This post is for the Singin’ in the Rain blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Muse.
Despite brimming with gorgeous production design and iconic moments, Singin’ in the Rain‘s thirteen-minute Broadway Ballet sequence is the most controversial episode of the entire film. Gene Kelly thought it was too long. Co-director Stanley Donen’s distaste for the sequence was so great that he actually doctored a print requested by fellow filmmaker Julie Dassin, cutting more than half of the ballet out because he thought it interrupted the flow of the narrative to no purpose. Go online and it isn’t uncommon to find this sort-of exchange among movie geeks:
Movie geek 1: “What’s the point of the Broadway Melody scene?”
Movie geek 2: “Satisfying Gene Kelly’s ego.”
Considering how Arthur Freed was the one who pushed for a big ballet sequence rather than Kelly (whose original conception of the “Broadway Melody” number was more modest), this isn’t the right answer. However, the question still stands– does the Broadway Ballet have any true justification beyond
“we need a showstopper to bookend the movie”?
It is true that the ballet does not progress the main plot of Singin’ in the Rain (though neither does the big fashion show segment of “Beautiful Girl” or the entirety of “Make ‘Em Laugh”). It’s best to compare the Broadway Ballet to the most celebrated dream ballet of them all, the seventeen-minute dance sequence in the 1948 classic The Red Shoes, itself a big inspiration for Gene Kelly.
What makes the ballet of The Red Shoes tower above others of its kind is the way it delves into the psychology of the protagonist. The sequence is openly surreal, with the young dancer projecting the two men in her life onto the other characters. Reality and fantasy blur, illustrating the dancer’s inner conflict between art and real life. Singin’ in the Rain is a much lighter movie than The Red Shoes, but the Broadway Ballet is arguably a similar psychological projection for Kelly’s swashbuckling hero, Don Lockwood.
Consider his character for a moment. In the first few minutes of the film, we learn that Don comes from a dance background. When success on vaudeville eludes him, he resorts to film work, first as an on-set musician and then as a stuntman. He stumbles into movie stardom in a manner that suggests anything but his “dignity, always dignity” motto, becoming successful but arrogant and complacent. The talkie revolution endangers his star status. The great irony is that a return to his undignified song and dance roots is what salvages Don’s career, making him a perfect fit for changing times.
Now, what does this have to do with the ballet sequence? A lot since the ballet both reflects Don’s character development and the Hollywood milieu in which he works.
A breakdown of the sequence
The Broadway Ballet stuns from the very start, pulling back from Gene Kelly to reveal a massive set dominated by vibrant neon signs and colorfully-clad dancers. The nameless protagonist of this sequence– who I’ll refer to as “the hoofer”– is almost entirely the opposite of Don’s swashbuckling hero persona. If Don the silent movie star is a mash-up of Douglas Fairbanks and John Gilbert, then the hoofer is pure Harold Lloyd, the great slapstick comedian who took on an enthusiastic but hapless everyman persona. His characters tended to long for success in the social world just as the hoofer craves Broadway stardom.
After passing a series of colorful characters on his way to the theater, the hoofer makes his audition rounds, only impressing the third and final agent. He is ushered to a speakeasy, which is presented as a weird kind of haven for those who “gotta dance.” I have always wondered why. Is it because the speakeasy represents a space where normal, stifling social rules no longer apply? Is it a space where the joy of dancing for its own sake can be appreciated? It would seem to be a liberating place given how easily the misfit hoofer is able to energize the crowd, but the presence of mobsters complicates this romantic view. In that sense, the speakeasy might be a bit like Hollywood itself, a place where art and money uneasily sit side by side.
Enter Cyd Charisse as the vamp.
With her Louise Brooks bob and smoke curling from her nostrils, Charisse’s vamp dominates this whole sequence with her slinky sexuality. Her green dress calls to mind both the dollar bill and the serpent in Eden, tempting the hoofer into the cynical, covetous side of show business. The dance between the two evolves from a seduction to a borderline tryst, ending with the vamp seemingly on the verge of submitting before the sparkle of a diamond bracelet lures her back into the arms of her coin-flipping mobster lover.
