Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Singin' in the Rain
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 5
Writer: Betty Comden, Adolph Green
Director: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Star: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds
The best musicals are the ones that are strong enough to exist without their musical numbers even though you can’t imagine the film without them. “Singin’ in the Rain” would function perfectly as a comedy were the songs and dances excised, and yet having them in there makes the film so much more fun. Watching this movie makes me wish it rained more in Los Angeles.
The film takes the essence of the Summer Stock “Let’s put on a show, folks!” musicals and transplants it to late ‘20s Hollywood. It is the end of the silent era. The show the folks are trying to put on is fictional studio Monumental Pictures’ first talkie. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly, also the co-director with Stanley Donen) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan) are the studio’s biggest stars and seem like the perfect team to launch the sound era…except that Lamont’s voice sounds like Eliza Doolittle’s before the singing lessons. Luckily, Don has recently fallen for ingénue Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), and she’s got a great singing voice that ultimately substitutes for Lina’s in the finished film.
Kelly, Reynolds and Donald O’Connor (as Kelly’s childhood best friend) form the trio at the center of the action. One would expect a love triangle, but the movie wisely avoids this unnecessary complication and instead just focuses on giving the audience as much time with these three very likeable actors as possible. They aren’t “characters,” per se, but simply extensions of the personalities we would expect from all the classic musicals. Aside from his job, how different is Kelly’s character here than his in “Summer Stock” or “An American in Paris”? And is Donald O’Connor really any different than his role in “Anything Goes” or from Danny Kaye’s character in “White Christmas”? But even as I write this, I’m not sure I mean this as a criticism. After all, you go to this type of film more for the actors’ charisma than original characters.
Kelly and Donan provide us with some excellent musical set-pieces, with O’Connor bringing down the house (literally) in “Make ‘em Laugh.” His physical comedy is spot on, and I rewound the DVD several times over the course of the number. However, I must say that the song is a blatant rip-off of “Be a Clown” from the Kelly/Judy Garland classic “The Pirate,” and that distracted me somewhat. And then there’s Kelly performing the title song in a rain-drenched street. Throughout the film, he shows an exuberance in his dancing that makes it appear much more effortless than it actually must have been. It’s probably my favorite musical piece from him, though “You Wonderful You” from “Summer Stock” (where his dancing partners were a creaky board and a newspaper) is right up there too.
Hagan comes damn near close to stealing the show as the dumb blonde who turns into the villain during the third act. She’s got many of the movie’s best lines, though I must note that the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is filled with genuine moments of wit and fun for all the characters. You actually feel a bit sorry for Lina during the first act, knowing she won’t have a career in a year or two, but after the monstrous things she does to Kathy’s character for no real reason (she believes she’s in a relationship with Don because the tabloids say so, even though Don is quick to remind her (and remind her (and remind her)) that it’s not true), it becomes fun to hate her.
There’s a lengthy musical interlude near the end of the second act where the movie literally stops to show a scene Don is planning to shoot for the movie. There are some tremendous moments in it, specifically a ballet between Kelly and a woman attached to a (literally) twelve-foot-long sheet of white cloth that floats around them, a character unto itself. And yet the scene doesn’t need to be there. It brings the movie to a halt and loses whatever tension there is leading into the climax.
I’ve always preferred the Kelly musicals to the Astaire ones (as evidenced by my article on fellow AFI Top 100 film “Swing Time”), but the truth is that I view most of the classic musicals as small pieces of one big whole. Yes, sometimes they transcended the genre, as with George Cukor’s “A Star is Born”, but there’s something I genuinely like about the familiarity of this genre. Sitting down with an MGM-style musical is the equivalent of enjoying a piece of cherry pie with lemonade on a summer day—there will be variations in taste and quality, but you know what to expect going in.
In a way, the songs in the movies don’t matter that much since they were oftentimes pounded into the screenplay randomly and made to fit even if it doesn’t feel quite right. Also because, more often than not, the songs are really great, especially if Cole Porter is writing them. Most of the movies are variations on the aforementioned “Let’s put on a show, folks” storyline, with few variations (three leads or four leads, location and the quality of the gags and dialogue) and are unafraid to wear their hearts on their sleeves. What makes the films really succeed or fail is the mix-and-match of the leads and supporting cast. “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Pirate” and “White Christmas” work because of this, while the chemistry just isn’t there with “Anything Goes” or “Till the Clouds Roll By.” My favorite has always been Howard Hawks’ “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” with Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, which has her iconic “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number.
“Singin’ in the Rain” is better than most of those films because the main cast really gels and because Hagan is such a stunner as the villain. But I’m guessing it’s so high on this list because the film really is a love letter to Hollywood without the usual cynicism or heartbreak. Executives, directors, screenwriters, actors…everyone in the industry can watch this movie and come out of it feeling better about him or herself.
My Score (out of 5): ****