, dance in IAFW works to come to grips with the loss of faith in the power of dance and with the musical forms that that faith had created in the two earlier films.
The songs were written by André Previn, with lyrics by Comden and Green. According to Previn, “Betty and Adolph initiated me into the mysteries of how to construct a musical. They pointed out the fact (sic) that the songs must be inevitable instead of the way they were inserted in other producers’ films.”1 Thus a more classically integrated tack was taken in regard to the musical, with lyrics worked into the narrative instead of the entire song itself being worked in, as with Singin’ in the Rain. Previn was also responsible for the musical direction, arranging and conducting, a combination of responsibilities he felt worked against the effectiveness of the music: “…to be honest, I don’t think that too many of the songs were very good, and that’s because I was too intent on having them sound clever or well arranged and all that.”2
Timothy Scheurer, in defending the need for variety in the songs of a musical, criticizes the film:
The lack of varied songs is clearly a weakness because it has not, through song, offered the viewer the opportunity to experience and understand the multifaceted natures of the different characters and their relationship to one another….A well-rounded musical score is essential in a good musical for more than just entertainment’s sake: it is our direct encounter with the characters’ way of looking at the world and at life.”3
Scheurer’s points may be valid for most musicals where the song is an expression of the character singing it. Yet Singin’ in the Rain demonstrates that essentially second-rate songs with limited musical variety can be made to express characterization, as well as build relationships and advance narrative—all through the context in which the song is placed, and in the specific way it’s used. Up to this film, too, the element of performance in Kelly/Donen films has been as significant as the style of the song or its lyrics. It’s the loss of that sense of performance, that flexibility toward the musical content, that limits the expressiveness of song and dance in the film as much as the mediocrity of the score. In light of what the directors have done in the other films, too much respect is shown to the music as music, and not enough to music as an integral element of the entire cinematic expression.
Dance has progressed in the other films from a community-uniting, couple-creating, time-and-space-conquering force to an urge located in the heart of the performer, a force affecting the structure of the film around it. Yet the other two films have left a pattern of certain kinds of dance numbers, such as those arising from musical tradition and others showcasing the burgeoning power of dance. IAFW attempts to resurrect these forms without a basis of faith in the power of dance that brought them into being in the first place. And in a reversal of dance affecting film form, film form, especially in the form of split screen, begins to contain dance, breaking it into units and, ultimately, presenting it simply as entertainment for the viewer.
The forms of dance found in the earlier Kelly/ Donen films and now found in IAFW are seen in “Can It Be That I Like Myself?”; “Baby, You Knock Me Out”; “Situation-Wise”; and a wordless dance to a drunken binge. The first is a combination of “Singin’ in the Rain” and the kind of community-building number exemplified by “On the Town” and “S’Wonderful.” Ted is struggling with self-hatred, and, lyrically, the song signals a change, a doubting of self-doubt, brought about by his new relationship with Jackie (Cyd Charisse). The song is preceded by a scene in a roller skating rink, which Ted leaves in a hurry to escape some thugs seeking to wreak revenge on him for punching his own fighter and stopping a rigged fight—the first “good deed” he’d done in years. Ted begins to sing, and discovers he’s still wearing his skates. The song takes him out onto the street, singing, dancing on skates, and eventually drawing an appreciative audience. Ted ends the song in the middle of a street, surrounded by cheering onlookers. In form, the song is a close relation to the other community-builders. It’s a first cousin to “Singin’ in the Rain,” this time with an admiring audience and no one on hand to stop Kelly’s character. Yet there’s something missing. For Kelly and Donen, the days of dance reaching out to conquer space were over. The performance is a hollow one: Kelly has the right moves, Ted’s personal difficulties are resolved to a degree, the requisite audience applauds. But the power of dance to transform is gone; the scene merely presents a group united by appreciation for a performance, and the emotional victory of starting to “like [one]self” is almost pitiful compared to the soaring emotional heights of “Singin’ in the Rain” and “S’Wonderful”. The underlying belief that dance could change anything significant had been abandoned years before. The moves remain, but the conviction is long gone.
