SINGIN’ SWINGIN’ GLORIOUS FEELIN’ TECHNICOLOR MUSICAL!
I’m fascinated by the fact that some of the movies we consider to be absolute masterpieces were actually received with much less fanfare by both critics and audiences at the time of their premiere. When Singin’ in the Rain opened in 1952, few people thought of it as a seminal event… but today we regard it as the greatest musical ever made. What were they missing? And which overlooked films today, I wonder, will future historians label as masterpieces?
The advent of talking pictures
The story takes place in Hollywood in the late 1920s, on the advent of talking pictures. Two of the greatest silent-film stars are Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont (Gene Kelly, Jean Hagen), America’s favorite couple. What the public doesn’t know is that Lina would pay no notice to Don when he was a simple stuntman, but now that he’s “somebody” she’s suddenly fallen in love with him… and Don can’t stand his phoney, dim-witted co-star. Eventually, the head of the studio that makes the couple’s blockbusters realizes that they need to get on the bandwagon of talkies. There’s just one problem – Lina never speaks in public because of her horribly high-pitched, New York voice.
One evening, Don’s rescued from a crowd of overly enthusiastic fans by Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a pretty girl who turns out to be an actress. She tells Don that what he does for a living is not as noble as her commitment to the theater and Don leaves her in anger. When he runs into Kathy once again, it becomes an opportunity for both…
Great sense of humor
The making of this film was apparently far from harmonious. It started out as another typical Hollywood production with low ambitions. The Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown song that gave the film its title wasn’t written for it, but performed in other movies as early as 1929. Several other songs heard in the film were also written years earlier. Kelly was known as somewhat of a tyrant, pushing his co-stars severely, including Reynolds who has since claimed that making this film and surviving childbirth were her greatest ordeals in life. Also, Kelly was allegedly running a high fever when shooting the famous title number. Still, all these crises and personal misgivings are never obvious on screen.
The movie has a great sense of humor, spoofing real-life silent-era personalities like Pola Negri and John Gilbert and turning Hagen’s character into a wonderfully funny villain. O’Connor is also terrific as Cosmo, the piano player who has one outstanding musical number, “Make ‘Em Laugh”, that is so outrageously energetic that he had to sleep for three days after shooting it, as the legend goes. The title number is simple, but still instantly iconic in all its watery glory.
The long ballet sequence near the end is a more advanced act, an amazingly inventive, beautifully choreographed fantasy (with brilliant art direction) where Kelly really gets to prove his mettle, just as he did the previous year in a similar act for An American in Paris. That sequence is essentially a homage to The Broadway Melody (1929), the first sound movie (also with a Brown-Freed score) to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Kelly may have taken his job very seriously, but the generally low degree of expectation surrounding the project may have helped make it as compelling as it is; the film has a relatively short running time and moves quickly from one set-up to the other. It’s a lovely example of another musical being churned out of the dream factory that just happens to be the one perfect, flawless product. Singin’ in the Rain must be to MGM what Casablanca (1942) is to Warner.
Singin’ in the Rain 1952-U.S. 102 min. Color. Produced by Arthur Freed. Directed by Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen. Screenplay: Adolph Green, Betty Comden. Cinematography: Harold Rosson. Songs: Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed (“Singin’ in the Rain”, “Make ‘Em Laugh”). Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons. Cast: Gene Kelly (Don Lockwood), Debbie Reynolds (Kathy Selden), Donald O’Connor (Cosmo Brown), Jean Hagen, Cyd Charisse, Millard Mitchell… Rita Moreno.
Trivia: Oscar Levant was allegedly considered for the part of Cosmo; Howard Keel as Don. Later turned into a Broadway musical.
Golden Globe: Best Actor (O’Connor).
Last word: “A friend of mine, Phil Garris, saw this cockamamie dummy, without head, hands and feet, and said, ‘Why don’t you use that?’ I started playing with it. The section with the dummy that you see came from an actual experience in the subway where a guy tried to pick me up and put his hand on my knee. So I used it: put the dummy’s hand on my knee, and knock it away. Finally we start fighting in back of the couch. [We] started putting things into slots – this goes here, this goes there. We made the number a traveling thing. If you recall, it’s a traveling shot: the old silent-movie technique where they used to go from one set to the other. In the old days, you might have four or five different pictures being shot at the same time [in adjacent sets]. We used that idea, traveling until the end where I run up one wall, do a back somersault, run up another wall, do a back somersault and go through a third wall. […] That’s how the number came about. Kelly’s main contribution was his ability to see something very good and to utilize it. And his only other contribution was where I hit the wall and screw up my face. He thought that was very funny. I didn’t. But he liked it and they kept it in. And it is funny on the screen.” (O’Connor on “Make ‘Em Laugh”, The DanceView Times)