Friday, March 11, 2011

Classic Film Review: Singin' In The Rain

Singin' In The Rain (1952)
Directed By: Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor

"Hello. This is a demonstration of a talking picture. Notice, it is a picture of me and I'm talking. Note how my lips and the sound issuing from them are synchronized together in perfect unison."
~Man in Talking Picture Demonstration

For the longest time, whenever I heard the song "Singin' in the Rain" I thought of Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in A Clockwork Orange. Having seen that film for the first time years ago, I always found the song menacing as a direct result of Stanley Kubrick and Co. Try as I might, I just couldn't picture a happy, smiling, dancing Gene Kelly. I figured the song was "ruined" for me for good.

I eventually saw Singin' in the Rain in a university film course. For some reason, it didn't leave much of an impact. I recently purchased the DVD on a whim and decided to give it a second shot, more than four years after that first initial viewing. I figured I had to be missing something because I've always loved musicals and this is one of the classics -- one of the ones other musicals aspire to be. I'm glad I gave it that second shot because Singin' in the Rain is one of those rare films that makes you smile from start to finish. With a plot in a constant state of motion, it's one of the fastest-paced films I've ever seen.

It's 1927 and Hollywood's golden movie duo, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), are threatened with a potentially career-ending situation -- the world's first "talkie", The Jazz Singer, is released to rave reviews and audience accolades. Don fears that his limited acting ability will be revealed if he's required to actually recite dialogue while Lina, his obnoxious co-star, has a high-pitched voice that would grate on anyone's nerves. When Don shares his concerns with his longtime friend, Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), the woman he loves, they both convince Don to make his next feature (a costume drama set during the French Revolution) a full-out musical to show off Don's talent in singing and dancing. The only problem -- Lina and her voice.

All musicals require a suspension of disbelief, arguably even moreso then some action films. People, sometimes complete strangers, are liable to break out into a perfectly synchronized song and dance, only to resume their every day activities the moment the song is over. If you can sit through the Sharks and Jets duking it out through song and dance in West Side Story, chances are you can just allow yourself to enjoy the way Singin' in the Rain moves the plot forward with music -- and what a fun plot it is!

I've always had a soft spot for Hollywood films that mock or satirize Hollywood (think Sunset Blvd. or All About Eve). It was clever to take an actual event from film history (the 1927 release of the first "talkie", The Jazz Singer) and use it to propel forward a musical about an actor trying to make it in a rapidly changing film industry. As Debbie Reynolds' Kathy tells Don at one point, "The personalities on screen just don't impress me. I mean, they don't talk, they don't act. They just make a lot of dumb show." With the advent of "talkies" the possibilities for film were endless and, back in the those old studio days, when actors were trained to be triple threats (acting, singing, dancing), someone of Don's calibre was bound to prevail. With its witty dialogue, vibrant set pieces and sly winks to real-life Hollywood situations (Lina Lamont as a a thinly veiled Jean Harlow, who had her own real-life struggle from silent films to "talkies" when her unique voice was finally heard), Singin' in the Rain is that Hollywood classic that deserves its praise. All things considered, it has aged remarkably well.

Gene Kelly is incredible to watch -- why I haven't seen more of his work by now is mystery. Here was a Hollywood star who was the complete package: he could act, dance and sing. And not just "with the best of them" ...more often than not he was the best of them. His natural (and completely genuine) charm and charisma carry the film above other musicals with dashing male leads. Kelly had that special extra something that just made him so damn likeable.

The same can be said for Debbie Reynolds, who I haven't seen in many films before. As the young and fresh-faced Kathy, Reynolds is impossibly cute, chipper and can definitely carry a tune. As for Donald O'Connor as Cosmo Brown -- what an incredibly talented dancer. His physical abilities are abnormal -- who knew the human body could run up a wall like that?

The lethal combination of Kelly-Reynolds-O'Connor is a triple threat and Singin' in the Rain benefits largely from their talent and screen presence. And, while not all of the songs are entirely memorable, these three actors manage to make you forget that the song wasn't an instant classic.

Singin' in the Rain was a marvel of cinema when it was first released -- with a heavy emphasis on the use of Technicolour cinematography and vivid production design. It's fitting that a film about the massive changes Hollywood underwent in the good ole' days also benefitted from the use of the latest technologies that were re-vamping Hollywood once again in the 1950s. But, in the end, what really helps Singin' in the Rain soar (along with its technology and actors, of course) is its quick and breezy ability to tell a fun story about movies -- and remind us why we love them so much in the first place.