When I was a young teenager, looking for things to do while away on a Summer vacation, Singin’ in the Rain came on TV. I viewed the opportunity to watch it with a lot of suspicion, fearing that it would be two non-stop hours of old fashioned dancing. Also, though I’d always liked movies, I had grown up on Star Wars and basically felt that anything that didn’t feature space battles, blaster fights, and Han Solo must be, by definition, inferior. But the potential of boredom overcame my suspicions, and I’m glad they did, for now if I were asked I’d consider Singin’ in the Rain (1952) to be my favorite movie.
The film is co-directed by star Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, and lives up to its reputation as a classic. It turns out that if it had turned out to have been wall-to-wall singing and dancing, that would be all right because the choreography and dancing performances are stellar and completely engaging, and frankly, tons of fun. There are at least four pieces that could be that one great number in any other musical, but here are they are just the cream of a much larger crop. The dancing duties are split primarily between two virtuosos, Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor (with Debbie Reynolds adding her two bits in as well), whose talents constantly impress.
The direction and cinematography work beautifully with the choreography as well, most notably in the iconic title song, where all the elements work together to display what is in the lead character’s heart. The initial love song between Kathy and Don – You Were Meant for Me – is elegant and simple, and beautiful set on an impressive sound stage set. Donald O’Connor’s solo number, Make ‘Em Laugh, is a laugh-riot, and along with the lengthy Broadway Rhythm, supports the film’s theme of the contrast between the image of show biz and the reality beneath. But my favorite song is Moses Supposes, a duet that really has nothing to do with the plot except that it points out that when the two male leads get together, they just have a lot of fun…and so do we.
But the movie does go further than present wonderful musical images–it’s a highly engaging story that works on multiple levels. It’s set on a backdrop of Hollywood moving from silent film making to sound, though to call it backdrop is almost a disservice. Many of the film’s story beats are preoccupied with the challenges the actors and film makers face in this new world – a world in which one can no longer hide behind just appearances. This theme is reinforced in the love story between a movie star who is no longer certain if he has a place in the movies and a rising starlet who gets her break because of the industry’s change of focus. The overall idea is the tension between false appearance which preserve dignity versus an undignified but preferable reality, and it plays out all over the place, from the plot to the characterizations to the songs and dances.
Finally, Singin’ in the Rain is a very funny movie, in that timeless Hollywood sort-of-way. The cast is great, but the show-stealer is Jean Hagen as the villainous movie starlet of a bygone age, whose screechy, cunning but dim-witted character is hilarious all the way through.
So, Singin’ in the Rain is highly recommended. There are moments that are dated, to be sure, but they are more than made up for by the timeless comedy, talent, and joy that the film resonates with from beginning to end.