By Paul Batters
‘ I’m singin’ in the rain, Just singin’ in the rain
What a glorious feelin’, 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’. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly)
The musical has never been a particular favourite of mine, despite a deep love of music and an appreciation of the place of the musical in cinema history. There are some musicals that I have warmed to and a few that hold a place in my heart. Yet I have never felt the same way for the genre that other classic film fans and critics do.
Recently on a long flight from Paris back home to Australia (let that 24 hour flight sink in for a moment), I found the entertainment package lacking in quality. There were only three ‘classic films’ on offer, and all three were musicals. The choice was actually straightforward, particularly after reading and hearing so much about the choice I made. So I got as comfortable as I could and found myself lost in the Technicolor dream-world of MGM’s Singin’ In The Rain.
What I discovered was a complete understanding of why William Thomas in Empire Magazine declared the film ‘an unadulterated joy’ which ‘overflows with the pleasures of movie creation’. Singin’ In The Rain may be a little silly and even ‘cheesy’ at times but it is an undeniable classic in terms of cinema craft, with incredible choreography, outstanding performances and production quality, which exemplifies why the era in which it was made, was called the Golden Years Of Hollywood.
Singin’ In The Rain draws on the best parts of the tradition of the musical, with amazing song and dance performances in place of dialogue, particularly during moments in the story of heightened emotion. The songs are not only memorable but have become part of popular culture and also draw on music from films made after the time in which the film is set. Audiences of the time surely would have recognised this but the point of the film is not simply historical authenticity; indeed, Singin’ In The Rain’ is as much homage to the musical, as well as the film industry. Interestingly enough, the film was not a massive hit upon its’ release although it did good business at the box office. Critics such as Bosley Crowther, whilst offering positive comments on the film, spoke of its’ ability to put the audience in a ‘buttercup mood’ and I can’t help but wonder if there is a slight sting in his assessment. However, through re-releases, television, home video and DVD, the film has grown in status and rightfully deserves its’ place in the echelon of great films.
Yet as much as it revels in the enjoyment of expression through song and dance and a celebration of the Hollywood musical, Singin’ In The Rain also pokes fun at itself and the Hollywood industry. It is an enjoyable piece of satire with beautifully paced comedy, which highlights one of the most traumatic changes in the industry – the switch from silent to sound. However, it is also solid storytelling through song and dance, and the full acknowledgement that cinema is ultimately a manipulation of the senses and an illusion of reality.
Set in 1927, the film opens with the premier of The Royal Rascal, the latest film of on-screen’s (and not-so-much off-screen) lovers Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Their studio Monumental (a lovely play on the titles of the majors) has publicized the couple as romantically linked and the film consistently satirizes this Hollywood practice, with incredible irony. As we soon discover, Don cannot stand Lina, whose vanity deludes her to the truth of their relationship. Don’s former song and dance partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) is also present at the premier and stands by as Don recounts the story of his rise to stardom, which is brilliantly accompanied by a hilarious montage of the real events. After the premier, Don tries to dodge the fans and gets a lift from Ann Sheldon (Debbie Reynolds) a young ‘stage’ actress who is not impressed by Don’s stardom. Yet during their interaction, there is a little drop of truth from Don Lockwood:
‘Well, we movie stars get the glory. I guess we have to take the little heartaches that go with it. People think we lead lives of glamour and romance, but we’re really lonely – terribly lonely’.
The first turning point in the film is interesting from a historical perspective, when Monumental Studio head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) demonstrates a ‘talkie’. The responses reflect the attitudes of 1927 – mixed and mostly negative. But the scene also reveals that Kathy is not the stage actress she claimed to be, when she pops out of a cake, to be teased and mocked by Don, who sarcastically exclaims:‘Well, if it isn’t Ethel Barrymore!’ What follows is a cute number which belies Kathy’s earlier claims. Don’s taunting will push Kathy to limit. Aiming a cream pie at him (and the films drawing on the slapstick of the early comedies), Kathy hits Lina in the face instead, which further endears Kathy to Don. Later, the audience discovers that Kathy has always been a fan of Don.
Cinema history again shows its’ hand when the release and success of The Jazz Singer prompts studios to make sounds films. Despite initially knocking the coming of sound, R.F sees the future and states that the next Lockwood/Lamont vehicle, The Dueling Cavalier, will be a talkie. Yet Lina’s talking voice is terrible to say the least and does not transfer onto the screen well. (In real life, Hagen has a great speaking voice, which as Robert Ebert pointed out, may have accounted for her Best Supporting Actress nomination).
