“Dignity, always dignity”
With just two Oscar nominations—for supporting actress and musical score—the lack of love for Singin’ in the Rain at its release shouldn’t be too surprising. Crafted by MGM’s Arthur Freed to reuse the songs he and Nacio Herb Brown wrote for a slew of musicals in the 1930s, the film feels like a pastiche from start to finish, its flimsy underlying look behind the scenes at a few silent movie stars making the transition to talkies a simple construct on which to sing and dance. No disrespect to writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden, in fact they should be commended for being able to string all those songs into a coherent story at all, I just mention the historical detail to understand its lackluster appeal back in 1952. Now, however, it is revered as one of the greatest musicals, if not films, of all time. And, frankly, there’s a legitimate case for such lofty praise.
I think extravaganza would be an apt word to describe Stanley Donen’s film (co-directed and choreographed by its star, Gene Kelly). An homage to the period these songs were written for, the plot puts us back to 1927 on the cusp of the newest silent film masterpiece from the luxurious and beautiful Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). It’s on the red carpet that we’re introduced to the dynamic duo, their right-hand man, pianist Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), pushed to the side in lieu of the crowd’s fervent desire to see the legends of the silver screen. Lamont is oddly kept silent, her smile and looks causing men and women to swoon, while Lockwood basks in the attention, a toothy, extra-large grin showing us viewers his true patronizing viewpoint toward the whole act. He got his start with Brown in music, vaudeville, and comedy before breaking through as a stunt man, after all. Fame was earned rather than assumed like with the haughty, materialistic Lamont.
But as the year denotes, this is where The Jazz Singer changes the game. Talkies are introduced and the world goes bonkers for its synchronized sound and picture, every studio taking note and scrambling to release their own. Monumental Pictures is no different, deciding mid-shoot to change their in-production work, The Dueling Cavalier, into The Dancing Cavalier. There is a hitch, however, and it is in the form of Miss Lina’s unpolished, grating voice. Over-acting her bread and butter, the nuance of a true performance is beyond her skills; the voice is her biggest handicap, but her broad stylings and lack of dance capability render her almost useless. Besides the fact she is the face of the studio, the rumored fiancé to her leading man, and a star to the masses, producer R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) wouldn’t mind leaving her to pasture. This is a new era and it calls for a new breed of performer.
And this is where Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Selden comes in. Added to the tale as an unsuspecting bystander whose car is in the right place at the right time to save Kelly from a hoard of unruly fans, her introduction is one of stuck up musings on the field of performance. Feigning ignorance towards this handsome man’s identity that hijacked her passenger seat, she goes on to denounce cinema as a medium for pantomiming hacks. She is a flesh and blood performer, you see, giving her all each night on stage—or so she says. What ends up being the truth—right when Kelly’s Lockwood begins to doubt his skill, wondering if he’s just as talentless as Lamont—is that Miss Selden is a chorus girl, her current gig to jump out of a cake at a Monumental party. You can imagine her embarrassment seeing Lockwood staring at her with a sly, knowing smile, the red-faced dancer resorting to violence and the throwing of a cake that misses its target, smashing into Lamont’s face and ultimately getting her fired.
But Selden is the key to The Dancing Cavalier’s success and to the void in Lockwood’s love life. Searching weeks on end for her, a fateful spotting by Brown during another production brings her back into the fold, her immeasurable skill just the thing for Cosmo’s idea to overdub all Lamont’s scenes with Kathy’s voice. Simpson is brought on board and the plan is set in motion, Selden’s work so good that the studio promises to give her a starring role once everything is done. And all looks good until a jealous supporting player in Zelda Zanders (Rita Moreno) lets the cat out of the bag to Lamont, the starlet bringing in lawyers to threaten lawsuit if defamed as lip-synching. Lockwood and Brown refuse to let talent languish in the wings, though, and orchestrate a grand reveal to show the world their newest leading lady. The tale of cattiness and position jockeying is straight out of the headlines of today, new replacing old in grand fashion, the public easily swayed to the freshest face.
Singin’ in the Rain therefore has about as much material to fill a short film, the infusion of music and wonderful tap dancing sequences adding to its runtime and intrigue. There are a couple scenes plugged in that would appear out of place in anything that took itself more seriously, but right at home here. With a jarring montage of ‘talkie’ numbers, bright colors and quick cuts splicing it together, towards the beginning and a fantasy number of Lockwood and Brown’s new “Broadway Medley” for The Dancing Cavalier at the end, complete with stunning sets, dance numbers, and an optical illusion-esque staircase to showcase Kelly’s unrivaled brilliance at his craft, the movie never fears treading onto tangents as long as they give an excuse to play another song. We sit back and revel in the excitement onscreen, the permanent smiles on Kelly, Brown, and Reynolds’ faces showing how much fun they’re having, our own enjoyment impossible to contain as well.
But it isn’t all song and dance that captivates audiences; it’s also the never-ending comedy throughout. Kelly hams it up, start to finish; Hagen’s voice is a riot, never getting old as it pierces the air—her diction classes and failed attempts to speak into the microphones on set are hilarious, sending up real problems the industry had—and Reynolds is a joy with her straight man opposite the rest. It is O’Connor who steals the show, though, my girlfriend’s declaration of him being Jim Carrey forty years before the Canadian made a splash on TV completely true. Rubber-faced and prone to pratfalls, his expressions and oneliners are sprinkled in perfectly. These performances turn this revered musical into one of the best comedies I’ve seen, the inside look into the industry more relevant now, decades later, all the accolades much deserved. And to think, it’s all these things without me even mentioning the iconic rain-soaked number with Kelly singing the titular song. We all know that one; it’s time for you to experience the rest.