Saturdays and summer vacations are often the best times to have movie marathons. I rarely have time to sit down and have a back-to-back-to-back marathon of films, so I'll usually spread the movies out across several days. For example, in anticipation of Marvel's The Avengers, I watched each of the five films - Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger - in the days leading up to the premiere. Last year, I prepared myself for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides by watching each of the previous three films every Friday before the fourth film hit theatres. These marathons usually help to get me in a summer blockbuster mood, in which I'll be inundated with splashy effects and loud noises more often than anyone should be.
There's something exciting about just letting yourself get absorbed into a series of movies. You become a part of that world, and you enjoy moments and situations that generally don't occur in real life. People sing and dance. Fight scenes are elaborate and choreographed. Explosions are thrilling and only marginally life-threatening. To celebrate summer movie marathons, Saturday Matinee will devote the whole summer to a very special movie marathon. Each week, we'll take a look at one or two films represented in Disney Hollywood Studios' The Great Movie Ride, along with an accompanying Disney short that fits thematically for viewing. This week's film is MGM's musical take on Hollywood, 1952's Singin' in the Rain, coupled with Disney's own Hollywood extravaganza, 1933's "Mickey's Gala Premier."
Singin' in the Rain
Hollywood, 1927. Monumental Pictures has just released their latest picture, "The Royal Rascal," starring the incomparable Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont. En route to the premiere's after-party, Don gets separated from his pal Cosmo Brown. He falls into the moving car of aspiring actress Kathy Selden, who scoffs at his "shadow on film" pantomime acting. Soon, the rest of America scoffs at silent pictures, as Warner Bros.'s newest hit, "The Jazz Singer" takes the country by storm with its synchronized sound. Monumental Pictures decides to turn their next A-picture, period drama "The Duelling Cavalier," into a talking picture, with disastrous results. However, all is not lost as Don, Kathy, and Cosmo propose that Monumental turn the failure into a musical: "The Dancing Cavalier." Music and lyrics are spread aplenty throughout the film, including the classic titular song "Singin' in the Rain" and Donald O'Connor's energetic "Make 'Em Laugh."
"Mickey's Gala Premier"
Hollywood, 1933. Various stars walk the red carpet in anticipation of Mickey Mouse's newest cartoon. Everyone has turned up for such a momentous occasion, with the Keystone Cops starting the festivities with their own dance. Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler are the first to arrive, followed soon by the Barrymores, then Laurel, Hardy, and the Marx Brothers. The trio of Maurice Chevalier, Eddie Cantor, and Jimmy Durante show up, succeeded by bombshells Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, and Constance Bennett. A flurry of more stars make they way into the theatre, and we then see Mickey and his friends arrive by limousine.
Everyone rushes to their seats and settle down as Mickey's newest cartoon, "Gallopin' Romance," begins to flicker on the screen. Mickey and Minnie are making beautiful music together, but Peg-Leg Pete breaks up their fun by taking Minnie. Mickey chases Pete down in various modes of transportation, both unusual (xylophone) and unexpected (kangaroo). As the cartoon concludes, the guests in the theatre applaud, and Mickey steps up to take his bows. Greta Garbo slinks on over to him to kiss him passionately across his face... when Mickey wakes up to a slobbering Pluto and realizes it was all a dream.
Singin' in the Rain is wacky, and I mean that in the best possible way. The musical presents an affectionate and tongue-in-cheek history lesson of Hollywood's transition from silent to sound, all based on real-life incidents recounted by writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The story is punctuated with songs contemporaneous to its setting, all written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. The film uses these songs to poke fun at the past, as evident by such bizarre numbers like "Beautiful Girl" (check out the colorful fashions of 1928), while still making them a valentine to yesteryear in the bubbly "All I Do Is Dream of You." A great balance is made between the odd and the endearing, which is what makes the film such a joy to watch from beginning to end. It's just a lot of fun. It's the film most musical non-fans will reference when they staunchly insist, "I don't like musicals... except for Singin' in the Rain." You can get lost in the film within the first five minutes as Gene Kelly tells the audience all it took was "dignity, always dignity" to get where he is.
During my very first viewing of the film - on PBS when I was fourteen or fifteen - I actually missed the first ten minutes. Thus, the first scene I watched was the actual silent picture, The Royal Rascal. As Don and Lina go out to take their bows at that film's conclusion, I kept wondering why he wouldn't let her say a word. It was quite hilarious watching Lina visibly annoyed when Don would interrupt her. When they retreated backstage and Lina finally let out her first line, "For heaven's sake, what's the big idea?!" I just about fell to the floor laughing. Her high, shrill voice was comical and cartoon-like. She sounded like the by-product of a mash-up containing Betty Boop, Olive Oyl, Minnie Mouse, and Snow White combined. This was obviously an exaggeration on portrayer Jean Hagen's part, as you can hear her normal voice in films like The Asphalt Jungle and Disney's own The Shaggy Dog. But I eventually learned that Lina was a representation of a majority of silent film stars who made their careers on looks and pantomime. When talkies emerged, some careers would flourish - like Greta Garbo's, with her deep sultry voice - while others would crash and burn. The most notable example is Garbo's own co-star, John Gilbert, whose high-pitched stentorian delivery felt more in place on a live stage than in the movies.
