If anything, the urge to document their performance as fully as possible — extended long shots and all — runs the risk of swamping the narrative, but for Kelly, perhaps, the balletic dream was the narrative, or at least, the point of constructing the story in the first place.
Extended detours into pure ballet notwithstanding, the “stage-oriented” economy of Singin in the Rain does not permit it to linger on the outright repetition of any shot or sequence. However, allied techniques allow it to achieve a certain degree of formal and sentimental unity. In terms of large-scale structure, the decision to bookend the films action between two theatrical premieres is extraordinary. Unlike a more explicitly flashback-driven story like Sunset Boulevard (a near-contemporaneous but darker meditation on Hollywoods transition to sound), the trajectory here is less circular than spiral in form: The gala debut of the film-within-a-film that closes Singin in the Rain echoes the launch of the Royal Rascal that began it, but the superficial similarities only demonstrate how much the characters (and our understanding of them) have evolved in the meantime.
This “shot and echo” structure also gives viewers a chance to reflect on the films awareness of its own illusionistic nature. We enter the world of Singin in the Rain as moviegoers, as fans lined up for a glimpse of the stars “in real life.” We leave as industry insiders well schooled in the way the films vision of Hollywood behind the curtain functions, having spent time on the soundstages as well as the stars mansions. When that “curtain” rises to expose the gap between backstage realities (embodied by Kathy, “the girl whose voice you heard and loved tonight”) and the glamour propagated by the fan magazines, we (and Don Lockwood) have been prepared for it and know where to place our loyalties.
On a smaller scale, Singin in the Rain provides some repetitive cues by returning to the production of the film-within-a-film at various points in its evolution from silent period potboiler to time-travel musical.
We see the same scene played out in the silent idiom, then with sound, and, after the disastrous test screening, in its final form. This approach is not so much literal as implicitly musical: a “theme” is stated and then tested in its variations. First, the failure of the silent film as a mirror of reality is demonstrated through the silent cameras failure to capture anything but Lockwood and Lamonts romantic mummery. Then, the technical realities of sound production are introduced as a possible solution, but its failures (and Lamonts) are only exploited for comic effect at the test screening. While a hybrid solution is explored, it too is unsuccessful, ultimately allowing the film to make one last argument for legitimate theatrical talent as the ground of authenticity.
And for Singin in the Rain, authenticity is the hallmark of joy. Kathy is loveable to the extent to which she is real: She dances, she expresses independent viewpoints and an interest in “live” (unmediated) theatre, and most of all, the character has vocal talent. Lina Lamont may look “refined” on film, but significantly cant sing or dance; her career depended on the constraints inherent in the silent form and the advance of cinematic technology only reveals her limitations. But those who can perform in a relatively unmediated environment manage to not only adapt to technological innovation but also connect with other human beings. Their cinematic output — Kellys output, OConnors, Charisses — is what Singin in the Rain means to me that a Royal Rascal does not. Film only preserved their personality and their talent for generations like mine to enjoy. Thats the breathtaking thing, and its what we remember..