Monday, January 7, 2008

"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN": THE BEGINNINGS

edwardscricket

Obviously anyone reading this knows that "Singin' In The Rain"--the movie--is about the talking picture revolution that swept Hollywood in 1929. Furthermore I would bet that most of you reading are aware that the project came about as a result of producer Arthur Freed's desire to re-invigorate his old song catalogue--Freed was a popular tunesmith of the 1920's and early thirties along with his partner Nacio Herb Brown before becoming a producer at Metro. Betty Comden and Adolph Green's assignment was to simply cook up a way in which to jam ten or so Freed/Brown antiquities from twenty-five years earlier into a workable musical storyline. As they sardonically comment in an essay they wrote for the MGM Script Library introduction to the screenplay of "Singin' In The Rain" (and which is reprinted in the liner notes of the soundtrack CD) "...several possible stories suggested themselves. For instance, "The Wedding Of The Painted Doll" could well have been the basis for a story about a painted doll who got married." As you can tell, the assignment was a gloomy one for the writers--until the eureka notion came along of setting the whole thing in the exact period in which the songs were written. More importantly, Freed and Brown's songs were, for the most part, written for the earliest MGM musical films--"Broadway Melody of 1929" (which became the first talkie to win the best picture Oscar) and "Hollywood Revue Of 1929" as well. These films were at the vanguard of coming of sound era and thus it made a certain poetic sense to create a new story around them that involved the early talkie craze--the very reason the songs came into existence to begin with. Thus, the screenplay of "Singin' In The Rain" not only didn't remove the songs from their niche, it managed to solidify their position in it.


Below I've posted the first screen appearence of the song "Singin' In The Rain"--as introduced by Cliff "Ukelele Ike" Edwards in MGM's "Hollywood Revue of 1929". Never heard of Cliff Edwards? He was a major record and radio figure of the late twenties and early thirties and later the voice of "Jiminy Cricket" in Disney's "Pinnochio" (and thus the man who introduced "When You Wish Upon A Star"). Edwards was largely responsible for the ukelele fad of the 1920's and was, for a good many years, quite famous and beloved. Alas his star burned fast and his money burned even faster. Drink, drugs and divorces left him indigent. (This last sentence reminds me of my favorite line in Woody Allen's "Deconstructing Harry": "I blew everything I had on hookers, shrinks and lawyers.") Upon Edward's death in 1971, he was discovered by the Disney Company to have died in a welfare hospital in Hollywood. (They'd apparently been picking up his medical bills for the previous few years and helping him along). The body was to be donated to science, as with most unclaimed remains. Apparently Disney threw in for a proper funeral for the forgotten former star. (Which doesn't, to be perfectly honest, sound very Disney-esque--their corporate reputation has always been a brutal one--but let's give them the benefit of the doubt.) All very sad--especially given the fact that Edwards introduced two staples of the American Popular Songbook, songs that have both lived long past the times they were written during and which many kids still actually know, without having the faintest idea where they sprang from.


Technically, in the below clip, we're in the cinematic stone age with the cameras recording the not very well staged dance scene from a distance, implacably staring at the action and resolutely remaining as uninvolved and unenergized as possible. It's a little astonishing how mediocre the level of dance performance was here--and yet this was deemed acceptable for a big movie musical. (I don't think the chrous girls here would have cut it a couple of years down the line when Busby Berkeley got into business.) The Strobe effect toward the end, though, is reasonably mod-ish for the time and, along with Edwards, the three girl singers are quite pleasant as well; they're the Brox Sisters, one of whom later married the composer Jimmy Van Heusen--who wrote many hits for Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. Which could lead us--if we're not careful--into one of those six degrees of seperation games with "Singin' At The Rain" at the center; how are Crosby and Sinatra and Gene Kelly and Jiminy Cricket all connected being the lead-off question?



5 comments:

Bob Westal said...

I first learned of Cliff Edwards through the old Dr. Demento radio show on the long-gone KMET -- as I'm guessing you may know, a somewhat different animal from the show which got carried nationwide.

Anyhow, I think this is the first time I've seen or heard the complete number. Musically, I think this version is actually pretty vastly superior to the Gene Kelly version, strong as it was in the context of the film. I really love that bridge section, which I'm not sure if I've even heard before. Lovely stuff. And I pretty much agree with your take on the way the staging of the numbers, except I like it better. Dancing aside, it's kind of beautiful.

And, btw, thanks for doing this series on aspects of this movie -- which I've maybe seen twenty or more times -- that I've never thought of. I'll probably be linking to it at my own site, which has been awfully musical-centric these days.

Raymond De Felitta said...

thanks for writing Bob. Yes, the number is beautiful--in that hypnotic way due to the very things it lacks--cinematic invention, energy etc. An their best the early talkies have a voyeuristic quality that can quite entrancing. You really start to feel that you're sitting in the third row of the theater staring at a group of ghosts. keep reading!

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