Singin’ in the Rain exists in the kind of place that can only exist in the movies, where gossip reporters hype movies as “the outstanding event of 1927!” and people still call movies “pictures”. Tinseltown is a bright and vivid Technicolor, cheery and vibrant, in which the cooky “glamour” of vampire-like stars and the comfort of the helpful omnipresent policemen on the corner can coincide. The motion picture industry is reaching the tail end of the silent era, and the venerable institution of reigning king and queen of Hollywood Lockwood and Lamont is in jeopardy. The film is about the transition from silents to talkies, and about creativity and ingenuity, but most of all, it’s about being in a state of pure bliss. To pick one great scene would be difficult, but the most memorable is, of course, Gene Kelly’s rendition of “Singin’ in the Rain”. Here is a man who walks out into the rainy night and begins to sing and dance, for the silly reason of being happy and in love. And you know what? It makes perfect sense. For two hours while watching and listening to Singin’ in the Rain, we are smiling.
“Dignity. Always dignity,” is the motto of Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood. This character is the epitome of Kelly’s onscreen persona. Lockwood is charming, self-effacing when necessary, and always smiling jubilantly. That smile and easy cheer never vanish during any of the show-stopping song and dance numbers. Singin’ in the Rain is the tale of Don’s rise to stardom and adaptation to the advent of talkies. He falls in love along the way. It is not a terribly complex plot, and it doesn’t need to be. This is not a film meant for the arthouse theater or intense shot-by-shot dissemination – it is, in the most endearing sense of the word, a movie, meant for everyone to smile and laugh and forget about their troubles.
Don’s screen partner and publicity-only beau is the beautiful, radiating – annoying – Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). The big reveal, Lina’s screechy voice, is artfully saved until well into the first act. “And I cayn’t stand’im!” she tells her flustered diction coach. Indeed, the biggest threat to Lockwood and Lamont’s survival is Lina’s vocal ineptitude in the studio’s very first talkie picture. But apart from being obnoxious, she’s also incredibly rude and unintelligent. “I ain’t people!” Lina smugly tells studio exec R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell). Lina certainly ain’t.
The mirror image of Lina is Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who reveals her intellectual side to Don in their very first meeting by tactfully glorifying the theater and saying, of movies, “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen ’em all.” Reynolds is feisty and funny, sweet and spontaneous. Kathy’s monologue when Don jumps in her car is as close to comedic perfection as it gets. Rounding out the cast is Donald O’Connor, who plays Don’s wry friend Cosmo. The role was originally meant for Oscar Levant, who would’ve been all wrong for the role. Levant is a great actor, but marked by a sadness and pessimism. O’Connor is pure boundless energy – his rendition of “Make ‘Em Laugh” is a feat of nature. Walking up walls, dancing with mannequins, and gallivanting around the Monumental Pictures studio, it’s no wonder O’Connor had to be hospitalized after filming the sequence.
While Kelly’s title number and O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” are the most enduring of all Singin’ in the Rain‘s songs, the whole film is chock-full of toe-tapping classics. From the tap number “Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)” to the sweet and catchy party dancer number “All I Do Is Dream of You” to the laugh out loud spontaneous jazz song “Moses Supposes” to the main trio’s delightful rendition of “Good Morning”, you’ll be entertained by the knowingly meaningless lyrics and Kelly’s choreography, which is a perfect mixture of Broadway sensibilities and prop-inspired made for the movies magic. Like Kelly’s An American in Paris (also released in 1952), Singin’ in the Rain culminates in a long ballet sequence called “Broadway Melody”. In both films, the ballet sequence achieves absolutely nothing in terms of narrative, but Singin’ in the Rain‘s is more engaging, if only because it serves as a vaudevillian recap of the entire movie, complete with the magnificent Cyd Charisse as an enigmatic femme fatale dance partner. An American in Paris also substitutes its climax with the ballet number, but Singin’ in the Rain manages to squeeze in both – and what a delightful number it is!
But above all, the world the movie creates has endured. Perhaps the most inexplicable number is the “Beautiful Girl Montage”, but it’s one of the most fun. It serves no purpose other than to introduce Kathy as a rising star, but does it need one? We have such delightful assessments of the worlds of fashion and film, and that’s the key to the movie’s success. Directors Kelly and Stanley Donen landed the perfect cast and the perfect score. They knew they had the substance so they added the style, and the result is simply marvelous to watch. There are too many great lines and in-jokes to quote them all, but I’ll single out my favorite Lina Lamont one-liners as “I gave an exclusive story to every paper in town” and ” if we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’,” which could very well serve as a bizarre mission statement for the movie.
I am tremendously excited about The Film Canon series for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest one is that the series guarantees positive reviews. In my experience, a recommendation is much more fun to read than a warning. I would rather read a poorly written rave than a beautifully composed pan any day of the week. Singin’ in the Rain was the natural choice for my first Film Canon review. This is a little bit of happy writing for a very happy movie. Miss Kathy Selden, when you’ve seen one, you most definitely have not seen them all.
FINAL GRADE: ★★★★★★★★★★ (10/10 stars)
FINAL SAY: Singin’ in the Rain is pure happiness, and the very definition of a classic. Easily the most joyous and entertaining musical ever made, the film and its songs and characters have ascended into the highest ranks of the film canon.