“Make ’em laugh.”
This iconic line is about manipulating the audience, eagerly pressuring them with song and dance to break out chuckling. It is also one of the classic lines from the 1952 hit musical movie, Singin’ in the Rain, a film about a high-headed movie star falling in love with a beautiful, young woman. As the audience experiences real emotions created by movie magic, the female lead helps make the movie star’s transition to “talkies” an overwhelming success.
One of the key elements in a great movie is its ability to transport the audience from their theater seats directly into the director’s imagination and to perceive it as their own. They should want to be tricked into thinking they are in the world of the characters on-screen. In this classic, directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen choose to lift the veil, which translates into the execution of the illusion not disguised so much as openly discussed. In “You Were Meant for Me,” Don Lockwood reveals to Kathy Seldon how a bit of romantic lighting and a fan-powered breeze sets up a powerful, artificial atmosphere of love and leisure in which he finally proclaims his feelings for her. In “Make ’em Laugh,” Cosmo Brown talks about the different comedy strategies employed, most of them involving silly gags and over-dramatic slapstick. Despite explicitly understanding the falsity of the scene set before them, the audience is no less moved by Don’s declaration of love, nor any less hysterical by Cosmo’s somersaults and falls. The audience is very much aware that the supposedly spontaneous dances are not spontaneous at all, requiring weeks upon weeks of work and rehearsal, but nevertheless, every spin and twirl feels as impulsive and spur-of-the-moment as if we never knew otherwise. It makes perfect sense, for instance, that Don tap dances in puddles as he is pelted with rain. The knowledge that it is movie magic we see does not change the fact that the picture in front of us is a man deeply in love and moved to dance with happiness. Knowing this enhances the way we view it, but does not diminish the emotion we feel from it.
The portrayal of women, however, is unsettling in the film. From the very beginning, one of the main female characters of the movie, Lina Lamont, is silenced both literally and figuratively. With a voice film critic Roger Ebert describes as “fingernails on a blackboard,” almost everything coming out of the “caricatured dumb [blonde’s]” mouth is viewed as undesirable and unnecessary. Consequently, she is told to keep quiet and let her male counterpart do all the speaking. From the very first scene, the audience sees how this plays out with nearly all the questions directed at the star, Don Lockwood. With Lina wearing a glitzy, green gown and Don a practical, tan overcoat above his tuxedo, she comes across as his accessory. The effect is furthered as Don keeps his arm wrapped around her waist for the entirety of the scene, only letting go when the cameras have vanished. She is his date and not the other way around. From sheer pink chiffons to heavy furs, these beautiful yet exaggerated outfits continue throughout the movie, and as a result, it is often difficult to take her seriously. Take Lina’s big moment, for example, when she manages to manipulate the men into her desired publicity deal: her matching outfit consists of a floppy hat, a loose dress, a fox stole wrapped around her shoulders, make-up, jewelry, and gloves, all of it lining up perfectly to a color associated with “bubble gum, flowers, babies, little girls, cotton candy, and sweetness” (Bourn). Her outfits reflect her immaturity: her arguments become tantrums, and she whines her complaints. Wearing such an outfit for her own happiness and style would not have been problematic, but when used to manipulate others, it becomes an issue. As it is, she is painted as dependent and foolish; she believes the tabloid speculation about a blossoming romance between her and Don, but their relationship is very much one of a child and a parent. Don patronizes:
“Now Lina, you’ve been reading those fan magazines again. Now look Lina, you shouldn’t believe all that banana oil that Dora Bailey and the columnists dish out. Now try to get this straight.”
She is talked down to despite her success in the silent film industry that results in her “[making] more money than…Calvin Coolidge.” In fact, during the fateful scene above, she ironically says, “What do you think I am—dumb or somethin’?” She is made to look like a laughingstock both through her words and her outfit.
It is not much better for the stage sweetheart, Kathy Selden. Although there is a small win for her when she is first introduced (she mistakenly calls Don a “professional gangster” before learning who he is and refusing his sexual advances), she is still stuck to the rules of the day. While Lina’s voice is described as pitchy and bothersome, Kathy’s socially acceptable persona grants her a lovely and enjoyable voice. She is also reliant on a man. Once she falls in love with Don, then and only then does her career take off. Without a man in her life and without Don and his wealthy connections, Kathy would never have moved on from a backstage dancer into one of the most popular actresses in the business. Her reliance on him is exemplified at the end of the movie when she tries to break it off with him, only to have her statement soon undermined and almost deemed laughable at the quickness and ease with which he persuades her to stay. In fact, the one truly female-composed idea in the movie is Kathy’s and even then, it is to help her boyfriend be successful in “The Dueling Cavaliers.” “The women,” my family friend, Michelle Kaplan, commented after watching the movie, seem “to have very little say in what they [are] doing.” Speaking of which, Kathy is often dressed to reflect the ideal “girl-next-door” with modest necklines and mild color schemes. There are hardly any sparkles. We see her struggling to reach her dream acting job as a showgirl and embarrassed to be in her “lavish and glitzy costume” that is similar to Lina’s style. In this way, we see the juxtaposition of the two, and the personality of their characters influencing the costume choices of the designer. They are two completely different women with wardrobes to show for it whose voices are pronounced both useful and useless by society. As Lina puts it, “Well of course we talk. Don’t everybody?”
There is one scene that strikes me as the epitome of fashion and the misogynistic ideals that influence it. Following the industry’s addition of “talkies,” the song, “Beautiful Girls” is recorded featuring our leading lady, Kathy Seldon, as a backup dancer. In this performance, women are shown in different styles of fashion of “key ’20s looks…melded with ’50s style” (Vintage Handbook) as a man sings about their beauty, and I quote, “You got those lips that were meant to be kissed/And you’re over sweet 16.” It sounds an awful lot like an older gentleman preying on a younger girl and avoiding repercussions, as it is her beauty after all that forces him to do so. To make matters worse, women are further described as “creatures” and “great [works] of art,” objectifying them into animals and treasures intended for conquest and viewing. This is illustrated with a slideshow of women “frozen in place, to mimic a lifeless, soulless, mannequin, with varying degrees of success in not fidgeting” (Crimmins) that eventually culminates to the male perception of a woman’s final dream: a beautiful lady decked in the white of her cascading wedding gown. At this moment, the orchestra crescendos into its celebratory climax, and it is clear to the audience that “the end all, be all of a woman’s life is her wedding. After that there [are] no more soaring musical numbers, and no more fancy outfits to be had” (Crimmins).
Following World War II, the “Lost Generation” was desperate for anything to distract them from their grim reality and Singin’ in the Rain fit the bill. Viewers were attracted to the fast-paced dancing and were inspired by its messages of optimism. While some of the stereotypical styles are no longer compatible with today’s audiences, the theme of feel-good happiness and humor continues to resonate with the youth. Whether it be fashion or gender roles, this movie will spur conversations and critics for years to come.
Join the conversation!