Bean’s Screening Room: Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

About 48 weeks ago I was on board an airliner headed east across the north Atlantic. Greenland was slipping by in the dark about 35,000 feet below us. Trev was gently snoozing in the window seat. Behind us, around us, and across the aisle were pre-teen choir kids in matching polo shirts and hats, quietly playing cards, or sleeping, or watching movies on their seat-back screens.

Bean was restless: the endless parade of flight attendants bringing drinks or food or duty-free perfume made it impossible for her to drift off. I tried to get her to watch a movie. She didn’t pay attention to Wall-E. There were 856 Harry Potter sequels available, but I thought they were too scary for someone just 16 months old. In the “classics” section was the Wizard of Oz, but it wouldn’t play for some reason.

So I queued up Singin’ In The Rain, and popped the headphones onto Bean’s head. For a while she was more interested in taking the headphones on and off: now I hear things, now I don’t. Then the dancing started:

She was mesmerized. Obviously, for a toddler, the plot of Singin’ is immaterial: in the 1920s, successful silent movie actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) makes the difficult transition to talkie pictures with the help of his zany pal Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) and Princess Leia’s mom (Debbie Reynolds).  This is probably Hollywood’s favorite subject– itself– but rarely is it carried off with so much charm and fun. Jean Hagen’s turn as Don’s scheming, screechy leading lady is pretty terrific, too (she was nominated for an Oscar):

I also like the relationships in the film. Sure, Debbie Reynolds’s character Kathy is a little dull, but she’s actually friends with Don, not merely a trophy to be sought and won. After losing track of her following a chance meeting (he jumps into her car to escape a mob of fans) Don goes looking for Kathy not just because she’s cute, but because she made him think critically about his job. It ain’t Shaw or whatever, but if half the films that came out today portrayed even this level of nuance in the relationships between men and women, we’d be better served.

Of course, for the Bean, both on that airplane and now at home, it’s about the musical numbers.  Here’s the amazing slapstick of “Make ‘Em Laugh”:

Some explosive hoofin’ (Gene Kelly, BTW, did all the choreography for these numbers, to the point where he has a co-credit as the film’s director) in “Moses Supposes”:

And the HOLY COW hotness of Cyd Charisse and her legs in the “Broadway Melody” section:

Finally, there’s the big one. Imagine having a 103-degree fever while doing this:

This is a film that came out the year Bean’s maternal grandparents were born, but I’m glad that she is so enthralled by it, to the point where she puts it in the DVD player and tries to dance along.

Gene Kelly was an admirable guy, and not just for his ability to put a smile on your face as an entertainer. He had a relentless work ethic, a perfectionist’s drive to learn, and a deep respect for people who bother enough in life to master anything, whether it was tap-dancing or carpentry. Taunted in his early years by people who thought a man who danced must be a “sissy”, he deliberately built himself up to an athletic standard and avoided the top-hat-and-tails style of dancing in favor of t-shirts and street clothes: he wanted the average guy in the street to know that dancing and singing are an important part of enjoying life.

In an age when most celebrities only have a talent for self-promotion, I think it’s worthwhile to expose your kid to people who struggled to make something beautiful or lasting or useful during their lifetimes, whether they were artists or scientists or social reformers or writers. Gene Kelly, in my opinion, qualifies.

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