“Baby, You Knock Me Out,” is Jackie’s one solo number, and functions in many of the same ways as Ivy’s and Kathy’s introductions. Like those intros, this number is the presentation of the character as a performer, and the number establishes her choreographic—and hence, romantic— suitability for the Kelly character. Yet there are crucial differences. The other numbers were either imagined by Kelly’s character (“Miss Turnstiles”) or viewed by him directly (“All I Do is Dream of You”). But Ted is not present this time; the number occurs at the gym where the fighters train. The number succeeds in establishing Jackie’s relationships with the pugilists, but not with Ted, who arrives only after the number is completed. It gives Charisse her moment in the sun according to the dictates of musical tradition, but fails to involve dance in creating the main couple.
That moment of creation, in fact, has already occurred. Ted and Jackie had shared a cab ride, and Jackie, through dialogue, was shown to be as cynical, intelligent and aggressive as Ted. By the end of the ride, they’re a couple, based not on an equality expressed in dance, but on personality and wit. Once the relationship is established, it could be expected that there would be a “Main Street” or “You Were Meant for Me” in which the couple could express their love. Yet none exists; shockingly, the couple never dances together. “Love is Nothing But a Racket,” a slow, romantic duet, was written for the two by Previn, Comden and Green, but never made it into the film. The title, the polar opposite of the sentiments of “You Were Meant for Me,” suggests that the time for straightforward romantic expression of love through song is past. According to Previn, Kelly felt that no one would sit still for a slow number—again, another indication of the loss of faith in the power of dance—and Kelly recorded the number at quadruple speed. The number was dropped.4
“I Like Myself” and “Baby, You Knock Me Out” had renewed old forms, but through their context in the films had failed to reproduce the same results as earlier numbers, either in feeling or in fact. In “Situation-Wise,” the failure of dance to transform the environment or solve problems is displayed in explicit detail. The number is sung and danced by Doug, and at least serves to provide Dailey with his number as a performer. Doug is drunk, having defied doctor’s orders as he indulges his self-pity and frustration with his job and marriage. As he sits at a company party, the world around him begins to swirl in his imagination. His memory takes him back to events shown in the beginning of the film, when the three soldiers were friends. He begins to move to the music associated with that friendship. Musically energized by the memory, he is drawn back to the present world, where he begins to impose musical rhythms on the catch-phrases the businessmen are spouting around him, e.g., “situation-wise,” “saturation-wise.” This sequence demonstrates Doug’s attempt to re-create his world through song and dance. It is also an all-out rebellion against the hypocrisy, pressure, tension and self-serving subservience involved in his profession. Doug dons a variety of disguises and costumes borrowed from the props at hand, and does a number of comic turns ranging from an imitation of a jousting knight to a less-than-affectionate satire of Jerry Lewis.
Instead of drawing in the onlookers as did Ted in “I Like Myself,” the number only succeeds in alienating them. Doug insults his boss’s wife, scares a good number of the people present, and ends the performance by attempting the remove-the-tablecloth-without-disturbing-the-table-setting trick, a feat he had performed with ease earlier in the film. But he fails miserably here and falls down in a complete faint. His attempt at transforming his environment and working out his problems through dance has been a total failure, and not even a noble one. He has made a fool of himself, and is still filled with the same self-condemnation and frustration he had before; it is only the forgiveness of his boss that prevents him from being fired or embarrassed further. While “I Like Myself” and “Baby, You Knock Me Out” were less successful than their counterparts in earlier Kelly/Donen films, it was not for want of trying. “Situation-Wise” admits defeat directly. Reality is too strong for dance to change it, and the moral of the number is the futility of even trying.
