Unfortunately, the film wasn’t shown through the cinema’s projector but via DVD and an LCD projector, the latter of which was hooked up in the middle of the large but old theatre (built in 1946). Honestly, I was expecting a fantastic 35mm cut of The Greatest Musical Picture Ever Made as well as crystal clear surround sound that would immerse me in “You Are My Lucky Star” and “Good Morning” in a way that I’ve never been immersed in them before. Oh well, at least the price of admission was only $5.00 and the popcorn was free. Plus, I was going to spend the afternoon with Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen — and, oh yeah, the husband.
I have taught and have seen Singin’ in the Rain multiple times, and it is, as you can probably tell from the way this post is going, one of my favorite films. Accordingly, several scenes and lines come to mind when I hear the title mentioned.
- “Dignity, always dignity” — Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly).
- Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) trying his damnest to entertain the viewer with “Make ‘Em Laugh.”
- The out-of-this-world tap-dancing that fills the screen in O’Connor’s/Kelly’s “Moses Supposes.”
- Gene Kelly — with that Cheshire cat grin — “dancin’ and singin’ in the rain.”
- The colorful and uber-sexy spectacle that is the “Broadway Melody” number (Gene and Cyd!).
- Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) labeling herself “a shining, shimmering star in the cinema firmament.” (What great lines she gets. Quickly, here’s another: “If we can bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’. Bless you all.”)
I imagine most people who’ve seen Singin’ in the Rain conjure up at least one of these scenes or lines of dialogue when they hear the title. But there is one shot that I look forward to every single time I watch the film. It’s random. It’s not funny. It’s not part of a song-and-dance number. Honestly, it’s not all that remarkable. But I am smitten and elated every time I see it. It falls about 70 minutes into the film — after Kelly’s iconic “Singin’ in the Rain” number and after Lockwood, Cosmo, and studio producer R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) agree to adapt the ill-fated The Dueling Cavalier into the musical The Dancing Cavalier.
The shot begins with an extreme close-up of a microphone and dollies back to reveal Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds) dubbing the song “Would You?” for the shrill-sounding Lina Lamont (trivia: Reynolds was actually dubbed here by singer Betty Noyes).
Then, the camera pulls back further to reveal Cosmo conducting a full orchestra. After that, it slowly pans to the right, from Cosmo and Kathy to Kelly’s Lockwood who watches the performance.
Now, just a small dolly forward, and there you have it: the one shot of Singin’ in the Rain that gets me every time:
As Don Lockwood, Gene Kelly rests his upper body on that baby grand piano and stares adoringly at Reynolds’s Kathy Seldon. The glamorous three-point lighting, Kelly’s olive complexion, and the use of shallow focus separate the song-and-dance man from the orchestra playing in the background. At this point, I don’t think of Kelly’s toupee or that less-than-sexy jacket he’s sporting. It’s just me and Gene/Don, with the latter looking affectionately at ME in the manner he’s looking at Kathy. The shot continues for a few more seconds. It pans left as Lockwood walks in front of Seldon, and then it centers all three players in the frame, Lockwood still gazing tenderly at the girl who “was meant for him.”
I usually do not swoon over couples in romantic comedies. I rarely cry during movies or television shows. In short, I’m normally not the spectator that gets attached emotionally to her moving pictures, at least not in the lovey-dovey sense. But as I suggest above, there are a few onscreen men out there who can affect me that way e.g., Colin Firth in Love Actually (2003), Colin Firth in Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice (1995), and…okay, Colin Firth in anything including A Single Man (2009) in which he plays a gay widower who’s on the path to suicide. (More on my appreciation of Mr. Firth here.)
Evoking similar feelings in me is that piano shot of Gene Kelly from Singin’ in the Rain.So why? Why this one look from Kelly (or Firth), but nothing from Ryan Reynolds in The Proposal (2009), John Corbett in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), Ewan McGregor in Moulin Rouge (2001), Mel Gibson in What Women Want (2000), Hugh Grant in Notting Hill (1999), Bill Murray in Groundhog Day (1993), or Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally (1989)? Or turning to classical Hollywood, why do I receive no little school-girl butterflies from Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady (1964), Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953), Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca (1941), or Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind (1939)?