I’ve seen some claim the vamp is a dream stand-in for the power-hungry Lina Lamont, but I think she’s a general representation of what the hoofer (and Don) could potentially become: a sellout uninterested in art for its own sake.
Before the hoofer can become too broken-hearted, the stage agent wrenches him off and we get a short “rise to the top” montage. Ditching the Harold Lloyd look for a Harpo Marx makeover, the hoofer becomes a burlesque star. He moves onto vaudeville, dressed in a snappy striped suit and a boater, before moving onto the top hat and tails world of the Ziegfield Follies.
Whenever I watch this movie with other people, no one ever fails to note how much less involved the dancing becomes with every supposed upgrade to a ritzier venue. The burlesque and vaudeville dancers crackle with energy, while the beautifully gowned Follies showgirls barely move. The same applies to the hoofer once he’s made good: he puts more effort into tugging at his immaculate cuffs than impressing with any creative choreography. It’s definitely funny, but also a subtle indicator that success for an artist can breed stagnation.
Fading out to images of applauding hands and then a spinning roulette wheel, the film transitions to a casino where the hoofer makes a grand entrance. The carousing inside suggests the post-premiere party Don attends at the start of the movie. His success is cemented, but the sudden presence of the vamp in white creates a mood of longing.
For all his success, it is clear something essential is missing from his life. Convention suggests it might be the desire to share his success with a romantic partner, but arguably, there’s something else at play.
The casino morphs into a pink, Dali-style dreamscape populated only by the dancer and the vamp, suddenly transformed into a long-haired ingenue with a white veil trailing behind her in the wind. This is a dream sequence WITHIN a dream sequence, with the hoofer projecting his romantic aspirations onto the vamp.
Just as some link the green-clad vamp with Lina Lamont, it is also common to see the ingenue figure as a stand-in for Kathy Selden, both because of her romantic innocence and because the pink set is reminiscent of the movie stage setting of “You Were Meant for Me.” That’s a legitimate connection, but continuing with my more abstract interpretation, I think the ingenue is the artistic reverse image of the vamp, representing creative passion unsullied by greed. It’s notable that when the dream ends and the hoofer eagerly approaches his would-be lady love, she tosses him a coin before slinking off to the mobster. She rejects his artistic idealism, suggesting that at the top (and by extension, in show business in general) there’s only room for money.
If we are to see Kathy Selden in anyone in this sequence, I would actually argue she’s better represented by the fresh-faced dancer the hoofer encounters outside the casino. Dressed in the same Harold Lloyd glasses and banana vest get-up, this newcomer’s unspoiled joy in his art rekindles the hoofer’s passion for dance, not unlike the way Kathy helps Don revitalize his endangered movie career by reminding him of his undignified “hoofer” background, now the key to rescuing his career. In the end is the beginning, to use an old cliche.
And then, after the sequence comes to a glorious end and we return to the “real world” of the film, studio head RF claims he “can’t quite picture” Don’s cinematic flights of fantasy. Though Singin’ in the Rain treats RF sympathetically (considering he’s a studio head), he is in the end a money man, ever practical. It’s fitting that even the closing joke of the entire sequence emphasizes the ballet’s presentation of the tension between art and business.
“Broadway always wears a smile”
Picking a favorite number in Singin’ in the Rain is like picking a favorite child. It just seems wrong. For me, it’s a toss up between “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and this massive ballet sequence. But out of the three, the Broadway Ballet strikes me as one of the finest examples of what Hitchcock once called “pure cinema.” The choreography, editing, sets, costumes, and strong visuals tell a story that is compelling on its own, even without its connections to Don’s journey as an artist or the tug of war between money and artistry in Hollywood. To cut a single frame seems a sacrilege (my apologies to Stanley Donen).
BFI Classics: Singin’ in the Rain by Peter Wollen
Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies by Stephen M. Silverman
Singin’ in the Rain: The making of an American masterpiece by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar