Iconic movie mixes nostalgia with history

Escaping the heat a couple of Sundays ago, my spouse and I did what any sensible couple without air conditioning would do — go to the movies.

Singin' in the Rain was playing at Tinseltown. Curiously, I'd never seen the iconic musical in an actual movie theater, and here it was at last, restored to its original Technicolor splendor.

It didn't disappoint. Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor! The 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds, bravely keeping up with the two veteran hoofers! Jean Hagen's amazing comic turn as a shrill-voiced silent movie star trying to make it in talkies!

The sets were amazing, the dance scenes wonderful — and that sexy number with Cyd Charisse? How did that get past the censors in 1952?

We laughed and smiled through the movie. Why, we wondered afterward, don't they make movies like that anymore? Where did it go — that sunny optimism, that bright, supersaturated Technicolor world?

And why, I wondered, hadn't I gone to see it when it first played in Colorado Springs in 1952? It would have been at the long-vanished Chief Theater downtown ... and then memory kicked in. I was a snobby 12-year-old who thought Hollywood musicals were cheesy and ridiculous — so of course I didn't go. Just as well, since had I done so I would have had a lifelong crush on Debbie Reynolds.

Instead, I was hanging out with my friends and trying to make sense of life. I thought of how much fun it would have been to share the movie with my old pals. Billy, John, Jean, Suzanne, Ann, Jeremy — they would have loved it.

[pullquote-1] Then I thought of Norm. Our friendship had crossed the barriers of class and race, invisible fences that separated residents of mid-century Colorado Springs. As an African-American, revisiting Singin' in the Rain might have brought him pain.

The movie was aimed at white America. In a cast including hundreds of dancers and extras, I didn't see a single black face. Rita Moreno, who had a tiny speaking role, may have been the only Hispanic cast member. It's a delightful confection, but it's all make-believe. It's not a window into the past, but a rose-tinted mirror, one that allows viewers to confuse nostalgia with history.

That kind of historical amnesia animates Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan. We were once powerful, optimistic, peaceful and white, the storyline goes, but "they" took our country away. Now we're weak, disrespected, multicultural and dispossessed. Immigrants, Muslims and Mexicans have taken away jobs, leaving the honest white folks who built America jobless and destitute.

We ended the week with Ghostbusters, the sparkling update of the 1984 classic. Like Singin' in the Rain, it's lighthearted make-believe that's very much a product of its time. With four female leads, including African-American Leslie Jones, a cast as varied as its New York setting and an epically fluffy plot, Ghostbusters makes comedy great again.

Norm would have loved it, but he's been gone for decades. We graduated from high school together and went to Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. It was then, as it is now, one of the best small liberal arts colleges in the country.

Norm was one of a half-dozen African-Americans enrolled in the all-male school. Freshmen were required to live with a roommate in on-campus dorms. Norm's roommate Benny was a white guy from upstate New York. He wasn't happy.

"You know," Benny told me, "They smell different. It isn't that Norm doesn't wash — he just smells."

It was clear that Benny had never shared a bedroom with an unrelated male. As a prep school kid, I was used to it.

"All guys smell," I told him. "Black, brown, white — it doesn't matter."

Norm died in the early '70s, a gay black man trying to find his place in a homophobic and still-racist culture. He had left Wesleyan early, and we never reconnected.

Maybe he liked Singin' in the Rain, after all. The movie, as a friend noted, is "gayer than a box of birds." Best friends O'Connor and Kelly dance up a storm — together! The costumes, dance numbers, sets and dialogue are comically over the top. In an era when mainstream America didn't know a gay culture, Singin' in the Rain almost seems aimed at the future.

Its uncredited message: We were here.