19 August 2008

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

d. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly / USA / 103 mins.

It's a production story as famous as those bright yellow slickers and the drenched, love-stricken man swinging from a street lamp: instructed to assemble a movie around preexisting songs in the MGM vaults, they came up with what is surely the greatest of all cinematic musicals.

The year was 1950. Arthur Freed, songwriter-cum-producer extraordinaire, is heading a staff of writers and composers at MGM in his musicals unit. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green – who had just co-written Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire's reunion film, and completed On the Town with Leonard Bernstein – are tasked with the title "Singin' in the Rain" and a collection of songs Freed and Nacio Herb Brown wrote in the 1920s and 1930s. All the screenwriters need to do is fill in the gaps.

And, man, do they ever. To watch Singin' in the Rain – to enjoy its freedom and joyfulness, to float on its effervescence, to bathe in its glowing sunlight – is an experience best summarized in the very words of that drenched love-stricken man: what a glorious feeling. It is an antidote to an ailment you never knew you had. It's called the greatest musical, and I've never seen another that has so far proven itself better. (A Hard Day's Night, a film that is the antithesis of the Hollywood musical, is perhaps the closest competition.)

The plot – well, people have said the plot doesn't matter. What a load of crap. If you've ever sat through any Hollywood musical you know that the plot does matter, and the reason our minds blur the marquee letters of so many is that most have half-hearted and half-sketched plots. Certainly it can be said, without even a scintilla of controversy, that well-written plots have a reputation for making movies better. This might be one of the key reasons Singin' in the Rain is so joyous: it has a real, substantial plot. It is about something other than singing and dancing, and it brims with robust comedy and romance instead of isolated musical numbers strung together with cotton twine. For all the joy that a Rogers-Astaire film can be – and a film like Swing Time has its share of joy – it is nothing more than a showcase for its stars' vocal chords and athleticism. Take out the musical numbers from Singin' in the Rain and you'd still have a first-rate comedy. (But, c'mon, why would you want to take out the musical numbers?)

Workhorse actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and the vain actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the product of the studio system, forcibly partnered on- and off-screen to become Hollywood's the most famous silent movie duo – until 1927, and the steady stream of assembly-line silent movies is thrown wildly off-course by the emergence of sound. Halfway through the current Lockwood-Lamont film, the studio head decides it must convert to sound, which proves nearly disastrous for the air-headed and ingratiating Lamont, whose voice doesn't live up to her silent screen persona, to say the least. Lockwood's best friend (Donald O'Connor as a Hercules of comic relief) concocts a scheme to dub Lamont with a chorus girl named Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and ... well, you know how charming those chorus girls can be.

Cue the rain-machine.

What, you were expecting Shakespeare? All right, so it's not the plot to end all plots, but it's pretty damn good for a musical and it's killer comedy, to boot. If Sunset Boulevard is Hollywood caught in a solar eclipse, then Singin' in the Rain is Hollywood on the other side of the sun, the infectiously light-hearted side. Everything about the transition from silence to sound – such as microphones hidden in flower vases – is laid out for full comic effect, backed by thin coating of elbowing and satire. As Billy Wilder's film makes perfectly clear, it is true that many of the silent stars and crew members found themselves adrift in the sound waves, unable to subdue their pantomime or read lines convincingly, and their careers fell apart in the late 1920s and early 1930s. As tragic as it can be, there's also a great deal of humor in it.

In many senses, Singin' in the Rain is a technical marvel as well. It was co-directed by Kelly and 28-year-old Stanley Donen, filmed in splendid Technicolor with Kelly supervising the choreography (making his contributions to the film essentially invaluable). It has been hypothesized that the film succeeds so tremendously because the production was low-key, loose, and fun, yet popular anecdotes don't seem to back up that claim. Kelly performed his signature dance number with a 103-degree fever. He belittled Reynolds's amateur dancing, and supposedly her feet later bled after the intense shooting of "Good Morning." O'Connor suffered exhaustion after shooting "Make 'Em Laugh." But it all comes together on screen. The three deliver wonderful performances, as most certainly does Hagen, in reality a normal-voiced woman and the only cast member to earn an Oscar nomination.

I mentioned before how the songs were culled from MGM's vaults; today that fact hardly matters because we only remember the songs for their placement in Singin' in the Rain. (Seriously, when someone says "I'm singin' in the rain, just singin' in the rain," you don't think of Hollywood Revue of 1929, do you?) It is worth noting though that Comden and Green contributed lyrics to one song and Freed wrote two original for the film: "Moses Supposes" and "Make 'Em Laugh," a slapstick dance number that is still hilarious no matter how many times I'm told it was a rip-off of Cole Porter's "Be a Clown."

It's obligatory in any review of Singin' in the Rain to note how the film slipped under the radar of nearly everyone in 1952. It was well-received but hardly adored; its box office take was modest; and it was nominated for, and lost, two Oscars. MGM's prize film at the time was Freed's production of An American in Paris, incidentally a film I don't care for at all but which won Best Picture and earned Kelly an honorary award for his contribution to the musical as an art form. But don't trust awards; trust time. If you've managed to go this long without letting Singin' in the Rain come across your radar, you owe to yourself as a cognizant being to settle into your favorite seat, stretch and loosen the smile muscles in your face, and hit play. It is, as you know, a glorious feeling.


MovieMan0283 20 August, 2008  

To be honest, I may love this movie for its ingenious screenplay even more than for the marvellous music numbers. It's one of the best (albeit least realistic) Hollywood films about Hollywood. I'm thinking of doing a series sometime soon on all those movies that came out in the early 50s in which Hollywood picked apart its own scabs, few as cheerfully as Singin' in the Rain.

Incidentally, I tagged you in a new list-making venture (see here: http://thedancingimage.blogspot.com/2008/08/another-dirty-dozen.html) No rush, but take a look & see if you want to follow up.

Dead Pan 20 August, 2008  

I went into this film expecting to not really enjoy myself. It just seemed so happy go lucky cliche that I would be annoyed. But I just laughed and smiled the whole way through. Really nice review man. I am really digging your stuff.

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