Singin’ About a Simulacrum

(From a 2007 class assignment)

I can remember rather vividly when I first saw Singin’ in the Rain.  Gene Kelly had just passed away and my father was aghast that we had never seen what he considered the best musical of all time.  And while I still have favorites that supersede this musical, Singin’ in the Rain is definitely among the top.  My father, ever the annoyingly active film spectator (his favorite game to play is spot the director’s mistake), was quick to point out how the movie made comments on the transition Hollywood underwent from silent to talkie.  Upon subsequent viewings (enough to memorize the musical numbers – fear not, I shall spare you) and investigating the production of the film, it became even more apparent how much the film was a multilayered simulacrum: the movie showed a world that never truly existed utilizing a musical-within-a-musical to have us believe otherwise, simultaneously creating and commenting on three different unrealities.

Because of the nature of Singin’ in the Rain is a movie, where the entire diegesis constructed for the camera and shown on the screen represents a reality that does not exist,  this is, of course, the most obvious level on which the simulacrum was constructed.  And as such, I won’t spend time discussing it; more interesting are the other two layers.  Integral to the film’s narrative is the musical-within-a-musical convention, where our actors are portraying actors attempting to create a new musical while we see them in a completed musical.  This, again, is really nothing new, as the convention has appeared numerous times in numerous media, as a way of self-consciously commenting on the art of production, for the purpose of critique or parody.[1]  From our selections alone this week we have The Jazz Singer, 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, all musical movies about the making of a Broadway musical.

What makes the application of the convention in Singin’ in the Rain so fascinating is the fabrication that this telling of how the The Dancing Cavalier (the movie Kelly’s Don Lockwood stars in) was made purports to tell of the very real transition in Hollywood from silent features to talking features.  The production of The Dancing Cavalier shows us all the purported problems Hollywood studios faced in making this transition, and the trivia revealed about the production of Singin’ in the Rain tells us how the producers were familiar with these problems and make specific creative decisions to show these birthing pains.  Producers, including Gene Kelly, scoured the MGM backlot and storage to use props, costumes, and even film scores that were used in previous movies, such as those set during the time Singin’ in the Rain is set.[2]

In essence, the producers wanted the diegesis of the main musical and its self-reflective musical to represent the reality of the transition by using bricolage from the films that were sites of and witnesses to this transition — as co-director, Kelly poured over old movie magazines to make sure the misc-en-scene had the exact look of the late 1920s.  As a young lady who hadn’t had any film history classes at that point, I accepted what I was shown as being truthful, especially as these “facts” were being reinforced by my father’s insistence of their truthiness.

That is not to say that what was shown does not in someway relate to what actually happened in the real Hollywood.  Stars, even those groomed by the early MGM system, did lose their jobs because their onscreen image did not match their real-life voice or because they couldn’t sing and dance.  Studios struggled with how to handle camera noise, where to place microphones, how to show in-sync films, and so forth.  However, if one were to search the film archives at the American Film Institute, there is no entry for The Dancing Cavalier.  While there may be hints as to what actually transpired, the totality does not add up to represent an actual reality.  By focusing on the production of a non-existent film in order to address the actuality of the transition period, Singin’ in the Rain has furthered increased it’s reading as a simulacrum.

Again, first we have the overall narrative diegesis of the movie Singin’ in the Rain proposing to us this story about Don Lockwood, his romance with Kathy Seldon, and his coming out as a musical performer.  Then we have the narrative convention of showing these events within the context of producing a transitional period musical, The Dancing Cavalier, which is another film purporting to show a diegesis in which two lovers meet in both Broadway and the French Revolution.  But on top of having two diegeses that have never occurred in what we know of as reality, there is a further level to consider.  While the bricolage of elements used to show the transition may have occurred, although not in the precise way as depicted, when arranged in the way shown, they produce a film and filming experience that did not exist.  The depiction of the transition period as being realistic, while having some basis in the real events, is not a faithful reproduction of the reality simply because it condenses time and space to reduce a complex series of events into a tighter narrative.  In this sense then the transition period we are shown in the movie can be thought of as a hyperreality: it is simulating something as real while not being entirely faithful to the origins of the material.

Coming from a discipline where the study of media effects is paramount to earning tenure, Singin’ in the Rain seems even more like reality to me, the modern viewer, because I have no other knowledge of what actually transpired during this period.  I was not alive during the transition, could not experience it first hand, and have only second hand accounts, such as this movie, on which to structure my knowledge of the event.  However, Singin’ in the Rain‘s intended audience in 1952, to which the transition was more immediate in their cultural memory, would have more easily recognized the pastiche for their intended effects of parody.[3]  Without such knowledge, I still found the movie funny, the music delightful, and the performances stellar.  I could also easily recognize the diegeses of both movies as being unfaithful representations of reality, but I did not know the extent to which the entirety of the production did not show me the transition as it actually happened.  Knowing this now in no way diminishes my love for the film, my perchance to sing along with Gene every time, and to get misty eyed during the main musical number.  In fact, it has increased my appreciation for producers who had an eye for detail and a desire to share their knowledge and love of this monumental moment in film history.


[1] Which harkens to what Jane Feuer discusses in her essay “The self-reflective musical and the myth of entertainment” as being one of the defining trademarks of musicals from this time period.  What’re different here are the references that the self-referring makes to the actual reality of the transitional period.  Because Singin’ in the Rain purports to show the reality of the transition period, it is more than just self-referential in how it shows the production of the musicals; it is supra-referential and nostalgic in how it is commenting on an actual time period of the film industry.

[2] According to the documentary released for the 50th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain (“What a Glorious Feeling”, 2002, Fritz Film Inc. & Turner Entertainment Co.), the writers (Betty Comden & Adolph Green) wrote the movie to be set during the transition period to capitalize on Arthur Freed’s songs, which were pieces in the early MGM musicals right after the transition.

[3] In fact, during the 1950s there was a period of nostalgia for the 1920s, similar to how in more recent times we have harkened back to “the good old days” of the ’60s, 70s and ’80s.  The marketing and publicity department for MGM capitalized on this nostalgia in promoting the movie.  (“What a Glorious Feeling”)

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