The number not only represents another “dead end” in the Kelly/Donen series, it questions the very motivations behind the presence of a musical number. Jane Feuer describes the change in attitude seen here:
Bricolage no longer represents a carefree life force; it assumes an inner compulsion to destruction and chaos, qualities buried in the classical musical’s affirmation of liberation and personal energy. Summer Stock had hinted at an anti-social tendency when the entertainers destroyed the farmers’ livelihood, the tractor. Now in Dailey’s frantic violence, destructive energy comes to the surface of the film in a quite disturbing way. We begin to see the dangerous undercurrent to the musical’s wholehearted endorsement of spontaneous energy…. “Situation-Wise” renders explicit the counter-conventional forms the bricolage number may assume. 5
Royal Wedding (1950). During this time, Kelly was again with Minnelli in An American in Paris, released the following year. After Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly worked on Invitation to the Dance, which told three stories using a variety of dance forms. The film was not released until 1957, lost a lot of money, and was Kelly’s last directorial effort at M-G-M. Kelly’s marriage to actress Betsy Blair gradually dissolved during this same time period..In this number, the film has sided with forces that dance is attempting to change. The personal expression and the freedom formerly associated with dance is now filtered through suspicion and fear. The darker, destructive side of dance only hinted at once before in “Prehistoric Man” is coming forth, where it is eventually contained by society.
The number is also presented as a response to drunkenness, and not to the urge to express feelings of joy, to create a group of people who can share that joy, or to perform in response to the inner compulsion to perform. This association was first created in the earlier number where the three soldiers, celebrating their last night together before parting, proceed to visit bar after bar until they are all quite drunk. In the early hours of the morning, completely intoxicated, the three begin to dance together. There are no lyrics, and the three continue their roaming around the city, running up and down streets, jumping in and out of cabs, and creating a routine out of dancing with garbage can lids on their feet. The location and the geographical scope of the dance suggest “New York, New York,” but a number of factors render it quite differently.
The city is indeed New York, but no one would know it by the dance. No highlights are seen. In fact, the very opposite is shown—we see only the world of all-night bars and dark streets. Even physically, the number has substituted the low points—the street level bars of the city –for the building tops of “New York, New York.” It could have taken place in any city with all-night bars. And as with “Situation-Wise,” the expression of dance is a direct result of drunkenness. Even as momentous an occasion as the last night shared by three close friends who won’t see each other for an entire decade is not sufficient reason for a dance. Alcohol must supply the excuse, as if the joie de vivre of old were suspect without due explanation. The repressive presence embodied by the policeman in “Singin’ in the Rain” seems to have been enlarged~ the apparent need to drink to express oneself in dance implies an understanding of some kind of constraint, either personal or social, on the part of the dancers. The only creative work done by dance consists of the solidifiying the group and satisfying musical tradition in having the lead dance with his second leads. Time or space is not conquered in any way, and no personal problems are solved. There is a slight tip of the hat to a small variety of dance styles, but they don’t carry the meaning of previous such numbers; they are more like a new color or flavor thrown in for variety. The world of dance here is the maudlin, sentimental, anesthetized zone of drunken feeling shared among the three men. The form of “New York, New York” is there, but the power of dance demonstrated in that number is now unable to affect the environment, and is instead preserved in alcohol.
The actual containment of dance by film form is expressed in a number of ways, and in a variety of the film’s songs. Part of the containment came in response to the problem of dealing with the CinemaScope screen. Many numbers are done in split screen, which has a significant effect on the role of dance. The first use of the split screen is in the beginning of the film, where the three soldiers are shown marching and fighting in the Second World War. The three panels show the three men, following their individual progress through the war. The song being sung is “March, March.” We hear it first as a choral number in the background of the action. Eventually the three men are singing it as well, and the three panels change from showing the separate activities of the men to showing the three moving in unison, though still separated by the panels in the screen. The song brings them to the end of the war, and the three panels disappear, leaving the three in the same space and time. The effect is one of a gradual buildup of united action within the screen space that culminates in the three dancing together in the same space as they are released and enter their favorite New York bar, where the number ends. The split screen serves ultimately as a unifying force that brings the men from separate places and activities and finally joins them, abandoning them at the final moment to allow the three to share the same space at last. In this number, it is the split screen that creates the community. The dance breaks down no barriers, but rather is contained in the three panels. It is the removal of the split screen that creates the community. Film form, here with the split screen, is taking over the activities that were once the province of dance. Moreover, it is containing the dance itself within its borders. Two other numbers, “Blue Danube” and “Once Upon a Time,” carry this trend even further.
