Directed by Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly. Written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden. Produced by Arthur Freed. Photographed by Harold Rosson. Edited by Adrienne Fazan. Staring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Millard Mitchell, Cyd Charisse.
Above all else, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is a celebration. On its list of things to celebrate, it includes: singing, dancing, Old Hollywood, self-esteem, fun, good clean love… Name the thing that it’s about, and Singin’ in the Rain will make you feel good about it. And it makes you feel good about exceptions to the rule: not only is it a Hollywood musical not based on a established Broadway hit, but it is the rarest of rarities: a movie about making movies that actually works. I’m typically not impressed with films that skewer Hollywood culture, because they’re easy targets that betray mercenary motives (we’re making fun of ourselves, but don’t worry, we got paid to do it—ho ho). But Singin’ in the Rain isn’t like that–it’s just plain terrific.
Part of that comes, I wager, from the fact that it is a remnant of an earlier, gentler time. The Hollywood of the 1950s (or the 1920s, which Singin’ depicts) was perhaps no less wild and cynical than it is today. But Singin’ in the Rain was made when there was less mass communication, more mystery, and no 24-hour celebrity gossip sites ready to ground stars into “content.” The Hollywood in Singin’ in the Rain was always a fairy tale, but it was made back when it was easier to believe. It’s a land that celebrates talent and doesn’t tolerate arrogance—to succeed within this world, one must only be kind, dedicated, and sweet. It would be impossible to make a movie like Singing in the Rain today, because we are too cynical…too wise to believe in silly dreams, and this is a story that wears the silly dream of Hollywood magic right on its perfectly-groomed sleeve.
And what a dream it is! A dream where Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is Hollywood’s most photogenic and charming leading man, and he’s a tender clown, not a cad. A dream where the novice actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) becomes a movie star thanks to her incredible voice and fancy footwork, and when an executive promises her a “build-up” in the press, he means it with the best of intentions. A dream where the vain Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) is punished for her descent into cruelty rather than embraced for being shrewd. And it’s a dream where a disastrous new-fangled “talking picture” can be rehabbed into an ambitious musical comedy in mere days. Are these plot holes? Not at all—they’re a distillation of how we feel about show business: what we need from it, what we love about it. It’s an idealized fantasy that in this case buttresses against our own long-held ones. This fantasy Tinsel Town is not real, but in this movie it is, just like how in real life when we fall in love we only feel like singing, but here, they do.
Which is not to say that Singin’ in the Rain takes no cues from reality. Quite the contrary; its story of the advent of talking pictures (and the transition to them) strikes a parallel with the actual sea change that occurred in filmmaking when “talkies” took over, and a film actor’s voice now had to count for something. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the character of Lina Lamont, which her voice like the sound of screeching cats, is an invention—until one remembers that John Gilbert, frequent co-star of Greta Garbo, never recovered from his own career-killing attempt to do a sound film. Charlie Chaplin struggled with the pressure of adding sound to picture—something many saw as unnecessary (mirrored in one woman’s reaction to the technology: “It’s vulgar.”) And then there are the success stories that Kathy’s was inspired by-–men and women who were able to blossom in this new field because it now showcased a wider array of talents.
But I’m making Singin’ in the Rain sound like a history lesson or a deep psychological release, when what it really is just plain fun. A delicious pastry of an entertainment–winning in its technique, playful in its construction. It has a strikingly modern command of irony, like when the slick Don recounts his life story for the press (“Dignity. Always dignity.”) while flashback images belie every single thing he says. Here we learn his real life story: his start from nothing, his rise to stardom, and most importantly what a genuinely nice guy he is.
The film is witty and energetic—starting from the opening red carpet scene, where a crowd of fans participate in synchronized adulation (and disappointment, when Don’s friend Cosmo arrives and he notices no one cares). Notice how perfectly timed the introduction of Lina Lamont’s grating voice is—several minutes after she has been introduced on screen. It takes little jabs at fan clubs that still bring a smile, and employs sight gags with the skill of a Zucker Brothers production. Dare I say it, but Singin’ in the Rain is even…well, sexy in how it pokes at the corners of its own squareness—when we first meet Kathy Selden driving in her car on Hollywood Boulevard, she’s perky and buttoned up, primly rejecting the advances of Don, and labels herself “a stage actress.” This turns out to be not true, as Don learns when he watches her burst out of a cake and join a chorus line of scantily-clad dancing girls. But she has a good heart, a dancer’s grace, and a marvelous voice, so Don takes her under his wing, and, yes, they fall for each other. Head over heels, as it were.
