The backdrop's simplicity makes the musical number all the more effective. — BY MACY VETO
This post is part of our series Backdrops in Singin' in the Rain, which honors the Art Directors' Guild MGM Backdrop Recovery Project and reminds audiences of the critical roles artists played in the production of classic films.
Painted by MGM artists, several intricate backdrops support the main characters in Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952). For example, backdrops help to create a red carpet event, a vaudeville stage, and a Beverly Hills mansion.
But the film's most romantic number, “You Were Meant For Me," does not require such complexity in its set design. Rather, its simplicity makes the number all the more effective—at once calming, romantic, and relatable.
The backdrop featured in "You Were Meant for Me" represents a sunset, that moment when the sky's colors and light work together to create a serene and idyllic view. At this point in the film, after the chaos of R.F. Simpson's party, a tranquil mood is what we need, and that is what MGM artists provide.
The backdrop's swirl of pastel colors—purple, pink, and blue—is cool and calming, especially when paired with Don Lockwood's (Gene Kelly) song to Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) and the graceful, lowkey dance that unfolds between the two. Always in full view, the sunset soothes and supports the lovers (as well as us) as they sheepishly express their affection toward each other.
The simple sunset/backdrop also emphasizes the couple's chemistry. Its tones illuminate the twinkles in Don's and Kathy's eyes to give the viewer an understanding of their impending romance. Further accentuating their rapport, the sunset pairs perfectly with Kathy's periwinkle dress and Don's white pants and sweater.
Finally, "You Were Meant for Me" along with its set design establishes for us an emotional connection to Don and Kathy, which is necessary if we are to emit certain feelings later in the film: joy when Don takes Kathy home after “Good Morning,” heartbreak when a tearful Kathy runs down the aisle of the theater where The Dueling Cavalier premiered, and relief when she and Don reconcile with an embrace and kiss. We likely would not have felt these emotions had we not witnessed the couple dancing before that simple sunset.
It's easy to discount the importance of painted backdrops in Hollywood's classical era. After all, today, on-location shooting and realistic-looking CGI often lure movie audiences. But we shouldn't forget that MGM backdrops—like a simple sunset in Singin' in the Rain—also shape audience emotions, contribute to characterization, and add emotional depth to the narrative.
Macy Veto is pursuing her bachelor’s in Film Studies at Lawrence University. Since the age of nine, she has wanted to be a film historian. A defining motivator to pursue this profession: seeing Gene Kelly dance and romance his way through Singin’ in the Rain.