September 30, 2003

Art by Accident

The news of Donald O'Conner's death prompted me to have a 2 Blowhards kind of moment the other day. As everyone knows, O'Conner was one of the leads in the classic film Singing in the Rain, arguably the best musical Warner Brothers ever made. It's now clear that Singing in the Rain is an outstanding work of art--but that was far from clear to its creators when they made it. The movie was intended to be a sort of review--a retrospective of songs used in previous WB movies over the years, all wrapped up in a light-hearted romp. They did it for love, they had a good time, they pleased themselves--and somehow they created a work of art.

Much the same is true of the classic Warner Brothers cartoons. Chuck Jones makes it clear in Chuck Amuck that they weren't trying to create anything timeless. They had to produce a certain number of cartoons of a precise length to accompany the studio's live action releases. In general, Jones and his compatriots got little if any feedback on their cartoons. So they produced cartoons to suit themselves, and never worried much about how they'd be received. On the contrary--an edict come down from management that they were not to make cartoons about bullfights, because bullfights weren't funny. They immediately realized that bullfights must have untapped comic potential if management was agin' 'em, and made Bully for Bugs.

They never guessed how enduring and timeless their work would be...and yet the Bugs Bunny and Road Runner cartoons have been pretty much continuously on TV for my entire life. (The latest development is a new Duck Dodgers TV show featuring all new cartoons.) The best of these cartoons are clearly works of art. And again, that it's art was completely unintentional.

Works like Singing in the Rain and What's Opera Doc? are art by accident; and yet they are among the most charming, delightful, and timeless works of art of the 20th century.

What happened to elevate these works above their near-relatives? Why are they different? Was it luck? Was it the attitude--one might even say, the humility--of the creators? (I lean toward this view; An American in Paris has some fabulous moments, but overall it's a much weaker film than Singing in the Rain--and it's much more self-consciously arty). Did the fact that they were group efforts play a role?

What do you folks think?


Posted by Will Duquette at September 30, 2003 05:16 PM

Jaquandor said:

I think the "Labor of Love" factor looms large in such examples of "art by accident", in the sense that Singin' In the Rain was made as an effectionate homage to an earlier time, without efforts at greater art. It's pure love of subject matter and pure love of the medium, and no other desire but to express that love.

Craig Clarke said:

Thank you. I've always thought that An American in Paris was a far weaker film than Singin' in the Rain, yet was repeatedly scoffed at for this opinion.

Singin' is simply more fun to watch. I mean, how much Gershwin can one person stand? And, yes, Leslie Caron is cute, but can't hold a candle to the adorable (whatever your opinion of her dancing skills) Debbie Reynolds.

O'Connor's "Make 'em Laugh" routine was always my favorite, despite (or perhaps because of) its absolute silliness. He looks like he's having a ball (although, apparently, he had to be hospitalized after Gene Kelly made him do three complete takes in a row). "Fit as a Fiddle" stands out in my mind as well.

The key, I think, is that they made it look easy. And in American they make it too serious--to quote Bugs Bunny from A Hare Grows in Manhattan (during his inimitable rendition of "The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady"), "Look at me, I'm dancin'!" They sure fooled the Academy, who voted it Best Picture over A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Even with the sardonic humor of Oscar Levant to lighten things up, but I'll take Singin' in the Rain over An American in Paris any day.

Ian said:

I don't think 'humility' is the right word, but certainly a lack of pomposity is necessary. I think of it this way: art is craft done perfectly.

Gene Kelly was an obsessive craftsman, endlessly working on choreography of both actors and camera.

Chuck Jones was also, though he played that part of his personality down. He once said that the difference between a laugh and silence could be a matter of one frame of film. The Looney Tunes creators did aim for a kind of timelessness, though, they never knew when a particular short would be released, in a few months or a few years.

And, um, MGM was the studio of musicals, including Singin' in the Rain. Warner was known for gritty urban dramas.

Will Duquette said:

Ian,

By humility, I don't mean a kind of groveling I'm-no-good-ness; I mean an un-self-consciousness. For the craft to be perfect, you have to focus on it completely, and I think that the intention to create high art leads to self-consciousness. Did Michelangelo think he was creating high art? Possibly--but fantastically skilled painters were a dime-a-dozen in that time and place. I suspect he simply got on with the commission.

Regarding WB vs MGM: Oh. I think our copy of Singing in the Rain is distributed by Warner Home Video, hence my mistake.

I could make a snide comment about the quality of MGM's efforts in the cartoon arena, but I won't.