I have to give credit to Jim Emerson’s blog post on some of the greatest long takes in cinema history for this week’s “Observations on a Shot” inspiration. Buster Keaton practiced a strict standard of space and movement within an environment and extended that focus to the space and movement within the frame of the camera lens. Fred Astaire expanded on this technique in his dance-heavy films, particularly in the 1936 musical Swing Time, directed by George Stevens. Singin’ in the Rain stands as a supreme example of evolution in this technique as is evident in the selective editing and use of long shots in numbers. “Make ’em Laugh” in particular has a series of long shots to display the ever increasing physical choreography along with some select full and medium shots to bring focus to Donald O’Connor’s facial expressions and comic timing.
The sequence begins with an establishing shot of the Monumental Pictures studio gate which fades into an interior shot of Kelly and O’Connor inside the lot. They proceed traveling from right to left, passing through a few productions in the process of shooting, eventually ending at a piano. The outline of the “Make ’em Laugh” staging basically takes us through the same route in reverse with panning from left to right (forward in time in film language).
Cosmo (O’Connor) sits at the piano waxing philosophical about short people with long faces and long people with short faces, using his own rubber-like facial expressions to cheer up his best friend Don (Kelly). He then jumps atop the piano as the camera zooms out to keep his full body within the frame. With Kelly situated on the lower half of the screen, we get a full comprehension of spatial consciousness.
When Cosmo travels right, the camera centers him within the frame and cuts to a long shot in order to play out the next staging sequence. Here, Cosmo gets transported by a plank held by two production hands and maneuvers his way around a sofa and a second wooden plank. By the time Cosmo runs into a brick wall, a medium shot brings his upper body into focus and emphasizes his elaborate facial expressions. Up through this first half of the song, O’Connor’s performance has been primarily expression driven with little athleticism when compared to the second half and closing of the number.
We cut away again to a full shot as Cosmo swings around the bricked up doorway and dances his way over to a sofa (the second one in the sequence which also alludes to the two that are used in the later number “Good Morning”) with a dummy perched up on it. O’Connor, now sitting with the dummy on the sofa, uses his deft physical comedy gifts to rapturous effect as he flirts and mingles to his hearts content. During this segment, O’Connor uses choreography sparingly and relies more on seemingly improvisational techniques. Upon closer inspection, subtle editing and camera placement reveal a deft hand well rehearsed at the director’s helm. O’Connor leaps over the sofa and continues to wrestle and dance with the headless dummy all within full frame again. There are no cuts in the next manic induced moments of theatricality. O’Connor exudes a relentless energy and gleeful spontaneity that is only matched in film history by the later performed title number.
In these moments, a subtle zoom out is easily missed but is important in establishing once again O’Connor in relation to his spatial surroundings. The camera follows Cosmo, pans left and expands to a wider shot (just for a moment) in order for us to take a glimpse of the ramp/back drop he will soon be somersaulting off of. Again, we understand the height proportions in relation to O’Connor’s body and the distance to the ground.
The camera zooms back in to a full shot of Cosmo circling on the floor in a counter-clockwise position. The camera angle lifts just slightly over 45 degrees and captures the goofiness to clear and comprehensible effect.
Cosmo stands and a quick cut to a long shot establishes the physical climax of the staging and choreography. The camera follows Cosmo – without cutting – running left and up a steep ramp then somersaulting back down to the ground. He then runs upstage, up a wall, and somersaults again – all within a single shot. The fact that the gravity defying stunt seems effortless is a measurement to O’Connor’s talents as a dancer and actor.
A third somersault is expected camera right but ends in Cosmo jumping through a wall and crash landing on the floor.
He musters up the strength to stand one last time to exclaim in singing voice “Make ’em laugh!” before he falls flat on his back in exhaustion. The dummy to his right humorously mirroring his collapsed body adds a touch of wit to the final image.
Check out the video below to watch the scene in its entirety with my annotated comments.
This is the third entry in the ongoing series “Observations on a Shot.” Click here for the previous entry.