Sunday, May 10, 2009

Singin' in the Rain (1952)

Oh my goodness, this is my favorite movie. Be ready for a lovingly-crafted, trivia-laden, and assuredly quite long review (dissertation?) on one of the greatest examples of cinema, ever: Singin' in the Rain.

One day, the exceptional comedy team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green were handed a collection of songs penned by Arthur Freed in the 1920's and told "Make a movie out of this. It will be called Singin' in the Rain". They shrugged their shoulders and got to it, deciding to set the film during the period in which the songs were written and to focus on a sensation they had both experienced: the advent of talking pictures. And of course at some point they knew somebody would be singing out loud despite the rain. And that was enough. (Spoilers ahead, though this isn't exactly a mystery-infused thriller.)

It is 1927, and we are treated to opening night of The Royal Rascal, an adventure/romance silent film starring the world-famous acting pair of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). We are also granted a charming series of flashbacks in which the truth of Don's blue-collar upbringing and stuntman and vaudeville experience comes to light. The film is of course a huge success, and the stars and their crew, including Don's best pal and music arranger Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) and Monumental Pictures studio head RF Simpson (Millard Mitchell), all head off to a glamorous party with lots of smoking and lots of white people. En route, Don and Cosmo are accosted by ravenous fans after their car breaks down, and Don hops into a passing convertible. The driver, a wide-eyed young lady named Kathy Selden (a 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds), is at first shocked and then flattered to be driving around a movie star as she proceeds to take him to a place where he can change his ripped suit.

During the course of this short drive, Don tries to hit on Kathy while she berates his profession (as an aspiring stage actress, she feels silent film is just untalented pantomime). After Don finally makes it to the party, there's a showing of an audio device for films which is quickly laughed away as a hideous fad (even though, as Cosmo notes, "They said the same thing about the horseless carriage"). He then discovers Kathy is part of the floor show and after he makes fun of her hypocrisy she aims for his head with a cake, only for it to land on Lina's face. She's fired from the club and Don spends weeks looking for her, feeling guilty that she lost her job as well as fascinated by a woman who is so straightforward and honest with him despite his fame.

Meanwhile the success of The Jazz Singer (MGM's first talkie) has convinced RF to turn Lockwood and Lamont's next film, the French Revolution tale The Dueling Cavalier, into a talkie regardless of Lina's grating, nasally voice. At this point there's a montage of several songs melded together to show off the wonders of talking pictures, which primarily serves as a way for Comden and Green to work in the songs given to them by Freed that didn't fit into the story. Soon enough, Cosmo finds Kathy on the set of a fashion advertisement and reunites her with Don. They apologize to each other for their aggressive first meeting and begin seriously dating. Several aspects of filming a talkie for the first time are shown, including diction lessons and failure to remember where the microphone is placed. Unfortunately, early reception of the film is very poor, due largely to Lina's voice and Don's over-the-top acting.

Hanging out at Don's huge house after the screening, Cosmo and Kathy convince him to turn the film into a musical in order to save it. To conquer Lina's voice issues, Cosmo proposes that Kathy's voice be dubbed over her lines and songs without her knowledge. The film now becomes The Dancing Cavalier, and some impressive song and dance numbers are worked into it. (In an odd twist of fate, the main song recorded for this new film, "Would You", is sung by Betty Noyes dubbing over Debbie Reynolds.) Of course Lina finds out what everyone's been up to (including Kathy and Don's relationship, crushing Lina's imaginary engagement to him), and proves she has some ability at machinations when she lies to all the major newspapers in town about her amazing singing voice, causing the studio's marketing department to cancel its initial campaign for Kathy as Lina's voice.

When the film premieres to tremendous applause for Lina's performance, she is prodded into singing for the live audience. She reminds Kathy that she has a contractual obligation to continue to dub her, so she sets up a mic behind the curtain as Lina lip-syncs a tune. Will the world ever know that Kathy is the true star? Will the villainous Lina be upseated? Will Kathy and Don live happily ever after in Hollywood bliss? I'll let you watch the film to find out the answers to these scintillating questions.