Singin' in the Rain would incorporate elements of Gilbert's career into both Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood. Lina already had the high-pitched voice, while Don would be given the stilted sound acting. Inexperienced with movie dialogue - though I don't blame him for not wanting to say "imperious princess of the night" - he decides to just repeat "I love you, I love you, I love you" as he kisses his way up Lina's arm. Rather than swoon over his melodramatic declarations, the preview audience for The Duelling Cavalier laugh. Sound-on-film would be a whole new ball game for Hollywood, and one in which they would have to adapt and evolve, or be left behind and virtually forgotten. This eventually becomes the theme of Singin' in the Rain itself. It's all about the transitions and changes that we make in order to survive. The picture becomes an allegory for mankind's own progress. If we fail to properly adapt, we'll be left behind while the world builds itself up in newer and better ways.
Then again, something must still be said for why we continually revisit and examine the past. After all, history is mankind's greatest teacher, we learn best from our past mistakes than we would our future assumptions. Singin' in the Rain builds greatly on this, as it depicts the struggles a (fictional) movie studio went through in order to join the talking picture band wagon. Yet, even their answer to the future lay in the past. Don Lockwood's previous experience as a hoofer ultimately becomes the foundation for his new career. No longer is he a dramatic actor of the silent screen. He's transitioned now to the benefits that sound brings, as he sings and dances his way back into the audience's hearts.
"Mickey's Gala Premier" represented a turning point in Mickey's career. This would be the first time that a Disney cartoon was directly addressing Mickey's popularity. The short essentially serves as two cartoons in one: the main cartoon shows us an animated Hollywood premiere, while the second cartoon is an adventure with Mickey Mouse. The adventure actually is a pastiche of previous Mickey cartoons, culled together under the guise of being a new one entitled "Gallopin' Romance." However, it also perfectly captures what catapulted Mickey Mouse to stardom. He's a lovable everyman who sings, dances, and rescues his girl. What's not to love? "Gallopin' Romance" exists solely within the world of "Mickey's Gala Premier," which we discover - in a delightful Disney twist - is actually just a dream for plain ole Mickey Mouse. This only helps solidify the audience's love for him. At the end of the day, they can identify with a mouse who dreams big rather than one who constantly rubs elbows with celebrities left and right.
The "who's who" on the red carpet may have been easily recognizable in 1933, but many faces would be hard to place today for the average viewer. However, most would likely recognize characters like more iconic figures like Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Mae West, and, of course, the Swedish Sphinx herself: Greta Garbo. Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, Garbo, and plenty of others would be caricatured again in "Mickey's Polo Team," a mere three years after "Mickey's Gala Premier." Unlike in "Gala Premier," Mickey's adventures playing polo (his team against Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, and Harpo Marx) ends up being real, and not a dream. If anything, it shows that by 1936, Mickey's star power was secure, and he could get away with hobnobbing with the Hollywood elite. He didn't have to wake up from the dream anymore, as he was now living the dream.
Despite the contemporary references that "Mickey's Gala Premier" and "Mickey's Polo Team" had at the time, they unfortunately become dated nearly eighty years later. Viewers today can only look to these shorts from a historical perspective. Anyone can still enjoy the timeless wonder of Mickey Mouse. But when he's paired with celebrities of his time - be it receiving a kiss from Greta Garbo or playing polo against Charlie Chaplin - it suddenly reminds viewers just how old Mickey is. Optimistically, we can look to this as the endurance of Mickey for many years, and the continued relevance that the past can have. After all, some youngsters may not recognize a pair like Wallace Beery and Marie Dressler, but Disney theme park fans would be quick to tell you that "Min and Bill's Dockside Diner" - a mainstay in Disney's Hollywood Studios for years - is themed after Beery & Dressler's hit 1930 comedy Min and Bill. The success of Min and Bill led to Beery and Dressler teaming up again in 1933's Tugboat Annie, and both would also be a part of MGM's landmark ensemble comedy Dinner at Eight.
Singin' in the Rain has been released to DVD by MGM (1998) and Warner Bros. (2000 & 2002). The film will be available on Blu-Ray this coming Tuesday (July 17), which will also see a two-disc DVD re-release. Both formats contain a stunning 4K restoration and all-new documentary "Singin' in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation." If you're willing to open your wallet a bit more, both the Blu-Ray and two-disc DVD are collected together in an "60th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition" box set that also includes a commemorative photo book, theatrical door panel displays, and collectible umbrella with charm.
"Mickey's Gala Premier" is currently only on DVD in 2002's "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Black and White." I wish I could say there were more releases the way I did Singin' in the Rain, but Disney doesn't have much faith in selling their vintage cartoons on home media these days. Sadly, black & white cartoons - Disney and otherwise - are becoming just as obscure as Min and Bill.