“Blue Danube” takes place at the New York restaurant where the three share their first meal after the decade of separation. They have already realized how remote they have become from one another, and the number, a series of complaints sung in their thoughts to the tune of the Strauss waltz, expresses their individual feelings of discomfort and disappointment at the course of events. Each man has a turn at the lyrics, during which the singer receives a close-up and the rest of the screen is masked. As a technical solution to the CinemaScope problem, it allows full close-ups that would otherwise be difficult to achieve in that format without the sort of extreme close-ups used by Sergio Leone in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It allows each man to have his own solo in his own space. The device also allows an interaction through the editing at the end of the number, as the film cuts from man to man to man, frantically reflecting the galloping tempo of the song, finally allowing a rejoining of the three in the same space again at the climax as they mentally “belt out” the final phrases together on screen. Yet the use of split screen, for all its interaction with the musical form, is the dominant ingredient in the number. It highlights, through its divisions, the divisions within the group of men. This functions narratively, but works against any sense of musical expression as coming from the characters. The form of the number tends to call attention to itself, drawing attention away from the song and offering itself as performance instead. It also breaks down the number into discrete units and reconstitutes them, presenting a construction rather than a performance.
That same reconstituting is apparent in “Once Upon a Time.” The number comes at another moment of disappointment for the three men, after they have taken what they feel is their last leave from one another. Each expresses his depressed mood through dance, and the screen, through another set of three panels, contains their identically choreographed dances. As in “Blue Danube,” it is a legitimate solution to the challenge of using a wide screen to present a musical number, and functions as well narratively: the men, though separate, share a common disappointment. The men are all dancing, but are not sharing dance, and neither are they dancing for one another. The group effort is the result of the screen’s uniting them; no actual screen space is shared nor is there any intention to share dance. Again, the “performance” is largely that of the film itself, and emanates from film structure rather than from anything to do with either song or dance. It is a complete reversal of the dynamic seen in “You Were Meant for Me” and “Would You?” in which film form grew in response to the music. Here film form manufactures the performance, denying any deeper affinities among the characters. It is a sad testament to the loss of dance’s power to create community.
Having lost its battle with the harsh reality of the outside world and having surrendered to the dominating power of film form, dance regresses into the realm of sheer entertainment for its own sake. Its last expression in the film is in “Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks,” a song performed by television talk show host Madeline (Delores Gray). The number is the one big vocal extravaganza, with the emphasis squarely on Gray’s full-bodied voice. Stylistically, it’s a first cousin to Rosemary Clooney’s “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” from the previous year’s White Christmas, and functions as something of a satire of that piece. The context in which it is presented is Madeline’s nightly performance on her show. Her performance only satisfies the vocal lack in the film, and doesn’t serve to demonstrate her compatibility with another character, create communities, or solidify relationships. It is pure entertainment, albeit a little dark and strangely violent, both for the diegetic audience and the spectator of the film.
Dance is seen only as a back-up to the vocals, the first time in the Kelly/Donen films that it has ever been presented in that context. The choreography is completely different from that of any other dance in this film, or in the two earlier films, and casts doubts on whether the steps were indeed created by Kelly and Donen, as stated in the credits. The lyrics describe the attempts of a man to impress the singer with outrageously expensive gifts such as the Ford Motor Company and uranium mines. The hyperbole extends to the choreography, which has men literally “knocking themselves out” to please Madeline. The dancers do incredibly acrobatic flips, drop into the stage area from unseen heights above, and are literally blown away at the end of the number. In terms of the comedy of the number, the dancing is perfectly integrated with the lyrics. In terms of dance itself, the choreography, with its exaggerated leaps and contortions, is almost a satire on back-up dancing. In terms of the role that dance had possessed in the other films, the dance here is an offering of mere entertainment. The number as a whole certainly works as entertainment; Gray’s voice is strong and expressive, the lyrics are clever and funny, and the choreography accurately reflects the sense of the ridiculous in the lyrics. And the number is not forced into the film, but is motivated and has a sensible spot in the narrative. Yet coming at the end of a trilogy of films that has seen dance associated with a wide range of powers, this number, with its dancing in the background, serving only to explicate the lyrics, represents a confinement that completes the decline of the creative powers of dance.
