On the face of it, Singin'in the Rain, like the genre of which it is one of the outstanding examples, is daft beyond words. The absurdities are worthy of Lewis Carroll's Alice through the Looking Glass: orchestras coming out of nowhere, as if the Los Angeles

Philharmonic had been hanging round a street corner just waiting for Gene Kelly or Debbie Reynolds; sappy boy and girl romances strung together by songs that warble of lucky stars and smiles on the face; in fact, it is not going too far to say that the world can be divided into two distinct camps: those who think the musical is one of the great art forms of popular American cinema, and those who think that, at best, it is harmless entertainment and, at worst, an insult to the intelligence.

To a certain extent, the party-poopers are right: judged by the naturalistic conventions of, say, a television soap opera, musicals are trivial and ridiculous. The question, though, is whether that ridiculousness is a sign of defective vision, or whether it is a consequence of a different, but equally valid, way of seeing, like X-ray vision, for example. Keep that thought in mind as you watch this film, for it is interested not in everyday reality as such, but in heightened reality, in feeling rather than fact; it aims to lift us out of the Here and Now and up into the clouds of Otherwhere, a land of miraculous transformations within both individuals and their relationships.

To see this Cinderella principle in action, take a closer look at the famous 'Singin' in the Rain' sequence itself.

As a unit of meaning, the true beginning of this scene occurs a minute or so before the dance, in the everyday, intimate farewell of a man and a woman (Gene and Debbie), who kiss goodnight and realise as they do so that the love bells are ringing. After the two have parted, the man walks down the ordinary street in an ordinary suit and goes 'dum-de-dum-dum' to himself in an ordinary way. So far, so naturalistic.

Then there is the big moment, the X-ray beam. In musicals, transitions in sound are as significant as transitions in vision - a device that the radio-trained Orson Welles used to different, but equally eloquent, effect in Citizen Kane (see chapter 10). Here, the orchestra bursts into full life, acting like an aural rather than a visual dissolve, creating a transition, not between two different pictures, but between two different worlds. Once the big number is in full swing, then, Gene should be seen as existing in the musical Other Street, a magical place where his emotions take on physical and vocal life, and even awnings, rain troughs and people synchronise themselves to his own rhythm and emotional pitch. As you enjoy this great piece of Hollywood movie-making, think about the music and movement being meanings in themselves, both indicating that our hero has discovered the full wonder of his love.

In time, the song ends and the appearance of the policeman signals the drift down to traditional reality. Notice, however, that back in the mundane world Kelly gives his umbrella to a passerby. This is significant in general structural terms: the gesture indicates that, though the miraculous moment is over, something of the miracle lives on inside Gene, in his awakened lover's heart that is impervious to the rain. In other words, the solitary life has been transformed, and this knowledge carries the character, and us, through the remainder of the story. The musical sequence, then, like so many of its sisters and brothers in this genre, is not a corny or 'harmless' bit of showbiz bunged into the plot to give it a boost; it is part of a carefully conceived narrative strategy, developing character and deepening meaning, though not according to the by-laws as laid down by our television-jaded expectations.

It has to be said that this convention (which can also reveal emotion between two potential lovers - see 'You Are my Lucky Star' on the empty studio floor) requires a readjusting of the sensibilities that some viewers are reluctant to make. Still, this is the price of admission to the magic of Singin' in the Rain. If you feel the ticket is a bit on the dear side, then think about your own life.

Reflect on Gene Kelly strutting his stuff in that downpour. You are unlikely to follow his example and go scouring the streets for a rain trough to leap into, but you may find that the experience has an 'I-want-to-leap-into-a-rain-trough-I'm-so-happy' kind of feeling to it. That is the central narrative intent of the musical genre: to take our most dreamlike inner states and give them outward form in song and dance and expressions of perfect joy. You probably know from experience that any kind of joy can look as daft as a brush from the outside.

Some Things to Watch out for and Consider

• Think about transformations:

s In the 'Good Morning, Good Morning' sequence, how does the magic of the musicals transform the objects in Gene Kelly's house?

In the same sequence, what is the significance of the rain and how does it have an impact on the meaning of the 'Singin' in the Rain' number itself? What is the nature of the transformation in the movie-within-a-movie towards the end of the film?

• Think about characters and values:

What is the major obstacle to Gene and Debbie getting it together?

How does the film depict gender roles? How does Jean Hagen, who plays Gene's dreadful movie partner, help to define the Kelly-Reynolds relationship?

• Try writing an outline story for The Dancing Cavalier, based on evidence from the film.

• Watch the 'Moses Supposes' sequence with the diction coach and write a non-musical scene that would have exactly the same meaning and role within the story's structure.

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