by Dennis Polifroni
(U.S.A. 1952 103 min.) DVD
p. Arthur Freed d. Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen w. Betty Comden, Adolf Green m. Nacio Herb Brown lyrics. Arthur Freed ph. Harold Rosson e. Adrienne Fazan art. Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell
Gene Kelly (Don Lockwood), Debbie Reynolds (Kathy Seldon), Donald O’Connor (Cosmo Brown), Jean Hagan (Lina Lamont), Millard Mitchell (R. F. Simpson), Rita Moreno (Zelda Zanders), Douglas Fowley (Roscoe Dexter), King Donovan (Publicity Head), Judy Landon (Olga Mara), Madge Blake (Radio Interviewer), Cyd Charisse (Dream Girl/Gun Moll)
It really is an iconic moment when you think about it…
The protagonist struts out of a doorway and onto an open-air set that fans out to the entire expanse of the film frame. Smiling, he strolls past the camera with a slight spring in his step. The slow appearance of a curl that will lead to a big smile begins to grow on his face the way a weed would grow in the presence of many a rainy night. He continues to stroll, the happiness of his day has lead to his evening and the man begins to hum.
Do-Be Do-Do… Do-Be Do-Be Do-Dooo…
He stops for a moment and turns to face the camera directly. At this moment he softly warbles the first five words of one most recognizable songs in cinema history. Then…
His jet black leather military boot careens into the chest of a man bound and gagged on the floor. The bound man trembles with fear and shakes in nervousness as he is held down by two other men. The protagonist continues to sing…
“I’ll walk down the lane, with a happy refrain…”
The men holding the frightened man down begin to applaud and cheer for the song. The more they cheer, the more the boot swings.
It’s really amazing to think how many of today’s movie-going core generation know, in fact can sing, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, but have never seen the classic musical that famously positions the song at the center of the action and takes its name as the title of the film. Most young cinema lovers know it from its second most iconic use and it’s from the scene described above and featured as one of the many showstoppers (if you wanna call it a showstopper) in Stanley Kubrick’s frightening look into the future, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. That the song, in this capacity, can jog the brain functions of today’s youth, one has to be grateful. With Rap and Hip-Hop predominantly running rampant across the globe it’s really amazing that an old, brilliant standard from yesteryear can stick like glue to the numbed minds of anyone under the age of 20 these days. The true shame of it all has to do more with a lack of exploration than it does with the rash that has plagued music for the past decade and a half now. Simply put, the current generation isn’t an iota as inquisitive as the ones that took center stage before their births. But, it’s not just music. They all know about the big ape that climbed the Empire State Building without ever having seen KING KONG, and they all know the line “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” without ever having seen Clark Gable utter those immortal words to a shocked Vivien Leigh during the final moments of the immortal GONE WITH THE WIND. It’s really about us. Our lack of time and patience to truly educate, to light an enthusiastic fire under the ass of the young to look deeper and further into the rabbit hole has brought in a big sense of gluttony to them and a total lack of interest for the finer things from the past.
Myself, I’m always a bit ashamed by the disservice we do to kids by not pushing them a little harder and not showing a more enthusiastic spirit in something they have never experienced. For, if we did, they would be knowing songs like SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN for the wonderful thing it really is and not just for that moment of debauchery that figured so prominently in that acclaimed Kubrick film of sex, rape, torture and ultra-violence. They would know it as the anthem that it was meant to be, a joyous ode to the carefree nature of love and putting all your worries behind you after the arrow of cupid has pierced your heart. If more kids started out with the likes of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, PINOCCHIO, THE WIZARD OF OZ, E.T. and CASABLANCA the world would probably be a better place.
As it stands, has there ever been a musical? Shit, I’ll go further than that… Has there ever been a film that can induce as many smiles and grins as lightning quick as this seminal song and dance comedy? I know, myself, I have been heard to say that it is the only movie I know of that, despite your house burning down to the ground, your dog dying, your wife or girlfriend running off with the ENTIRE varsity football team in an orgiastic whirlwind of booze, drugs and bestiality, and every dime being drained from your savings account through identity theft (Yikes! That’s the one that would really hurt!), could still reduce you to giddy smiles and a total forgetting of the hardships and hurts in your life. It may very well be the one Hollywood movie that could melt the hardest and blackest of hearts (someone should ship a few DVD copies to the Taliban).
To this end, one can understand why the friendship between Gene Kelly and Stanley Kubrick was strained after Kelly’s viewing of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. The centerpiece moment of Kelly’s most beloved film had been reduced to underscore gang violence and a brutal rape. The two directors, friends before the premiere of ORANGE in the States in 1971, never spoke to each other again. In Kubrick’s defense, I would say that Kelly over-reacted. If anything, he should have taken the recreation of his most iconic song and dance number as an homage of a classic moment within the confines of what would become just as much a classic as the film it imitates. It is a recognition of the influence that SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN has had on people from around the world and a definition of the boundless joy anyone can feel when remembering what it’s like to sing your cares and the pressures of society away (yes, even if you’re a despicable, scumbag criminal like Alex DeLarge).