A visceral reaction to this question is that I find Gene Kelly physically attractive. In brief, he’s hot. (Perhaps it’s also that the shot from Singin’ resembles one of my favorite promotional shots of his, below.) Second, I have an interest in Kelly that I do not with, say, Ryan Reynolds, Mel Gibson, or Clark Gable. While each actor/star may be good-looking and may perform well onscreen, none fascinates me in the way that Kelly does, which leads me to my third response. Finally, I experience such pure delight when I see Gene Kelly (and nada from few other leading men) because I am attracted to his talents — his dancing ability and choreographic skills as well as his innovations in staging and cinematography. Although a perfectionist and evidently hard-nosed on (and off) the set, Kelly is gifted, ambitious, and brilliant — and it shows.
But again, these three answers are, some would argue, the easy way out. After all, stars function as much more than mere objects of attraction and/or lust.
- They are ideological texts on which viewers project their desires.
- They reinforce dominant cultural ideas about sex, gender, race, religion, politics, etc.
- They embody types (e.g., John Wayne as “the Good Joe,” Katharine Hepburn as “the independent woman”).
- They compensate for qualities lacking in our lives and “act out aspects of life that are important to us.”
Therefore, a more analytical response to why I am enchanted by and attracted to Gene Kelly — and that brief (sexy) image of him from Singin’ in the Rain — should take into account what he reinforces, what he embodies, what he mirrors in life that is important to me. If that is the case, then I likely feel this way about Kelly not only because I find him physically attractive, but also because he represents a complicated form of heterosexual masculinity that is largely absent in cinema today.
Specifically, Gene Kelly — in his heyday — fits traditional conventions of masculinity. He is athletic; his figure is muscular, solid, and agile. Moreover, his characters (and Kelly himself) wear conventional mannish garb: sweaters, blazers, t-shirts, khakis, and loafers. Additionally, his screen characters (and he personally) always get the girl. As well, Kelly’s onscreen romantic dances with Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron, for example, exude intense (hetero)sexuality.
At the same time, Gene Kelly and his star image challenge conventional representations of masculinity. For example, he frolics about the screen in sailor hats (On the Town and Anchors Aweigh). He wears “Daisy Dukes” and pole-dances (The Pirate). And many of Kelly’s dancing partners are not women but
- children (An American in Paris),
- inanimate objects (the newspaper/squeaky board in Summer Stock),
- (male) cartoons (Anchors Aweigh, Invitation to the Dance),
- male costars (Cosmo in Singin’),
- or Kelly himself (Cover Girl, It’s Always Fair Weather).
To many people including several of my film students, these images are often read exclusively as gay or feminine — and this is generally meant derogatorily. But to me, much more is going on here. First, these unconventional images point to both a particular place and a (highly successful) genre in cinema history. Second, they denote an element of creativity and sense of oneself that is sorely lacking from much of Hollywood’s current fare and which has been replaced by blue CGI people, bomb explosions, bromances, car chases, and tacky romantic comedies. Finally, these more “feminine” representations of Gene Kelly in conjunction with the relatively conventional “masculine” ones listed above signify, for me anyway, a layered and more accurate form of heterosexual masculinity than we currently see at the local Cineplex — one that is unabashedly virile and exposed, commanding and playful, sexy and inventive, physical and refined.
 There is a shot in Summer Stock (1950) that affects me similarly. It comes at the end of Judy Garland’s song “Friendly Star” when we learn Kelly’s character has been eavesdropping on this performance the entire time.
 For examples of Kelly’s giftedness, ambitiousness, and brilliance, see the opening sequence of On the Town (“New York, New York”), the first film musical ever shot on-location; Anchors Aweigh in which he dances alongside Jerry the mouse (yes, we know that he dances with Family Guy‘s Stewie too); and/or the elaborate and costly (half a million dollars) ballet sequence in An American in Paris.
 It’s no secret that Kelly was keen on (or obsessed with?) demonstrating to viewers the parallels between dance and athletics (see Kelly’s film Dancing: A Man’s Game for more here).
 Special thanks to Adrienne McLean for introducing me to Gene Kelly.