Singin’ in the Rain isn’t just the best musical ever made. It is also a transcendence of the genre, so infectiously euphoric and utterly delightful I cannot imagine a viewer conceivably turned off by its astonishing joy. This is what we talk about when we talk about the popcorn movie, the movie we never wanted to end, the movie we wanted to live in, the movie that made us laugh and maybe even cry. It is an exemplification of the power of cinema and the profound sense of escapism a film can uncover so long as it’s made with care, with heart. Unpretentious and deliriously fun, its appeal is timeless. While a cultural artifact, it retains a crisp veneer to be enjoyed by all audiences, regardless of their neuroses.
Directed by Stanley Donen (1924-) and Gene Kelly (1912-1996), the Hollywood Golden Age’s most widely acclaimed virtuosos of the musical genre, it’s odd to think that there was a time in which Singin’ in the Rain was deemed as something minor, an entertaining but otherwise forgettable piece of work from talented people.
Only 28 upon release, Donen, who later went on to make such classics as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Charade, had only directed two other films, 1949’s On the Town (also a joint effort with Kelly) and 1951’s Fred Astaire showcasing Royal Wedding. Kelly was already established as the musical’s alternative to the aforementioned singer/dancer, his iconhood coming only a year previously with An American in Paris.
So perhaps Singin’ in the Rain was an accidental masterpiece, with a soundtrack consisting mostly of established songs and with a cast that, for the time, contained no major stars besides Kelly. But time is telling, and the immortal charisma of the film only heightens with each passing year. Is it its story, which, though period, is ageless in its comedy, romance, and theatrics? The art direction (slightly, and colorfully, Broadway), the music (classic), the dance sequences (wondrous), or the imperial tint of the Technicolor photography?
The film has an ensemble to cement the impressive goods. Set in 1927, it stars Kelly as Don Lockwood, a silent movie star whose fame very much depends on Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), the Garbo to his Gilbert. We first meet them at the premiere of their latest movie, The Royal Rascal, where it’s clear that Don is tiring of being anchored to the woman, whose diva behavior and selfish wiles leave him craving for something more fulfilling in his career.
So maybe it’s fate when it’s later announced that audiences are going gaga for The Jazz Singer, a “talking picture” that very well might change the film industry as a whole. Studio heads are eager to make the switch, and Don, along with his musical sidekick, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), are ecstatic to showcase their singing and dancing talents that have gone unnoticed in an age where silence has literally silenced their many abilities.
There’s a catch, though. Despite her immense fame, Lina has a voice more whiney, more grating, than anything Fran Drescher could ever dream of. It’s unlikely that she’ll make the transition into the talking era, and executives worry that her downfall could also result in Don’s. An ingenious plan is soon devised — what if Lina’s voice were dubbed by someone with more fetching pipes? They find the perfect candidate in Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring starlet who has everything Lina doesn’t: a comely voice, enviable dancing skills, and girl-next-door charm. If only Don didn’t fall in love with her, and if only Kathy didn’t have star quality. Then things would be much, much, simpler.
For incorporating a storyline that easily could be deemed autobiographical for many onscreen duos of the 1920s (the inclusion of sound in film really did end quite a few careers), Singin’ in the Rain, though witty in ways only musical-comedy dream team Adolph Green and Betty Comden could write, is not a cruel satire. It is, rather, a dreamy excursion into Hollywood lite that cares more about the spotlight put onto the rousing array of its song-and-dance numbers. Romance and comedy fits like a silken glove around its frenetic parts. The film is aberrant in that it never overstimulates and is never lacking in what it has to offer — it all comes together so accordingly that comparing it to other musicals doesn’t feel right. It is a musical experience, not willing to conform to genre normalities.
Its spectacle, for starters, is far more ambitious than similar offerings of the decade. In a film comprised of some of the best dance sequences ever, we’d like to call everything a highlight, but playing favorites is, understandably, not an impossibility. Standing out is Donald O’Connor’s masterful “Make ‘Em Laugh,” a deft combination of physical comedy, acrobatics, and dance, the O’Connor/Kelly tap-dancing duet “Moses Supposes,” the light-hearted but bewitching “Good Morning,” the ten-minute “Broadway Melody Ballet” (featuring the always underrated Cyd Charisse), and, inevitably, Kelly’s rain-drenched rendition of the titular tune (performed with a 102-degree fever, no less).
These performances are all brilliantly choreographed and executed, but the way they stay forever tucked away in our minds is due to its actors, whose playfulness is as authentic as playfulness can come in the artificial setting of film. Kelly’s energy and congeniality is boundless, O’Connor’s comedic timing and musical skill outrageous, and Reynolds’s ingenuity convincing and savory. Charisse’s appearance is my favorite cameo of all-time - it's a classic case of the Who Is She? phenomenon. Hagen is a riot as the movie musical’s greatest quasi-villain.
Endless praise is what Singin’ in the Rain deserves, but to watch it again might do me better. It never loses its freshness, and it never tires — never does our fondness for its musical aspects, as well as its comic ones, wither away. I recall watching it for the first time some five-and-a-half years ago, only thirteen and feeling very alone in the grips of puberty and school-based misery. Little did I know how much it would end up meaning to me, and little did I know that I would watch it a second time almost immediately after that initial viewing. You don’t want its delicious escapism to conclude. What a joy life would be if it were more like Singin’ in the Rain. A+