Singin’ in the Rain (1952, Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly)

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!!! A+ FILM !!!

Do you remember Mrs. Phelps, shaken to the core by “Dover Beach” in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451? After Montag reads the poem aloud, she sobs, repeating “I don’t know, I don’t know,” and in the corresponding scene in the film, adding “I can’t bear to know those feelings. I’d forgotten all about those things.” The display of humanity and decency in Singin’ in the Rain has a similar effect; the person who has lost the ability to be moved and overjoyed might get it back after seeing this film. And I don’t like to make this sort of judgment call, but look, if you don’t like this movie, if you’re not warmed up by it, you’re some kind of bonkers. Maybe you weren’t raised on Hollywood musicals, as I was not, and you have a certain staid conception of what they are and how they work. See this movie. It is nothing you think it will be, and while it may open up the beautiful world of film musicals to you, it will still stand far apart for you as a defining Hollywood film. Coy in its humor and earnest in its emotion, transcending its MGM factory fakery to become a document of something deep and true, it’s really a statement of how you may not need love so much as you need to know it exists, to experience it in some secondhand way, specifically in the movies. It can be a life-saver in that context, and its joy at the sheer fact of being alive is infectious.

Because Singin’ in the Rain does evoke those feelings in the audience, it’s easy to ignore that in some ways it’s a valentine to its own industry: it’s a movie about movies. But it’s also about, more than anything, the people who go and see those movies and use them as an escape into oblivion itself. Like The Purple Rose of Cairo, it celebrates the power of escapism and magic for those that need it, yet part of its point — personified by Debbie Reynolds’ fangirl character, Kathy Selden — is the final meaninglessness of any class-conscious division between the Movie World and our own world, because no matter how fabricated and calculated it is, the love discovered and experienced in this film feels real, as real and young and invigorating as anything art can capture. While you watch and revel in the overwhelming sense of self-sacrifice exhibited by the unforgettable characters here, you feel as if you know them.

The movie — which scarcely shows a fraction of its age — documents in hyperkinetic, witty fashion the rough transition from silent movies to talkies in Hollywood, centering on a romantic hero/heroine team in the vein of Pickford and Fairbanks, one of whom, Don Lockwood (played with wit and style by Gene Kelly, the codirector), can make the transition to sound painlessly, the other — Lina Lamont — a shady manipulative starlet (Jean Hagen, wonderful in one of the most thankless parts in screen history) cursed with a most vulgar voice. Don happens to meet lovely and talented Kathy in a series of coincidences, and she ends up dubbing Lina’s voice for their sound musical debut. Then it all gets complicated. Of course, this is nothing like the way the sound transition played out in real life, but silent film buffs who complain about this and cite this and Sunset Blvd as insulting to the artform would do well to note its reflexive warmth and constant self-deprecation. It’s a parody, of course, but by no means an insulting or reductive one. Otherwise why would it treat its characters (Lina Lamont delightfully excluded) with such consistent respect? Besides, the movie’s right about the awkwardness of early sound — see The Broadway Melody, the first Freed musical, for plenty of proof.

A great and legendary miracle of Singin’ in the Rain‘s success is what a mishmash of elements and ideas it is. Conceived as a way to double up on some old Freed unit numbers, revising old songs in a new context, it’s not exactly a beacon of originality — you can spot ideas from Sullivan’s Travels, Rules of the Game, and even Citizen Kane throughout the picture, with major elements lifted from the Bugs Bunny cartoon What’s Up Doc?. The casting is audacious, throwing inexperienced Reynolds into the den of Kelly’s hardline professionalism, leading to a lifetime of anecdotes about bloody shoes. Yet the hybrid is irresistible, its disparate sights, sounds, and feelings hitting one of the greatest and most lingering bullseyes in all of cinema, American or otherwise, because the film’s written, directed and performed with gusto on par with the best material ever to come from Hollywood.

Kelly’s work here defines the very peak of tight and unerring control in a film performance; he’s such a spectacle he seems to be directing the film as he dances, daring his fellow actors not to keep up with him as he pounces off into innumerable rapturous moments of pure beauty and pure cinema. Donald O’Connor as long-suffering pal and clowning piano player Cosmo Brown holds his own effortlessly, taking part in some eye-popping stunts on his solo “Make ‘Em Laugh” number. But Reynolds, pushed and prodded along as she may have been, is stunningly charming herself — her smiles, her sarcasm, her tears all come to us without padding or melodrama; hers is a remarkably direct and unpretentious presence. The three of them are a phenomenal group, and how rare to see a movie like this with such a well-developed story in which its characters form their relationships. Don Lockwood has never had to struggle to seduce a lady until he meets Kathy; she makes him love her on her own terms, refusing his presumptuous advances, and forms a bond that’s as much a friendship driven by respect as by romantic admiration, and in this sense theirs is one of the truest and most succinctly expressed Hollywood romances. Certainly it’s one of the few you really, in the deepest corners of your heart, want to root for.

