Singin’ In The Rain (1952): A Review Of One Of Hollywood’s Greatest Musicals

By Paul Batters

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‘ 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.

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Maytime (1937): The Magic of The Musical with Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy

by Paul Batters

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The beauty of classic film is the incredible depth, diversity and range of story and genre. With the arrival of sound in the late 1920s, Hollywood not only seized the opportunity to expand the canvas but also began to develop the musical. Before long, an incredible range of stories via the musical began to be told, using the camera in new ways but also utilising different musical forms, particularly jazz and opera. I must readily admit that I cannot claim to be a huge fan of the Hollywood musical and therefore certainly not an authority on the subject. Yet it is important and even crucial to gain an appreciation of the way Hollywood interacted with its’ audiences and how it gauged what audiences wanted. As a student of classic film, the “Singing Sweethearts’ Blogathon for 2018 offered a chance for me to expand my horizons and learn more about two of the biggest stars of the 1930s, Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, by reviewing what is considered as one of their biggest hits, Maytime (1937). It was their third film together, and by many accounts is perhaps the best of the eight they made together between 1935 and 1942.

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, a solid director, Maytime is ultimately a love story, revealing the pain of lost opportunity, the obstacles of love yet is also a celebration that true love cannot be contained, even by death. It is May Day 1906 and the story is told in retrospect, as an elderly woman, Miss Morrison (Jeanette MacDonald) tells the story of her life to a young singer, Barbara Roberts (Lynne Carver), who wants a career but finds that this dream is at odds with her fiancé Kip Stuart (Tom Brown). In an attempt to show that she understands, Miss Morrison reveals that she was actually a famous opera singer herself named Marcia Morney.

In her own desire to become successful in the world of opera in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III, Marcia is trained by the famous and talented though Svengali-like Nicolai Nazaroff (John Barrymore). Out of a sense of gratitude for his guidance and leading her into a world of success, Marcia accepts Nazaroff’s marriage proposal. Despite both knowing that love is not part of the acceptance, Nazaroff hopes that love will eventuate yet his domineering personality sees Marcia more as a possession, which he can shape to his will.

It is at this point that love finds Marcia despite her not seeking it. Late into the night, Marcia finds herself edgy and restless and escapes into the Paris nightlife, finding herself stranded in the Latin Quarter after a mishap with her driver. Whist there she meets Paul (Nelson Eddy), a fellow American and also a singer. However, he is poor and struggling yet the two are attracted and despite her promise to Nazaroff, Marcia and Paul meet again for lunch. Marcia knows they cannot be, despite Paul not wanting to lose her, and she says yet again that they cannot see each other.

Paul, however, has other ideas and goes to the opera to see Marcia perform and later meets her in the dressing room. Paul secures her promise to meet him for the May Day celebrations in the country and she accepts.

What follows is a wonderful day and Marcia declares she has ‘never been so happy’. This beautifully filmed sequence is made all the more special, as Paul declares he will sing a song for her so that she will always remember the special day that they have shared. The song of course is the theme song ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ and the moment becomes painful and bittersweet. Unable to hold back their feelings, Marcia and Paul declare their love for each other and Paul’s declaration that they met ‘too late’ certainly lifts the song to a greater level. They will part but the day that they have shared and the beautiful song that they share, becomes a testimony to true and unending love, which they will always hold in their hearts. It acts as a poignant and bittersweet marker for the two lovers who only have that song to signify their love.

As the years pass, Marcia’s career reaches new heights. At this stage in the story, Marcia has been married to Nazaroff for seven years but finds her life as empty as her marriage. But fate will play its’ hand. Paul has also become successful and dramatic irony will find Nazaroff arranging Marcia and Paul to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. They pretend not to know each other but the audience can see their incredulity at being re-united. Their performance of La Tzarine is a public triumph but it also becomes symbolic as a triumph of their reuniting. Their love reborn, Marcia begs Paul to never leave her again and Paul declares to Marcia ‘You’re not going back to him. I’m taking you away tonight’.

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But it will not be so easy. Nazaroff sees what is going on and despite promising to let Marcia go, after her revelation that she loves Paul, his jealousy and possessive nature will rear its’ ugly head.

To give justice to this review, it would remiss of me not to give away the ending – so fair warning as we step into the territory of spoilers!

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Nazaroff intends to do far worse than Marcia imagines and she follows him to Paul’s apartment, to witness the husband she does not love shoot and kill the man that she is in love with. As he lays dying in Marcia’s arms, Paul tells her not to weep and that he will always be with her. Their song will forever hold them together.

