Singin' in the Rain (1952)

"Singin' in the Rain" is celluloid's biggest musical. ever. Perhaps what makes it so universally loved is the fact that it mocks and celebrates the very establishment that it appears on while providing a gaudy and hugely entertaining musical on top of its commentary. You'd think it's almost too good to be true; and it's almost good enough that I'm convinced; but not quite.
The movie begins at the turn of cinematic history: the introduction of the talkie. Silent movie stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are supposedly the Bragelina couple of their day. They are fawned over, the masses love them, they seem so perfect together, etc. The sad truth of the matter is that Don cannot stand Lina anymore than you can stand nails on a chalkboard. Lina is a self-important stuck up starlet who can't let anyone other than herself hog the spotlight. A child of the tabloids, Lina has someone convinced herself of the love between Don and her that everyone assumes to be true.
And this uncomfortable flashy lifestyle works for everyone. There has never been a bigger success story than Don and Lina. But two things happen that make this pristine world start to crumble in around Don and Lina: "The Jazz Singer" debuts as the first talkie picture and Don meets a girl who couldn't care less about the movies...the latter here is actually the more important to the plot.
While escaping his violent fan base, Don jumps into a car and frightens the driver, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). She claims that she will call the police and when she tries to, the policeman is more interested in the movie star than the frightened woman with accusations of molestation. But things calm down soon enough and Kathy starts to speak her mind about film. She doesn't think it's all that and a bag of popcorn: you've seen one movie, you've seen 'em all. But the stage, now that's a different story, Kathy herself is an actress who thinks the theater is the more noble of the professions. Don and Kathy separate on angry notes, him more so than her.
But they are bound to meet again.
At a party for the release of their new movie, Lina and Don are present and so is a cake dancer. Don pokes fun at her and a pie ends up in Lina's face.
All this time Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) is trying to think about his future. He is Don's long time best friend and now that talkies are taking over cinema, he might be out of a job—he plays music on set to get Don and Lina in the right moods.
Ah, but the talkies have taken over and soon Don's studio decides that they will go with the flow as well. It's conform or sink, not a hard decision to make.
There is one large problem though, Lina's voice is as annoying as you can possibly imagine. Her nasal tone and rough sound make her not the ideal candidate for a talking movie. Better seen and never heard.
But the studio pushes ahead anyway and it has to come down to Don, Cosmo, and Kathy to try to save the picture from complete disaster or risk losing all of their careers.
"Singin' in the Rain" has a gigantic reputation that precedes it. From the cultural references that are still made to the high place it holds in critical opinion (it continues to land on Sight & Sound's best movies list), there is no escaping this movie when you're talking about musicals.
I think the reason that it is so acceptable to like the film is because it is both entertaining and smart. The amount of self-referential barbs that it throws are always a delight to see; and yet, it is missing the snark and bite of a Bob Fosse picture. It tries so very hard to be the edgiest it can be, and that's just not edgy enough.
It's a musical of spectacle as well, inspired by "The Red Shoes", there is the obligatory scene of mindless, hypnotic dancing. In "The Red Shoes", it served a purpose and here is serves none at all. To be fair, it's not as big as an offender as "An American in Paris" is, but it does run a close second.
"Singin' in the Rain" is fun, very fun, and wickedly clever. It moves at a fast pace and never leaves you rolling your eyes. Time hasn't treated the film terribly well and some of the 50s overacting is almost too sweet to digest.
All-in-all, it's easy to see why this movie is classic; but it's also easy to see why it's melodramatic and showy.

Score: ★★★½

1 comment:

  1. This is one of my all-time favorite films but you have a point-- it is a bit overblown and glitzy...MGM musicals of the 1950s really started to go over the top. But the performances and music are still very winning, and Gene Kelly is one of the most talented performers ever to grace the screen.

    I always liked Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont wayyy more than Debbie Reynolds in this picture. She's hilarious and got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. A fun bit of trivia--when Debbie dubs over Lina's singing and talking in the Dancing Cavalier, it is actually Jean Hagen's real voice we hear, not Debbie's. An inside joke courtesy of Kelly and director Stanley Donen. Jean Hagen was actually a fine dramatic as well as comedic actress...

    I also agree with you about American in's self consciously artsy with too much music and not enough story...

    I am enjoying your blog very much.