On "Singing in the Rain" and
"The William Tell Overture"

Ready for love after the storm

For years, I cluelessly thought that "Singing in the Rain" first appeared in the 1952 film in which Gene Kelly slung himself around light poles. Then I learned it was first performed in the 1929 movie, Hollywood Box Revue, and then twice in The Hollywood Revue of 1929.

The below clip is the second performance of the song in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, in which the whole cast is brought out on stage to stand before Noah's ark. Yes, Noah's ark, perilously poised upon the top of Mount Ararat, ready to shift its weight a little and tip over and crush everyone. This is a song for those who have been rescued from god killing off almost all his creation that has managed to offend him. Only Noah and his big family remain (the animals are all perhaps still aboard the ark). The rain pours then pours less and a rainbow breaks through as the cast happily sings about how they're ready for love now. Which is pretty funny. Go off and repopulate the earth. Go take a listen and then we'll continue.

Did you listen? Wait?! What's that? Did you hear it? At 1:03 enter a few bars of "A Call to the Cows" from Rossini's William Tell Overture, which is completely sensible, following the "Storm" section.

The Overture ends with the cavalry charge galop "March of the Swiss soldiers", which Kubrick uses in the sped-up bedroom scene in which Alex, ready for love, enjoys himself with the two women he picked up at the record store. Later, after Alex is out of prison and finds he's been booted from his familial home, Kubrick has the "Dawn" section from the Overture play, which precedes the storm. And it does. "Dawn" is still playing as Alex goes to the river to ponder its waters, as if contemplating suicide. Whereupon he's interrupted by an old man he'd abused in the first part, then runs into two of his Droogs who are now police, has his head dunked to the point of drowning, and finds his way back HOME to Alexander's during a thunderous downpour.

I know the story is that "I'm Singing in the Rain" spontaneously burst from Malcolm's feet and lungs, but Kubrick has organized the film musically around both "Singing in the Rain" and the William Tell Overture...and, I don't know, maybe, as the story goes, his use of "Singing in the Rain" was the result of McDowell's ingenious spontaneity, or maybe Malcolm believed that was how it happened. Malcolm says they labored over the scene for four days, then Kubrick asked if Malcolm could dance, and Malcolm did "Singing in the Rain" as he knew the lyrics to it. Malcolm says that after he did that song and dance that Kubrick carried him over to his house and purchased the rights to the song. So maybe it did happen exactly that way. But if it did happen that way, then Kubrick went into the Noah's ark version of 1929 and pulled out the William Tell Overture and used it as a frame for the film's action. The Galop in the first section follows the first visit to Alexander's HOME. The Dawn, with Alex returning home after prison, starting a new life, is then followed by Alex contemplating suicide in the river, being nearly drowned by his Droogs, then a storm rages and Alex accidentally returns to Alexander's and joyfully yodels "I'm Singing in the Rain" while in the bath, which causes Alexander to recognize who he is. Not to mention we have the mural of the dock workers in which the "Call to the Cows" is coded in images. I just have a hard time believing that the plot, which works so neatly with this cycle of music, followed after they were already filming.

Shelley Winters said Kubrick had a way of making an actor imagine they had come up with an idea on their own, when instead he'd guided them into it.

What we do know is it's not going to be coincidental that the "I'm Singing in the Rain" of 1929 incorporates Rossini's "Dawn", and that Kubrick partly uses as a frame for the plot The William Tell Overture. It's just too specific.

Posted August 2022

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