I have seen 1952’s Singin’ In the Rain more times than I can count. I grew up on this movie. However, as blogging would have it, I never thought I would review it because everyone and their brother reviews it. Yet here I am. It’s been a lonnnnng time since I’ve watched the film, and I felt like seeing something familiar.
For those who haven’t seen Rain, here’s the most basic of plot summaries: Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a top star in Hollywood during the silent era. He’s so idolized, kids mob him in the street and tear his clothes apart. His frequent costar, Lina (Jean Hagen) is as beautiful and desired as he is. His best friend, Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) provides mood music on movie sets and chuckle-y commentary about life. It’s not until Don meets a young hopeful, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) that his cozy world begins to rumple.
Then sound comes to motion pictures. Dun dun dun.
Don’s a multi-talented guy, but Lina isn’t so fortunate–she can’t open her mouth without screeching like a dying goose. She can’t even dance. And she feels threatened by Kathy, who quickly becomes a rising star.
Now, the movie isn’t perfect. It perpetuates some stereotypes and myths about the transition from silent films to sound, namely, an actor’s voice being a career-killer. This was actually not the case most of the time; many silent screen actors handled sound in one of three ways. Some actors (Florence Vidor, for one) hated making sound films. There were others whose careers were simply played out. Still others, like Wallace Beery, Greta Garbo, William Powell, and Donald Crisp, transitioned just fine.
The other thing is that the film is very slightly predictable. With a few exceptions, the music is a patchwork of past hits by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. And the plot isn’t terribly complicated. It’s not much of a head-scratcher where things land at the finish, but getting there is such a ride that it can be more than forgiven.
So why is Singin’ In the Rain worth seeing? Even if you’re one of those people who makes faces at the idea of viewing anything from the musical genre? Well, here are just a few reasons I think the movie should be somewhere on your watchlist.
It’s an epic troll-fest.
Irony of ironies, the film came out at a time when Hollywood was collectively biting its nails over the looming spectre known as television. Singin’ In the Rain is a nod to history repeating itself.
It’s also a nod to the artifice that can be public relations. Don pretends his background is one of privilege and acclaim, cutting his teeth on Ibsen, studying in the finest dancing schools and following an easy path to stardom, but the reality is he sneaked into trashy movies, performed in pool halls and had tomatoes thrown at him in vaudeville. The one real part of his story is that he and Cosmo have been best friends their entire lives. And that’s just the beginning. The movie goes to great lengths to show how the film industry promotes the flavor of the month or the next big thing, and how some stars just don’t want to give up their thrones.
Oh, one big troll is a certain song, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which was written to give Donald O’Connor a place to show off his considerable schtick. Only thing is, the tune bears a remarkable resemblance to a certain Cole Porter song, “Be A Clown.” Irving Berlin noticed one day when he visited the set, and Arthur Freed replied with an equivalent of “Nothing to see here.”
It’s how a musical is made.
The numbers in the picture are excellent. They have movement, they have personality, and the camera becomes part of the dance. It’s not uncommon to see long tracking shots following the actors as they careen around the sets, and in fact, most of the numbers have very few cuts at all, which showcase the dances to their best advantage. If Hollywood ever wants to get serious about resurrecting the musical genre, someone could base a masterclass on Singin’ In the Rain and, for that matter, An American In Paris. Well, anything involving Gene Kelly and Arthur Freed, really.
It has great dialogue.
Singin’ In the Rain boasted the formidable talents of Adolph Comden and Betty Green, who filled the project with sidesplitting lines and witticisms. Some of it is straight out of vaudeville, like when Don tells Cosmo to call him a cab, to which Cosmo replies, “Okay. You’re a cab.”
It has Donald O’Connor.
I think Donald O’Connor is one of the most underrated stars of the studio era. He was an incredibly funny, incredibly physical performer who could do things with his face that would make Jim Carrey green with envy. In Singin’ In the Rain, O’Connor was not only Gene Kelly’s comic foil, but he had a way of keeping everyone honest without them knowing it. For example, when Rod (King Donovan) says the studios have to keep stars looking ridiculous at any cost, meaning Lina’s gotta suck it up and let Don talk to the fans, Cosmo dryly remarks, “No one’s got that much money.”
O’Connor also did the bulk of the crazy sight gags in the film, like backflipping off of walls and walking in circles while laying down. I tried doing the latter as a little kid and it’s basically impossible unless you know the trick, so kudos to Mr. O’Connor.
It has Debbie Reynolds.
Debbie Reynolds was typecast as Kathy Selden. She was herself a rising young star, and she was petrified that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with Gene Kelly. Reynolds was originally a gymnast, not a dancer, and she was hard-pressed to learn the choreography. She was given a lot of encouragement, though. Fred Astaire let her watch him rehearse, and her costars lent a hand wherever possible. In Reynolds’ big number, “Good Morning,” she’s flanked by Donald and Gene, who discreetly help her hit her marks. They really showcase her in that sequence, even though she’s one of the trio.
All the hard work paid off, of course, and Debbie Reynolds became the icon we know today.
It has Gene Kelly.
Gene Kelly. The man, the myth, the legend. Some of his costars (Esther Williams, for one) thought he was difficult to work with, but depending on who’s asked, he could also be very fair. And his instincts were always spot-on, which is why his films are firm classics. In Singin’ In the Rain Kelly veers from pure film, such as in the title number, to a simple romantic twirl with Debbie Reynolds. There’s also a Salvador Dali-inspired fantasy featuring what Kelly’s dance partner, Cyd Charisse called “the crazy veil.”
It’s a ton of fun.
Need I say more? Oh wait, I already did. 🙂
A little crazy comedy is always a good thing, especially right now, and revisiting a classic like Singin’ In the Rain feels like comfort food. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? If you have, what do you think of it? It might seem like a cliche, but Rain is a film that, once seen, is never forgotten. Magic kinda works that way.
Hope you’ll check back Sunday, because we’re going to Amazon Prime for a little video on demand. Thanks for reading, all…