IAFW contains a great many contradictions regarding its own attitude toward dance, and as such is the least successful of the three Kelly/Donen films. Singin’ in the Rain had in many ways brought the rise and fall of the influence of dance in the Kelly/Donen films to a logical conclusion. Yet IAFW attempts to resurrect the influence of dance through the re-creation of community-creating numbers such as “I Like Myself” and the “Drunken Binge.” Yet the film undercuts its message via the drunken state of the three men, and later, totally reverses its message with the failure seen in “Situation-Wise.” In a similar manner, “Baby You Knock Me Out” seems to present Jackie as a fit partner for Ted, but their compatibility has already been demonstrated beforehand, and Ted is nowhere to be seen during the number. Finally, the question of performance and its influence is completely overridden by the film’s structure itself in “Blue Danube” and “Once Upon a Time,” and by the film’s presentation of dance as mere entertainment in the last number.
There have been other attempts to account for the failure of the film esthetically. The downbeat plot is one reason often cited:
Attempts to deal with unhappiness or unpleasantness, e.g., It’s Always Fair Weather, have not been satisfactory—perhaps because the attempts have been superficial and not whole-hearted. The ‘good-guy’ ideal seems still to dominate the imagination of the makers of film musicals.6
Yet it might not be the plot itself so much as the similarity of the plot to the real-life situation of the two directors that contributed to the contradictions. The story depicts the deterioration of a series of relationships among characters who have worked closely together, shared victories, and then gone their separate ways. It closely mirrors the directors’ own situation.
On the Town had been the first directorial outing for either of the directors. Donen had been in a position of assistant since the Pal Joey days on Broadway in 1940. He and Kelly had worked together on Cover Girl and Anchors Aweigh, but Kelly had also worked with Minnelli on The Pirate. He was a dozen years older than Donen, and had been a respected choreographer before they had even met. His experience in films had been broader and longer than Donen’s and he was therefore more likely to have been the stronger influence, no matter how unified they were in approaching their material.
Donen’s first solo assignment came with Royal Wedding (1950). During this time, Kelly was again with Minnelli in An American in Paris, released the following year. After Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly worked on Invitation to the Dance, which told three stories using a variety of dance forms. The film was not released until 1957, lost a lot of money, and was Kelly’s last directorial effort at M-G-M. Kelly’s marriage to actress Betsy Blair gradually dissolved during this same time period.
The creative and marital failure of Kelly stood in contrast to Donen’s success during this same period. He directed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1954, in which he came to grips with CinemaScope for the first time. By the time the two teamed up again for It’s Always Fair Weather, Donen’s star was on the rise, and Kelly was in the midst of a great deal of trauma in his personal life. Kelly recalls the time guardedly: “We (Kelly and Donen) were so together, we were so used to each other, that we didn’t need each other. It was almost dull doing it together; we could have phoned the shots in. It wasn’t a bad picture, though it was a little behind its time. That’s the only picture we didn’t have a lot of fun on.” 7
Elsewhere, Kelly has been described during the making of the film as an “overworked, jagged-in-the-nerves executive.”8 Donen is characteristically more caustic:
I didn’t really want to co-direct another picture with Kelly at that point. We didn’t get on very well and, for that matter, Gene didn’t get on well with anybody. It was the only picture during which the atmosphere was really horrendous. We had to struggle from beginning to end. I can only say it was an absolute one hundred per cent nightmare.9
While the status of the relationship of the two directors would certainly tend to argue against any unity of thought and expression in the film, the film and its contradictions are rooted in changes in the country as well—and specifically in changes that were a part of Kelly’s persona. The confidence of the country after World War Two gradually gave way to the “Age of Anxiety,” the fifties. The role of America in the world, especially in regard to our intervention in such countries as South Korea, began to be questioned. The dynamics of male/female relationships began to be questioned as well. Kelly, more than most performers, was a reflection of forties confidence in America. He began his film career in 1942 with For Me and My Gal, thereafter playing a variety of war-time roles (Pilot No.5, Thousands Cheer). Some of his greatest successes were in films where he played a serviceman, such as Anchors Aweigh and On the Town, in which he played wartime sailors. It is consistent with his persona that he was the American of the title (and an ex-GI at that) in An American in Paris. It is easy to link the influence of dance in his films with the confidence of America in itself. As that confidence waned, so did dance’s influence in his films, leaving him to create musicals without the confidence that so infused them before. And the intrusion of the dance-suppressing outside world occurred at the same time his marriage was breaking up.
