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Singin’ In The Rain

Singin’ In The Rain

By Simon Powell • January 14th, 2014
Static Mass Rating: 4/5

Release date: April 11th, 1952
Running time: 103 minutes

Directors: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Writers: Adolph Green, Betty Comden

Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen

Singin’ In The Rain

Singin’ In The Rain is my favourite example of the cinematic musical, as opposed to its stage-bound equivalent. This is a film that matches the language and techniques of cinema with the skills of the performers, and, rather than just being a fluffy romance, is actually a love letter to cinema. It also made me reassess my attitude to musicals, having previously considered the idea of people spontaneously bursting into song with full orchestral backing, stupid and unrealistic.

Set in the late 1920s, the time when sound was being introduced to film, the plot revolves around the Monumental Pictures studio, its two stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), and the fate of their new film, The Dueling Cavalier. It needs extensive work to turn it from a silent to a “talkie”, especially as Lina has the sort of voice that makes her the sort of star better seen and not heard.

However, Lockwood has other problems, as his phony love affair with Lamont becomes complicated by the arrival of somebody he actually loves, wannabe actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) – somebody who also has an excellent singing voice.

Singin’ In The Rain started life as a “catalogue” picture, a common practise at the time, where a studio takes a selection of songs it owns and tries to use them to string a story together (An American In Paris, a previous picture of Kelly’s, was constructed in the same way, utilising the music of Gershwin). In this case, it was lyricist Arthur Freed, a producer at MGM, who wanted to use a collection of his songs. After struggling to find a story hook, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green went with a script set around Hollywood, and this propelled Singin’ In The Rain into the category of “reflexive film”, or, rather, “films about films”, both the mythology and the creative process.

Singin’ In The Rain

What gives the screenplay an air of authenticity is that many of the anecdotes, costumes and even prop designs come from some of the MGM staff who had been around long enough to remember the switch to sound, and the problems that came with it. These ranged from hidden microphones that didn’t pick up dialogue if the actors moved their heads and the same actors massacring the English language, (especially the vowels), to early projection equipment going out of sync, putting one characters words in another characters mouth. All of these are shown in the film as happening in the making and première of the Duelling Cavalier, along with replica props and costumes.

The history lesson leads into a further theme running through the film, that of a discrepancy between appearance and reality, something we see at all levels of the filmmaking process. When Don and his sidekick Cosmo Brown stroll through the studios, we see them walk past stationary stagecoaches with revolving backgrounds; when Cosmo does his unforgettable Make ’em Laugh dance routine, he runs up a wall showing a fake perspective corridor; Don can only express his feelings to Kathy by setting up a fake romantic sunset in a movie back-lot; and, after hearing Lamont’s voice, the studio bosses make the expedient decision to use the voice of Kathy Selden to dub that of Lina Lamont. None of these things are presented in a critical way, more that this is a peak behind the curtain of the magical world of films, and the tricks and illusions are a necessary part of this. This attitude is reflected in one amazing aspect of the production, as, in a supremely ironic twist to the plot line of Lamont being dubbed, due to the weakness of Debbie Reynolds’ singing voice, her characters songs had to be redubbed by none other than Jean Hagen.

The centrepiece of Singin’ In The Rain is the famous title song and its positioning in the story makes it a clever piece of characterisation. By placing it after the scene of Don walking Singin’ In The RainKathy back home and realising that he’s in love with her, it becomes much more than a pleasant break in proceedings, but rather an expression of the sheer joy and exuberance he is feeling. Lockwood splashes in puddles and swings from lampposts with an almost childish glee, a huge grin on his face, simply because, as the song says, he is “…happy again”

The whole sequence is the key to what good musicals are about to me, and why my earlier grumbling about them being “unrealistic” is irrelevant. In scenes like this one, it’s not meant to be realistic, it’s simply people projecting their state of mind onto reality. Of course, this is only available to those who are able to see this fantastic alternate reality, which, here at least, is the person or persons singing the songs, and the audience watching them.

This also goes some way to explaining my two other previous objections to “unrealistic” musicals. Firstly, how do they know unrehearsed song lines and dance moves? Such scenes, whether perky upbeat numbers like Good Mornin’ or Moses Supposes, or tender love songs like You Were Meant For Me have to be viewed in the same way as the solo pieces. In other words, not realistic, but symbolic of a state of mind, and so in this case, we have two or more people locked into the same state of mind, and sharing the same enhanced vision of reality.

This also explains why some people in the scenes ignore or look baffled by the behaviour of those singing, such as the other studio people during Make ’em Laugh, the suspicious Singin’ In The Rainlooking Cop in Singin’ In The Rain and Lockwood’s diction coach in Moses Supposes as they can’t hear the music, and don’t share the joy. In fact, far from making this an unrealistic film, I would say their reactions are perfectly natural, as they’re simply just not tuned into the same altered reality as the others.

It’s also worth noting the shooting style that co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen developed, one that’s deceptively simple yet completely cinematic. Their main predecessor working in the field of cinematic dance would have been Busby Berkeley, whose style revolved around arranging large groups of women into elaborate geometric shapes. While this is obviously ground-breaking in its way, moving from simply filming people dancing to something uniquely cinematic, Kelly and Donen wanted to focus more on individuals, showcasing their athletic and rhythmic prowess. As a result, what we see in Singin’ In The Rain is just that, with the camera for the most part, certainly during the showpiece “unrealistic” numbers, focusing on just the singers and dancers, fixing the viewers’ attention in a way that just cannot happen on stage. In addition, relatively long takes (the title song is five minutes long and consist of just ten shots) remind us that what we are seeing is entirely produced by the skill of the performers.

The only real problem I have with Singin’ In The Rain is the inclusion of an elaborate ballet sequence around two thirds in. As a standalone piece, it’s brilliantly executed, in both Singin’ In The Rainperformance and filming, as good as anything we have seen so far, but the more measured pacing kills the energy that has been so wonderfully sustained up to this point. In addition, the tenuous way it’s introduced into the plot, as a seemingly irrelevant musical number for The Dueling Cavalier, only highlights how insignificant it is to the plot of the real film.

After this, Kelly struggled for years with his all ballet flop Invitation To The Dance, as well as anti-communist witch-hunts in the US, before moving into more straightforward drama. Hollywood moved from making original musicals to recycling Broadway hits, and eventually, with the rise of Beatlemania, audiences moved to musicals based around rock and pop songs. Singin’ In The Rain represents a high watermark for both the star and the old-fashioned version of the genre, and more than sixty years on, is still as skilful, jaw dropping and downright fun as ever.

Singin’ In The Rain

Simon Powell

Simon Powell

Simon grew up on a steady diet of James Bond and Ray Harryhausen films, but has been fascinated with the horror genre since a clandestine viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager. Since then his tastes have expanded to take in classic horror from the Universal and Hammer Studios, as well as branching out into Video Nasties, Sci-Fi, Silent Comedies, Hitchcock and Woody Allen.

Apart from getting married, one of his fondest memories is buying a beer each for both Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen and Dave “Darth Vader” Prowse at a film festival, and listening to their equally fascinating stories of life at totally different levels of the industry.

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