Singin’ in the Rain

Singin’ in the Rain (BFI Film Classics)

(1993), Peter Wollen

Released just one year after An American In Paris, this film was somewhat overlooked at the time (just two Oscar nominations to Paris’s eight, with no awards on the big night) but has since surpassed the earlier film to become widely hailed as one of the greatest movie musicals ever made, and certainly as Gene Kelly’s finest cinematic achievement.

Singin’ In The Rain‘s plot borrows a great deal from its predecessor. Kelly plays a silent film actor instead of a painter, but again he is struggling to free himself from the predatory blonde who threatens to compromise him artistically (Jean Hagen here, Nina Foch in An American in Paris). Again he is chasing an elfin, spirited young brunette he meets briefly and with whom he becomes infatuated (Debbie Reynolds picking up where Leslie Caron left off), and again spending his free time with the piano-playing best friend, who provides romantic advice and comic relief (Donald O’Connor in for Oscar Levant). As before, the songs are mostly pre-existing numbers – written in this case by producer Arthur Freed – and dusted off in order to be given the full song-and-dance treatment.

What sets this film above An American In Paris, though, is that it feels like it was made out of whole cloth rather than just being a showcase for its dancers. Remove the dance numbers from American in Paris, and you are left with little more than a fairly pedestrian love triangle story, but Singin’ In The Rain is much more ambitious. Equal parts love letter and satire, it is a self-referential, musical portrait of the birth of the Hollywood musical.

Kelly and Hagen are Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, the golden couple of the silent era. They are adored by the movie-going public and touted by the gossip columnists as a hot-and-heavy young couple, although behind the scenes he can hardly stand her. They keep up the pretense for the sake of their careers, but they face a real problem in 1927 with the release of The Jazz Singer and the advent of ‘talkies.’ The problem is that while Hagen is beautiful, and a talented silent actress, she has a squawky, nasal screech of a voice that makes Fran Drescher sound like Kathleen Turner. As the studio prepares to throw big money behind the pair’s first talkie, Hagen’s vocal style, coupled with the fact that she is apparently too ditzy to follow simple instructions like “Talk into the mike,” threatens to sink not just her own career, but Kelly’s as well.

Enter the brunette. Around this time Kelly has a brief encounter with a young stage actress, whose disdainful comments about silent film acting hit him where it hurts, creating in him a desire to become a ‘real’ (i.e. sound) actor. It turns out that she has a lovely voice, and Kelly works to convince the studio to dub her vocals over Hagen’s Brooklynite squealing in order to make her a star, and save his picture from public ridicule.

The plan succeeds, and along the way, Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor are given half a dozen joyous, jazzy musical numbers that are so brilliantly executed, and so grounded in the film’s showbiz milieu, that one cannot help but surrender to them. Most famous of all is the title number, in which an enraptured Kelly sloshes his way through a downpour without a care in the world. Perhaps the most perfect expression of Kelly’s genius, the routine makes effortless use of props (an umbrella, a hat) and of environment (a lamppost, a curb, an awning, a drainpipe, a puddle), and is all tied together by Kelly’s infectious grin and swooning, crooning vocal. But not too far behind come such showstoppers as “Make ‘em Laugh”, in which O’Connor condenses the whole history of slapstick comedy into one breathless exercise in musical masochism; “Moses Supposes”, in which the guys turn a humdrum diction lesson into a dazzling, goofy tap routine, and “Good Morning”, in which the three leads march through Kelly’s huge house, riffing with all available staircases, furniture and raincoats. O’Connor, it should be pointed out, is a wonderful dancer – matching Kelly step for step through some of the most hair-raising long-take tap routines ever committed to celluloid. Reynolds is given fewer chances to dance, but her chemistry with Kelly feels genuine, and she shows some character in her first scene, but this feistiness dwindles as the movie progresses and she is required to become more virtuous.

The climactic fantasy, “Broadway Melody Ballet,” echoes a similar sequence at the climax of An American In Paris, but this time it feels less integrated into the film as a whole. For the earlier film to take the characters inside the world of paintings for their final pas de deux seemed entirely appropriate. But here, the fifteen-minute fantasia detour into the evolution of the Broadway musical is less welcome, jamming on the brakes just as the story is building to its climax.

The climax itself is well-intentioned, but surprisingly cruel. As with An American In Paris, the character who comes out of this film badly is the blonde. Both Hagen and Foch become increasingly villainous as their films progress. In an apparent attempt to justify her harsh treatment at the hands of the heroes, the script turns Hagen’s Lina Lamont from a harmless ditz into a vicious harpy in the film’s final ten minutes. As she stands backstage, spewing threats, insults and self-aggrandizing vitriol to all within earshot, it is hard to shake the feeling that the film is going a little far in trying to make the audience hate her. Perhaps the scriptwriters felt that simply possessing a voice unsuitable for sound was insufficient reason for a character to be punished, nevertheless it is the one moment when this otherwise warm-hearted film forgets its hero’s filmmaking credo: “Dignity, always dignity.”

– Ben Stephens