Film Studies: Too much monkey business, not enough respect

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The Independent Culture

How does this grab you? On American television last week a commercial aired in which approximately this happened - I only saw it the once, and I was angry straight away, so leave a little room for doubt over exactness. The ad begins with the classic scene from the 1952 movie, Singin' in the Rain, the one where Gene Kelly, with the help of an umbrella, a studio rain-storm, a passer-by or two, some artfully laid-down puddles, and a stern cop, does the number "Singin' in the Rain", a song written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed in 1928 but immortalised in this movie.

How does this grab you? On American television last week a commercial aired in which approximately this happened - I only saw it the once, and I was angry straight away, so leave a little room for doubt over exactness. The ad begins with the classic scene from the 1952 movie, Singin' in the Rain, the one where Gene Kelly, with the help of an umbrella, a studio rain-storm, a passer-by or two, some artfully laid-down puddles, and a stern cop, does the number "Singin' in the Rain", a song written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed in 1928 but immortalised in this movie.

I venture to believe that everyone reading this far knows the scene and loves it. Singin' in the Rain is often voted the best musical ever made, and this is its centrepiece.

Then the commercial starts to slip and slide. The music becomes a piece of hip-hop. The figure of Kelly starts to make moves in his dance that were never in the original film. He does somersaults. And this is all in order to promote a current product - let's draw a merciful veil of obscurity over what it is.

Singin' in the Rain was a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film, co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, who also devised the dance routines together. I have spoken to Mr Donen about the sequence and he is properly proud of it, not least the way the choreography and the camera movements were co-ordinated. There is, for instance, a moment when Kelly turns rapidly and the camera cranes up above him that is one of the most exhilarating movements in American film.

Mr Donen is alive still, but he would not have been consulted on the commercial. Neither he, nor Mr Kelly (who died in 1996), ever had any rights of ownership in Singin' in the Rain. Still, I imagine that to gain permission for this vile transgression consent had to be obtained from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, or the people to whom they passed on ownership of the picture; and I think by contemporary law that permission would also have been required from the estate of Gene Kelly. I am sure that in both cases there would have been a payment to recognise the rights being passed on. And I have no idea about the condition of the estate of Gene Kelly, and no right to bar his possibly impoverished heirs from making money.

But I have every right to deplore their action and to draw attention to a nightmarish piece of work. I will not pause to argue the claim that the creative life of Kelly and Donen has been befouled. Let me just say that our collective memory, our culture, our pleasure have all been monkeyed with. Yes, the film survives, and can still be seen, but its beauty and its integrity are being flagrantly interfered with. The nature of a movie is being insidiously mocked and exploited. And while this is not the first instance of this kind of electronic reordering of an existing scene, it may be a threshold to ever more indecent re-makes. There are vital ways in which Singin' in the Rain belongs to us and the future, as much as it does to a studio or a few heirs to the image and persona of an actor.

This matter of inheritance can be very troubling. Consider the case of Orson Welles. Welles died (as he lived) with his legal affairs in chaos. He had three daughters, the youngest of whom, Beatrice, became a key heir inasmuch as her mother, the actress Paola Mori (Welles's third and final wife) was one of his heirs. I believe that Beatrice was left with very little in the way of money, and I sympathise with that. But just as he may have been America's great genius of film so Orson Welles was a business mess and a man as uninterested in money as you will ever find. So Beatrice has sought legal help in making the claim that she has rights to the name and image of her father as well as some of his works. The matter is unproven, though I know of one book about Welles that agreed to a royalty deal with Beatrice.

Ostensibly, the daughter's defence is that she is protecting her father from things like the Kelly ad, but it is clear that she is endeavouring to secure something in the way of an income neglected by her father. The case of Welles is of further interest in that, famously, on Citizen Kane, he did have an uncommon contract, one that protected his film from interference. Thus, years ago, its then owner, Ted Turner, elected not to colourise Kane for fear of the legal case that might follow. Of course, in those silly days he cheerfully colourised other films - while urging purists to simply take out the colour if that's the way they preferred a film.

The protection of our film treasury is no small matter. On Welles's second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, RKO (the company that had given the first contract) reacted vengefully. They cut at least 40 minutes out of the film Welles intended (though Welles was not blameless in that cut) and then in due course that footage and all other out-take material from Ambersons was almost certainly dumped in the Pacific.

And so, we will never have the picture Welles wanted - which might have been the one film to dislodge Citizen Kane from its regular position of best film ever made. Last week in Berkeley, California, I showed Anthony Mann's Men in War (1957) to an attentive audience. You may not know the film, but many critics and historians would share my feeling that it is among the best American movies. That film was sold off by its original owners. It is now owned by a Dutch television company - which has neither a negative nor a print. Edith Kramer, the dedicated director of the Pacific Film Archive, found a print (in beautiful order) in the hands of a retired projectionist in Los Angeles. It may be the only quality print of Men in War left anywhere in the world. And that film is less than 50 years old.

It is the common attitude now of studios with libraries of old films that if they put out a decent DVD they have done their duty by a work. What that means, in practice, is that they no longer have much use for the negative and the best theatrical prints. Digital is becoming the norm of ownership and storage. And digital is a medium in which the precious image can be tricked and monkeyed with if someone reckons there's a fast extra buck to be had. So long fought over by business interests and claims of art, the movie is not adequately defined in our culture as a work to be preserved in its original form. So long as that confusion persists, some age will be known to history as the one that sold off a treasure house for easy money and quick laughs. It's as if in The Last Supper by Da Vinci, Jesus turned and told a joke to the disciples - but I've seen that one already.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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