Grade: ASingin' in the Rain (1952)

Director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen

Stars: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen

Release Company: MGM

MPAA Rating: NR

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Gene Kelly: Singin in the Rain


Singin' in the Rain
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Ranking #10 on the 2002 Sight & Sound critics poll for best movies of all time, Singin' in the Rain easily stands as the quintessential cinematic musical, one that holds up to multiple viewings to chase away all traces of cynicism. Everyone remembers the utter joy of Gene Kelly's glorious solo number—clips of the rain-drenched Kelly hoofing and singing through a darkened backlot street are included with any musical overview, but the tightly constructed film approaches perfection in other areas.

Gene Kelly has never been more brilliant, yet Donald O'Conner's performance is often overlooked. Fortunately, MGM's first choice for the musical buddy—Oscar Levant, who was paired with Kelly in An American in Paris—didn't pan out because the incredible dancing scenes are unparalleled. O'Conner's energetic solo number, "Make 'em Laugh" (unabashedly plagiarized from Cole Porter's "Be a Clown"), takes full advantage of his funny facial expressions and athletic ability, but the incredibly synchronized dance with Kelly in "Moses Supposes" is sheer brilliance. All you can say afterwards is a huge "Wow!"

MGM cornered the market on big musicals in the early 1930's when Arthur Freed came aboard, and he is the producer here in the late stages of the genre's heyday. His instructions to screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were simple and straightforward: Use his previous songs to make a brand new musical. The perplexing puzzle all fell into place when the two writers decided to capitalize on the 1929-31 songs and plan a plot around the same time period when Hollywood was transitioning from silents to talkies. Those were tough adjustments for many film legends, who now had to include voice acting to go along with the visual medium. Not everyone survived.

Similarly, Singin' in the Rain takes place just as The Jazz Singer is making its impact. Silent screen legends Donald Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are continually paired in America's favorite melodramas, and linked romantically through the gossip columnists with Monumental Pictures' active encouragement. In reality, Lockwood can't stand Lamont's empty-headed blondeness, declaring privately that the only thing between the two is "air." Although he loves the adulation, at times the continual crush of fans gets to be too much, and during one escape he runs into young actress/singer/dancer Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who isn't overawed by his fame.

Naturally, Kelly falls for the talented Seldon and pursues her while Hollywood's inevitable transition to talkies leads to Seldon's voice substituting for Lamont's hilariously squeaky backwoods colloquialisms. In a great structural move, her voice is silenced during the early portions until she erupts with an outburst that causes giggles (even when anticipating it after seeing the film for the twentieth time).

The plot proceeds pretty much as expected, but certain scenes continue to crack up audiences no matter how many times they've seen the film. That just goes with the territory with a well made musical�it's the performances that are the thing. Kelly gets the star billing, and O'Conner is certainly a definitive musical partner, but 18-year-old Reynolds establishes herself as a future musical star, and Hagen turns in outstanding comic relief work that makes it nearly impossible to believe that the beauty also stars in the darker John Huston classic, The Asphalt Jungle. She doesn't parody a ditsy blonde here�she literally becomes a ditsy blonde!

From the very beginning, the film establishes its tongue-in-cheek humor when Kelly address a gathering of fans to give the backstory of his acting career. While he hammers the point about always keeping his dignity intact, his words are juxtaposed with imagery to show the reality—his claims of meeting Cosmo Brown (O'Conner) at dancing school while performing before society crowds, playing the finest symphonic halls, and accompanying his parents to see plays by Shaw and Moliere are total fabrication. Instead are shown scenes of pool halls from places like Dead Man's Fang, Arizona, and the two boys sneaking into the nickel movie theater. With a wink Kelly quickly relaxes us to let us know that this is pure entertainment.

The motif continues consistently throughout. For instance, during the silent filming of The Dueling Cavalier Lockwood and Lamont exchange reptilian insults during a supposed love scene, and his passionate screen kiss requires his finest acting. Contrary to Lamont's belief, he'd rather "kiss a tarantula." She just never "gets" it, no matter how many hints and put downs he lays on her.

Even without the smart dialogue and fast-paced structural perfection, Singin' in the Rain would remain a classic musical for just the performance numbers alone. The definitive musical is timeless, capturing a large portion of truth about the movie business, but sometimes you just gotta sing and dance.

Note: MGM has packaged a special 50-year anniversary edition DVD with features that are worthy of one of the truly great films. Besides a nice commentary with many surviving principles, the bonus disk includes an excellent featurette on the making of the film, song length clips from the films containing the original song versions, and a thorough documentary about Arthur Freed and MGM musicals.

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