Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Cinema Bestius: Singin' in the Rain

“I’m laughing at clouds, so dark up above…
The sun’s in my heart, and I’m ready for love…”

#5 – Singin’ in the Rain
Singin’ in The Rain is the finest movie musical ever made. This is not a matter of taste… This is not a matter of opinion… Your Popeness can prove this to a sentient ape. The film has a clever plot, engaging characters, beautiful and literate songs, eye-popping Technicolor cinematography, outrageous costumes, talented performers, terrific dancing, and an embedded spirit that screams (as I have repeated ad nauseam in these columns and on the podcast) “LIFE IS AN ADVENTURE AND ROMANTIC LOVE IS POSSIBLE.” The film whispers “life is what you make it and dancing through it with a spirit of openness and wonder is always preferable to a long, slow slog through an ironic hellscape of your own manufacture that ends with the sweet release of death.”

Speaking of apes, back during my former tenure as a high-school film teacher, Singin’ in the Rain never failed to win over teen ape audiences who had somehow tricked themselves into thinking that they hated Hollywood Musicals.

Shudder the thought.
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Silent film star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) and her leading man, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), are popular matinee idols at Monumental Pictures. Lina believes Don is in love with her. He is not, because Lina is a shrewish harpy; she also has a ridiculous, high-pitched voice. Lamont and Lockwood's movies are huge moneymakers for the studio, but then synchronized sound comes to film. It looks as if squeaky-piped Lamont will be out of a job—until Don's best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) dreams up a scheme to have Don's sweet new girlfriend, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), dub Lamont's dialogue and singing. Hilarious hijinks ensue.

There is simply so much to love and cherish within Singin’ in the Rain. For me, there is no single sequence in the history of movies that can produce more pleasure than Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor dancing together.
One of the film’s funniest in-jokes occurs near the end of the film. Kathy is shown recording a song for Don’s new musical. We then see a progression of Lina learning the song by listening to a record of Kathy, then lip-syncing to Kathy’s voice on set, and finally how it looks in the finished film, showing Lina’s acting performance with Kathy’s singing performance coming out of her mouth. It’s a neat sequence where the filmmakers quickly and efficiently demonstrate how ADR works. Trouble is, directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen didn’t think Debbie Reynolds’s voice was right for the song, so they used a different voice for HER. Who is singing? Why, it’s Jean Hagen, the actress playing Lina. It’s actually Kathy who is lip-syncing—and that could be why the voice sounds so “right” coming from Hagen.

I first heard this story on the now-out-of-print Criterion Collection laserdisc of Singin’ in the Rain, which featured one of the greatest commentary tracks of all time—a well researched and delightfully entertaining commentary by Ronald Haver. Why on Earth doesn’t MGM license that track from Criterion for one of their seemingly annual re-issues of this movie? Haver deserves to be heard! #hearHaver #Haverhearer #Hereherehaver
Two sequences that divide audiences are the “Beautiful Girl” fashion-show number halfway through the film and the gargantuan “Broadway Melody” number near the film’s end. I have always regarded the fashion show as high camp: the costumes are so over the top, and the narration so purple and pretentious, I just have to laugh. (“If you must wear FOX to the OPERA, Dame Fashion says DYE IT!”) The “Broadway Melody” is star Gene Kelly’s big showcase and a throwback to musicals that feature a “ballet” towards the end of the narrative. (Think “Laurie’s Dream” in Oklahoma or “NY Dream Ballet” in On The Town, where the entire narrative of the show is repeated in miniature through dance.) Not only am I impressed by the compilation and melding of three different songs (“Broadway Melody,” “Gotta Dance,” and “Broadway Rhythm”) but I am blown away by the number’s sheer love of performance. From its choreography to its lyrics to its production design to Kelly’s indefatigable performance, it demonstrates without pretension or cynicism this business we call show.
A single musical number was shot for the film but cut before it was released. It showed Kathy wandering around the studio back lot, singing "You Are My Lucky Star" to a billboard image of her secret crush, Don Lockwood. Although this would have amplified the impact of the movie's final image (Kathy's own face appearing on a billboard alongside Don's), the filmmakers were right to cut it. Given where "Lucky Star" would have fit into the film's continuity, the song would have given audiences three slow love songs in a row. Even people who love movie musicals will admit that’s a snooze.

The film’s highlight is the title number, sung and danced by Gene Kelly. Though he tried, nothing else in his career ever bested it, and the secret of it is that it is so damn simple: He’s in love. It’s raining. Go. There are stories about how arduous it was to actually film the scene (Days of work shooting with overhead sprinklers spraying water mixed with milk so that it would register on camera; Kelly constantly changing into fresh, identical wool suits because they would quickly become soaked and stinky; local citizens who lived near the studio complaining of a precipitous drop in water pressure when production was rolling that week), yet these stories belie how effortless it all looks onscreen. Gene Kelly was an amazing performer and made audience members believe they could probably dance like that too, if they fell as deeply in love. The scene is four and a half minutes of distilled joy.

For decades, I’d read the story that, when Donald O'Connor shot his famous "Make 'Em Laugh" number, he went home dog-tired because all day he had been forced to repeat the same exhausting stunts and tomfoolery again and again and again for the cameras. His wife made him a martini, the story goes, and he went to soak in a hot tub. Then the phone rang—it was director Gene Kelly at the studio. Seems the camera lens was fogged, and O'Connor had to go back the next day and do the whole thing again.

About a year before Donald O'Connor passed away, I attended Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival in Champaign, Illinois where Roger screened Singin’ In The Rain and hosted O'Connor as his special guest. An audience Q & A followed the screening, and someone actually asked him if that story were true. According to O'Connor, it’s bullshit. Great story though! And believable, as Gene Kelly was knows as something of a perfectionist.
SPOILER AND MAJOR TWILIGHT ZONE-STYLE MIND-BLOWER: I used to enjoy “freaking out” my more thoughtful (or stoned) students after the screening of Singin’ in the Rain with this bit of musing: The final shot is Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden standing in front of a movie billboard. It advertises their upcoming film, Singin’ in the Rain. They kiss, and the film fades to black. So… are we to assume that the two fictional characters have gone on to star in a film titled Singin’ in the Rain? Is that the film WE JUST SAW? But wait—our Singin’ in the Rain starred Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, not Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden… so are we watching the actors kiss, or the characters kiss, or the characters as actors playing new characters that are actually Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds? What the hell? CUE TWILIGHT ZONE THEME MUSIC!

Singin’ in the Rain’s Three Miracles: A funny and trenchant script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which sends up Hollywood clichés without bitterness; Gene Kelly, who shares the picture with his costars and allows them to shine; and the genius of Arthur Freed, who not only produced the film (along with dozens of other films including Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St. Louis, Easter Parade, An American in Paris, and Gigi ) but also wrote the songs!

In nomine Kelly, et Cosmo, y spiritu sancti DANCE! DANCE! DANCE! Hot-cha-cha!


  1. Dignity, my dear Pope - always dignity...

  2. Who doesn't think that Singin' in the Rain is one of the finest movie musicals, and finest films in general, of all time? What's the big idea? Are you dumb or something? :)

  3. I finally watched this after you named it one of your top five favourite movies. It's also in my top five now. I think the crane out as Gene Kelly dances down the street with his umbrella may be my favourite shot in all of cinema.

  4. Funny... whenever I've seen Singin' with an audience, the fashion show is usually met with silence. I think they're not certain if this is real fashion or not.