Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Writer: Adolph Green, Betty Comden
Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds
Singin’ In The Rain is a film that is greater than the sum of its parts and in the passing of time, has gradually assumed the mantle of being one of the greatest movie musicals ever made.
It wasn’t always that way however. When Singin’ In The Rain was in production, there was just a single song written specifically for the film (‘Moses Supposes’). The rest of the numbers, like the props and sets used in the film, were recycled material that were plucked from the studio lot at MGM. The film also took a chance on its lead female Debbie Reynolds, just nineteen years of age, to play opposed the established star pairing of Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. On top of all that, the film bucked convention at the time by creating a musical from scratch, rather than adapting existing Broadway shows, which was the norm. The result? A timeless classic that audiences have only grown to appreciate over time. The film didn’t win an Oscar for Best Picture that year but in the decades since, it has landed in the Top 100 films in the American Film Institute and Top 10 for a recent Sight & Sound poll. Having seen the film for the first time this year, it is still fresh, eminently watchable and the dance numbers still have the capacity to amaze and inspire.
For the uninitiated, Singin’ In The Rain is about Hollywood itself, and the awkward transition its stars faced when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer changed everything by appearing in the first motion picture with sound. Many silent film stars dismissed the film as a fad but when audiences clamoured for more, the pressure was on for studios to make the leap.
For Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly), success hasn’t come easy but he has learned how to adapt to become a star in Hollywood. The film opens with Lockwood attending a film premiere with his girlfriend Lina Lamont and giving an interview with the press. As he talks about his privileged upbringing attending prestigious drama academies, a series of flashback vignettes reveal Lockwood to be of humble origins who took on humiliating and demeaning roles in amateur theatre companies to make ends meet. He gets pie-faced, heckled and works for peanuts. “Dignity…always dignity!” he proclaims to the journalist. Lina Lamont looks to add a few words of her own but is cut off by Lockwood every time.
At the after party we learn why. Not only does Lockwood pretend to be romantically involved with Lamont for publicity reasons, she also has a voice like nails on a chalkboard; a sort of nasally, Fran Drescher screech that would ruin her appeal on screen. After an altercation with a young aspiring dancer Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) who is working the after party, we see that Lina Lamont is also irredeemably stupid and cruel. When Lockwood flees a mob of adoring fans seeking his autograph, he bumps into Selden in a meetcute and is immediately taken by her. We know where the story goes from here.
Even before talking about the musical numbers, Singin’ In The Rain is worth recognizing for its entertaining and informative take on a significant period of cinema history. The film is rather pointed about how the public face of Hollywood celebrity is completely divorced from the reality of how the actors themselves. The film also offers a glimpse into the early days of producing pictures with sound, with the microphone often hidden in plain sight and with actors struggling to give a performance whilst still remaining in earshot of their mic. Its played up for laughs but it wasn’t too far from the reality of the situation.
Lockwood has an onscreen companion in this film in the form of Cosmo Brown, played by Donald O’Connor, who provides comic relief as well as the occasional bit of inspiration to keep the film moving along. Far from being a sidekick who exists to accentuate Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor damn near steals the show with his jaw-dropping song and dance routine. His comedy number ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ sees Donald transform into a live action cartoon character – back flipping off walls, crashing through sound stages and throwing himself around the set – in a display that is made all the more amazing by the infrequent number of cuts that are used. This guy could really dance. If he didn’t have the face of a twelve year old, you’d imagine he would have been the star of many more films of his own.
Until I read about the film afterwards, I had no idea Debbie Reynolds was just nineteen. Not with the way she holds her own with the two male leads but also her confidence and energy in which she carries out her own musical numbers. Singing’ In The Rain pokes fun at a lot of Hollywood conventions but it actually indulges in one of its own – a gigantic Broadway number about two thirds into the film – in which Reynolds and Kelly dance together for a good ten minutes. It kind of kills the pace of the film but at the same time, I didn’t mind too much because they both have a talent for moving onstage which memorizes and holds your gaze.
O’Connor and Reynolds are obviously both spoiled for talent but it is of course the inimitable Gene Kelly who is the production’s ace in the hole. He co-directed the film, choreographed many of its musical numbers and is a terrific leading man with his looks, his charisma and his showmanship. Singin’ In The Rain is a film about Don Lockwood, a movie star who is forced to save his studio by becoming a multi-faceted performer who can act, sing, dance and produce a great film. What better person to play that part than the man who did exactly that? There is no greater exhibition of Kelly’s flair than of course the famous performance which the film is named after. Seeing Kelly swing off lamp posts, click his heels in the air and stomp in puddles is like witnessing a piece of Hollywood history. There is no greater association with Hollywood musicals than that particular performance.
Singing’ In The Rain is a classic film with timeless appeal. Anybody, young or old, can appreciate the raw talent of the three lead performers and the gags about the shiny veneer of Hollywood work just as well today as they did in 1952. It’s a musical filled with light hearted frivolity, good nature and some of the best song and dance numbers you’ll ever see captured on the silver screen.