Growing up I was pretty open to just about every genre of movie I came across. I think I’ve mentioned this one the site before, but I spent a substantial amount of time growing up at my grandparent’s house, and they had a staggering amount of movies on a collection of VHS tapes. Somewhere in the ballpark of 1,500 movies that me, my brother, and my cousins would randomly toss on, watching a litany of movies at random, experiences a wide swath of what Hollywood had to offer. I became invested in action, comedy, sci-fi, and fantasy primarily, and these initial entry points into the world of cinema helped evolve my tastes into the incredibly broad state they’re currently in. However, there was one genre that it took two decades of life, and influence from my wife, to have any sort of interest in. Musicals! I just never really experienced them growing up, and those that I did were held in contempt, like Grease. I suppose you could make an argument that a majority of the Disney films should qualify as musicals, but there’s something very different between their music-filled fairy tales and the weird world of the Hollywood musical. And I didn’t care for them! Which makes it so incredibly surprising to me that not only would I feel confident in my choice to include a musical as one of my favorite films of all time, but in a year with a Charlie Chaplin movie no less! That’s right, the Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain was able to topple Chaplin’s Limelight for me. And quite easily too, for that matter. I love Singin’ in the Rain. It’s a fascinating film, and the crowning example of what Hollywood musicals can, and should, be to me. And Limelight is just kind of okay. I know that it holds a lot of esteem among people, but I find that film to be a little plodding. There’s some interesting examinations of Vaudeville and a life devoted to the arts, but there’s just something about the film that keeps me from loving it. And, as a person who is an insanely huge fan of Chaplin, it seemed a little surprising to me. But, this project is about living my truth. I’m supposed to pick the film from each year that I most enjoy, and there’s no question in my mind that that film is Singin’ in the Rain.
Singin’ in the Rain is often considered the greatest American musical ever made, and one of the finest American films, period. And yet, when you read about how it came to be it’s pretty shocking that it wasn’t a complete disaster. This film began life in what was known as the Freed Unit, a subsection of MGM Studios led by Arthur Freed, a producer and songwriter who had been working at the studio for decades and has built up a staggering amount of songs written with Nacio Herb Brown. The two cranked out musicals in the pre-Code days of the early thirties, and by the time the fifties rolled around they started developing big, lavish, colorful musicals that used the same songs they wrote for their films from the thirties as a way to recycle them and not have to pay for new songs. Freed then passed the baton to Betty Comden and Adolph Green who cooked up two new songs and a plot to fill the time between the songs. It revolved around the troublesome time when the pictures moved from the silent era to the talkies, focusing on a fictitious actor who helped invent the idea of the filmed musical. Enter Gene Kelly, one of the greatest dancers that Hollywood had ever seen, and a bit of a perfectionist asshole. Kelly received a co-director credit for the film, and seemed to rule the set with an iron fist, insisting that everything about it be perfect. Which was bad news for Debbie Reynolds, who was cast as the romantic lead of the film despite no real dancing experience, leading to an incredibly fraught shoot full of rage and abuse from Kelly. But, despite all of these factors that seem guaranteed to result in a failure, it works. The film was a hit when it was released, becoming one of the highest grossing films of 1951, but over the years its reputation has continued to rise, slowly starting to garner the distinction as the greatest musical that America ever produced. And it’s easy to see why, because despite its fraught production, it’s a hell of a film.
Singin’ in the Rain follows a man named Don Lockwood. He’s an incredibly famous star of silent films, known for his romantic roles with actress Lina Lamont. Lockwood and his best friend Cosmo great up on the Vaudeville circuit until lucking into jobs in the pictures as musicians and stuntmen. And Don’s eagerness was enough to catapult him into becoming one of the biggest stars in the world, enjoying his lavish lifestyle while putting up with the incredibly obnoxious and repellent Lina. However, Don’s life is forever changed the night of the premiere for he and Lina’s latest film, the Royal Rascal. After the film ended Don fled from a group of fans and ended up encountering a woman named Kathy Selden, and he immediately starts to fall for her, at least until she starts condescending him for being a screen actor, and not a real actor. And, to add to that frustration, when Don gets to the home of his producer R.F. Simpson he’s shown something strange. A test-reel for a new technology that will create talking pictures. Everyone assumes that it’s a flash-in-the-pan gimmick, but they’re told that Warner Bros. is releasing a film called the Jazz Singer that uses this technology, so it may become something revolutionary. It does make Don a little nervous, but that’s somewhat cut by the fact that Don learns Kathy Selden isn’t actually quite as refined as she made it seem, since she works for a company of bawdy chorus girls who were hired to perform at the party. Don teases Kathy a bit, since he’s become smitten with her, and in the process she ends up throwing a cake at him, which misses and smashes into Lina’s face, causing Kathy to flee to save her career, and probably her life, because Lina is insane.
