From one point of view, the classic 1952 film musical Singin’ in the Rain is a comical take on Hollywood’s transition from the silent to the sound era in the late 1920s. But from another, it is an exploration of false exteriors covering a deeper truth beneath. The film opens, for instance, with fictional silent film star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) arriving at the premiere of his new film and recounting to the public how he got into show business and became such a success. In a witty montage depicting Don’s story, everything we see is precisely the opposite of what we hear Don telling the audience in a voice-over. There is also the whole premise of falsely presenting the voice of aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) as that of Don’s co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) through overdubbing.
But another way this idea of false fronts plays out is through the romance that develops between Don and Kathy. A film music analysis of three numbers from the musical will demonstrate how the music participates in the transformation of Don’s expressions of love from the fictional to the factual world.
“You Were Meant for Me”
When Kathy first meets Don, she is not at all impressed by his status as a movie star. She sees Don and all movie actors as “nothing but a shadow on film, … not flesh and blood,” since “they don’t talk, they don’t act, they just make a lot of dumb show [i.e., pantomime].” Thus, she doesn’t see Don as being very real—quite the opposite. Kathy’s honesty gets to Don and is one of the reasons he falls in love with her.
A few weeks later, Don runs into Kathy again by chance at the film studios. Although he wants to tell her his feelings for her, he can’t bring himself to express them in the real world, and instead opts to go inside a studio, with artificial lighting, props, and scenery, then tell Kathy through the song “You Were Meant for Me”. Significantly, the song’s accompaniment is non-diegetic, which does not have a visible or implied source in the narrative world of the film. (In my last post, I discussed the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic music in film). In other words, it’s an unreal accompaniment played in the unreal environment of a Hollywood set. Thus, Don needs the false front of the studio set to reveal his love to Kathy.
Watch the number here:
The fact that Don is much more comfortable expressing love as a character in a fictional world is emphasized by his decision to replace one of his lines in The Duelling Cavalier simply with “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you.” The contrast is striking—Don’s character says the words too many times while the real Don can’t bring himself to say them once in a direct manner.
“Singin’ in the Rain”
Later, in the famous “Singin’ in the Rain” number, Don kisses Kathy good night, and sings about his joy of being in love in an environment that is real in the film’s world—hence, the song’s carefree and upbeat sound. Yet at the same time, the extensive choreography of the number suggests that Don is treating that real environment as though it were a stage. In other words, there is still a very unreal aspect of Don’s expression here, and the music follows suit with its non-diegetic (i.e., unreal) accompaniment. In fact, the whole idea of singing in the rain precludes the possibility of having a “real” diegetic accompaniment at all. This unreal aspect is even heightened by the reactions of the other characters to Don’s singing and dancing: the limo driver, the policeman, the man he gives his umbrella to—all of these people are puzzled by Don’s joy of singing in the pouring rain. They all treat the environment as one normally would, for the purpose of driving a car on the road or walking down the sidewalk, and like most people, they also aren’t particularly pleased to be in the rain. Though Don is physically in the real world here, his behavior is still very much that of a performer on a stage.
View the number here:
“You Are My Lucky Star”
Finally, at the premiere of his new film, The Dancing Cavalier, Don sings of his love to Kathy for the first time in a song that is not part of a stagey performance, but is a spontaneous outburst of his affection. Accordingly, the plainly visible theater orchestra chimes in to accompany him, grounding the music in the real world of the diegesis in contrast with the scenes discussed above, which all have non-diegetic music. And this time, Don does not engage in any dance, and so treats his environment as one normally would in the real world. He has finally succeeded in overcoming his inability to express his true feelings to Kathy in a way that, at least for a musical, is lacking in artificiality. And as though to drive this point home, this is the scene in which Kathy is revealed as the real voice of Lina. Thus, both Don’s and Lina’s facades are removed and the truths revealed in this final scene.
Watch the scene below (“You Are My Lucky Star” begins at 1:57):