Singin’ in the Rain – A Unified Analysis of Technology, Stars and Representation

EXCERPTED from Keith Johnston’s: “Coming Soon: Film Trailers and the Selling of Hollywood Technology,” (MacFarland, 2009)  pp 13-17, by permission of the Author.

From the point of view of film history, the Singin’ in the Rain trailer could be regarded as an example of advertising for MGM’s successful run of musicals in the late 1940’s and early 1950s.  As a compendium of already popular MGM musical numbers, historical analysis such as that favored by Robert Allen or Donald Crafton could trace the development of these songs, track their original placement and consider them as narrative building blocks for this new product.  The trailer promotes a major star—Gene Kelly—and could be used as evidence in a historical narrative based around his star image, showing how this altered over time.  The trailer can also be seen as part of a technological history of color filmmaking in the early 1950s.  Approaching the trailer from this perspective would consider the dominance of Technicolor’s three-strip process; investigate the application of new lighting equipment to increase color depth of field; or examine the aftermath of the 1950 federal decision that forced Technicolor to set aside cameras and personnel for the use of independent producers and minor studios. It would also be possible to specialize purely in trailer history: tracing the development of the departments and companies responsible for these advertisements, focusing on individual techniques—process printing, the use of animation, titles, elaborate graphic wipes and fades—or considering the hybridization of the trailer sales message that appeared in the late 1930s and through the 1940s.

Treating the Singin’ in the Rain trailer as an analytical subject reveals an equally wide range of perspectives and possible readings.  Close analysis of the mise-en-scene, similar to John Gibbs or B.F. Taylor’s work, reveals a sophisticated editing strategy in the middle of the trailer, where long cross-fades link the appeal of the three stars—Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor—through character placements that “merge” the performers into one another, across a range of different songs and routines.  This focuses attention onto the named leads, but it also links them to the known pleasures of the film and genre—the musical routines.  Equally, close attention to aesthetics reveals a structural conceit that opens and closes the trailer.  In the opening sequence, the camera starts on a medium shot of dancers, pulls back and cranes up into an extreme long shot full of neon signs advertising casinos, theatres, cinemas and hotels—a movement that suggest an enlarged perspective on events.  This transition, from the personal (the dancers) to the public (the wider world), offers a suggestive link to the traditional structure of a hybrid trailer style, which expands its sales message to encompass as many audience lures as possible, then has to distil those down into a simple, personal message.  At the close of the Singin’ in the Rain trailer, the individual strands (musical numbers, narrative, spectacle, stars) form a hybrid message of new and known pleasures, which then focuses down onto one specific message—the star image.  The reverse of the opening camera movement, craning down from extreme long shot to a medium shot on Gene Kelly, reflect the trailer moving from a grander narrative to an individual sales message.  The specific aesthetics of the trailer reflect an essential function of the trailer structure.

…By contrast with these existing approaches, unified analysis of the Singin in the Rain trailer begins by building a network of the historical, industrial, economic, cultural and technological influences that may have informed its production. This discursive network will not only offer a sense of the trailer as a contemporary text, but it will provide any analysis of the trailer with a variety of facts and concepts that could explain structural or aesthetic concerns.  A complete reading of the trailer also functions in synthesis with related evidentiary networks based around 1950s trailers, musical trailers, Gene Kelly trailers, Technicolor trailers and MGM Trailers.  To understand the layers of information present in each trailer produced, it is important to be able to identify and examine each layer individually and as part of the whole.  In the case of the Singin in the Rain trailer, close analysis of the trailer text reveals key elements—the depiction of star personalities, color film technology, the dismantling of the studio system, the growth of competitive technology (television), gender roles—but all are contained within a larger concern, harking back to a golden age, a nostalgia-driven sales message that has as much to do with contemporary events of 1952 as the narrative content of the feature itself.

The historical situation of the trailer is intrinsic to understanding its layers of meaning. The opening sequence, with the dancers dwarfed by flashing neon advertisement, is overlaid with the word:  “In the spirit and fun of an American in Paris/ MGM now brings you/ The Big, Big Musical Show of the year.”  The trailer moves on to a long shot of the three stars dancing in the rain, then cuts to a shot of a soundstage, equipment and technicians in the foreground, an ornate Art Deco set with dancers in the backgrounds:  “This is the story of a great moment in motion picture history…when the screen learned to talk.”  As identified earlier, this could be seen as a paean to capitalism, but it’s also tinged with nostalgia, looking back to bygone years and glory days.  Hollywood in 1952 was at the end of its golden age: tarnished by the 9148 Paramount Decree that demanded the major studios divest themselves of their exhibition arm; challenged by the popularity of the “rival screen,” television; and facing a decline in audience numbers.  The trailer may hark back to the 1920’s, but the problems of the 1950s are implicit in the text—the neon Loew’s Theatres signs that are prominent in the opening image offer a reminder of the loss of MGM’s exhibition circuit, while the references to “Talkies” highlight the introduction of problematic new technology.  Despite referring to the launch of synchronized sound as a “great moment,” the trailer’s attitude toward technology is ambivalent.  In a long excerpted scene, “R.F.” (the head of Monumental Pictures) fumes about the success of The Jazz Singer, O’Connor offers an Al Jolson parody, and Kelly dismisses sound as ”a freak.”  Although R.F. announces the studio will make talking pictures, in this trailer, hardly anyone talks. There is no voiceover, no dialogue—only singing.  The songs, all from previous MGM hits, offer another level at which trailer content is looking back, not forward.  With its 1920’s setting, and its songs from pre-existing 1930s and 1940s MGM properties, the trailer retreats from it contemporary situation to the studio’s glory days. The diegetic threat posed by the new technology of sound reflects, in this trailer, the contemporary Hollywood reaction to a contemporary (non-film)technology, television.

