Reel Classic: Singin’ in the Rain

Written by Jessica Hanlon.

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Routinely regarded as one of the greatest Hollywood musicals of all time, Singin’ in the Rain is an exuberant and magical journey deep into the heart of Hollywood at one of the most pivotal times in the movie industry. Produced during the height of the musical era, and capitalizing of the recent success of its latest hit An American in Paris, which also stared Gene Kelly, MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain is one of the few rare musicals that have stood the test of time. The superb craftsmanship of its filmmakers is matched only by the career defining performances of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, who work together almost effortlessly to create what is undoubtedly one of the most spellbinding examples of movie making at its best.

Set in the late 1920’s, when Hollywood began the transition from silent films to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain follows the story of silver screen darlings Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). When The Jazz Singer opens as a smash hit, Monumental Pictures exec R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) reimagines the latest Lockwood/Lamont feature The Duelling Cavaliers as a talkie; hoping to cash in out what they all believe to be the latest Hollywood trend. Unsurprisingly, the results are both disastrous and subsequently hilarious. Cue Lockwood and his pals (Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds in fine form) who come up with the idea of turning Cavaliers into a musical. And so begins, what eventually unfolded in Hollywood as one of the most successful movie ventures of all time.

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Singin’ in the Rain marked the second of three directing collaborations between Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, preceded by 1949’s On the Town and followed by 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather. Together, the two were a creative dream team bringing a clear and beautiful artistic treatment to the screen that most musicals rarely saw. The man backing the film, Arthur Freed, was also somewhat of a legend at MGM at the time, boasting a lengthy resume of musical productions including The Wizard of Oz and Bells are Ringing. Previously, he had worked with some of the biggest names in the industry at the time, including Judy Garland, Howard Keel, Mickey Rooney and Cyd Charisse, who also makes an appearance here.

Freed, along with partner Nacio Herb Brown, wrote most of the movie’s songs sometime in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. At Freed’s request, the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green developed a story that could not only showcase the songs but tie them together in a story. Together, the four more than succeeded in creating a musical that not only features amazing singing and dancing, but a story that is full of warmth and laughter.

As a comedy, the film is hilarious; especially in the scenes that deal with the technical problems filmmakers had in the transition to talkies. The wit of Comden & Green’s screenplay is undeniable, particularly in Hagen’s performance as Lina Lomont. Her inability to remember where her concealed microphone sits creates some of the movie’s funniest moments. The movie is also well punctuated with priceless one-liners that are impeccably delivered and help to ground the movie. Likewise, Donald O’Connor delivers what is arguably his best performance; his vaudeville family background bringing a sense of ridiculousness and slapstick to some of the film’s more frantic moments. His knack for comic timing brings laughs to every scene he graces and his performance in “Make A Laugh” is utterly amazing, making it one of the more memorable musical sequences in the film.

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Similarly, as a musical, it is the epitome of its genre. As part of his co-direction, Kelly choreographed many of the film’s dance sequences and whilst his dancing is not as showy as some of his earlier work, there is an obvious energy and enthusiasm that is rarely seen on stage. In almost every sequence there is an obvious infectious passion exhibited by the cast, with both Kelly and O’Connor’s established dance history evident in their footwork. Fresh-faced Debbie Reynolds, who was only 18 at the time, also holds her own with the men, her months of practice keeping her in even stead with the pair, particularly in their “Good Morning” number. Likewise, the film’s score is also remarkably catchy and fine-tuned, with many of the numbers translating well into later stage adaptations.

Technically, the film is also a marvel considering the time it was made. Singin’ in the Rain was filmed by cinematographer Harold Rosson (The Wizard of Oz, El Dorado) in Technicolour, who brought with him not only Technicolour experience but also first-hand knowledge of the subject material; Hollywood’s transition to sound. Suitably, the film’s bright and colourful sets and costumes look wonderful on-screen, particularly in the “Broadway Rhythm” section, a fantasy sequence where Kelly plays a young upstart who arrives in New York and engages in a rivalry with a gangster for the affections of the sultry Cyd Charisee. Many of the sequences feature breathtaking crane, tracking and panning shots which were edited together with similar skill and finesse. This was mostly a rarity at the time, with many musical directors shying away from camera movement during musical numbers.

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Of course, it is impossible to discuss Singin’ in the Rain without talking about Kelly’s performance of the titular song. As one of the signature moments in the film, and perhaps in Kelly’s career as a whole, this scene is an example of movie making at its finest. Not only is the singing clear and the choreography flawless, but the sheer youthful exuberance with which Kelly dances and splashes through the rain is probably the best acting he has ever done – even with the high fever he was running at the time. From a technical standpoint, the scene also highlights the creativity of the production team; with milk being mixed with water so the raindrops could be seen amidst fluctuating water pressure.

More than any of this, Singin’ in the Rain is a good time. The performances of Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor are not only entertaining but exciting and exhilarating, turning Freed and Brown’s songs into hits. Recalling genuine issues that arose with the arrival of talking movies, Comden and Green’s screenplay gives what was undoubtedly a serious issue a deft comic touch, making the issue relatable to an audience who were well accustomed to such movie making. Whilst receiving favourable (but not exceptional) reviews and performing moderately at the box office, time has been good to Singin’ in the Rain, with audiences coming to appreciate the charismatic, spellbinding and talented efforts of its cast and production team. If you love musicals; especially good ones, Singin’ in the Rain is a classic definitely worth your time.

 – J.H.