This number and its backdrop play with our expectations about the world of moviemaking. — BY LISA DUFFY
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.
Commenting on the film industry, Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) reveals insider secrets and exposes the artificiality of moviemaking. Then, it makes us forget what we have just learned.
This trickery is most apparent in the musical number “You Were Meant for Me,” as Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) walks Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) onto a soundstage and shows her step-by-step how romantic scenes are set for the screen.
In "You Were Meant for Me," the sunset is a pink and purple backdrop, painted by MGM artists. The moonlight is a carefully aligned spotlight and the breeze the result of an industrial fan. As Don begins to sing, the artificiality of the lights, fan, and backdrop remains firmly on display, scattered about the frame.
The couple dances. They move in and out of shadows, obscured by lights Don apparently failed to turn on (of course, the lack of illumination is also purposeful here). As Don and Kathy gaze at each other, the camera dollies forward to revel in their love.
Even though we have been shown the assembly of the number, in its final closeup—when the props are hidden from view and all that remains is the backdrop—we are swept up in the moment, swayed by the romance of the dance. Since Don’s body blocks the spotlight (see screenshot above), we almost believe the two lovers stand before a beautiful sunset. But this lasts only a moment.
The camera dollies back and re-reveals the props and expanse of the soundstage. The sunset reverts to a mere backdrop, as the camera captures the seam between the bottom of the canvas and the stage floor (see screenshot below). The world of the film is demystified for the audience once again.
Later in Singin' in the Rain, the "Broadway Melody" dream ballet evokes "You Were Meant for Me." The parallels are clear: the backdrop retains the same sunset color scheme, now draped across a massive sound stage. Yet our knowledge about the construction of this scene has faded into the recesses of our memory, replaced by the seductive nature of professional spectacle.
Everything is more polished in the dreamscape, the exposed seams and rough edges of “You Were Meant for Me” nowhere to be found. Even short, spunky Kathy is replaced by the long, sophisticated lines of Cyd Charisse. The gauzy, asymmetrical billowing of Kathy’s dress is transposed to (what looks to be) the longest scarf in the world around Charisse’s neck, dancing its own choreography in the wind of now-unseen industrial fans.
Singin' in the Rain's use of similar backdrops in "You Were Meant for Me" and "Broadway Melody" almost acts as a dare to the viewer. The former gifts us filmic knowledge wrapped up in soft pink and purple hues, to which we surrender almost immediately. In the latter, when the screen becomes awash in these colors again, they may prick a sense of distant recognition, but the specificity of the construction is lost to us. The reality of the falseness onscreen fades away and all that remains is the beautiful dream of entertainment.
Lisa Duffy is a PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London. She is writing her thesis on gender and sexuality in the fantasy spaces of classical Hollywood musicals, mostly for an excuse to watch The Pirate over and over again.