by John Greco
I’m singin in the rain
just singin in the rain
What a glorious feeling
I’m happy again
I’m laughing at clouds
So dark up above
The sun’s in my heart
And I’m ready for love
Is there anything more exuberant than watching Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain? Generally considered one of, if not, the grandest of all musicals, and whom am I to argue, “Singin’ in the Rain” is a joyous delight, celebrating movies, music, dance and the talent of a cast and creators who rarely were better. Critics over the years have been in agreement, from Pauline Kael who called it “the most enjoyable of musicals” to David Kehr, who said it is “one of the shining glories of the American musical’ to Roger Ebert who wrote, “There is no movie musical more fun as ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ and few that remain as fresh over the years.” Even New York Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowthers wrote at the time of the film’s release, “Guaranteed to put you in a buttercup mood.” And let’s face it, if a film can put old sourpuss Crowthers in a “buttercup mood” that my friends, is one hell of a movie! (1)
Surprisingly the film, while it met with good reviews, was not considered the instant classic, top of the heap, musical it would be judged in later years. Sure, it was a hit financially but overshadowed in accolades by Kelly’s previous film, Vincent Minnelli’s “An American in Paris,” released only five months earlier and destined to win Best Picture of the Year for 1951.(2) The Kelly/Donen film’s only Academy Award nominations were for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Jean Hagen and Best Musical Score for a Musical Picture (Lennie Hayton). This was the year of DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” generally considered the worst film to ever win Best Picture. Other nominees that year included Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” thought to be the early favorite, John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge,” John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” and the mediocre “Ivanhoe.” Hard to believe no one thought the joyous MGM musical was worthy of a spot on the Best Picture nominee list that year.
The film is set in Hollywood. It’s 1927 and the arrival of a feared new technology…talkies! Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are two of the biggest silent screen stars in the world, beloved by all. But the silent’s are dead, the public has heard the future and it has a voice. Unfortunately, Lina Lamont does not. Their first sound film together is a flop, both stars are laughed off the screen, Don Lockwood for his overly dramatic reading and Lina for a high pitched screechy mouse of a voice. The studio wants to savage the picture but millions are stake, so hey, why not turn it into a musical.
And what music it is! Arthur Freed, then head of his own unit at MGM and his former songwriting partner Nacio Herb Brown were popular songwriters back in their earlier days with many of their songs populating early musicals of the 1930’s. Freed, now a big time producer at MGM, wanted to incorporate some of his and his partners old songs into a new movie, and collect some royalties in the process. The title he decided would be “Singin’ in the Rain,” a song that appeared on the screen for the first time in the early musical, “Hollywood Review of 1929,” whose cast included Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, Laurel and Hardy among many others. Over the years it became the most popular song in their catalog. When Freed hired Betty Condom and Adolph Green to write the screenplay, he told them, “here’s the title and some songs, you guys come up with a story.”
That’s just what they did, but not before some missteps did they settle on the idea of setting the film at the dawn of the sound era. Realizing the songs evoked the mood and sound of the jazz period of the 1920’s they wisely selected to set the film in that period. The two lead characters would be Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, movie stars, admired around the world with the naive public, who devoured fan magazine stories, assuming that the screen’s most romantic couple were just that way not only on screen but in real life too, as did Lina who read those same magazines!
Gene Kelly, who was at the top of his career at this point, along with his directing partner, Stanley Donen were brought in. They began researching the period the film was set in by watching films like “Platinum Blonde.” The Kelly/Donen team was responsible for the pioneering 1949 classic musical, “On the Town.” Kelly himself had just finished filming “An American in Paris.” Added to the cast as Kelly’s right hand man, Cosmo Brown, was fellow hoofer Donald O’Conner, temporarily rescued from his “Francis the Talking Mule” pictures. The third part of the starring trio was a young nineteen year talent by the name of Debbie Reynolds who was fit as a fiddle and ready to become a star. Reynolds was not a natural dancer but she was a hard worker, and Kelly worked her harder than she ever been worked before, up to ten hours a day of practice with Kelly’s assistants, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne. And the results show on the screen. Just take a look at the “All I Do Is Dream of You” number, she may not be up to the level of Kelly and O’Connor but she is a sparkling delight from the moment she jumps out of that cake.
The movie’s most memorable scene, and while there are plenty to choose from, has to be the title song number with Kelly and his umbrella singin’ and sloshin’ in the rain. It’s a sing-a-long moment if there ever was one, one of cinema’s finest examples of art and entertainment merging together in perfect synchrony. To quote the title song, “it a glorious feeling” and from beginning to end it is one of the most memorable sequences ever put on celluloid.
The song “Singin’ in the Rain” has been used many times over the years in other films including “Speak Easily” (1932) performed by Jimmy Durante, “Little Nellie Kelly” (1940) sung by Judy Garland and Stanley Kubrick’s violent futuristic classic, “A Clockwork Orange” as well as the previously mentioned “Hollywood Review of 1929” where it was performed multiple times in the film by various cast members including The Brox Sisters and Cliff Edwards.
