Singin’ in the Rain may be the best musical ever made – it’s certainly a candidate, and everyone who sees it remembers the (spoiler alert) big reveal in the final scene. Gene Kelly’s big dance sequence with Cyd Charisse – by this stage something of a hallmark of the MGM musical – and is probably better than its equivalent number in An American in Paris – and there are memorable moments throughout, mostly associated with the main supporting actors, Jean Hagen as the monstrous Lena Lamont and Donald O’Connor playing Kelly’s sidekick Cosmo Brown.
I’ve seen the film a few times, and watched it again a few nights ago after taping a re-run on my PVR. And realised two things. The first, to my surprise, was that I’d forgottn the entire opening sequence, with Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lamont turning up for the first night of their latest movie – ‘film’ doesn’t quite seem to cut it – and Lockwood reprising, on the red carpet, the official version of his life story, in the days when the studios’ PR machines were a beast to be feared and admired.
And that was the second realisation: that the sequence – in which the story that Lockwood tells is undercut by the much seedier story we’re seeing onscreen – sets up the theme of Singin’ in the Rain. I hadn’t realised it before, and it seems obvious when you write it down, but Singin’ in the Rain, set in the days of the transition from silent to talking pictures, is a film about deception, or more exactly, deception revealed.
Film is an inherently deceptive medium of course, and this story weaves deception throughout after the opening sequence. To quickly run through the others, Kathy Selden (played by Debbie Reynolds, who the studio were trying to build into a star) pretends to Lockwood, as he falls into her car, that she knows nothing of Hollywood and doesn’t read the fan magazines. As the studio tries to salvage The Duelling Cavalier, working around Lena’s Brooklyn twang by having Kathy re-record, secretly, Lena’s lines, Lena bursts in on the recording session, having been tipped off by another actress: (‘Lena: “Zelda told me everything.” Don: “Thanks, Zelda. You’re a real pal.”‘)
And then of course, the most famous revelation of them (massive spoiler alert) as the studo boss ‘RF’, together with Lockwood and Cosmo Brown pull back the curtain to reveal that Kathy is Lena’s singing voice, creating a new star as they destroy an old one.
in his essential monograph on the film, Peter Wollen argues that this sequence allows the lies to end; the voice of Kathy is reunited with herr body, while Lockwood can stop pretending, for the benefit of the studio’s PR, that he is in love with Lena, and be united with Kathy.
In telling this film story, though, Wollen lets us in on Singin’ in the Rain‘s last great deception. Debbie Reynolds, for all her star potential, was neither a great dancer, nor a great singer. She mastered her dance numbers through hard work and application, but the version of the song heard at the film’s climax is actually sung (and how good is this?) by Jean Hagen, the actress who played Lena Lamont.
Reynolds spells it out in her autobiography: ‘Jean’s real voice, however, was lovely, and she dubbed herself’. And as Wollen observes, ‘what we see and hear is the unveiling of a mystery that subverts its own appearance of authenticity’.