Seeing SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN recently, I’m again bowled over by its breathtaking bravado and lightning-fast pacing. It comes on to the viewer like gang-busters and within seconds of it starting it quickens the pulse and sends electrical waves of pleasure down the spine. The stirring, building scherzo that plays behind the roaring MGM logo segues into an explosion of sound that immediately reveals the smiling, singing faces of the three leads of the cast and sees them energetically tramping through puddles in a truncated version of the highlight song and visually arresting main titles sequence decked out in rubber boots, yellow raincoats and umbrellas. It’s a brief bit, but it fully entrances the audience and takes them by the throat for a ride that won’t let them go for a full hour and 45 minutes. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a roller-coaster, a musical action film that steams ahead, full throttle and never allows you to take a breath.
I find this true in many facts both discussed and not by the major thinkers in film criticism. Many have noted that there is very little “down” time between the music and dance sequences. Yet, many also have commented that between the numbers is some of the funniest comedy material ever concocted for the big screen. If it were stripped of its music, songs and dance sequences, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN would STILL hold up as one of the funniest comedies from the 1950’s.
The story is simple yet complicated at the same time. Don Lockwood (Kelly) is a silent screen star whose off-screen life has been complicated by the insistence of his production company that he maintain the appearance of a romance between his on-screen partner, the beautiful and voluptuous Lina Lamont (Hagan). Together, they are one of the silent screens most bankable duos, hitting box-office gold with just about every film they make together. However, Don cannot stand Lina’s narcissism and her clingy insistence that she shadow him even into the bathroom. Lina also harbors a secret, and when the movies decide to make the change from silent to talking pictures her glass-shattering voice (think of Mae Questel voicing Betty Boop on speed) becomes the albatross around the neck of Lockwood and Lamont and panic over the future longevity of the duo and the life of the studio ensues.
But, what to do?
It’s only by chance that Don happens to fall into the lap (literally, and in one of Kelly’s most acrobatic moments in the film) of a showgirl, Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds in her screen debut), who just so happens to have knock-out singing voice. With the help of his always conniving pal Cosmo (Donald O’Connor in the big comedic performance of the film), they convince the heads of the studio, and Lina, to use Kathy’s voice as a dub for Lina on the soundtracks to keep the secret from getting out and from destroying the popular team.
History couldn’t have been better preserved or funnier than in the recreations of the turmoil many of the studios went through when switching over from silent to sound. Microphones needed to be placed invisibly so the audiences would not see them. Actors and actresses looked like they were talking to trees or furniture rather than to the person they should be speaking to (one of the funniest moments in the film has Lina complaining that she cannot “make love to a BUSH!”) and many times the voices weren’t recorded properly and wound up sounding muffled or out of sync in the final presentation. One glorious joke comes hot on the heals of the one before it and it’s really amazing, looking at it today, that the film can be seen as both entertaining and somewhat educational at the same time.
But, through it all, the jokes and the lessons learned act like stitching in an elaborately tailored costume for a grand ball. They string together what may very well be the most recognizable and jaw-dropping musical numbers in the whole of the history of film.
What boggles the mind, however, is that some of the most exquisite or knock-out brilliant numbers are often referred to as nothing special within the story-line of the film and that, in itself, is another terrific joke concocted by the directors and the screen-writers. Take, for instance, the very first number we see on screen. Don relates to a radio interviewer that he and Cosmo started from humble beginnings and only worked in the finest of places (in fact, the first place seen is a dumpy saloon). He then says they moved on to Vaudeville where they tried to keep their chins up despite the awful material they were handed and it’s here that a major joke illustrating the opposite is seen. FIT AS A FIDDLE could be one of the best tap-dance numbers ever recorded on film. What is supposed to be a throw-away number, seen in flashback, sees Kelly and O’Connor tap dancing, doing Russian kicks, acrobatics and all the while singing and playing violins. It’s absolutely amazing when you think of the two minute length of the number and for it to be so filled with such a myriad of detail. It’s really a breathless moment that kind of sets the bar for what is to come in the rest of the movie. I remember Ronald Haver, on a CRITERION COLLECTION laserdisc audio commentary for RAIN stating to the effect that it’s almost as if Kelly and Donen felt you had to whallop the audience into submission right away or they would lose them to the thinking that the film would be nowhere near as good as AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (Kelly’s hit from the previous year that went all the way to the Best Picture trophy at the Oscars). Boy were they wrong and did the persistence ever pay off as FIT AS A FIDDLE could easily trump anything done in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS.
