Watch Singin’ in the Rain with Lockdown Theatre Club on Tuesday 28 April. Singin’ in the Rain is available to rent on the BFI Player. At 8pm everyone presses play and watches together. You can tweet along (#LockdownTheatreClub) or just enjoy the film knowing we’re all part of an audience together.
What is Singin’ in the Rain?
One of the most joyous of MGM musicals, from 1951. Gene Kelly (who directs with Stanley Donen) plays a silent-movie star threatened with being made obsolete when the talkies come to Hollywood – so returns to his vaudeville beginnings to find inspiration for reinvention.
Who else is involved?
A constellation of talents: screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Debbie Reynolds’ heroine. And two unique dancers alongside Kelly: the imperious Cyd Charisse and irrepressibly bouncy Donald O’Connor.
Listen out for?
Jean Hagen’s vowel-mangling screen beauty flailing in this brave new world of talking movies. Every line is a marvel. My favourite? ‘I am a “shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.” It says so – right there.’
Veronica Horwell on Walter Plunkett’s ‘unsurpassably spiffy’ costumes for Singin’ in the Rain.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green researched plot and scenes by gathering anecdotes from Angelenos who lived through the transition to sound, but Walter Plunkett already had all the research material he could possibly use; he usually did. Plunkett had the curiosity of a curator plus old magazines, scraps of fabric and trimmings from the right place and time — he liked to work outwards from precise details with period costume. Moreover, he’d actually started in the movies in 1925, as a dress extra, maybe bit part player, before his interest in clothes put him into the wardrobe department of what became RKO, around 1927, the year Singin’ begins, when he dressed his first pic, Hard Boiled Haggerty.
For nearly a decade, he was RKO’s glamour guy, doing full fashion with delicious detailing – painted deco designs on the Carioca outfits for Flying Down To Rio, Fay Wray’s big-buttoned screamwear in King Kong. But he decided that he would get less grief from actresses and studio chiefs’ wives if he went freelance and stuck to his favourite genres: period costume, especially the mid-19th century (he toured museums of the south and read stacks of Godey’s Lady’s Book for Gone With The Wind); westerns, from Stagecoach to How The West Was Won – his is still the best of wests, especially the vintage patchwork quilts bought from the LA Salvation Army to make the wedding dresses in Seven Brides For Seven Brothers. And musicals, of course, for Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM
His Oscar-winning clothes for Singin’ are frank pastiche, which keeps them always fresh. They’re cut to conform to the 1951 shape, curving in to fit under the bust as 1920s clothes never did, and with stronger than 20s shoulders for both men and women, but all the details have been transposed over from the past and exaggerated just enough to enhance the movie’s comic-nostalgic tone.
The two big fashion parade sequences – the premiere that opens the movie and the Beautiful Girls number (‘If you must wear fox to the opera/Dame Fashion says dye it’) – take a broad approach to the era, with the maddest, vampiest, outfits, Nita Naldi style, well pre-dating 1927, and Don Lockwood’s unsurpassably spiffy steamer coat (‘Dignity, always dignity’), whiter than his teeth, borrowed from an off-duty publicity pic. Lina Lamont’s wardrobe leans towards Gloria Swanson’s mid-20s lop-sided bandeaux and pouffy collared furs: did she end up rich and unhappy in a forgotten mansion on Sunset Boulevard? While Cathy Seldon’s sweet little frocks, especially the jazz-print green one for Would You, are very nearly the real thing, give or take side-seam shaping to the easy-falling crepe.
To see just how Plunkett took his own remembered past and reworked it, look at this:
It’s a novelty number from his first musical, Rio Rita (1929), and that dance frock is cleverly cut from a painted silk shawl so the fringe translates her slightest toe tap into tremors. Clearly no bra, but white panties surprisingly visible in the acrobatics. Naively sexy in a pre Hayes code way, let it all hang out.
And then there’s the entrance of Cyd Charisse in Broadway Rhythm. Strips of cloth add extra motion to the choreography, just as the fringe does in Rio Rita, but that’s a very knowing shimmy dress, cut tight as an underslip, selling the sex hard, And you can bet her knickers match.
Veronica Horwell writes for publications including the Guardian and Dance Gazette. https://www.theguardian.com/profile/veronicahorwell