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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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