A+ List: Singin’ in the Rain

You will not learn anything by watching Singin’ in the Rain. It will not make you a better person or help you understand the human condition. But for 103 exhilarating minutes, this movie will entertain you like no other.

Singin’ in the Rain contains several of the best dance routines in film history. And when no one is singing or dancing, it’s one of the funniest comedies of the 1950s. The movie’s perfect mixture of dancing and laughs earns Singin’ in the Rain a spot on my A+ list of great films.

I caught Singin’ in the Rain Saturday afternoon at a Pacific Film Archive
Movie Matinee for All Ages. It was the first time I’d seen it on the big screen in at least 20 years. The audience response, with laughter and applause (and one little kid’s “Yeww!” at a kiss), added to the fun.

Singin’ in the Rain mines laughs from Hollywood’s sudden transition from silent films to talkies. It follows the fortune of a swashbuckling movie star who has to make the painful transition to sound (Gene Kelly, who also co-directed and co-choreographed the movie).

The talkie revolution wrought fear and confusion, which makes it a perfect subject for comedy. Two back-to-back sequences–of shooting an early dialog scene and suffering through a sneak preview–are inspired by actual early talkie disasters, and are all the funnier for it.

Of course, they’re exaggerated. Singin’ in the Rain should not be taken as a history lesson. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green telescoped changes in the movie industry that happened over four years into less than one. But who cares? This isn’t a documentary; it’s a musical comedy.

The songs, almost all of which had come from previous MGM musicals, get their definitive versions here. No one remembers a group of scared-of-the-microphone stars (including Buster Keaton) belting out Singin’ in the Rain in Hollywood Revue of 1929. But Gene Kelly’s solo performance–a soaking-wet man so happy he’s bursting–is dance-on-film perfection.

And it’s not even the film’s best number. That, in my opinion, goes to Donald O’Connor’s solo, Make ‘Em Laugh. He falls, he jumps, he hits on a dummy and then gets into a fight with it. He runs up walls and backflips off of them. His astonishing acrobatics and comically rubber face puts this number is a league of its own. When you watch the number, you don’t know if you should laugh, enjoy the catchy song, or just be amazed at O’Connor’s physicality. Soon you give in and enjoy all three.

Those are just the solos. Kelly and O’Connor do a great duet, also comic, in Moses Supposes. Ingénue Debbie Reynolds (who had no significant dance training before being casted–although you wouldn’t know it by watching the movie) joins them for the upbeat Good Morning.

And then there’s The
Broadway Ballet. Running almost 14 minutes, it tells its own fable of gaining fame and losing love, completely separate from the film’s Hollywood-set story. There’s no dialog and little singing; the story is told in pantomime and dance. It’s sad, funny, spectacular, and sexy. Kelly is the only performer in the Ballet and the rest of the movie.

Kelly was the type of actor/director who put the overall movie above his own ego. He lets O’Connor steal the show. And when he’s not stealing it, Jean Hagen does as a silent movie star with a voice like fingernails on a chalkboard.

The great dancer Cyd Charisse turns up in The Broadway Ballet. She dances with the litheness of a cat…or a snake. Her dance with Kelly is so sexy I’m not sure how it got passed the censors.

Behind the camera, we can thank Stanley Donen, Kelly’s collaborator in directing and choreographing. Most of the songs were written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown in the first decade of talking pictures. Freed went on to become the best producer of musicals in Hollywood history, and Singin’ in the Rain was his greatest achievement.

Singin’ in the Rain–originally shot in Technicolor’s three-strip process–was screened at the PFA digitally off of a DCP. The image quality was decent, but nowhere near as impressive as other three-strip-to-digital transfers I’ve seen. The audio was a relatively new 5.1 mix; I would have preferred the original mono, but the surround version is okay.