Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Made 'em Laugh

Keep this between us, but I got paid money today for showing kids “Singing in the Rain.”
Of course, I justified it splendidly, putting it in the context of “The Jazz Singer “excerpt we had watched earlier that exposed them to one of the weirdest recorded aberrations of human relationship— the Minstrel Show and blackface. The kids know High School Musical, but like most Americans, are wholly ignorant of all the glorious and goriest histories that led up to it. Such a history— which I am attempting in a mere 45 minutes per week— would have to dip into West African oral cultures, West European literate cultures, the slave trade, the avalanche of consequences of slavery and the flimsy philosophies, theologies, scientific theories desparately trying to hold up institutional ignorance and brutality, the move from the Minstrel Show to Vaudeville to Broadway to Hollywood, the impact of emerging technologies, the rise of ragtime and silent movies, Tin Pan Alley, the development of tap dancing, the first talking picture, the manufacture of our collective dreams and mythologies— and that’s just for starters! Behind and alongside of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds is Scott Joplin, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Bill Robinson, the Nicholas Brothers, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and so many more, who laid down the path that led to the Yellow Brick Road.

What’s remarkable is how much of that list (minus the early histories) is in this movie! Here are two hoofers who get their start in vaudeville, move into silent movies and then cross into the new technology of the talking picture— with direct references to The Jazz Singer! The scene in which Don (Gene Kelly) reveals his love for Kathy (Debby Reynolds) is a brilliant exposure of the props behind the dreams— the romantic sunset lighting, the big fan for wind, the mist machine, the enchanting violins— love and romance manufactured, but still we don’t feel it as sham. We hunger for the magic to take us out of our humdrum days and are willing and ready to suspend all disbelief. “Sweep me away!” we implore the screen as we sit in the darkened theater (or Broadway Show) and that’s what the musical is— pure fantasy, lifting us in the air as Fred did with Ginger, sending us to the heavens with a heavenly song, turning the inconvenience of rain into an invitation to dance and sing with joy in our feet and love in our heart. There’s plenty of political incorrections— the sexy-only chorus girls, the background jungle scene, the dumb blonde bombshell (thank goodness, no blackface)— but in the midst of viewing, we’re not interested in deconstruction and critique. Nor should we be.

This film contains not one, but at least four memorable musical moments in the history of American film. The opening Fit as a Fiddle, then Make ‘Em Laugh, Moses Supposes— and of course, Singing in the Rain. Make ‘Em Laugh is my personal favorite, and I nominate Donald O-Connor, along with Danny Kaye, as one of the most brilliant comic dancers/actors. My 8th graders, some entering their adolesence to the soundtrack of Gangsta Rap, were smiling and laughing like innocent 7-year olds— testimony to the staying power of great art. It truly made ‘em laugh.

Next week, Stormy Weather!

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