What is up with the "Beautiful Girl" number in Singin' in the Rain?
August 7, 2018 12:19 PM   Subscribe

The montage of musical numbers exploding after the advent of talking pictures in Singin' in the Rain culminates in the "Beautiful Girl" number, a lavish song and dance routine interrupted by a tableau vivant plus voiceover of several chic fashions. The scene is there so that Kathy is found again and can reunite with Don. But...what the heck is that number even going to be used for?

If it was just a musical number, it would make sense to me that it was from a longer movie being shot (in the world of the film and its characters). But that random fashion poem in the middle makes it seem like an ad or one of those strange little PSA shorts popular in the '50s (which would not be out of place when Singin' in the Rain was made, but is definitely strange for when the movie takes place). Considering how expensive everything was to make back then, it seems strange that this random 8 minutes of footage devoid of a movie context would have been shot by a major motion picture studio in 1927.

Was this just a weird anachronistic interlude in the movie or were there any filmed advertisements/shorts like this in the early days of talking pictures? I've never seen anything in film criticism of the movie addressing it and it's driving me up the wall.
posted by petiteviolette to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
In the context of the film, what they're actually filming is a Ziegfeld-Follies-style production number. Florenz Ziegfeld made popular on Broadway a kind of revue in which beautiful women wore beautiful outfits and posed among extremely lush set design while someone, usually a tenor, sang a song. You can see another one of these in Funny Girl, where Fanny Brice disrupts such a number and makes it into a comedy act because she fears not being attractive enough to fit into the piece-- that number is literally a bridal fashion show.

Ziegfeld-style musical numbers were such a Hollywood go-to, after years of musicals called things like all the different years of Broadway Melody, that no one considered them odd enough to flag. Likely the criticism assumes you're familiar with this convention, which is actually one of those ways in which criticism assumes people know things people do not, necessarily, in fact know.
posted by Rush-That-Speaks at 12:24 PM on August 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm familiar with Ziegfeld Follies, but are you saying these numbers would be integrated into full-length musicals or shown separately as standalone pieces in theaters? I've seen a lot of early '30s musicals and never anything quite like this.

I know they also used to do previews/pre-shows that were one-off musical numbers, but they usually had more of a single scene, mini-story feel rather than an informative/advertising feel.
posted by petiteviolette at 12:31 PM on August 7, 2018

It may not necessarily have been meant to "be" anything other than an excuse to have a production number. If you look at films like 42nd Street or Footlight Parade or Gold Diggers of 1933, they had a lot of lavish production numbers that were only juuuuuust barely explained away by some kind of a bare-bones plot about "these are people putting on a show". But usually the numbers themselves bore no relation to the purported plot of the show in question, no relation to each other, and no relation to what was even possible in stagecraft. (Like, for example, this number from "Gold Diggers of 1933" - the number manages to cram roller-skating cops, trained chimps, dancing chorus girls, fake rain and a little person with a pea shooter onto a stage set, all for a number that the plot of the film would have you believe is "a show about The Great Depression".) Nobody really cared that it would have been impossible to cram all that stuff onto a stage set, or that each of the numbers had anything to do with each other - they just wanted to see the spectacle. Kind of like Bollywood, you know?

At most, that number in Singin In the Rain may be "about" how that kind of thing happened.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:22 PM on August 7, 2018 [10 favorites]

Love this question about one of my favorite movies! :)

Yes, what EmpressCallipygos said. Gene Kelly was thinking about how to make the most lavish production possible (it was one of the last musicals of this genre), not plot.

Actually, I always thought that "Gotta dance" was the weird one, since it had even less of a connection to the plot than "Beautiful Girl."
posted by Melismata at 1:28 PM on August 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

I just watched singing in the rain this weekend! Another odd bit about this number is that it makes no sense in black and white, or less sense-- for example that line about dyeing fur for the Opera. In-universe viewers of that bit, however it's packaged or incorporated into a film, would be seeing it that way. So I think it's best viewed as "look how much fun they're having with sound!" plot element and as a bit of metatextual fun if you think too much about it.
posted by Rinku at 3:21 PM on August 7, 2018

Another example is the "Girl on a Magazine Cover" number in Easter Parade—a scene which takes place on the Zeigfeld rooftop restaurant, IIRC. This scene always made me believe a little more in the possible reality of that number from Singin' in the Rain.
posted by Orlop at 4:00 PM on August 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Orlop, I knew there was one in Easter Parade but couldn't remember the name of the song to look it up -- thank you for getting that out of my head!

Here's a similar idea in a Fred Astaire number from Blue Skies -- to "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" -- there's a theme with the song titles, obviously. I could have sworn there was a similar number with Fred and Ginger but can't think which of their movies it was. (Or it may have been one of those "all the dancers look alike and then - surprise - one of them is the love interest" scenes I'm thinking of more than a tableau vivant.)
posted by camyram at 4:10 PM on August 7, 2018

Here's the Hollywood Reporter's original 1952 review of the movie:
Particularly impressive are Kelly's "Broadway Melody" routine, beautifully danced with Cyd Charisse, and the "Beautiful Girls" number, a colorful and amusing satire of the old-time styles show.
Of course, this is the most impossible phrase to search for, but it's recognizable to the writer as a riff on something.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 5:48 PM on August 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Another odd bit about this number is that it makes no sense in black and white, or less sense-- for example that line about dyeing fur for the Opera.

The Women (1934) was in black and white, but the fashion show sequence was in color.

This article is an interesting survey of fashion show sequences in early talkies.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:12 PM on August 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

I can't seem to find a video clip of the "musical fashion show" sequence from Roberta (1935), but that's another fun one.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:22 PM on August 7, 2018

The old classic The Women (1939) has a big ol' six minute fashion show plopped right in the middle. And it's the only part of the film shot in color, so it stands out even more. I can find comments on it not fitting the story well, and references to the director wishing he hadn't included it, but no good reason why it was there in the first place.

EDIT: Didn't see Underpants' comment when I posted. Whoops!
posted by Cris E at 11:35 AM on August 8, 2018

The other thing is that Singin’ in the rain is an Arthur Freed/Herb Nacio Brown jukebox musical, so the song is used in films from the era (stage mother and going Hollywood both used it in 1933) and it was in the list of ‘hit songs’ to try and include.
posted by halcyonday at 11:13 AM on August 9, 2018

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