Linking Singin’ in the Rain to these industrial concerns is not a simple matter of constructing a network of convenient dates or events—the evidence comes from the text of the trailer.  Placing the trailer within this network enables the text to illuminate historical data, but in turn this data can offer an explanation for textual detail.  Although the threat of television could explain the trailer’s use of Technicolor, there are other historical and textual forces at work.  Color technology is overtly displayed in this trailer, every scene infused with incredibly bright and vibrant colors.  As befits musicals (and musical trailers) of this era, the color is used to convey fantasy elements over realism, with the bulk of trailer scenes focusing on more dream-like or imaginary moments.  The Trailer stresses the expressive opportunities of color through Cyd Charisse’s emerald green dress, the blood-red nightclub where Kelly dances, the luminous yellow raincoats:  these function, on one level as a promotion of the feature’s spectacle and, more obliquely, target television and rival color film processes.  The depth and range of colors shown in the trailer obviously contrast with the new technology of the black and white television screen, but the combination of textual and historical analysis suggests a more compelling reason:  bolstering the flagging fortunes of Technicolor itself.  With color processes such as Ansocolor and Eastmancolor entering the Hollywood production system from the early 1950s, Technicolor’s monopoly was under threat for the first time.  This could go some way to explain the wealth and range of expressive coloring shown in the Singin in the Rain trailer, where technology is a key narrative and sales concept. MGM, which had financially backed Technicolor and used it frequently for their musical productions, needed to continually promote the spectacular aspects of Technicolor—as the final trailer titles make clear:  “The EXCITEMENT you Expect/In Color by Technicolor.”

Unified analysis of this preview also allows us to examine how the use of technology in the trailer can call attention to issues of star image and representation.  Debbie Reynolds may be third-billed, but the technologies of sound and color film allow her image to become more dominant through the trailer than either of her male co-stars. Although Reynolds’ appearance seems to fit within an image of wholesome 1950s womanhood—depicted in the kitchen, in feminine pink outfits, or romantically framed with Kelly—she does control elements of the mise-en-scene.  In the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence (with the three stars in raincoats) she is in the center of the screen:  as the identifying titles zoom on from left and right, they draw the eye back toward the center, and toward Reynolds. In the kitchen scene, she is again with O’Connor and Kelly, but here she initiates the song “Good Morning” and, again, she is centered, facing the camera; they are in profile on the left and right of camera, framing her performance.  During the trailer’s central montage sequence of song clips, she links the songs “You Were Meant for Me,” “Dreaming of You,” and “You Are My Lucky Star,” with cross-fades that match her on-screen placement from number to number.  The basic technology of the trailer—editing, graphic wipes, sound mixing—center her image through the trailer, and the use of color add to that—her yellow raincoat, pink dress, and light blue dress (in the Kitchen scene) are contrasted with the drab gray suits of her co-stars, once again drawing attention onto her. The only visual that displaces Reynolds’ dominant image is again cued by color—when Cyd Charisse’s character is introduced, a languid camera movement tracks along her legs then lingers on the crotch and breasts of her tight emerald green outfit. The color technology of Technicolor—which the trailer emphasizes because of the historical and industrial situation that has been identified through the network of influences—also positions star and character imagery and allows the feminine characters a degree of control in the bulk of the trailer.  Technology, star and representation are often highlighted in the same scenes, confirming the complex layering contained within trailer texts.

(Dr. Keith Johnston, Lecturer in Film and Television Studies in the School of Film and Television Studies at the University of East Anglia in Norfolk, UK, privileges the role of technology in his academic work on trailers, understanding trailers as “unique short film[s]” and “revelatory texts” in their own right, that are “key” to “understanding the creation and delineation of distinct sales messages and formats.”  He blogs at www.keithmjohnston.blogspot.com)

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
This entry was posted in Classic Readings (of classic film trailers), Guest Posts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>