Other numbers shine too. Donald O’Connor’s solo highlight, “Make em’ Laugh” is an energetic ride filled with funny moments, and one of two new numbers written for the movie (“Moses Supposes” was the other). Freed and Brown pretty much plagiarized the tune from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” written for the 1948 MGM musical, “The Pirate” which happened to also star Gene Kelly. (3) Add to this, great numbers such as “All I Do Is Dream OF You,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Good Morning, Good Morning,” “Fit as a Fiddle” and of course the title song and you have one of the grandest most magnificent soundtracks of all time.
The film is also a gentle satire of the early days of Hollywood and movie making. We have Lina Lamont, not remembering to speak directly into a microphone hidden in a flower. She is constantly turning her head away from the mike, her voice fading in and out of its limited range. This type of situation is well documented with many such incidents during the early days of the talkies. Don Lockwood was a character loosely based on silent film star John Gilbert whose career collapsed with the advent of sound. In the film within a film, “The Dueling Cavalier,” the Lockwood character uses lines Gilbert spoke in “His Glorious Night” (1929) where his exaggerated reading of dialogue to his co-star, Catherine Dale Owen included the lines, “I love you, I love you, I love you” which was followed by howls of laughter from the audience for both Gilbert’s performance and for the fictional Lockwood. June Allyson, always the young naive sweet kid was the basis for Debbie Reynolds innocent Kathy Selden. Gene Kelly stated that Reynolds was such an innocent herself at this point in her career; she was perfect for the role. Other gentle stabs include the character of Dora Bailey (Madge Blake) who was modeled on a young Louella Parsons.
It’s needless to point out but the three leads are all at the top of their game. Gene Kelly was at the pinnacle of his career, O’Connor never had a better role to show off his talent, and Debbie Reynolds became a star in her own right. Jean Hagen had her greatest role and is a real treat as the scratchy high pitched witch Lina, richly deserving her Oscar nomination. Her character, or at least her character’s voice, is reminiscent of Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday.” One major difference is Billie wanted to improve herself while Lina is too vain and selfish, just wanting to use people for her own benefit. Screen writers Condom and Green based Lina Lamont on a combination of 1920’s screen star Mae Murray, whose career was silenced by the talkies, and Holiday’s Billie Dawn. Hagen was perfect for the role, she had even played Billie Dawn in a road production of the Broadway play. Also in the cast are Millard Fillmore, Cyd Charrise and a very young Rita Moreno.
If the film has a flaw, it is the “Broadway Ballet” that stops the lively vigorous energy of the rest of the film. After recently watching “On the Town” and “An American in Paris” it became evident that either choreographer Gene Kelly or MGM’s musical unit had a thing for inserting these ballet sequences into their films with varying degrees of success. Here, it stops the film cold. It is not that the sequence is bad, it is very good however, it does seem to muddle the pacing compared to the rest of the film.
“Singin’ in the Rain” was the Easter presentation at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 1952 where it had its world premiere on March 27th of that year. The Hollywood premiere was a couple of weeks later, April 9th, at the Egyptian Theater. A few weeks after, the film opened in general release. In a poll taken at the time that followed audience reaction, more than 85 percent of the audience considered the film very good or excellent. Donald O’Connor edged out Gene Kelly as giving the most enjoyable performance. Debbie Reynolds finished a distance third.
“Singin’ in the Rain” is one of my three favorite musicals, the others being “West Side Story,” and “Gold Diggers of 1933” The film sparkles with energy, radiates with marvelous songs and shines with superb dance turning those dark clouds up above into a shiny glorious sensation.
1) Crowther’s review was not a full rave. He seemed to misunderstand, and complained about the title song not having anything to do with the rest of the movie. He states “Singin’ in the Rain,” has no more to do with its story than it has to do with performing dogs. Of all things, this song-and-dance contrivance is an impudent, offhand comedy about the outlandish making of movies back in the sheik-and-flapper days when they were bridging- the perilous chasm from silent to talking films. And its plot, if that’s what you’d call it, concerns a silent film star who is linked with a slut-voiced leading lady while wooing a thrushy new young thing.” (I assume Crowther’s use of the word “thrushy” to describe Debbie Reynolds character was meant to be as a small songbird and not as a fungal infection as labeled in the dictionary.) Crowther misses the entire mood of the Freed/Brown songs which invoke the flapper era and the beginning of the sound in film. There is a musical mood or tone to all the songs, a 1920’s Jazz age feel that is in synch with the storyline and smoothly makes the connection.
(2) “An American in Paris” received much critical acclaim when released and won the Best Picture Oscar of the year in 1951 over Elia Kazan’s screen version of Tennessee William’ s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and George Steven’s “A Place in the Sun.” That same year Gene Kelly won an honorary Academy Award for his achievement in Choreography .
(3) Cole Porter never sued though he had a very good case to do so. From what I have read he felt beholden to Arthur Freed who helped him during a low point in his career.
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