It seems like an age-old commonality. There exists a movie musical, perhaps the most iconic one in its day, wherein a Hollywood star or other famous personality happens to bump into an uber-talented but unknown player, falls in love with them, and ends up making them famous by way of showing them off to the world. Sometimes this occurs to the first star’s self-instigated detriment, and sometimes it doesn’t, but all the same, the basic building blocks of the narrative are still there. It’s happened in musicals and other films all throughout cinematic history, and has even happened four times in the various incarnations of A Star Is Born, from Janey Gaynor and Fredrich March (1937) to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (2018). It’s hardly a new or even particularly original concept anymore. So why is it that when I watched the classic 1952 musical, Singin’ in the Rain, for the first time, I felt a sense of longing for something I had not been privy to?
I am sure I do not know all the ins and outs of what goes into a production like Singin’ in the Rain, complex as it seems, setting musical numbers on Hollywood filming lots within filming lots, bursting with such iconic songs as “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Good Morning” (and of course, the titular number), and positively full of some of the most wonderful and sure-footed dance numbers in any movie musical I’ve ever had the privilege to experience for the first time. It’s a true joy of a film, and I do hope everyone gets the chance to watch it at least once in their lifetimes (and many of us certainly have the time right now). However, something about the narrative of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical didn’t sit quite right with me.
It struck me as the end of the film approached that despite Debbie Reynolds’ character, Kathy Selden, being the character on which the main portion of the plot turns, we hadn’t actually seen her that much during the movie’s run. Apart from one or two musical numbers, she essentially disappears until a plot point is needed to be pushed forward in Gene Kelly’s story arc. In fact, about 80% of the screen time in the film is devoted solely to Gene Kelly himself, as he and Jean Hagen continue to maneuver around each other, her to up her own levels of stardom, him to squash them because she has a genuinely terrible voice to listen to. Yet, for all of the impressive singing and dancing Gene Kelly and co-star Donald O’Connor (an unsung hero of joyous gold and frankly, underrated in discussions of this film) bring to the screen, the heart of the matter revolves around Kathy Selden’s “Star is Born” rise to glory. And which character does the movie choose to focus on? By now, you know the answer.
This begs the question: why isn’t Kathy the main character in Singin’ in the Rain’? I understand the practical answer, of course. Gene Kelly is the big star, so people will come to see him and his work, whereas Debbie Reynolds (famous at the time or not) isn’t as big of a draw, and at the time, the bigger the star one could bill, the bigger the audiences would flock out to the theaters to see them in a movie. But given that the film sort of revolves around her, would it not have been better to give her the majority of the screen time, to develop her as a character beyond “ran into Gene Kelly, he becomes obsessed with her, she gets famous”? We don’t know a lot about her particular interests or what she’s like outside of the Hollywood show business, and we almost never see Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood with her outside of a sound stage setting, yet we are expected to see Lockwood’s obsession with her as romantic, as something worthy of investing our time in.
Hollywood has a history of doing things like this. If the movie came out before around the 90’s or so, and the plot involved a man’s struggle and a woman’s rise, the main focus will be on the man’s struggle, and the woman’s rise will be considered the side story, even if the plot turns precisely on that female character. Given the context of the 1952 release year, this may not be seen as that big of a deal by many, but through a modern context, it’s clear that many classic films, even Singin’ in the Rain, contain story flaws we can no longer overlook, even if the rest of the elements hold up extraordinarily well.
To be clear, none of this is to say that Singin’ in the Rain is in any way bad or even particularly problematic. In fact, I think watching films with story issues such as this is a good way to learn to appreciate the advancements in storytelling that have come about since its release, and the care that has been put into those advancements. What I am implying, however, is that this sort of “flaw,” taken with all context of the time in which the movie was released, also speaks to how far cinema has to go when considering who the characters should be driving the narrative, especially in the case of women.
Movies have come a long way from where they used to be, in that respect, and in fact we now have more box office results coming from female-led films than we do from male-led films, when stacked up against each other. But the numbers inside that competition remain disproportionate, both behind and in front of the camera. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, a multi-billion-dollar-earning project overseen by producer Kevin Feige, and the biggest franchise in the world as of this writing, took 10 years to introduce a female-led project to the line-up, and the Black Widow movie fans were clamoring for during phase two is finally coming to fruition only this year (though its release has been delayed), at the start of phase four. There are many more examples of far more egregious error than this, but for now, this one will have to do.
Looking at classic movies through a modern context can often yield disappointing results. In the case of The Guns of Navarone, that look saw accountability in war being brushed aside in favor of “the mission.” In Singin’ in the Rain, it showed that the heart of the movie, a woman not typically associated with the Hollywood system, was (intentionally or otherwise) mistakenly left out of much of a narrative that revolved around decisions made by, with, or about her. And I am sure that in the next Classic Movie Mondays entry, a modern gaze will yield some other impairment or flaw many of us (myself included, sometimes) would rather ignore. These things come up when viewing older films that were not seen as having these issues in their time; however, my intent is not to de-lionize these films or tear down anyone’s work. Rather, it is to learn to appreciate these films for what they are, good and bad, and hopefully introduce a fresh perspective by which to consider their merits.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find an umbrella and my tap shoes, and wait for the next rain storm.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.