People who say they don’t like musicals should watch Singin’ in the Rain, and find out how sweet eating one’s words can be. People who say they do like musicals already know and love Singin’ in the Rain — otherwise they have no business saying they love musicals.
Sure, Fred and Ginger did more technically proficient dancing in Top Hat and Swing Time; and the Busby Berkeley extravaganzas, like Footlight Parade, had more spectacular set pieces. But Singin’ in the Rain is quite simply the greatest musical of all time, and more: It transcends its genre, becoming one of the most joyous, delightful, satisfying, feel-good motion picture experiences ever, richly deserving its #10 spot on the American Film Institute list of 100 greatest films. Bottom line: If you like movies, Singin’ in the Rain is for you.
What makes this movie work so well is a magical combination of factors that Hollywood never managed to bring together again in any other musical. Most musicals are stagy, artificial affairs, with actors breaking into show-stopping numbers that are only thinly tied together by perfunctory, even annoying plots. Characters are often one-dimensional, and can behave with jarring shifts in mood or motivation as required by the song lyrics, supposedly falling in love with other characters that they know as little as we know them.
Singin’ in the Rain is so different. First of all, its
song-and-dance numbers are worked with some plausibility into the
story, which is entertaining enough to be worth watching for its
own sake, even if there were no singing or dancing. And yet it’s
full of such joy that it demands singing and dancing; the
musical elements aren’t just tacked on. The characters are vivid
and delightful, and the romance that develops (amid much
bantering and posturing) between Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and
Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) is completely engaging. Donald
O’Connor could have kept up with the Marx Brothers as wacky Cosmo
Brown, one of the all-time great supporting characters; and Jean
Hagen is deliciously
The film shines with the joy of performance; everyone involved is obviously having enormous fun — and it’s infectious. Gene Kelly’s universally celebrated "Singin’ in the Rain" scene is justly regarded as one of the greatest moments in the history of film, and easily the most memorable dance number of all time. Yet Donald O’Connor gives Kelly a real run for his money with the astonishingly acrobatic antics of "Make ’em Laugh," and the three principals share a golden moment in the sun with "Good Mornin’." And the inspired nuttiness of the "Moses Supposes" sequence had me literally falling out of my chair laughing the first time I saw it.
The sheer energy of these performances — Kelly climbing onto the roof of a trolley car before leaping off into a convertible; the leading trio simultaneously walking across a couch and tipping it onto its back; O’Connor running up a wall and flipping over backwards — inspires comparisons with other great physical performers, from silent comedians Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd to the likes of Jim Carrey and Jackie Chan.
This goes beyond ordinary dancing, just as Buster Keaton’s antics go beyond ordinary acting and Jackie Chan’s stunts go beyond ordinary martial arts. And, like Keaton and Jackie, Kelly and company incorporate props and objects around them into their performances: a lamp-post, an umbrella, a dummy, curtains, a plank being carried by workmen, whatever comes to hand. It’s a robust, energetic mode of dancing; and Kelly, with his square jaw and muscular build, gave dancing a more virile, macho face than debonair Fred Astaire.
Like other Kelly films such as On the Town and An American in Paris, this film has a big set piece that brings the action to a halt for a non-linear, stylized modern-dance sequence with elaborate costumes and stagey props and backgrounds. The first time I saw Singin’ in the Rain, I assumed that this segment was a Gene Kelly vanity piece, a concession to his own arty interests in an otherwise "popular" film. Imagine my surprise when I learned that it was the studio that wanted these big production numbers, on the theory that audiences liked them. You can enjoy this segment for what it is, or you can fast-forward through it; it makes not a bit of difference. (If you’re watching with young children you might want to fast-forward through a suggestive bit involving a gangster’s girlfriend.)
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Singin’ in the Rain, apart from the fact that Hollywood never tried to duplicate it, is that it wasn’t originally made with the intention of creating a timeless classic. As with Casablanca and other great films, the greatness of Singin’ in the Rain happened by accident.
Most of the music had been sitting around unused for some twenty years, and screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden were given the responsibility of coming up with a story for it. During an all-night brainstorming session, they hit upon the inspired idea of setting the story during Hollywood’s transition from the silent era to the age of sound, the period the songs actually date from.
The images of this period preserved in this film are priceless. It’s hard to believe, now, that anyone ever imagined that "talkies" were a passing fad; that it took the success of The Jazz Singer (which was scarcely a "talkie" at all) to convince Hollywood otherwise. Or that camera-work, which had grown so sophisticated and nimble under great silent directors like D. W. Griffith, was suddenly returned to the rigid immobility of the earliest silent films as clattering cameras were imprisoned in soundproof booths and actors talked loudly into flowerpots.
Meanwhile, silent stars whose popularity had given them enormous power were suddenly vulnerable to the studios’ new weapon: the all-important sound test. Some stars, like Don Lockwood, were able to make the transition reasonably well; but there were others, like Lina Lamont, that no amount of voice coaching could save.
Singin’ in the Rain captures all this in a comedic, satirical tale that’s a joy to watch. Story, characters, setting, comedy, romance, conflicts, solutions, just desserts, and, yes, singing and dancing — somehow it all comes together here like nowhere else. "What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again," Kelly sings. You’ll feel the same way; and you just might find yourself singing too.
True to type, Crosby plays nice and Astaire shallow: Jim (Crosby) loves his dance partner and wants to marry her and settle down, but Ted (Astaire) wants to dance with her, and steals her away from Jim. Heartbroken, Jim retires to the Connecticut farm where he had hoped to settle down, but soon finds that show business is in his blood, and hits on the novel idea of turning his farmhouse into a dinner theater that operates only on holidays.
The quintessential Fred-and-Ginger vehicle, Top Hat features some of the most glorious, memorable dance sequences ever filmed.
In a conceit both touching and surreal, Kelly plays an American ex-G.I. in Paris who’s never wanted anything but to paint, though he’s obviously the best hoofer in France.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.