Gene Kelly's Makeovers Tell a Story in Singin' in the Rain (1952)

There's a movie within a movie in the classic musical Singin' in the Rain (1952) called The Dancing Cavalier (aka Broadway Melody Ballet). Actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) tells his next movie idea and the screen fades to white as we go inside his imagination.

In the imagined new movie, Gene Kelly has multiple makeovers -designed by costumer Walter Plunkett- which advances the plot in split seconds, a masterwork of efficient storytelling.

Costume = Career Phases
Sometimes when a film character recreates himself or changes wardrobe style it is to attract a love interest. In Cavalier, however, the protagonist's wardrobe tells us where he is in his career trajectory. Years of success quickly go by with costume changes.

Cavalier is set in the 1920s and follows a hayseed hoofer who moves to the city to start a dancing career. He's carrying luggage. He's wearing a suit with highwater pants, a hat usually reserved for comic foils and Coke bottle glasses. A printed kerchief dangles carelessly from his pocket. His mouth is open as he takes in the sights of the mighty metropolis.

This is a vulnerable man.

The dancer walks in broad strides, pauses to stare at the sights, squares his shoulders, leaps up and trudges forward again. Leaning into the walk, he's energetic, he's eager.

The movements will later change with his clothing.

Makeover #1
Once Dancer (he has no name) finds an agent, he gets the first makeover. Off comes the jacket, kick aside the travel bag, the glasses go inside his vest pocket. He looks less like an out-of-towner and he's ready to dance... in a speakeasy.

The career is starting at the bottom. Illegal beverages and tawdry shenanigans are served with a generous dose of inferred mafia crime in this environment.  Dancer has nowhere to go but up.

Free from his traveling togs, he smiles and sings about the music of Broadway ("Gotta Dance"), leaps around engaging his audience who rise from their tables to join him.

This kid's got something!

Makeover #2
As Dancer gets into the Broadway rhythm and sings for his supper, he notices a gangster's moll (Cyd Charisse) in the audience. She will give him another makeover, one for his personal life.

The music -which has been peppy and energetic up to this point- slows to a vamp as Dancer takes out his glasses again to drink in all this feminine beauty. Spectacles make his vision clearer,  but these lenses physically distance him from the person he's observing. He's protecting himself.

He's got the big city career down pat, but when it comes to romance, he's still unsure.

Cut to the woman. She is confident whether she's dancing or not, as opposed to our hero who is only sure-footed when in terpsichorean endeavors.

She grabs his glasses, drops them to the floor and kicks them away. The mere thrust of her hips sends his hat flying.  After this, he gradually becomes less passive in the dance. As they move together, he becomes more of an equal with her, more sure of himself.

This is the last we'll see of his first accessories, his "security blankets" from home.

Makeover #3

So far, Dancer's fashion has been about extracting things from his life as the movie takes time to tell his story. Now that he's confident professionally and personally (and has pared down his wardrobe to convey this), his career will move quickly and his clothes will follow.

Within seconds, he's out of the speakeasy and into Burlesque.We see him onstage in comic rags, perhaps about to do pratfalls. A bevy of Brooklynese beauties stand behind him in skimpy, metallic Harlequin shapes. The ladies are part of his costume, in a way. We'll continue to see them for a bit.

Dancer wears a smile.

Makeover #4

A couple of seconds later (in real time, not in movie time), he's out of  Burlesque and into Vaudeville.

Now the ladies are in usherette/faux military uniforms, singing in staccato and marching. Dancer is onstage in front of them wearing a red-striped blazer and straw boater which he doffs as he skips in front of them. Colors are red white and blue - patriotic. He's now the picture of "respectability" in early 20th-century American stage craft.

Makeover #5

Seconds later in real time (perhaps years later in movie time), Dancer is out of Vaudeville and into the Follies. The Ziegfeld Follies was a dream come true for many in the mass stage arts. It was a show which boasted glamor and excitement. Society's rich and famous bought tickets for the Follies and lent it an air of sophistication.

The ladies are now in headdresses festooned in ostrich plumes. There are many yards of material in their skirts. Dancer is decked out in a top hat, white tie and tails.

His movements are no longer herky-jerky; he and the ladies move languidly. In fact, they barely move. They have arrived at the pinnacle of their careers; there's no need to rush. They move slowly so that the audience may appreciate the opulence (also to keep those headdresses from falling off).

From now on, you won't see Dancer without a tuxedo (except in that dream within a dream sequence where he's wearing a black polo shirt - another fashion statement of wealth and leisure).
Dancer has made it!  He's a little older now, sophisticated, successful and he has the clothes to prove it.

Two Outfits
Later, he's still a professional success but has had a lingering personal crisis - the woman who divested him of his security blankets is no longer in his life. Dancer becomes despondent.

Walking out of a casino, Dancer's figure is back lit by the lights, throwing his features into shadow. Such a solemn and solitary moment. Surrounded by opulence and yet the saddest man in town.

Dressed in a tuxedo with a cane, looking grim, he spots a young man wearing his 1st outfit, dangling handkerchief, hat, glasses and all.

Because of the juxtaposition of Dancer's 1st and last costumes, he comes out of his funk and remembers why he traveled to the big city in the first place - to dance. And so he does.

Smiling again


Though some have complained that The Dancing Cavalier  stops the forward motion of the movie that it inhabits, it is still a treasure of visual storytelling in and of itself. This is one of those movie sequences where you could turn off the sound and still understand the plot just from the dancing and the clothes.


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