Having fun

One of my favorite numbers in Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) is “Moses Supposes,” the one where Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are at the office of Kelly’s character’s diction coach and start riffing on a tongue twister (“Moses supposes his toes are roses but Moses supposes erroneously…”), which inspires them to break into a fiendish tap routine.  It’s not necessarily the best number in the movie (it’s hardly the best loved), nor is it set to the best song.  In fact it could be called a throwaway—a diversionary number that does nothing to advance the plot or reveal character.  And yet, perhaps better than any other scene in the film, it seems to capture the basic spirit of classic movie musicals, in which the simplest gimmick can become a line on which to hang a number.  Or, to put it differently, it’s a scene in which the whole mechanism of the musical genre is rendered transparent: we’re made to see how obvious and dumb the set ups are, and how exhilarating the pay offs.  “Moses Supposes” has absolutely nothing to do with diction coaches or tongue twisters or the nonsense that Kelly and O’Connor are singing about, and has everything to do with watching their bodies in spectacular, frenetic motion.  They tap on desks, hop on and off chairs, slap the table, tear up the room, and it’s electrifying.

The more elaborate “Broadway Melody” sequence—the film’s eleven-o’clock-number—is similarly “pointless”: it serves as little narrative purpose within Singin’ in the Rain as it does within the film-within-the-film The Dancing Cavalier.  Like “Moses Supposes,” its function is perhaps to dissolve narrative altogether, to get us lost in pure spectacle.  But as spectacular as the sets, costumes, and scale of the fourteen-minute-long “Broadway Melody” may be, it arguably packs a less visceral punch than little numbers like “Moses” do.  Such little numbers remind us that, given the right performers, we can be as easily wowed by a throwaway routine set in an office as by a glittering neon set piece.  

Is more less?: Kelly and dancers in the "Broadway Melody" number.

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