They just don’t make movies like this anymore. That may sound like a very cliché and overused statement but when talking about the classic “Singin’ in the Rain” it most certainly fits. This is a film that overflows with the happiness and joy that once was prevalent in motion pictures. In fact, I would challenge any real movie fan to watch this picture and not notice an ever-present grin spread across your face. But this is more than just a happy little dance picture. It’s filled with romance, lots of good humor, and it’s set during one of the biggest transition periods in cinema.
“Singin’ in the Rain” is first and foremost a musical and many call it the greatest motion picture musical of all time. While my personal preference is “An American in Paris”, it’s really hard to argue with them. Now I’m not a big fan of musicals so for a movie musical to get such a positive reaction from me says something. But this is simply a great film from start to finish and the musical numbers are some of the most memorable in movie history. Gene Kelly not only starred in the movie but he also co-directed it and handled the choreography. Kelly is amazing to watch and several of his numbers alongside the immensely talented Donald O’Connor cross classic dance with acrobatics. The results are playful and lighthearted yet display undeniable talents.
Kelly plays Don Lockwood, one half of a hugely popular silent movie couple. His partner is Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a beautiful blonde with the Hollywood good looks but with a screeching voice that seems made for the silent era. Their studio, Monumental Pictures, makes up a romance between the two. This was a real tactic that many studios would employ to increase the popularity of their performers with audiences. Don knows there is nothing between them but Lina didn’t get that memo. Her attraction to Don becomes a steady stumbling block for him throughout the picture.
While this is primarily a musical, it’s also a movie about making movies. As I mentioned elsewhere, I love it when a film takes us behind the scenes and shows us the creative process behind making motion pictures. “Singin’ in the Rain” is set during a pivotal time in cinema – the transition from silent films to “talkies”. It doesn’t dive deep into the history or process but it does use it honestly and effectively. Some silent stars made the transition fine. But others never made it because their voice work wasn’t good enough to be able to keep their audiences. Such was the problem Lina and Monumental Studios faced with her grinding voice.
Debbie Reynolds is one of the true delights of “Singin’ in the Rain”. Reynolds was only 19-years old when she made the film and this was her big break. She brings such a sprightly energy to every scene she’s in and she’s a perfect fit with Kelly and O’Connor. Reynolds would later say that “Singin’ in the Rain” was possibly her hardest shoot, but you would never know it by watching the picture. She’s a scene stealer and that’s high praise considering the heavyweights she shares the screen with. Her character Kathy Selden is a young aspiring performer who eventually becomes the romantic wedge between Don and Lina. This complicates the studio’s manufactured relationship between their two big stars but even they are won over by Kathy’s beautiful voice and amazing talent.
Another key ingredient is O’Connor whose dancing talents match Kelly’s step for step. He plays Cosmo Brown, Don’s longtime friend and proverbial sidekick. Cosmo’s quick wit and snappy one-liners provide the movie with some of its biggest laughs. But O’Connor may be most remembered for his spectacular dance number “Make ‘Em Laugh”. It’s a stunning display of physical comedy put to music where O’Connor throws his body around, runs up walls, and wrestles with a stage prop dummy. Words don’t do this dance sequence justice but you can’t watch it and not be wowed by O’Connor’s ability.
“Singin’ in the Rain” features a host of other memorable songs and dance numbers but interestingly enough only one, “Moses Supposes”, was an original song written for the movie. Every other song was pulled from MGM’s own music vault. But Gene Kelly, the true mastermind behind the production, was able to make these earlier tunes synonymous with this film. This was never more evident than with the title track. The lyrics and music of “Singin’ in the Rain” was written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown all the way back 1929. But it’s Gene Kelly’s legendary dance number on a city street during a downpour that the song is instantly associated with. Kelly twirls his umbrella, stomps in puddles, and swings on light posts in what has come to be considered one of the greatest movie moments in history.
While I do love “Singin’ in the Rain’ immensely, there is still one gripe I have with it after all these years. Later in the film there is a huge production number that lasts a good 15 minutes. Now there’s nothing wrong with the number itself. It features the wonderful “Gotta Dance” song and it looks amazing. The problem is it yanks me out of the film’s story every time. Now it isn’t just a random dance number. Don is sharing his vision for his new movie with a studio executive and we basically watch what he’s envisioning. Again it’s a fine number but, just like in “An American in Paris”, it pulls me out of a story that I’m completely invested in.
“Singin’ in the Rain” is a true motion picture classic and an absolute joy to watch even for tepid musical fans like me. Debbie Reynolds wins us over with her spunkiness and beauty. Donald O’Connor wows us with his feet and great humor. Jean Hagen pretty much becomes the antagonist of the film and gives us one hilarious classic line after another. But the glue that holds it all together is Gene Kelly. Both in front of and behind the camera, Kelly’s fingerprints are all over this film. His performance is pitch-perfect and his wonderful chemistry with O’Connor and especially Reynolds is key. But it’s his amazing dance numbers that still resonate through time. Kelly gave 110% to his dance and later in life his body would show the effects of that. But it’s that unwavering devotion and maximum effort that we see in every number he performs.
This is a movie of a bygone era – an era when an audience could be impressed by the sheer happiness of a story and moved by the footwork of a master. Perhaps I am being too cynical, but it’s hard to imagine a large modern movie audience sitting down and enjoying this picture if it were released today. But for many of us we still have “Singin’ in the Rain” and the reminders of the great history of filmmaking it brings with it during each viewing. Unlike today, it didn’t need a load of profanity and distasteful raunch to be funny. It didn’t need nudity or constant sexual references to be romantic. None of these modern movie crutches were needed to make this a truly timeless film. Like I said at the beginning, they just don’t make movies like this anymore!