The comedy, full of telling detail and prescient self-awareness, is razor-sharp and acidic, not at all the innocent banter you might expect, and often cartoonishly wicked and satiric in tone. It’s no exaggeration to say that a fair number of our modern comedic conceits originate not with Preston Sturges or Billy Wilder’s comedies of the period but here, in Singin’ in the Rain, which invents any number of the mocking comedic tricks that would someday make The Simpsons a small revolution — the use of cutaways as a punchline, the deeply layered and straightfaced sarcasm, the then-unheard of straight-ahead lampoon of actual media past and present, and the mere conviction of the wit as an absolute force that colors the film yet does not prevent it from treating its characters’ inner lives with respect and seriousness. Amidst all the great and lasting humor, the pathos never cloys or overreaches; the emotions all feel incredibly tangible because such a thorough job has been done of connecting the occupants of the film to the viewers.

Of course, what makes the film an icon is the spectacle, most visible in the seductive musical and dance numbers, large and small, decked out with unrestrained enthusiasm, a colorful irreverence, and surprising depth and power, with nearly all of them anything but extraneous. If the famed sequence of Kelly singing the title song before getting harassed by the cops is all you know of the movie, you’re in for a dazzling evening, not least because in context that standby beloved sequence is a work of supreme romantic catharsis, actual unmitigated joy. But the moment when the film seems to reach heretofore unimagined heights comes near the climax, when Kelly offers his vision of how the beginning of his movie will look and sends us into the stunning and surreal semi-dream “Broadway Melody” sequence (which, of course, the person speaking to Kelly implies can’t be filmed) offering a dizzying portrait of self-reflection by a person caught up in the uninhibited firestorm of early Hollywood and also a simple coming of age story, an opulent display of what formed the character (and you, perhaps). It’s bold to place this so close to the ending, bolder still to pack it with so much to fill and perhaps overwhelm the senses, boldest of all to fill it with energetic eroticism (largely due to the presence of legendary Cyd Charisse as the fantasy love interest). A revision of Kelly’s ballet in An American in Paris, itself inspired clearly by the climax of The Red Shoes, this is still one of the most stirring moments in films, and it’s almost an afterthought here.

Kelly’s codirector Stanley Donen is probably largely responsible for that lengthy and sumptuous piece, which makes Salvador Dali’s dream sequence in Spellbound seem like a Saturday morning cartoon. The two men leave the thing sparkling and massive, guaranteed to leave the crowd in awe after a series of increasingly affecting numbers — most of them deceptively simple — have already kept us enraptured. Just past the midway point, after songs set in empty movie soundstages and vaudeville stages, the peak hits. Comforting Don after the first version of his debut talkie bombs badly at its premiere, Cosmo and Kathy sit together with him and slowly hatch the idea to turn the movie into a musical. It’s a small gesture, but their support of their friend is something startlingly real and felt in a movie industry often fraught with the celebration of bad feelings; it’s enough to make you cry. Then there’s the fact that the ensuing “Good Morning” number is practically a threesome set to music, and that loving goodbye between Kathy and Don at the front door and then bam, he’s singin’ in the rain. And now that you see it in its narrative place, instead of cut and chopped as it usually is, you know why he’s singin’ in the rain, which makes all the difference. Love does that to a man, long after the Broadway Melodies and Gotta Dances fade off into the distance.

But there’s more to come after that’s finished, in the form of an exhilarating conclusion that makes you want to hug the screen, all hearts in the crowd thumping, with the three principal characters fulfilling the total promise of the story with a thoroughly satisfying finale. Minimal, nonchalant glory like that reminds us of how Singin’ in the Rain is a movie from a time when a filmmaker was expected to somehow harness the abilities of his medium and attempt to expand them. The movie is, more than anything, a series of experiments in its form. Without that level, the more immediate level wouldn’t work, the more immediate level that exists to make the point that singing with the rain falling on your face, the little things that make up your life like a night at the movies… those are what matters, aren’t they? We may or may not someday touch this kind of happiness, but at least we can feel it here, now and always.

[Expanded from a review posted elsewhere in 2006.]

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