“Singin’ in the Rain,” widely regarded as the greatest American film musical and one of the greatest films of all time, turned 60 years old in 2012 – an anniversary celebrated with the release of a new HD DVD and all the attendant critical commentary.
You don’t really need the new $84.95 DVD to enjoy “Singin’ in the Rain,” as my wife and I discovered when we recently watched the movie on a library DVD. Almost all the recent reviews and retrospectives have been rapturous and the movie does deserve almost all the praise it gets. Few movies look as well 60 years later and if you haven’t seen it in the last couple of decades, you owe it to yourself the take a look. The movie is fun, full of life and bursting with optimism.
Like many great classics, “Singin’ in the Rain” is a movie about movies. It is set in 1927 Hollywood, when movies transitioned from silents to talkies (a subject also plowed over by “The Artist,” which for some inexplicable reason swept the Academy Awards two years ago.) The movie holds up, not only because the famous song-and-dance routines remain fresh, but because it’s genuinely funny while not taking itself too seriously.
The scene where Gene Kelly performs “Singin’ in the Rain” while actually singing in the rain is one of the most famous scenes in movie history, while Donald O’Conner’s performance of “Make ‘em Laugh” is almost as famous as a masterpiece of comic performance. Both sequences, which we’ve all seen a hundred times, are charming in context.
What is not charming, in context or otherwise, is a 14-minute ballet sequence near the end of the picture that stops the forward momentum cold. This long dance scene serves no plot or character development purpose; maybe the studio thought they needed to class up this otherwise frothy concoction with a serious offering of modern dance, but if so they seriously underestimate the rest of the movie.
“Singin’ in the Rain” came out in 1952, near the pinnacle of America’s global power and self-confidence. And since it’s set in 1927 – just before the Depression – it depicts another moment of great exuberance. The America of “Singin’ in the Rain” is a country where any small-town schmoo with talent and pluck can achieve fame and riches. It’s also a country where the bosses are good natured and reasonable. R.F. Simpson the boss of Monumental Pictures is nothing like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, Warner Bros’ Jack Warner, Columbia’s Harry Cohn and the other ruthless, crass and manipulative studio heads of the era.
The movie also illustrates America’s ambivalent relationship with class. The plot revolves around the inability of gratingly-voiced Lina Lamont, a silent star played by Jean Hagen, to adapt to talkies. This was based on a number of real cases – stars like John Gilbert and Norma Desmond, whose voices did not fit in their screen personalities. In “Singin’ in the Rain,” however, Lina doesn’t just have a bad voice, she’s a bad person – vain, selfish and hopelessly low class. She has a shrill, untamable, braying voice that reeks of the boarding house or the saloon. Lina is the kind of girl who would have had big hair in the eighties or be hanging with Snooki at the Jersey Shore today.
But it’s not her low origins that are so objectionable. The characters played by Kelly, O’Conner and Debbie Reynolds, Kelly’s love interest, all come from humble beginnings and have a natural grace that makes you want to root for them. Lina, instead, either had a bad upbringing or is irredeemably coarse, and because she reaches above her station with ambition that threatens everyone else’s happy ending, we crave her downfall. Afterwards I felt a little ashamed at being so satisfied with her abject humiliation, but the movie has led us to think this is what she deserves for her crudity and lack of finesse.
“Singin in the Rain” is undeniably a good movie, but is it the greatest musical of all time or the 20th best movie of all time as the recent Sight and Sound poll suggested? It’s certainly an audience-pleaser, but it’s light as air – and it does have that dreadful ballet sequence. But of all the great musicals (and here’s the 25 best according to the American Film Institute) the critics have developed a herd mentality about this particular film.
Myself, I prefer “Gigi,” which has better, wittier songs, a more coherent and believable plot and a more sophisticate view of life. Or, if you must have a Gene Kelly MGM musical, there’s “On the Town,” about three sailors with a day of shore leave to spend in Manhattan. And of course there’s “The Sound of Music,” one of the most popular movies of all time — for good reason.
The movie owes a lot to Gene Kelly. He’s not only the star, but the co-director as well – an unsung “auteur.” He’s impossibly handsome, although not much of a singer. His dancing skills are justly celebrated – more athletic than Astaire, but just as smooth and graceful. I’ve never really warmed up to Kelly – he smiles too much and too hard! – but his good humor helps him carry the picture.
Then there’s Debbie Reynolds. This is her first major role and she does have a certain freshness, although for me, she’s a little bland and generally indistinguishable from June Allyson, Kathryn Grayson and the other MGM girls next door. Of course it’s hard not to watch the young innocent Reynolds and not think about the subsequent scandals with Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor, or worse, the way she is portrayed as an egomaniac in various books, movies, and one-person shows by her daughter Carrie (Princess Leia) Fisher.
“Singin’ in the Rain” may or may not be the greatest musical ever made, but it’s a must for anyone who’s interested in movies. If you can find it on the big screen don’t pass it up, but even on DVD it’s still a great time.