A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
The 21st century has seen a resurgence in the popularity of the live-action musical, with films like Moulin Rouge! (2001), Chicago (2002), Dreamgirls (2006), Hairspray (2007), Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), Les Miserables (2012), and Into the Woods (2014) achieving commercial and critical success. Most of these films were based on existing hit stage musicals, and nearly all of them feature darker tones and storylines than the musicals from Hollywood's golden age, the 1930s-1950s. One would think that with advances in filmmaking techniques and a much larger catalog of source material, today's musicals would far surpass those produced over half a century ago. And yet, not one of these modern musicals can hold a candle to Singin' in the Rain (1952), which even six decades after its release, remains the film musical against which all other film musicals are judged. No other film from that genre can match its energy, humor, visual splendor, and incomparable song-and-dance performances, and few other films, period, are as much fun to watch.
After the first sound film (or "talkie") becomes a huge hit, the head of Don and Lina's studio, R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), makes the decision to convert their next film, The Dueling Cavalier, into a talkie. The conversion process faces a number of problems, not the least of which is Lina's grating, high-pitched voice, which elicits a great deal of jeering laughter at a disastrous test screening. Kathy suggests that they play up Don's talents as a singer and dancer by turning The Dueling Cavalier into a musical, and Don's longtime best friend and fellow entertainer, Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), has the idea to dub Lina's voice with Kathy's because, as Cosmo says, Lina "can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat." This idea infuriates Lina, whose extreme jealousy leads her to try and undermine the budding romance between Don and Kathy, and to blackmail Simpson into keeping Kathy's name out of the film's credits, a move that would nip Kathy's on-screen career in the bud. The story reaches its climax at The Dueling Cavalier's premiere, where a surprise turn of events sees each of the key characters get what they deserve.
Hollywood loves to hold a mirror up to itself, and Singin' in the Rain is one of the most entertaining movies ever made about moviemaking. Many of the problems that plague the cast and crew of the fictional The Dueling Cavalier were the same problems that confronted real-life Hollywood filmmakers during the transition to sound. In addition to Lina's unflattering voice, there are technical difficulties such as the need to hide the cumbersome microphones behind furniture or underneath clothing accessories, and projection glitches resulting in a lack of synchronization between the picture and sound (this latter problem results in one of the film's funniest moments during the premiere for The Dueling Cavalier). We also see the camera being housed in a soundproof booth on set, in order to prevent the sound of the working camera from being picked up by the microphones.
There are a number of factors that set Singin' in the Rain apart from its fellow film musicals. Unlike most of its genre successors, Singin' in the Rain was not based on a hit stage musical or an existing literary work. Rather, the film's writers, Betty Comdon and Adolph Green, were tasked by MGM with creating a film around a group of songs the studio already owned (only one song was written specifically for the film, "Moses Supposes"). The result is a refreshingly original and surprisingly consistent cinematic work, with a riotously funny script that perfectly incorporates each of the songs, and keeps the story moving along at a brisk pace.
Another characteristic that distinguishes Singin' in the Rain from most other musicals is its infectious energy, which is the primary reason that the film feels so fresh even to modern audiences. Part of this can be attributed to the film's vivid color scheme, lighthearted storyline, and lively songs. However, most of the credit should go to the film's cast, whose exuberant performances grant the film an almost palpable, pulsating energy. This stands in stark contrast to a film like Moulin Rouge!, which gets its dazzling energy from the film's fast-paced editing and glittery, visual bombast.
Gene Kelly, who also co-directed and acted as the choreographer for the film's dance sequences, is magnetic as Don, showing off his leading-man charisma and his incredible range in the film's various dance numbers and scenes of rapid-fire dialogue. Kelly, with his broad-shouldered, football player's build, shatters the stereotype of male dancers as being feminine or dainty, moving with exceptional grace and elegance without ever surrendering a bit of his undeniable masculinity. Debbie Reynolds is equally enchanting as the bright-eyed Kathy, more than holding her own next to Kelly and O'Connor. Prior to Singin' in the Rain, Reynolds had played only bit parts in a handful of films, and her breakout performance can be seen as a parallel to that of her character, Kathy. Jean Hagen also does superb work as the hilariously dim-witted Lina ("I make more money than Calvin Coolidge! Put together!"). The real standout, however, is Donald O'Connor, whose "Make 'Em Laugh" scene is perhaps the best dance sequence ever captured on film (although a case could be made for Kelly's performance of the title song, with its iconic image of him hanging off the side of a lamppost, umbrella in hand). O'Connor rivals the great silent film comedians like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin with his gifts for physical comedy, throwing his body around like a rag doll, contorting his face, performing backflips, and even crashing through a wall. The scene is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.
Singin' in the Rain is proof that a musical film need not have an epic scope or a darker, adult-oriented storyline. It's a breezy, cheerful film with a very simple, endearing love story, and for sheer entertainment value, it's hard to beat.