Making Them Laugh through Mis-en-Scene

Dylan Hintz

September 21 2009

Intro to Film

Dr. Johnson

Making Them Laugh through Mis-en-Scene

“Well what’s the first thing an actor learns?” is the question posed to a disheartened Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) in the 1952 musical sensation, Singin’ in the Rain. The answer, stated with much theatrical exuberance by his industry partner, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), is simply “The show must go on!” The film, which focuses on the fall of the silent era and the rise of “talkies”, is a constant demonstration of the survival of actors during that transition, an effort in which “dance and physical flexibility become metaphors for generic flexibility, the ability to move among different forms of entertainment” (Chumo 39). Utilizing wild moves, his comedic madness, and some of the film’s most simple yet practical mis-en-scene, Cosmo attempts to bring some humorous inspiration to Don’s downtrodden condition. Through this mis-en-scene, Cosmo shows both Don and the audience a view of his own character, and the development of the film’s theme of how entertainment is selfless, as  “The overall design of a setting can shape how we understand story action” (Bordwell and Thompson 181). This is all done through a seemingly improvised moment following the immortal line “make em’ laugh!” that contains sparse set work, cleverly integrated props, and one incredibly flexible human body.

In terms of all three elements, set, props and the actor, a director can “control the behavior of various figures in the mis-en-scene…” which both the director and the actor use in this sequence to “…express feelings and thoughts…dynamize them to create various kinetic patterns” (Bordwell and Thompson 198). Cosmo’s point to Don conveyed through song, dance and vaudeville comedy, is a thesis of sorts about how entertainment must not be stopped, no matter the roadblocks or the emotional and physical strain on the actor himself. The unfinished sound stages and silent sets Cosmo bounds through convey this, as there is very little given to the actor, but he must makes the most of it. This plays along with the themes of generic flexibility and the survival instinct of the performer. The set is empty, and all that can really be spawned from it is Cosmo’s creativity as a performer. “The performance an actor creates is part of theoverall mis-en-scene” (Bordwell and Thompson 200), and when the audience watches this solo scene, they are witnessing the actor becoming the mis-en-scene most prominently. Transfixed on the raw talent of the performer, in essence the theme of the film, this mis-en-scene becomes an integral comparison the to the dress-up-style performance of the talentless villain, Lina Lamont. The set is so bare that, aside from a painted room in the background— a trick of classic movie sets to add a false depth of field—anything else that comes into instantaneously becomes one of Cosmo’s props.

When construction supplies and simple elements such as couches, planks, a doll, and even the walls themselves are at Cosmo’s disposal they are immediately summoned to his command. “When an object in the setting has a function within the ongoing action, we can call it a prop” (Bordwell and Thompson 183), and everything Cosmo encounters in this scene becomes his prop, from the piano he starts the music on, to the doll he has a mock two-person lovers’ quarrel with, to the very hat he wears on his head. These props cooperate with Cosmo in a way that they become alive, sometimes even actively moving him. The absurdity he goes through becomes increasingly violent as well, as he is picked up and thrown off a plank, smacked in the back of the head with wall siding, and runs into a brick wall concealed behind a door—the trap of comedic performers.

As the mis-en-scene becomes increasingly hostile, yet Cosmo’s performance becomes more organic in conjunction with the props, the scene begins to demonstrate the almost psychopathic desire and endurance an actor must have in order to keep the audience laughing. As character development this is a continued motif from an earlier gag in the film. Cosmo has met with Don after the premiere of a film and argues with him about the merit of his career, and how it has drawn rabid fans to him. “The price of fame. You’ve got the glory…” Cosmo starts, comparing their lives by saying “Now look at me: I’ve got no fame, I’ve got no glory, I’ve got no big mansions, I’ve got no money. But I’ve got—what have I got?” Don asks him what he has. As the horde of Don Lockwood mega-fans descends upon them, Cosmo spurts out “I gotta get out of here!” He has the freedom to leave, unlike Don, who is henceforth assaulted. Cosmo is not the actual entertainer, thus throughout the film’s narrative he is not the focus of attention. As the violent and increasingly painful body-twisting performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh” continues, it is clear that his perception of those central figures is not one of envy.

As the musical number comes to a close, Cosmo begins his most daring stunt. Thanks to Donald O’Connor’s amazing physical abilities, this quirky-yet-down-to-earth side character shows off an incredible series of audience-serving wall runs. Running up the side of whatever he can find, only to back flip right off the set itself, Cosmo entertains the audience with his acrobatic wiles to the point of potential self-destruction. Truly a martyr for his cause, his final ascension is a comical misfire, as the third wall he runs up actually breaks away under his weight, shooting him through the very mis-en-scene that had originally been statically presented to the audience.  In the shot, he begins immediately crawling out of this wall, smiling, and the contradiction is one of the most bizarre yet amusing moments of mis-en-scene in the film. His “pleasure to serve you look” along with the lines “make ‘em laugh”, as are repeated over and over again, have truly hit home. The artist has to survive to entertain his audience, and in order to do so must be flexible beyond even the boundaries of sanity to achieve this goal.

Cosmo’s efforts to entertain are a lynchpin example to the theme of the narrative. The reasons for why these actors would risk physical harm and personal embarrassment are evident through this scene: From the perspective of the writers and directors, an actor’s job is to selflessly push his or herself until the audience is roaring. The mis-en-scene conveys the struggle of the actor as he is given so little, yet also displays his prowess in the field as he makes an entertaining three and a half minutes out of almost nothing but a tune, some dance, and a couple of props. As the man said, if there is an audience the show must go on, and no matter what, even with next to nothing at his disposal, an actor should aspire to make them laugh.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristen. Film Art: Seventh Edition. New York: Mcgraw-
Hill. 2004.

Chumo, Peter N. “Dance, Flexibility and Renewal of Genre in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’”. Cinema
Volume 36, n. 1. 1996.

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Making Them Laugh Through Mis-En-Scene by Dylan Hintz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.