Yet there is another element to which the decreasing creative influence of dance can be contributed in the films, and that is the increasing presence of Donen’s structural concerns in the film. On the differences between Kelly and Donen as directors, Joseph McBride, in his review of Clive Hirschhorn’s biography of Kelly, states that “Without Donen, Kelly’s work has often been heavy-handed and vulgar; without Kelly, Donen’s work has often seemed precious and emptily fancy.”10
Value judgments aside, the two directors have different directing styles. Specifically, though, it is the presence of the split screen in It’s Always Fair Weather that works against the role of dance and the sense of performance established in the two earlier films. While it is difficult to impossible to untie the various creative strands of a collaborative effort, the presence of the split screen in subsequent Donen films such as Funny Face and Indiscreet suggests that Donen was responsible for it in It’s Always Fair Weather. His work’s continual concern with film structure in general also argues for this position.
As a team, however, the contributions of Kelly and Donen to the American musical were many. In their first two films, they created a pair of true dance musicals. They associated dance with the creation and development of the couple(s), and linked it to the power to create communities and defy the natural limits of space and time. They expanded the element of performance in the musical, weaving the performances of the characters into the narrative concerns of the films. To a small degree in On the Town and to a much larger one in Singin’ in the Rain, they demonstrated a flexibility toward musical forms unprecedented in the history of the musical. The rise of performance in the diegetic worlds of their films and the way in which they surpassed the concept of the traditional integrated musical challenge the methods used to analyze musicals. The intricate framing devices and the various tempo and vocal line changes helped to create a unity and interdependency of elements so tight that music could not easily be lifted out. Their one “failure” is a valuable illustration of the consequences of the loss of faith in the creative power of dance and the effect that imposed structural devices can have on the performance elements. But the pair’s greatest achievement lies in their successes, which stand both as products of their time and as models for the creation of a musical.
1 Curtis Lee Hanson, “An Interview with Gene Kelly,” Cinema, 3, No.4, Dec. 1966, p. 24.
2 “Dialogue on Film: Gene Kelly,” American Film, IV, No.4, Feb. 1979, p. 37.
3 Steve Harvey, “Stanley Donen,” Film Comment, 9, July/August 1973, p. 5.
4 Albert Johnson, “The Tenth Muse in San Francisco,” Sight & Sound, 26, No.1, Summer 1956, p. 50.
Notes: Section I
1 Hugh Fordin, The World of Entertainment: Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals (New York, Doubleday and Co., 1975), p. 352.
2 Jane Feuer, The Hollywood Musical (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1982) p. 4.
3 Feuer, p. 6.
4 Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia” Movie, Spring 1977, 2-3; rpt. in Genre: The Musical, ed. Rick Altman (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), p. 188.
5 Martin Sutton, “Patterns of Meaning in the Musical” in Genre: The Musical, ed. Rick Altman (Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981), pp. 192-3.
6 Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976), pp. 148-9.
7 Jim Hillier, “Interview with Stanley Donen,” Movie, No. 24, p. 32.
8 Clive Hischhorn, Gene Kelly (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1974), pp. 79-80.
9 Fordin, p. 269.
Notes: Section II
1 Fordin, p. 309.
2 Feuer, p. 34.
3 Fordin, p. 311
4 Fordin, p. 352.
5Fordin, p. 359.
6 Braudy, p. 157.
7 Hirshhorn, pp. 118-119.
8 Barry Day, “Cult Movies: Singin’ in the Rain,” Films and Filming, April 1977, p. 24.
9 Norma McLain Stoop, “Gene Kelly: An American Dance Innovator Tells it Like it Was –and is,” Dance Magazine, July 1976, p. 72.
