SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)

  • Directors: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
  • Writers: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
  • Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, and Jean Hagen
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#5), Sight & Sound 2012 Top 100 list (#20), Cahiers du Cinema 2008 Top 100 List (#7), 2 Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actress – Jean Hagen, Best Original Score)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Singin’ in the Rain is often thrown around as the greatest movie musical of all time. Beyond the obvious subjective issues with this, I think it likely tends to obscure the fact that it is truly bonkers. At one point there’s a 20 minute ballet sequence, completely unconnected from the rest of the movie, that couldn’t be any weirder if it had been directed by Salvador Dali. The original idea behind it was to showcase the back catalog of songs from the lavish musicals MGM had been making since its inception. Even the title song originally appeared in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Oh, and this happens in it:

I have heard more than one person talk about the movie as a kind of irresistibly joyful experience. I myself had a lot more resistance to it than many others, I don’t know what says about me. And I generally consider myself someone who really likes musicals. Where Singin’ in the Rain does certainly impress me is in the many dance sequences, all of which involve, you know, the dancers actually doing all the things, generally in long shots that show them doing it, so you know they’re really doing it. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were all-timers in terms of dancing. The female lead, Debbie Reynolds, did not have any dancing experience, but worked as hard as Kelly demanded, and that was pretty hard. At one point during filming, Fred Astaire (who was not even in this movie) found her crying under a piano, and offered to help train her. After filming on the “Good Morning” scene lasted all day, she later described her feet bleeding. She would also later say that “the hardest two experiences of my life were childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain.” 

Gene Kelly spent the first several decades of his life in Pittsburgh, where his way up from a poor, depression-era upbringing to put himself through the University of Pittsburgh and the first two months of law school by teaching at a local dance studio, before dropping out to pursue a career in theater. His highly athletic style of dancing approached it more as a sport than anything else, while still retaining a certain grace. For most of his movie hits he not only starred, but directed and did his choreography.  The zenith of his career to date had been An American in Paris, which had won the Best Picture Oscar in 1951. The following year, he made Singin’ in the Rain, which wasn’t as acclaimed at the time but is today thought to be the zenith of the lavish musicals of classic Hollywood.

One reason, perhaps, that Singin’ in the Rain is so beloved by movie types is that movie types have always loved movies about movies. The plot, if it may be considered a plot, centers around Hollywood’s transition from silent to talking movies. Kelly’s character is claimed by his studio to be romantically linked to a silent star named Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), but it turns out her talking voice is ridiculous. The studio eventually hires a “serious stage actress” (Reynolds) (first introduced in perhaps the most high-concept of all movie meet-cutes, when Kelly’s character jumps off a bus into her car to avoid a crowd of fans) to dub Lamont’s voice. Hijinks ensue, along with a series of musical numbers connected to what’s happening in the plot by either the thinnest of threads or no thread at all. I understand that nearly all of the songs were not written for the movie, but the movie not caring about finding, in many cases, even the slightest of pretexts for their inclusion I found almost insulting to my intelligence.

But look, I’m not trying to be a spoilsport. The purpose of this blog is to meet this movie where it is, try to figure out where it was coming from, and apply that to where we are today. I completely understand that some of my feelings about this movie, which came from and was trying re-create a Hollywood tradition that dated back to the advent of talking film, are not working with that context. And nearly every individual scene is joyous. Singin’ in the Rain comes from a place of finding joy in talent and showing it off. When Kelly worked Reynolds until her feet bled, by all accounts he did it not out of cruelty but out of sheer love of hard work and perfection. His co-star Donald O’Connor’s big number, “Make ‘em Laugh,” is among the physically intensive pieces of dancing you’ll ever see. It’s done all in one take and reportedly took him dozens and dozens to get right, all the while throwing himself around and over furniture and through walls, over and over. O’Connor, who smoked four packs a day, was so exhausted by the scene that he reportedly had to recuperate in the hospital afterwards. In the long movie-within-a-movie here, Kelly himself keeps shouting “Gotta Dance!” Which might as well be the Gene Kelly motto.

That long, climactic, dream-like sequence co-starred Cyd Charisse, frequent collaborator of the other huge dance star of classic Hollywood, Fred Astaire. This lavish digression was not so unusual in context (An American in Paris, for example, ends with a long, lavish “ballet”). One sign of a great film is that everyone who sees it comes away spellbound by a different moment, and Singin’ in the Rain is certainly one of those movies. You’ll notice I haven’t really mentioned the iconic sequence where Kelly sings and dances to the title song, but I will always remember Kelly getting caught up in Charisse’s seemingly endless scarf. If the entire movie was like that sequence, I would be spending this essay lavishly praising it.

Reynolds is certainly winning in her role, her first lead in a feature film. She went on to a seventy year career that included, at one point, a Billboard Number One hit from another musical, closely followed by an attempted career as a pop singer (usually that progression goes in the other direction). Ironically, in a movie where the plot centers around Reynolds dubbing her voice over other characters, her own voice is dubbed quite a bit in this movie. Her singing voice was actually provided by Betty Noyes, and Jean Hagen herself actually provided the dubbed voice for the scene where Reynolds dubs Hagen’s voice in the early talkie because it was thought to sound better. This movie is like dubbing-ception. Which doesn’t take anything away from Reynolds’ performance (again, she still had to smile from ear to ear while dancing until her feet bled).

As with silent films, musicals tend to be beloved across language barriers (this can be seen, for example, by the film ranking seventh on the Top 100 list of Cahiers du Cinema, the bible of the French art house, a list that leaves off many of the other American and English classics in favor of, um, more esoteric fare). The dancing and the music in Singin’ in the Rain works whether you understand the words or not (in fact, it might help more than it hurts to not understand). Francois Truffaut later recounted going to the movie over and over and over when it played in his town, memorizing every shot.

I’ve tried here to explain the appeal of Singin’ in the Rain, while not necessarily connecting with that appeal myself. But I can certainly get a sense of some of that vivid experience from scenes like this one, where everyone involved is probably miserable, but through that misery they’ve been making people smile around the world for decades. But at the same time, we’re singing “Good Morning” here because… it’s night? I guess?

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