Bright, colorful, energetic, and fun. What more could you ask for from the movie called the best musical ever? I don’t know about that specifically, but I do know that Singin’ in the Rain is a hodgepodge of a film that shouldn’t work at all but works marvelously. Built around a series of songs that the studio had the rights to, the story of the transition from silent to sound movies is told with such innocent and infectious energy that it’s nearly impossible to resist.
It’s the silent era of movies and Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are the king and queen of dashing romantic adventure. The movie starts with a fun jolt as Don and Lina get pulled into an interview on the red carpet premier of their newest movie where Don describes his life story. The contrast between the urbane and suave story that Don describes and the rickety rags to riches story we see are a wonderful source of comedy. Don’s description of the finest music and dancing schools that he and his best friend Cosmo went to while we see them as boys scrapping for nickels after a quick tap number in a pool hall is delightful, but it’s when we get to a full number from the two in the flashback that we see the movie’s first glimpse at the source of its most consistent fun: the song and dance. Young Don and Cosmo dancing to “Fit as a Fiddle” with great physical acuity and wonderfully precise comic timing around sight gags like Don accidentally taking Cosmo’s bow and Cosmo needing to get it back while still dancing.
All through this interview we see Lina pop up, but we never hear her speak. Their relationship is a public relations creation with nothing behind it (though Lina still doesn’t seem to understand that), but her biggest problem is that her voice is steeped in some kind of screechy Chicago accent that goes wildly against her film image of a debonaire lady (Jean Hagen had a rather deep voice in real life). This is not a problem as long as Don and the Monumental Pictures PR department can keep Lina away from a microphone during promotional appearances. She chafes under the stricture, but what else can she do?
On the way to the after party, Don gets mobbed and jumps in the car of an unsuspecting young woman, Kathy. She pretends to have no idea who Don is unlike any other girl Don meets, and the new treatment keeps her on his mind even after she shows up to the party as a dancing girl, throws a pie in Lina’s face that was intended for Don, and gets fired from the Coconut Grove.
This is all the stage setting for the great change that is the talkies.
In a movie full of joys, it’s fun to watch the growing pains of the talkie era, especially after I dove head first into it with my Hitchcock viewing experience. The voice coaches, the giant box that held the camera and sound equipment, the halting efforts to get microphones where they could actually pick up sound, and the general poor quality of the early sound entirely captured on set all ring true and are just amusing. A note, though, almost no one used records to record sound because of the synching problems the movie shows. Still, it’s a great source of fun and leads to Cosmo’s great idea after the wonderful “Good Morning” number.
You see, Kathy, whom Don found on the lot as a chorus girl and gave a better job to, has a better singing and speaking voice than Lina, so Cosmo imagines that by using the magic of movies they can replace Lina’s voice with Kathy’s so they can help turn the disastrous new movie, The Dueling Cavalier, into a musical called The Dancing Cavalier.
Now, the movie’s greatest charm really begins and ends with its music and dance. Gene Kelly, who co-directed the picture, knows exactly how to film this kind of dance, and it’s to pull the camera back and just let the performers dance. From Donald O’Connor jumping off walls in the desperate to make you laugh “Make ‘Em Laugh” to the trio of O’Connor, Kelly, and Debbie Reynolds going up and down stairs in “Good Morning” to Kelly solo sweeping through the downpour in “Singin’ in the Rain” we get these immaculately choreographed and executed sequences that show off the physical talents of the performers, thrilling as much as entertaining. It’s all in the service of a well-natured ribbing of Hollywood that obviously loves the industry and town that it hails from.
Acting performances are winning all around. Gene Kelly is his charming self as Don. Debbie Reynolds is a sweet spitfire as Kathy. Jean Hagan is delightful of Lina (a role that won her an Oscar). Donald O’Connor is a wonderful physical comedian as Cosmo with flips in “Make ‘Em Laugh” and marvelous facial contortions in the lead up to “Moses Supposes”. Even the supporting cast gets into it all along the way.
I suppose my only complaint of the film is the “Broadway Melody” number. It’s far from bad, but it feels a little long considering what it’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to represent the new opening to The Dancing Cavalier, but it seems rather completely removed from it, encompassing its own story that doesn’t really seem to be about leading up to the action. It’s a big excuse for a number that’s big and wonderful to watch with its own narrative flow, but that flow kind of breaks up the flow of the overall picture. Still, I think it’s better placed and used than the “American in Paris” ballet at the end of An American in Paris.
Singin’ in the Rain is classic Hollywood doing what it did best: bringing together talent onto a project that probably shouldn’t exist in the first place. It’s a deliriously fun accident of a movie that looks lovingly at Hollywood’s own past and gives the current audience a fun time.