Oh god, I love LOVE this movie. I have seen it an immeasurable amount of times and it continues to bring me the sense of comfort, familiarity, and security it always has. It's legitimately very funny, with excellent snappy dialogue and some rather silly visual moments. The story is much more complex and interesting than the standard 50's movie musical, making for a more compelling viewing experience. Performance-wise, of course almost everyone is top-notch. Gene Kelly brings the acrobatic dance numbers and charm, while Debbie Reynolds brings the pep and sass, holding her own with her more experienced male counterparts. Jean Hagen is absolutely hilarious, completely committing herself to the role of Lina, a gorgeous woman with a horrifying voice and fear of never being taken seriously. Cyd Charisse is sexy and daring in a small but distinctive silent role as a dancer in Don's big fantasy number. Millard Mitchell is the only bad thing about this movie- his acting so wooden and cheesy that it's impossible for me to not grumble about it every time I watch. But that's sort of become part of the fun.

Of course Donald O'Connor is the standout (as he is in any film, in my opinion). He gives the wisecrackingest wisecracks with perfect timing. He dances impeccably, keeping up with even the formidable Gene Kelly in several big numbers (you'll notice his gleeful glances at Gene during "Moses Supposes" after nailing a particularly tricky move; Kelly was known for his intense perfectionism when choreographing and performing). His bright blue eyes and winning smile completely solidified him as my first big movie star crush in seventh grade. And of course this film contains the incredible "Make 'Em Laugh" number, featuring so much slapstick and acrobatics crammed into less than 4 minutes that it can be appropriately described as "jaw-dropping". Seriously, what a guy.

Which brings us to the dance numbers: Wow. Kelly and Donen's choreography is always incredible, but something about the work in this film stands out above the rest. I don't know if it's the just-right combination of experimental and traditional moves, the memorable tunes, the smooth transitions from conversation to song, or the dancers themselves, but everything comes together so perfectly. There's an over-the-top vaudevillian number, a ballroom-esque scene on a softly lit sound stage, several fun tap-heavy songs with excellent utilization of space (ie stairs, couches, tables, curbs), and of course the 13-minute-long "Broadway Melody" featuring a large and brightly-attired chorus, Cyd Charisse lankily seducing Gene Kelly through dance, and a non sequitur ballet. This last number is epic in its scope and not particularly relevant to the plot, clearly hinting at Kelly's desire for more dance-heavy storytelling with a more interpretive and experimental style (later realized in Invitation to the Dance). I love it though- it's interesting and fun, and unlike anything I've seen in other musicals of the period. Plus Cyd Cherisse: daaaaamn.

Clearly, I could go on and on and on about this movie, even more so than I already have. But suffice to say that Singin' in the Rain is considered one of the greatest movies ever made, not just musicals, for a reason. It has pretty much everything I could want in a film, and is so smart and well-made that I never tire of it. Add in the high quality performances, music, and of course colorful and stylized 20's fashion, and my goodness you just have yourself my favorite movie. Everyone should see it at some point in their lives, I think.


"All I Do Is Dream of You"- Gene Kelly (this is a cut scene in which Don reprises Kathy's song from the floor show after she runs away from the party)
"Good Morning"- Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds
"Singin' in the Rain"- Gene Kelly
"You Are My Lucky Star"- Debbie Reynolds (another cut scene, in which Kathy confesses her fangirl status to a billboard of Don Lockwood)

"Make 'Em Laugh" - Donald O'Connor

Also! My original poster design for this film is available for purchase!


  1. so you're saying that this movie that i've never heard of is BETTER than benjamin button?????

  2. I absolutely adore this film!!!

  3. of course its better then benjamin button you idoit, this movie has real actors with real talent, all brad pit has going for him are his has been looks and special effects.

  4. @nicole's comment:

    as a film student, that comment made my brain hurt.

  5. You guys, Nicole's comment was a joke, don't worry! She knows me personally and is a fan of Singin' in the Rain.

  6. Love this flick, and it is very funny and experimental.

  7. I could easily list this as a Perfect Film, too - the filmmakers set their goals, and I think they achieved them.

    I don't know if I consider it the quintessential Hollywood film. I think WIZARD OF OZ might get my vote because it has a higher number of clichés, plus it has both B&W and Color sequences.

    And Jean Hagan doesn't quite live up to the Great Villainess In Screen History like Margaret Hamilton, '

    But SINGIN' has one thing going for it: I can't think of another film with, from top to bottom, so many superlative performances. Hagan's is a tour de force. Millard Mitchell as the studio boss. OK, well, Mae Clarke has WATERLOO BRIDGE and FRANKENSTEIN and a hundred other films, so 'hairdresser' wasn't her finest... but there she is - in one of the best films.