Singin' in the Rain (1952) / Musical-Comedy
MPAA Rated: G, suitable for all audiences
Running Time: 103 min.
Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Millard Mitchell, Cyd Charrise
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Screenplay: Adolph Green, Betty Comden
Review published June 17, 1999. Re-reviewed February 3, 2017
Over the many years of reviewing films, the one blind spot I've had when it comes to the kinds of movies I regularly partake in is the musical. In fact, in my original review for Singin' in the Rain, I admitted that I'm incapable of understanding them. La La Land changed that for me, and given its strong musical influence, I had been itching to go back and watch or revisit many musicals I have been neglectful of to see if I view them in a new light. Starting with the one of the best of them all, boy, I sure wonder why it didn't knock my socks off in 1997 when I first reviewed the film and bestowed it a four-star rating because it is getting a five-star rating some twenty years later, and an easy one at that. I guess it's true what hey say: it's not the movies that change, it's the person viewing them, and, after forty years of ignorantly scoffing at them, I might just be a musical lover after all.
The story starts off in Hollywood in 1927, a time when silent movies were still the only movies that are produced. In this era, actors Don Lockwood (Kelly, An American in Paris) and Lina Lamont (Hagen, The Asphalt Jungle) are two of the biggest stars of the silent era. That changes when The Jazz Singer is released, becoming the first full-length feature release with sound synchronized to the voices of the actors on the screen, and it is a smash sensation that changes the film production industry overnight. Now, Monumental Studios, who have a contract with Don and Lina, want to change their latest production period drama The Dueling Cavalier to a musical with sound and on-screen dialogue, now dubbed The Dancing Cavalier. There's just one hitch: ditzy Lina, in real life, has a grating, whiny voice and harsh inflection, and can't carry a note, which would spell disaster for the entire production and for the studio's brand.
Singin' in the Rain truly is a masterpiece of a musical, with breathtaking song and dance numbers that rank among the very best ever put to film. Long takes only add to the astonishment at some of the most meticulously choreographed and brilliantly executed scenes. The dancing scenes, particularly involving the phenomenal Gene Kelly, are jaw-dropping, with the comedic and dancing talent of Donald O'Connor (Beau Geste), who plays Don's stalwart pianist friend in the biz, Cosmo Brown, adding to the fun with some astounding bits of his own. Debbie Reynolds (Charlotte's Web) is also a revelation as struggling actress Kathy Selden, with a beautiful voice and sensational dance accompaniment; she is the perfect choice for the perfect movie, despite little dance experience prior to filming (she was a gymnast). Often overlooked, Jean Hagen is a scene-stealer as the consummately self-centered Lina Lamont, the petulant and jealous star who determines she's going to stay on top, even if it means ruining the careers of others to do it -- Hagen is a hoot throughout.
Though the actors and the overall vibe of the film will draw most of the attention, its in the quality of the writing from Betty Comden and Adolph Green lthat sets Singin' in the Rain apart from the rest of the pack of lavish film musicals of its era. Although most people take in the film as a wonderful good time, Comden and Green have also built a very astute satire on Hollywood, with moments that are just as witty, and just as relevant, to the moviemaking industry today. Even though it's about a time and place in the filmmaking industry when talkies were emerging to supplant silent films, it remains ever relatable to modern audiences, many of whom may never have seen a film from the 1920s. And that's because it gets to the essential qualities of how we view celebrities, especially in how their talents, or lack thereof, are sometimes enhanced in exchange for more lucrative box office returns. It's the illusion of the cinema, where actors can have others do their singing, dancing, or stunts, and yet they get all of the accolades and applause earned as a result of the collaborative effort. The more times change, the more they remain the same.
But let's not forget the songs, which are among the most memorable, even to this day. MGM studio team Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown deliver what would eventually be some great classic ditties, such as, "You Are My Lucky Star", "Fit as a Fiddle", "The Broadway Melody", and the ever-memorable title song. All of them accompany finely choreographed dance sequences that are a marvel to behold, showing the dancers entire bodies, in unison, with very long takes that allow us to see the amount of rehearsal and dedication it must have required to pull such amazing moves off.
I'd be remiss if I neglected to mention the aesthetic beauty of Singin' in the Rain, with its sumptuous and seemingly never-ending Technicolor palette, the finely detailed and massive studio sets, as well as the astonishing array of gorgeous costumes. The art design throughout is magnificent, making it one of the more stunning of musicals ever put to film, in such scenes as the ballet-scarf sequence, and the work on the soundstage work that makes the world these characters inhabit feel without bounds.
Many people who've never even sat down to watch the film have a familiarity with it, either from clips presented when discussing the history of Hollywood musicals, or in the multitudinous references and allusions to it in other films, TV shows, and most other forms of media. There may be a corny aspect to some of the humor ("Call me a cab.", "OK, You're a cab!") , but the satire on Hollywood and celebrities in its heyday is still relevant about Tinseltown, even to this day. Soon, even its infectiousness will win you over to its side, even laughing un-ironically when a typical groaner comes through one of the character's mouths, especially during the show-stopping "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence full of slapstick and amazing feats of well-choreographed derring-do, mostly done in long, uninterrupted takes. It's quite witty in many areas as well, including the original song for the film, "Moses Supposes", where the characters learn elocution by readily relating a series of complex tongue twisters. THough the song and dance sequences steal the show, Singin' in the Rain is also a terrific satire on the Hollywood studio system, spining off a great deal of insightful and spot-on skewering of how movies are made and how celebrities continue to perform in roles in public, even when not on the set.
Singin' in the Rain is a phenomenal musical film, made by the best craftspeople in the business of movie-making, with every single whimsical scene an absolute delight. It's an inspired labor of love, and it shows in every frame. It's a masterpiece of a musical, with an influence in the genre that still pervades those who seek to try to capture the spirit of them, even among filmmakers today. It will pick up the spirits of even the most forlorn on the saddest of days, with a song in its heart and a spring in its step, and soon you'll find that you might also catch yourself 'singin' in the rain'. A timeless and essential entertainment for young and old alike.
©1997, 2017 Vince Leo