10 Curtis Lee Hanson, “An Interview with Gene Kelly,” Cinema, Dec. 1966, p. 24.
11Feuer, p. 46.
12 David Lusted, “Film as Industrial Product: Teaching a Reflexive Movie, II Screen Education, Auturnm 1975, pp. 29-30.
13 Fordin, p. 358.
14 Albert Johnson, “The Tenth Muse in San Francisco,” Sight & Sound, Summer 1956, p. 48.
15 Rudy Behlmer, “Gene Kelly is One Dancer Who Can Also Act and Direct,” Films in Review, Jan. 1964, p. 16.
Notes: Section III
1Fordin, p. 433.
2Fordin, p. 435.
3 Timothy Scheurer, “The Aesthetics of Form and Convention in the Movie Musical,” Journal of Popular Film, 3, no. 4, p. 310.
4 Fordin, p. 435.
5 Feuer, p. 108.
6 Bernard Hrusa “On The Musical,” Film, Nov./Dec. 1957, p. 18.
7 “Dialogue on Film: Gene Kelly,” American Film, IV, no. 4, Feb. 1979, p. 37.
8 Paula Swanson, “Dance!” Motion Picture, Dec. 1954, p. 28.
9 Fordin, p. 436.
10 Joseph McBride, rev. of Gene Kelly by Clive Hirshhorn, Variety, 11 June 1975, p. 31.
Altman, Rick, ed. Genre: The Musical. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1981.
Behlmer, Rudy. “Gene Kelly is One Dancer Who Can Also Act.” Films in Review, Jan. 1964, pp. 6-22.
Braudy, Leo. The World in a Frame: What We See in Films. Garden City, ~NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1976.
Cutts, John. “Kelly: Dancer, Actor, Director.” Films & Filming, Aug. 1964, pp. 39-42.
Cutts, John. “Kelly: Dancer, Actor, Director, Part Two.” Films & Filming, Sept. 1964, pp. 34-37.
Day, Barry. “Cult Movies: Singin’ in the Rain.” Films and Filming, April 1977, pp. 20-24.
“Dialogue on Film: Gene Kelly.” American Film, Feb. 1979, pp. 35-41.
Farber, Stephen. Rev. of Two for the Road, dire Stanley Donen. Film Quarterly, Fall 1967, pp. 37-42.
Feuer, Jane. The Hollywood Musical. Bloomington, Indiana: Bloomington University Press, 1982.
Fordin, Hugh. The World of Entertainment. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1975.
Hanson, Curtis Lee. “An Interview with Gene Kelly.” Cinema, Dec. 1966, pp. 24-28.
Harvey, Stephen. “Stanley Donen: Interviewed by
Stephen Harvey.” Film Comment, July/Aug. 1973, pp. 4-9.
Hillier, Jim. “Interview with Stanley Donen.” Movie, No. 24, pp. 26-35.
Hirshhorn, Clive. Gene Kelly. Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1974. 117
Hrusa, Bernard. “On the Musical.” Film, Nov./Dec. 1957, p. 16.
Johnson, Albert. “The Tenth Muse in San Francisco.” Sight & Sound, 26, No. 1 (Summer 1956), pp. 46-48.
Lusted, David. “Film as Industrial Product: Teaching a Reflexive Movie.” Screen Education, Autumn 1975, pp. 26-30.
McAsh, lain F. “An American in Paris.” Films Illustrated. Aug., 1980, pp. 423-426.
McBride, Joseph. Rev. of Gene Kelly, by Clive Hirshhorn. Variety, June 11, 1975, p. 31.
Scheurer, Timothy. “The Aesthetics of Form and Convention in the Movie Musical.” Journal of Popular Film, 3, No.4, pp. 306-324.
Stoop, Norma McLain. “Gene Kelly: An American Dance Innovator Tells it Like it was–and is.” Dance Magazine, July 1976, pp. 71-3.
Swanson, Paula. “Dance!” Motion Picture, Dec. 1954, p. 28.