The love story is simple and uncluttered, flirty and fun, free of the tortured he-said/she-said sex games that usually plague a romantic comedy. The real conflict comes from the outside and from the vapid Lina Lamont , who is Don’s onscreen squeeze and dumb enough to believe the press stories that cook up a supposed offscreen romance between them. A clumsy accident casts Kathy as Lina’s enemy, she retaliates by using her clout to have Kathy fired from her job, and there’s a delightful following scene where Don reads a manifesto of loathing to Lina while they mime romantic poses for their silent film. When their picture is transformed into a “talkie” in order to compete with the new market for sound pictures, production goes disastrously and the preview goes even worse, until Don’s friend Cosmo (the spastic, wildly entertaining Donald O’Connor) gets the idea in his head for Kathy to “dub” (gasp!) Lina’s voice. Lina doesn’t take this very well, leading to a third act that—well, does what it needs to do, exactly the way it should be done. The idea of dubbing over a woman’s voice may not sound so shocking now, but keep in mind that when Singin’ in the Rain was made, the idea was new—not the idea of the method itself, but rather the notion of being so frank about something that Hollywood considered a dirty secret.
The story is not shy about its true intentions—it mainly exists as a clothesline for dance sequences, sometimes even employing the flimsiest of pretenses. Don’s pitch for the “Broadway Melody” number, for example, is exciting but protracted, making use of the legendary Cyd Charisse while grinding the film to an unfortunate halt. But damn, it’s a marvelous number. There’s the pert “Good Morning, Good Morning” sequence, where Don, Kathy and Cosmo turn Don’s entire house into a stage for their good spirits. Or the “Beautiful Girl” love song that doubles as an ode to the magic of Hollywood–splashed with so much color and life (even when set in a deserted studio) that it becomes one of the film’s great set pieces. And others, too, like the “Moses Supposes” tap number (the only song actually written for the film) that shreds the composure of a vocal coach’s office to shreds. Or the titular set piece, as Don splashes in the street, because he has suddenly realized how in love he is, and has to sing it (this part is so iconic that, for people who have never watched the film, it’s the only scene in it).
And then there’s “Make ‘Em Laugh,” a showstopper that exists mainly to give O’Connor (as Cosmo) something to do, but boy does he do it. A manic ode to comedy above all else, O’Connor pinballs through the film studio, wrestles with a dummy, plays with his face like a human Mr. Potato Head, and physically exerts his body way past the breaking point. It’s an astonishing amount of comic invention, all done in long takes that frame his entire body. Culminating in the moment where he throws himself through a wall. And it’s topped by one of the most supremely earned fainting spells to ever grace…well, any piece of fiction, ever.
Gene Kelly will never be confused as one of the great actors of yesteryear. No matter. He could dance and sing, and that was enough to cloak his actual acting abilities, often mannered and stiff. But he had a sparkle, and a debonair charm, and the ability to generate chemistry with practically anything. He was one of the best at expressing pure joy—possibly because, like Fred Astaire, he was so natural at doing something that was inherently joyous. He may not have been the nicest man (Hollywood lore reports of him driving Debbie Reynolds to tears when he criticized her dance skills), but he sure was good at playing nice men, and at the end of the day, what does the character of a celebrity truly matter? After the stories have turned to dust, the performances are still there, and they are golden.
As for Reynolds, she holds her own so well that every second of footage that Kelly gave her a hard time over must have not shown up on screen; she’s luminous and energetic, betraying not a shred of doubt or self-consciousness. She has the enthusiasm and perkiness of a classic girl-next-door type (think Doris Day with a touch of extra sassiness). And to watch her dedication in number after number is to recall Ginger Rogers’ classic appraisal of her own work: “I did everything Fred [Astaire] did—backwards and in heels.” To locate the film’s timelessness, one must only look to Reynolds—she’s so merry and pure that we suppress our cynicism; we feel guilty even harboring it in her presence. Hagen also has her place, making the bubble-brained Lina pitiable and entertaining even when she realizes her full potential as a mean-spirited shrew; her final comeuppance (spoilers, I guess, but COME ON) is milked for every second of sweet justice it deserves.
Singin’ in the Rain is perhaps the classic Hollywood musical – it’s exquisitely mounted and well-crafted, and if it has its flaws, we can acknowledge them but still not want the film any other way. To enjoy it, one must consciously embrace a comforting fantasy in order to touch the hope and joy at its core. But it is worth it. Certainly the real world bears little resemblance to the Candy Land that is Singin’ in the Rain, but films like it are important—they gives form to our dreams, and give us audience to a glee that we reach for but seldom attain. It is so carefree, so exuberant, so…nice. It’s like a classic album, a favorite meal, or a delicious cup of coffee that can chase the blues away. When something like that comes along, you savor it, because it operates by its own rules, yet is so skilled at pushing away clouds. How does it do that? With grace and precision, with warmth, and with infectious smiles. It’s a keeper.
And it makes us laugh.
NOTES: Make ‘Em Laugh on YouTube.
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