Great Moments in Cinema: Singin’ in the Rain
From the start, I have used this column to focus on moments, scenes, or sequences that tend to sum up the themes and subtext of any given film. They are moments that boil the entire film down to its very essence, encapsulating every idea the director wants to convey in a single short burst. But I realized that by doing so, I’ve been neglecting a lot of other great moments that are great all on their own. These moments don’t serve as a microcosm of the overall text, and frankly, they don’t need to. Instead, they manage to be exhilarating, exciting, and powerful, even when they are removed from the context of the rest of the film. Sure, they may fit perfectly into the overall story and serve to further the plot, but they manage to do so without summarizing or encapsulating the movie’s main thesis. Such is the case with the “Make ‘em Laugh” number in Gene Kelly’s and Stanley Donen’s timeless classic, Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Set in the 1920s, the film tells the story of the dashing Don Lockwood (Kelly), a multi-talented vaudeville performer who moves to Hollywood and works his way up through the ranks to become the biggest silent film star in the world. He’s accompanied by his best friend, Cosmo Brown (the great Donald O’Connor), a talented and funny musician whose loyalty knows no bounds. On screen, Don’s leading lady is the lovely but shallow Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a vapid, vengeful, and insecure starlet with a voice that is every bit as shrill and grating as her personality. But behind the scenes, Don only has eyes for a beautiful and talented young actress named Kathy Selden (an absolutely adorable Debbie Reynolds). Following the successful premiere of their latest picture, Don and Lina attend a party thrown by R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), the head of the studio they both work for. Unbeknownst to his guests, R. F. has a little surprise in store: a short film with sound.
Most of the guests are unimpressed, and many of them scoff when R. F. informs them that Warner Brothers is working on The Jazz Singer, a big budget, full-length talking picture. However, when that film goes on to become a huge hit, R. F. realizes that this new technology may be more than just a gimmick, and he orders that Don and Lina’s next feature be turned into a talking picture. Unfortunately, there is one major hurdle standing in the way of the film’s success: Lina’s high-pitched, grating voice. Don fears that this new advent may signal the end of his career, but his spirits are bolstered when Cosmo comes up with the idea of having Kathy dub all of Lina’s lines. Even though they do their best to keep it a secret from vain star, she soon finds out, and Lina immediately sets out to ensure that Kathy will spend the rest of her career acting as Lina’s surrogate voice. This doesn’t set well with Don and the others, however, and they hatch a plan to save Kathy from obscurity, while at the same time embarrassing Lina in front of her legion of fans. This being a feel-good Hollywood musical, the plan works, and Don and Kathy live happily ever after as the new darlings of the silver screen.
Singin’ in the Rain is chock-full of great musical numbers, but the one that stands out for most people is “Broadway Melody,” and with good reason. Occurring late in the film, “Broadway Melody” is a lengthy sequence that acts as a perfect summation of the movie’s central narrative, as well as the story of Gene Kelly’s career. It could easily be watched all on its own, and it would still stand as a beautiful and lyrical short film that follows a naïve but driven country bumpkin on his journey from obscurity to stardom. It is a perfect showcase for Gene Kelly’s talents, allowing him to strut his stuff as he hoofs his way from his humble beginnings to become the biggest and most recognizable star in the world. Along the way, he is accompanied by his favorite dance partner, the lovely and gifted Cyd Charisse. But this sequence has already been discussed to death, often at the expense of all the other musical numbers in the film, any of which could be singled out as a great moment in cinema. Therefore, this column will focus on another sequence, one that doesn’t necessarily sum up the film’s overarching ideas or narrative, but still manages to stands out as a joyous, vibrant, and thoroughly amazing musical number.
After his initial meeting with Kathy Selden, Don is left feeling despondent. He fears that he is not a great actor, and that his whole career up to that point has been nothing more than a pointless joke. He admits his doubts to Cosmo, who immediately sets about trying to cheer Don up. Cosmo assures Don that he is indeed very talented, right before launching into a spirited and boisterous rendition of “Make ‘em Laugh,” a thinly veiled reworking of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown.” What follows is three and a half minutes of incredible physical comedy and unbelievable stunt work, all courtesy of the immensely talented Donald O’Connor.
Part of what makes this sequence so great is simply how unexpected it is. Up to this point, Cosmo has been little more than a laconic and laid back sidekick, albeit one who is ready to toss out a one-liner or a corny joke at a moment’s notice. Sure, there is some indication that he is as multi-talented as his handsome friend, most notably in the lengthy flashback sequence that opens the film, but until this moment, Cosmo has simply been lurking in the background, content to let Don hog the limelight. The moment he starts belting out “Make ‘em Laugh,” however, we realize that he could easily be a leading man in his own right, though he would most likely be headlining comedies instead of swashbuckling romances.
Even beyond the amazing physical comedy, however, we learn a bit more about Cosmo as a character during this number. For instance, we learn that his parents most likely encouraged his desire to be in show business, as he sings “My dad said be an actor my son, but be a comical one.” More importantly, though, we learn more about Cosmo’s loyalty. The sole reason he performs this number is to lift the spirits of his best friend, and he demonstrates the great length’s he is willing to go to make those he cares about feel good about themselves. He puts his body through hell just put a smile on Don’s face, and you get the feeling that Cosmo would do that for anybody he loved. He may be snarky and quick with a quip, but at the end of the day, he’s not going to sit idly by while his friends are in pain or feeling sorry for themselves. He’s the best kind of friend; the one who truly cares about others, and places their needs above his own.
As I said, nearly any of the musical numbers in Singin’ in the Rain would be worthy of inclusion in this column, but “Make ‘em Laugh” always stands out for me thanks to the vibrant energy and unbelievable physical prowess of Donald O’Connor. It’s always a great feeling to see the sidekick get his moment in the sun, and O’Connor absolutely runs with it (literally, including up a couple of walls). This sense of unabashed joy is part of what makes this sequence truly great, and it is why this musical number is able to stand out in a film that features one joyous number after another. So while “Make ‘em Laugh” may not sum up the themes of the film, in the way that “Broadway Melody” does, it still manages to be great in its own distinct way.