Wednesday, June 11, 2008
100 Days, 100 Movies: Singin' In The Rain (1952)
Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Jean Hagen
Singin’ In The Rain is not only one of the best musicals ever made (perhaps the best musical), but also one of the best films about Hollywood ever made. With a nostalgic and comedic eye, it looks back on the transition from silent to sound films (and what better way to look at that than through a musical?) at a time when Hollywood was still undergoing another transition – the one from the Golden Age of Bogart, Gable and Garbo to the era of the Method and Brando, Clift and Monroe. It isn’t perfect, to be sure, but damn is it ever entertaining.
It begins with a film premiere where we meet super stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). The studio and complicit movie magazines have created a romance between the two, and while Don can’t stand Lina, she believes the press and thinks that they really are in love. For both stars, these are the final moments free of anxiety because the advent of sound is about to be introduced to film. The reaction within the film community is negative – sound is a novelty that will quickly wear off and people will return to the old standard. But, as history shows, once sound crept in, the silents soon disappeared. Don and Lina make a talkie, and the film has a lot of fun depicting the early days of sound and how those accustomed to shooting silents had to completely reinvent the way they worked in order to adjust. The placement of microphones, especially, turns out to be problematic. The film is previewed and is a disaster, drawing laughter from the audience that is hearing Don and Lina speak for the first time. In order to salvage their film, it’s decided to turn it into a musical. This works perfectly for Don but Lina is still a problem. “She can’t sing, she can’t act, she can’t dance. A triple threat,” says Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor). Luckily, Don knows just the girl to dub her singing voice, an aspiring actress named Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), with whom he also happens to be in love.
The musical numbers in this film are about the best collection ever assembled into a film, which is amazing since only two of the songs were actually written for the film and the rest are recycled from MGM’s storehouse. Everyone knows “Singin’ In The Rain,” even those who’ve never seen the movie, which also boasts “Good Morning,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Moses,” and the amazing “Make ‘Em Laugh” number where O’Connor gives everything a performer possibly could and leaves the audience feeling exhausted just by having watched him do it. This would be a good film on the strength of the musical numbers alone, but it also features a wonderfully self-referential and self-parodying story.
Singin’ In The Rain is one of the few films about making movies in Hollywood that manages not to take itself too seriously without edging so far into caricature that its moments of meta become too cutesy and winky. When it’s decided that Don and Lina will make their first sound film, studio boss R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) already has the perfect tag-line in mind: “Lamont and Lockwood: they talk!” which plays on the real-life campaign for Garbo’s first talkie, Anna Christie, which was “Garbo Talks!” Similarly, when the film is previewed and the audience laughs at Don and Lina’s voices, it plays on the reality of what happened to stars who had to transition from silent to sound and found their careers effectively ended with those first words. The film also plays on the personas of actual silent stars, such as Clara Bow, the “It girl,” who appears here as Zelda Zanders, the “Zip girl” (Rita Moreno).
Of all the actors in the film, Jean Hagen was the only one to receive an Oscar nomination, and it’s easy to see how the Academy just couldn’t resist. Hagen gives us a character who is enjoyably ditzy, but who could have been overwhelming irritating. She gets many of the film’s best lines, although Lina the character wouldn’t know that they were the best or why. “Don’t you dare call him Don! I was calling him Don before you were born! I mean…” she says to Kathy. Hagen is great and utterly deserved that nomination. It’s a shame that O’Connor couldn’t get one as well, but I suppose you can’t have everything.
In spite of it’s overall greatness, there are elements of the film that don’t really work. As played by Kelly and Reynolds, Don and Kathy are great individual characters, but I’ve never really seen much chemistry between them as a romantic couple. I have the same problem with Kelly’s other great musical, An American In Paris and I think the problem is that when paired with an ingénue, Kelly simply overshadows her. Compare these romances to the one in Summer Stock, which isn’t an especially good film but finds Kelly playing opposite Judy Garland in a screen relationship that actually works.
The other problem is the “Gotta Dance” number, which is great as a performance but isn’t cohesive with the rest of the film. It’s so uneasily tacked-on that it’s jarring when the film segues into it. It is a beautiful sequence to watch, it just isn’t incorporated into the film very well. All that being said though, these are really just minor weaknesses easily eclipsed by the film’s many strengths.