Singin’ in the Rain is always in the conversation whenever anyone discusses ‘favorite’ or ‘best’ musicals, although many others – An American in Paris, West Side Story, Top Hat – received more praise in their day. The number “Singin’ in the Rain” may be one of the most iconic moments in cinema, right up there with the ending of Casablanca and the opening of The Godfather. The performances are delightful, verging on incandescent. But all that it isn’t the reason to watch the film. When you see a movie, and you want to see it again, the moment it’s over, that movie has done its job entertaining you. But when you see a movie and you want to skip home, jumping and spinning atop lampposts, the moment it’s over, that movie has done something else entirely.
What’s remarkable is that Singin’ in the Rain started out as an MGM collage project. Director Stanley Donen and screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden were tasked with assembling a story to build on the success of American In Paris, using songs from MGM’s catalog. Because so many of these were from the 30s, Green and Comden decided to set the picture there too, gently satirizing Hollywood’s transition from silent to sound. Probably some of that spit and duct-tape rubbed off, as the story feels much breezier than most adaptations of theatrical properties. It’s a simple one, as silent star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) must on the surface navigate the change to talkies but really has to handle falling in love.
The giggles are in the details, of course. We open with a glitzy premiere populated by every silent star stereotype under the spotlights, but our heroes, marquee idol Don and his musical sidekick/best friend Cosmo Brown, have a sly awareness about how ridiculous their world is. The disconnect between the PR-polished story Don tells of his rise to fame and the ragtime reality we see on the screen during the first number, “Fit as a Fiddle and Ready for Love,” sets the tone for the film’s attitude towards Hollywood. The major weight of the parody falls on Don’s leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, who walked away with an Oscar nod for pitching her voice to sound like squeaking styrofoam), an empty dress skating by on looks alone, in love with Don because she read about it in a magazine.
The other figure of gentle mockery, studio exec RF (Millard Mitchell), dreads the future portended by the runaway success of The Jazz Singer – whose reputation Singin’ in the Rain is in part responsible for; it was neither the first all-talking picture (it was a part-talkie) nor the first sound feature (that honor belongs to a truly awful gangster film, Lights of New York). Into all this hoopla bursts aspiring actress Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds, only 19 at the time), or rather Don jumps into her car fleeing from a mob of fans. Kathy doesn’t buy into the glamour any more than Don does, but still wants to put on a show. They’re perfect for each other, and in a genius moment of staging, Don actually takes her onto an empty set and constructs a love scene.
The conflict of how to stage, and then salvage, Don and Lina’s first talkie is the business of the plot (eventually Kathy dubs Lina’s voice, which is the main hurdle), and there are some inspired comedic moments built into that. But the musical showcases are even more side-splitting, none more so than Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh.” That number is about as close as it gets to live-action Looney Tunes, and somehow the effort involved in flipping off a wall and pitching himself across the floor translates into effortless, energetic showmanship.
You need only watch Reynold’s face as she keeps up (in heels) with Kelly and O’Connor’s strides in “Good Morning, Good Morning,” to grasp how much ‘all’ is in these performers ‘giving their all.’ The only fully original number, “Moses Supposes,” is riotous, climaxing with Kelly and O’Connor literally throwing everything in the room at their on-screen audience, a hapless linguist. It’s a grand old time, to be sure, and it builds to an on-stage climax that’s clever, cheeky, sentimental, and completely works. When Don, Cosmo, and RF yank back the curtain to reveal that Kathy has been providing Lina’s voice, Reynolds runs mortified into the audience, but Don shouts, “Ladies and gentleman, this is the woman whose voice you’ve fallen in love with!” It’s true for them, for him, and for us, too.
The one number that audiences have trouble with, that people will usually single out as a fault, is “Broadway Melody.” The lavish interlude is justified by Gene Kelly’s pitching it to RF, but it quickly leaps into fantasy, one of a young hoofer who comes to New York and tangles with the legs of Cyd Charisse. The best way to explain the neon and modern dance dissolves is as a function of the times and studio that produced it. MGM loved to put in literally show-stopping ballets, especially when Gene Kelly was involved (The Pirate, An American In Paris, and Brigadoon all feature similar examples), flaunting its colorful production values. It’s sort of like how all action movie trailers nowadays blast the intense BWWAAAMPs of Inception, except longer, and with ass-shaking instead of explosions. “Broadway Melody” interrupts the trajectory of the Don/Kathy love story for another – the love ’em and lose ’em narrative of stardom itself – but it rounds out Singin’ in the Rain‘s ode to Hollywood, including a spectacle meant simply for our eyes to feast on, a space for adventure and romance only the camera can access.
In an odd way, that’s the key to Singin’ in the Rain. The film’s staying power isn’t really in ecstatic leaps of Gene Kelly’s limbs, the cartoonish contortions of Donald O’Connor’s face, or the thrilled, lip-biting light in Debbie Reynold’s eyes. It’s not that it’s a thoroughly original film musical, or that it is about film itself. Singin’ in the Rain is so renowned and continually placed on “Best-Of” lists because it is probably the most complete cinematic expression of joy Hollywood has ever produced. Originally the title number was a group affair, but it was swapped for Kelly’s solo, a natural reaction (emotionally, at least) to the realization of his and Kathy’s relationship. The script covers the sequence in six words, “Don dances in the wet street.” Singin’ in the Rain is, in its bones, that simple, yet its heart is full to bursting with the complex, unspeakable rapture of being alive. The film is a glorious feeling.
Is Singin’ in the Rain the greatest American musical? In a word, yes.
Take a Drink: every time Lina implies she, or someone else, has less than average intelligence.
Take a Drink: for each accent or funny voice Kelly and O’Connor use.
Take a Drink: whenever someone says, “I Love You.”
Take a Drink: whenever R.F. is pressured into making a decision.
Finish Your Drink: after Don finishes puddle stompin’.