Some time passes and Don and Lina get hard at work on their latest film, the Dueling Cavalier, when Lina lets it slip that she’s made it her specific goal to ruin Kathy Selden, purposefully making it impossible for her to work, and for Don to find her. And, to make matters even more difficult, the impossible happens. The Jazz Singer becomes a massive hit, and every studio in Hollywood begins rushing movies into production that take advantage of the power of sound. And, Skinner decides to jump onto that bandwagon and announces that the Dueling Cavalier is being put on hold so that they can retrofit it into a talkie. Which is worrisome, because while Don has quite a history as a stage performer, Lina doesn’t, and has a remarkably grating accent. They attempt to hire Lina a vocal coach to learn how to speak more clearly, but nothing seems to work, causing them to just go with it and begin work on the Dueling Cavalier. It’s a pretty disastrous shoot, full of everyone failing to wrap their minds around the concept of microphones and struggling with their inability to actually act and deliver lines believably. Things get pretty hellacious, until Don does make one good realization. Kathy has actually been working on the lot in a series of dancing films, letting her and Don finally connect. The two begin to fall in love, all while Don is dealing with the Dueling Cavalier, which is shaping up to be a complete disaster. And this worry is confirmed when they host a test-screening of the incomplete film and the audience can’t stand it. The lines aren’t recorded well at all, the acting is terrible, and everyone hates Lina’s voice. It seems like the film is going to be a complete failure.
Until Don gets an idea. During an evening hanging out with Kathy and Cosmo, the trio come up with an idea. Don can’t act, but he can sing. They should turn the film into a musical! The first of it’s kind! The only problem is Lina, who can’t sing, or act. But Cosmo has an idea. They’ll film Lina singing the songs, but dub Kathy’s singing voice over her, making the film tolerable. Kathy agrees with the idea, and they even manage to convince Skinner to go along with it. Don then gets to work remaking the struggling film, writing a series of songs to be sung and a whole new frame story that explains why it’s a musical. They then start filming the movie, with Lina having no idea that she’s actually being overdubbed by Kathy. Unfortunately a friend of Lina’s learns the truth and clues her in. And she’s pissed. Lina has a major fit, telling Skinner that her poorly written contract makes it so that she has a massive amount of power, and says that she’ll sue the studio into oblivion unless they force Kathy to overdub her, get no credit, and continue to be her voice for the rest of her career. And, because Kathy also signed a contract, she’s forced to comply. The studio then completes the Dueling Cavalier, and it’s released to public, who love it. It’s a massive hit, and everyone loves Lina’s performance. So, at the premiere, they come up with a plan to reveal Lina and destroy her. They convince Lina to “sing” while actually having Kathy sing from behind a curtain, and during the performance they raise the curtain and reveal that Lina can’t actually sing. She’s humiliated and her career is presumably destroyed, letting Don and Kathy officially start both a career and a life together as they become Hollywood leading providers of filmed musicals.
This film is an absolute delight, from beginning to end. By and large, I’m still not the biggest fan of movie musicals. There are exceptions, but so many musicals feel flat to me. I’ve slowly but surely gained an appreciation for seeing live musical theater, but when it’s put on film it often runs into a bit of a problem where it just feels incredibly un-cinematic. So many Hollywood musicals will just park the camera in a stationary position and film people dancing and singing with long, static shots. And it’s so incredibly dull. But this film bucks that tradition, and is full of wonderfully shot sequences, top notch dancing, fun songs, and a really great story. I’ve seen a few other Gene Kelly movies, and for the most part they don’t connect with me. I largely don’t find impressive dancing that entertaining, and a lot of his films just seem like dancing exhibitions, lacking anything else to keep my attention. But Singin’ in the Rain is just perfect to me. It’s amazingly entertaining, has a litany of truly terrific performances, and remains my favorite musicals of all time. There are a few aspects of it that bog the film down, primarily the whole “Gotta Dance” sequence, which while technically impressive could be cut from the film with no consequences. But, there’s no quibble about the film that keeps me from adoring it.
Like I said earlier, this film seems like it shouldn’t have worked. It was created to let Arthur Freed use a bunch of old songs he wrote, and could easily have been an utter cash-in, just a string of songs with nothing entertaining happening between them. Like a bunch of other Gene Kelly movies. And yet, they decided to tell a very unique story, which ended up feeling like the other side of Sunset Boulevard for me. Sunset Boulevard is a very dark film about obsession and madness, as we’ve discussed, but it’s also about the tumultuous time in Hollywood when they abruptly switched from the silents to the talkies, and the effect it had on people who were left behind. And this film kind of looks at the same thing, but from a much more positive light. We get to see the struggles to finding your art form evolving, and the feat that you’ve faded into obscurity. But Don Lockwood isn’t going to be left behind. He’s a true huckster, and finds a way to stay in the pictures. He adapts and evolves, and becomes something new. Lina meanwhile is essentially put on the same trajectory as Norma Desmond. She represents the scores of actors who were able to make a living in the silents, primarily because they didn’t have to have their voices heard, and when the times started changing they found themselves put left out in the cold. True, we shouldn’t really sympathize with Lina, since she’s portrayed as a bit of a monster who is willing to destroy a woman’s career, and potentially an entire film studio, just to satiate her own self-importance, but it’s still interesting to be encouraged to cheer on her obsoletion. It’s a cheery movie about a dark time, featuring a character whose own story could probably be seen as much more depressing. But there’s a lot of singing and dancing, so it all works out well in the end.
Singin’ in the Rain was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1952.
Categories: Cinematic Century