Love unfulfilled is perhaps one of life’s greatest cruelties and after having made the mistake of parting once through honour and obligation, Marcia and Paul have their love stolen from them through the finality of murder. It is almost too much to fathom before we are brought into the present. It appears that Marcia and Paul’s tragedy, however, will serve some purpose as the story moves into the present with Barbara choosing Kip over a career.

The final scene could easily be dismissed as sentimental and saccharine but it feels more like a triumph over tragedy. As Marcia sits in the garden, she is told her tea is getting cold and responds ‘I’ll only be a moment or two’. Left alone, our hearts break imagining what she is thinking and there are no words for such a poignant moment as she breathes her last and quietly slips away. But her spirit arises, as Paul greets her. They are both young and beautiful, and they sing ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ – the song that had always rung out the love that they shared and now share again. The spirits of Marcia and Paul look on as Barbara and Kip finally embrace. It is the ultimate victory for love – for the young lovers and the now eternal couple, brought together in death. As the camera pulls back, the audience cannot help but shed a tear as the mis en scene beautifully frames the couple in the garden, amongst the blossoms falling upon them.

Today, these two singing sweethearts are not as well remembered as other stars from the classic era. The operetta has gone largely out of favour and fashion, and with respect to both stars, they were competent yet not highly talented actors. Indeed, the focus of their films was their vocal abilities more than their interpretation of roles and ability to shape character development. Yet in fairness, this meant that the vehicles designed for MacDonald and Eddy were often limited, resulting in less opportunity to develop or show range of ability. One of the advantages of Maytime is that it does allow both actors, particularly MacDonald, to exhibit a greater range of ability. As Marcia, she delivers a performance that extends beyond the superficial, from being young and vivacious to an aged woman in her twilight years. Maytime has been often listed as the best work Eddy and MacDonald ever did together and by all accounts MacDonald lists the film as her favourite (perhaps because she was given the chance to show greater acting ability than other projects).

There is also an incredible range of musical performances, which are beautifully filmed and work perfectly in terms of story development. Both Eddy and MacDonald have numerous moments to display their talents but these are not gratuitous and indeed assist in establishing character and driving the story forward. One of the true highlights of Maytime is the duet during La Tzarine heightened by the passion Paul and Marcia feel for each other. When they embrace during the performance, the audience knows that the two cannot ignore or deny their love any longer. It will lead to tragedy but their love for each needs to be realised, whatever the cost. However, for me the true musical highlight is ‘Will You Remember (Sweetheart)?’ The first time it is sung, our hearts break and at the climax, when we hear it again, our hearts are put back together again.

It would be one of the biggest hits for MGM in 1937 and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Sound and Best Music. The production values are classic MGM with special attention to MacDonald’s elaborate costumes and despite there being some mawkish moments, it is hard to dismiss the pathos that Eddy and MacDonald bring to the story. Leonard as director ties the key elements of the story with good pacing and by MacDonald’s own account appreciated his direction and the freedom he allowed the cast. For my money, MacDonald is particularly strong in her role and of course the great John Barrymore is outstanding as the jealous and domineering Nazaroff. Both spellbinding and repellent, Barrymore certainly intensifies the sense of dread in the audience and the tragedy that will undoubtedly follow the revelation of Paul and Marcia’s love. Barrymore’s performance becomes symbolic of the obstacles that stand in the way of love. Furthermore, Barrymore allows for MacDonald’s performance to reach greater depths, more than evident in Marcia’s revelation to Nazaroff that she loves Paul. Perhaps this also explains why she rated Maytime as her favourite film.

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Maytime was certainly a pleasant surprise for someone who has generally steered away from musicals. Yes I found Maytime to be a little ‘schmaltzy’ at times and MacDonald’s finding ways to stare at Eddy as he sings to her to be a little off-putting. But the strengths far outweigh the few trivial issues that the film has. Overall, it’s a story that works, perhaps because it was lifted from Noel Coward’s ‘Bittersweet’ (and interestingly reflects a common theme that Coward would also examine in David Lean’s Brief Encounter). And as any good film will do, it will find its’ place in the hearts of its’ audience. In this case, Maytime achieves this by reaching that most universal of all emotions – love.

A very special thank you must be extended from me to Rebekah and Tiffany Brannan for their encouragement in writing for the Singing Sweethearts Blogathon and opening my classic film experience up to new possibilities in the form of the musical.

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.