Few films come as lighthearted, and happy as “Singin in the Rain”. I forgot this, it had been so many years since I last saw the film, I took it for granted that it is just one of those movies that has the power to uplift your spirits, and let you rediscover the magic of movies as if it was the first time.
“Singin in the Rain” started off humble enough as an assignment for legendary writing team Betty Comden and Adolf Green, a relationship that lasted over 60 years. They were assigned to write a film that could revolve around a back catalogue of songs from MGM studio’s vaults, among them were the title song, along with “Good Morning”, “Make em Laugh”, “Fit as a Fiddle” and a few others. Finding that most of these songs were written around the 1920s, the decade movies themselves moved from silent pictures to “talkies”, Comden and Green were inspired to turn the film into a loving satire of Hollywood during this time. The film would focus on a fictional silent movie star duo Don Lockwood and Lena Lamont facing the difficult transition of sound film, all the while having the song numbers in between. Simple enough, but great things have small beginnings.
Lockwood is played by Gene Kelly, who was a wonderful physical and acrobatic dancer, there was something very cavalier and daring about his style, unlike his contemporary Fred Astaire, who kept a more graceful and elegant approach to his dancing. Lockwood’s co-star is Lina Lamont, a beautiful actress but with a voice as grating as sandpaper, she is played by Jean Hagen in a perfect comic creation, (Hagen was the only star of the film to pick up an Oscar nomination). Comden and Green used real life inspiration with Lina’s voice being a major problem with the switch to sound, this was the cause of many silent film stars going the way of the doe-doe once their real voice didn’t match their persona. When the audience hears Lina’s voice for the first time during a preview, it’s greeted with laughter, you’d almost feel sorry for her if she wasn’t so ruthless as the central villain. The solution comes with a beautiful young injenue Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds) who is hired as the voice for Lina, and like clockwork, Don and her fall in love.
The plot of “Singin in the Rain” is just one reason to love it as Comden and Green sprinkle it with loving detail, it is a movie about making movies, all done with cheeky fun, the satire isn’t too biting to be harmful really, it’s more like gentle jabbing at the industry that people love so much. The filmmakers also make clever references to the early musicals in a wonderfully rhythmic montage showing off homages to films like “Broadway Melody” and the keleidoscope style of Busby Berkley’s choreography. There’s also a great running joke with Lina being wired to a microphone and running into troubles every film set probably ran into at that time.
But really when we think of “Singin in the Rain”, it’s the musical numbers that really stand out. This might be the only musical that contains nothing but show stoppers, there are no fillers, it’s one spectacular song and dance after another. If only they had the one scene with Gene Kelly singing to title tune, where he is joyously in love, singing and dancing in the rain, that would’ve been enough to make this film a classic, but there is so much more. Equal to Kelly’s solo number, we get Donald O’Connor who plays Kelly’s sidekick/pal, and a great physical comedian doing his wonderful slapstick song “Make em Laugh” which leaves you wanting to stop the film in order to applaud. Kelly and O’Connor also duel it up with “Fit as a Fiddle” and then again in the unrelenting “Moses Supposes” which bulds and builds as the two dancers seem to try to catch up with the other, all the while having a great time doing it. Debbie Reynolds joins in with the three of them singing “Good Morning”, which is one of the most sunny choreographed moments in film history.
There is a centerpiece of the film where Kelly does an extended ballet suite entitled “Gotta Dance” where he shares the screen with ballet great Cyd Charisse a tall, sexy, and leggy dancer, and someone Kelly wanted to dance with. These sort of suites were relatively common for MGM films at the time, I could see it as a follow-up to the tour de force ballet seen in Kelly’s prior film “An American in Paris”, and a year later Fred Astaire had a Mickey Spillane inspired piece in the climax of his classic “The Bandwagon”. The “Gotta Dance” number feels like unnecessary icing on a cake that is overflowing with icing, but how are you going to argue with so much goodness in one film?
“Singin in the Rain” feels like the culmination of a lot of things, although its reputation started off to a slow start, it is now considered the standard to which all other movie musicals are judged. The film was put together by a dream team of movie makers who made their home at the MGM back lot back when it was the norm for big Hollywood studios to do so. It was the brainchild of producer Arthur Freed who over saw all the great original musicals MGM churned out from the early 1940s to the late 1950s. Freed was to Hollywood musicals what Rogers and Hammerstein were to Broadway, he re-invented it, made them big, splashy productions usually in grand Technicolor with great stars of the time like Kelly, Astaire, Judy Garland, and Esther Williams. Freed had a knack of bringing together great artists who gelled well in this studio system but could also put their own unique stamp on it.
The directors were Kelly who oversaw the wonderful energized choreography, and Stanley Donen, who was a wonderful experimentalist to the musical. Donen brought his own snappy pace to his films, and was very impressionistic with his editing techniques. Take the montage in “Singin in the Rain” which comprises of a melody of three different songs as it basically tells the story of early musicals. The musical montage then climaxes seamlessly into a full on musical number “Beautiful Girls”, it was very rare to see such inventive editing done with music back then. Donen, who is still alive today doesn’t get much credit for being an innovator, even though his films have a snappy pace, and wit that set them apart from his contemporaries. His later musical “Funny Face” with Astaire and Audrey Hepburn played even more with color, montage, and different dancing styles than “Singin in the Rain” did, while his non-musical “Charade” with Hepburn and Cary Grant was probably the first film to satirize Hitchcock.
I’ll now end on a rant. A couple of years ago an acclaimed 15 part documentary entitled “The Story of Film” came out, it was written, directed, and narrated by Mark Cousins, a filmmaker and film historian who does know his stuff. He covered pretty much every film movement from all over the world in his epic documentary, however in the film, Cousins seemed to have a bit of distaste for Hollywood productions. In a rather heavy-handed metaphor, he compared classic Hollywood movies to a Christmas bauble, meaning they look pretty nice, but there wasn’t really a lot of substance to them. Cousins was called out on this criticism, although I could see what he meant. Hollywood has been always a business first, they create a product that is expected to make money, if a work of art happens to turn out from it, then it would be purely coincidental. Hollywood was a machine, but the beauty of it, at least back when it could be truly called the Golden Age was it recognized talented people who were also artists, and they at least had the sense to hire these people who could make grand entertainments.
I would imagine Mark Cousins might categorize “Singin in the Rain” in his Christmas bauble imagery of Hollywood, and if that’s his opinion, he would be wrong. “Singin in the Rain” is an entertainment for sure, it’s meant to bring joy, and laughter to a wide audience, but there is substance here, in the way it was constructed by witty screenwriters, innovative directors, talented actors, and a star who just happens to be one of the greatest dancers to have ever lived. What a wonderful feeling indeed.