The more I replay the film in my head the more I realize that there really isn’t much to be said about a film that has had so much said about it over the years and decades since its release. Pauline Kael rescued the film from obscurity after the film failed in 1952 and likened it to the single greatest musical ever made in one of her many novel length college lectures on Hollywood film-making at its finest. However, for me, it’s all about the music and the numbers surrounding them. No more of a joyous ode to finding a perfect love could ever be illustrated in song than the moment Kelly zips up his umbrella and dances through the onslaught of a massive rain storm in the title number (the back-story on the number was that Kelly was suffering from a bad case of the flu and was harboring a bodily temperature of 104 when he did it again and again and again to get it right) not caring a fig that he’s getting soaked but only reveling in the love that has bitten him. Donald O’Connor takes MAKE EM LAUGH to the highest extremes with back flips, running up walls and falling through stage scenery in what would be the tour-de-force of his entire career. Reynolds, well, for her first film gig, she couldn’t have pulled it off more beautifully than she does with the three numbers she has on display. ALL I DO (IS DREAM OF YOU) is a show-girl delight that has her kicking it with a dozen other beauties and all the time keeping her wits and her consternation for Don illustrated in every pass she makes in front of him. The girl is, literally, singing and dancing while acting out her anger at the main character all at once. GOOD MORNING has her hoofing it with both Kelly and O’Connor and it’s hard to tell the difference between the seasoned pros (Kelly and O’Connor) and the newbie in the crowd (the legend is that, forever a trooper and looking to impress Kelly, she went through take after grueling tap-dancing take without a complaint. However, she was put on medical leave for a week after the completion of the number as she blew every blood vessel in her feet and was seen leaving the set with a trail of blood following her).
In the end, though, it comes down to Kelly and Donen pulling out the stops on some of the best loved Arthur Freed songs and no number in the film is more worthy of praise for its lush visuals and physical audacity than the Broadway Melody Ballet. Kelly was a big lover of the fine art of ballet and was always looking for new ways or perfect numbers to show off his talents in this particular field of dance (Astaire may have been the more perfect classically trained dancer but Kelly puts his heart into every movement he makes-it’s apples and oranges-but I’ll take Kelly and his evocations of soul in his dancing over the slick precision of Astaire any day of the week). The ballet sequence in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN could be the directing duos best moment and the one that should be put in a time capsule. Starting off in a burst of color that evokes impressionist painters fused with the Broadway drawings of Al Hirschfeld (Cedric Gibbons and Randall Duell deserve extra credit for their jaw dropping art and set design), the number starts off as an effusive tap dance fight with Cyd Charisse as a gangster’s moll that Kelly steals the attention from. If sex could be personified in dance in the 1950’s and not get killed by the censors of the time than this moment is the one that slipped through the cracks. Every move that Kelly makes to follow the lead of Charisse suggests lustful longing and unattainable sexual freedom. Considering the year this was made, I’m absolutely bowled over by the skimpiness of the dress that Charisse is parading around in the barroom sequence (complete with a gangster boyfriend at her side, flipping a coin and looking a lot like Paul Muni in SCARFACE) and the amount of leg that she is allowed to display. I’ll bet there were a lot of horny teenage boys in the theatres running for fresh air after the film was over. But, this wasn’t enough because as the barroom number slows, the surroundings fade out and reveal an abstract background that illustrates the isolation of a new couple and the tunnel vision one gets when finding the right mate. This is fused with an all-out jump into every kind of great ballet move seen on a stage and it’s here that Kelly, as choreographer, takes the light-heartedness of Hollywood musical fare into the stratosphere of fine art. Every step, blowing of a scarf and twirl are accentuated with a burst of orchestral music reminiscent of masters like Tchiakovsky. It is the moment that Kelly and Donen honed all there skills as directors and visual artists to produce moving masterstroke.
Visually, the movie cannot be faulted. The costuming, production design and cinematography capture all the angles and ages of the periods that run through this film with breathless accuracy. For instance, I love the detail of the Hollywood party in R.F.’s mansion. Look carefully and you’ll see representations of every type of fashion made popular in early 1930’s style (Judy Landon as Olga Mara is a spot on representation of Gloria Swanson) and all of it captured in the green tinted camera work of Harold Rosson. There really was more to SINGIN IN THE RAIN than most would remember it to be. It is, at once, a film you remember solely for the music and the dance. Then again, it’s a wonderfully performed character study of the types that made Hollywood of the late 20’s and early 30’s so notable (Jean Hagan waltzed her way into an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress as the conniving chanteuse that thinks she’s got the world strung to her pinky finger) and then, again, it’s a biting comedy about an age many of us have only heard of in stories passed down by generations and altered again and again and again.
No. SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is exactly what Pauline Kael championed it as back in the days when her voice was one of the most powerful in film criticism. It’s a work of art so seamless that you take the art for granted and just go with the joy of it all…
That is the greatest compliment for and the truest miracle of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.
Like Kelly sang in the title number, it really is a glorious feeling.
In my mind, it’s also the greatest screen musical of them all and one of my favorite films EVER…
No word I write could ever do it justice.
Just gotta see it to believe it and, when you do, relish the fact that there will never be another as good as it is…
How Singin in the Rain made the ‘Elite 70′:
Allan Fish’s No. 1 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s No. 1 choice
Pat Perry’s No. 1 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s No. 1 choice
Greg Ferrara’s No. 3 choice
Sam Juliano’s No. 4 choice
Judy Geater’s No. 6 choice