The dream ballet's red backdrop reinforces a young hoofer's evolution in show business. — BY EILAT RIMON
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.
The "Broadway Melody" number in Singin' in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) is a fantasy. As a result, its backdrops are painted in a stylized fashion, with no attempt to look realistic.
Still, the painted cloths, painstakingly created by MGM artists, say something. For example, the red backdrop, featured prominently in the first half of "Broadway Melody," reinforces the naive young hoofer's (Gene Kelly) evolution in show business as he moves from freedom and acceptance to consequence.
Freedom and Acceptance
As "Broadway Melody" begins, a theatre agent leads the unnamed young hoofer to a dark alley. Then, with a familiar rat-tat-tat on the door and a quick look from the bouncer, the two are shown into a large speakeasy. The door that closes behind them looks like a vault, indicating this space is safe from the outside world and answers to its own rules.
The hoofer stares in wonder at this vibrant, fiery red room. It is warm and inviting, full of dancers dressed in festive colors. The room symbolizes freedom from the restrictive prohibition era. In here, people can drink freely, and the air is heavily charged with the feeling that "anything can happen." It's the perfect setting for a dreamer.
Still, there's not much in this open space—construction beams, exposed pipes, radiator irons, all of which add to the feel of makeshift. Dim, soft lighting from single lamps above catches wafts of smoke. The few stairs that connect the two levels are painted bright yellow, calling back to the hoofer's waistcoat. He belongs here.
Small tables with decidedly unfancy checkered tablecloths and simple wrought-iron chairs add to a feeling of single-mindedness, making sure we know what this room is for. And in case we have doubts, the agent beckons to the hoofer, "Gotta Dance!" The hoofer echoes him happily in song and dance, and others follow enthusiastically.
Bolstered by MGM's backdrop, the red room is a haven where the hoofer can celebrate and freely express his passion for dance, a place where the outside rules don't apply. To this end, he dances in wild leaps and turns, appearing light and limitless. However, this boundless joy is cut short by the other mighty force of show business--money.
Cyd Charisse's moll stops the carefree hoofer in his tracks. Casually seated at a table with her gangster lover and his hoods, her formal attire and color scheme set her apart from the vibrantly dressed, artsy crowd behind.
The gangsters dress in sharp tuxedos (like the aforementioned bouncer, who's obviously connected to them), while their moll, dripping with ostentatious diamonds, wears searing bright green. There's nothing demure or subtle about her; she's all about money, so she might as well wear the color of it. Charisse's character represents the calculating side of the industry, the price tag on the young hoofer's dream, and how far he might go to obtain it.
The moll brazenly seduces the hoofer. He's tentative at first but is undeniably attracted to her and what she represents. Emphasizing this growing desire are the green stripes on his shirt, which connect with the moll's dress (see screenshot below).
The initial part of this dance mirrors the hoofer's reluctance. Does he really want success so badly that he'll sell his soul for it? Or should he remain faithful to his artistic passion?
Unlike his broad, joyous steps moments before, this dance is deliberate, slow, and controlled by the moll. He's now made his choice and is ready to surrender to her. But just when the hoofer thinks his new partner might reciprocate, the tuxedo-clad gangster tempts her with diamonds, and she walks away. To the hoofer's dismay and surprise, the two hoods dismiss him with a threatening gesture signifying "It's not gonna happen." Here's another rejection with which the young hoofer must deal.
Quickly, the agent whisks his client out of the once-festive but now-fraught red room so that he can continue the path of paying his dues towards desired success.
Eilat Rimon is a bridal designer and artisan living with her husband in New York City. At age 12, she watched a rerun of Anchors Aweigh and fell hopelessly in love with Gene Kelly and with tap dancing. This great love continues today.