The inspiration for making the film a musical comes from Don, Cosmo and Kathy with Cosmo suggesting that Lina’s voice be dubbed over by Kathy. Lina is furious and as we will discover is far smarter and more cunning than everyone gives her credit for; she uses her contract to blackmail the studio. But it will backfire on her, as Lina’s ego is too great and Don reveals who the true star is – Kathy.
As in every musical that intends to warm the heart, all’s well that end’s well and Don and Kathy kiss in front of the audience with a dissolve into a full poster of the new twosome in their first film together entitled Singin’ In The Rain.
The comedy and dramatic irony in the film is to be commended. There are plenty of in-jokes and short digs at elements of the Hollywood industry that permeate the film and assist in building and driving the plot – the forced pairing of Lockwood and Lamont as a romantic couple, the early dismissal of sound pictures, the voice coaches and stars struggling to develop good diction, the clumsy, early attempts at recording sound and Lamont’s struggles with the microphone. (There have been suggestions that this may mirror the problems Clara Bow faced, though she seems to have sounded just fine and the reported first sound film of John Gilbert. Yet Gilbert’s ‘failure’ may not be the case of having a bad voice but perhaps a bad relationship with L. B Mayer.) The ‘Moses Supposes’ scene where Don and Cosmo toy with the voice coach is particularly humorous:
However, the real winning elements are the fantastic musical numbers, which are thoroughly entertaining but also drive the story. O’Connor’s intensely physical ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ number is not only an homage to slapstick but was reportedly such an effort to film that O’Connor needed bed rest afterwards. Even worse for all concerned but moreso for O’Connor, he had to drag himself out of his sick bed to film the grueling scene again after being told that the original footage had been accidentally destroyed. Additionally, the sunny and bright ‘Good Morning’ routine took nearly 16 hours to get perfect and shoot, leaving newcomer Debbie Reynolds with bleeding feet and a bleeding heart from the cruel jibes and bullying delivered her way from Kelly. But the numbers seem effortless and Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds share an incredible chemistry, as well as palpable professionalism and talent in the execution of each number.
The film within a film loses a little in story being driven but nothing in terms of brilliant production and perfectly choreographed numbers. The ‘Gotta Dance!’ number is an inspiration for anyone who loves song and dance. But my personal favourite moment in this sequence is the gangster spoof which appropriates many of the motifs of the late 20s.early 30s gangster films. Check the tough looking gangster, flanked by two other bad guys, as he flips a coin a la George Raft. For me, watching Cyd Charisse as the gangster’s moll engage in a seductive and sensuous dance with Kelly is one of the highlights of the film in terms of strong passion and emotion being displayed and reflected in tempered and purposeful movement. But Charisse in her stunning green dress, with Louise Brooks hair, long legs and cigarette holder steals the show. It is also a wonderful moment of emotion and story being told through movement. Kelly as Lockwood tells his story like a ballet dancer and his performance is a crowning glory in the man’s career.
The legendary Arthur Freed, from whose production unit the film was born, made many successful musicals for MGM and Freed would draw from the best talent to create these master-pieces, not in the least the film’s key star and choreographer Gene Kelly. The work ethic and often excessive, gruelling and bullying demands of the great song-and-dance man are infamous yet he was a man who demanded as much from himself. Perhaps the most celebrated and famous scene is the solo effort of Gene Kelly singing the title song, saturated to the bone and his character soaring with the sheer elation of being in love. At no point is anything else conveyed, yet Kelly was seriously ill with a terrible fever. When Reynolds says to him, ‘Take care of that throat’, she’s not kidding!
Debbie Reynolds would recount that filming Singin’ In The Rain was one of the most difficult and toughest times in her life. For the then 19 year old, it was her breakthrough role and as Ebert points out Reynolds had to keep up with two of the most experienced veterans in the business. Kelly would also later state that he did treat her poorly and was amazed by her personal toughness and resilience. Reynolds would later reveal that the studio attempted to give her ‘vitamins’ to pep her up and keep her going. Fortunately for Reynolds, her personal doctor intervened and she avoided, as she would attest, what Judy Garland went through. Donald O’Connor is a joy as Lockwood’s ex-partner and should also be celebrated as one of the great song and dance men. His exuberance and sheer zaniness is a counter-point to Kelly’s sublime fluidity. Despite the abuses, tough filming schedule and difficulties, none of these traumas leak into the performances on the screen and all the audience sees are incredible and charismatic performances. Tell me you don’t have a smile at the end of the film!
Needless to say, Singin’ In The Rain was a wonderful and joyous surprise, which stole away 102 minutes of an awful plane flight and had me captivated at every moment. It has romance, it has comedy and it has iconic songs and dance routines. What was also clear for me was that Singin’ In The Rain is a sheer delight, which delivers pure entertainment and I’m looking forward to revisiting this wonderful film again.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.