The Wonderful Thing that Is 'Singin' in the Rain'

So many musicals with near-endless resources of talent and money don't really work as cinema, but the unassuming Singin' in the Rain is arguably the Great American Musical Film: a near-perfect intersection of singing, dancing, comedy, and romance.

Singin' in the Rain

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Cast: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Jean Hagen, Cyd Charisse, Millard Mitchell
Distributor: Warner
Studio: MGM
Release date: 2012-07-17

In the 60 years since the 1952 release of Singin' in the Rain, celebrated in a recent Blu-Ray release, Hollywood has mounted countless musical megaproductions as the genre has fallen in and out of favor. Yet so many musicals with near-endless resources of talent and money don't really work as cinema, while the unassuming Singin' in the Rain is arguably the Great American Musical Film: a near-perfect intersection of singing, dancing, comedy, and romance.

It's been pointed out repeatedly, including on the Blu-Ray extras here, that the gold standard for its genre is actually something of a jukebox musical – or at least it was, before its long-term fame redefined the songs it uses. Screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden built Singin' in the Train around the catalog of songwriters Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (including the title number), and indeed, the film's original trailer extols the presence of "the songs you like!" in a marketing effort not so different from the recognizable strains of Journey weaving through the Rock of Ages trailer. But rather than constraining the movie's creativity, the assortment of unrelated Freed/Brown hits gives it a sort of freedom; Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's film doesn't write around the songs so much as repurpose them as needed.

It helps that Singin' in the Rain tells a simple story: Don Lockman (Kelly) is a former vaudevillian turned silent film star alongside Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in the late twenties. But when The Jazz Singer comes out and spurs public demand for more talkies, Don must re-adjust his performances for sound -- and Lina, with her hilariously screechy voice, must use vocal double Kathy (Debbie Reynolds). Don, his sidekick Cosmo (Donald O'Connor), and Kathy then hatch a plan to save a formerly silent Lockwood-Lamont production from financial ruin via a good old-fashioned (and, at the dawn of talkies, also quite new-fangled) song and dance picture, as Don and Kathy fall in love in the process.

Instead of "Hey, let's put on a show," then, we get hey, let's put on a movie with sound that won't ruin our careers: time-tested formula enlivened by a sense of Hollywood history – and a lightly amusing but present sense of panic, too. When Don first meets Kathy, she dismisses silent-movie acting as cheap and easy; while he mounts an energized, wise-assed defense, and her dedication to his movies is eventually realized, the charge clearly stings, regardless. He shows more than a little insecurity when sarcastically referring to himself as "only a shadow", and the film's story reflects that anxiety over the adaptations some entertainers must make to survive.

Don's chip on his shoulder over the legitimacy of his profession, and the way the movie pits innocent musical comedy against the loftiness of "Shakespeare and Ibsen", as Kathy puts it when citing higher art, seems half self-kidding and half defensive, but stops short of the anti-intellectualism of Fred Astaire's The Band Wagon just a year later, in which artistic ambitions must be trumped by lighthearted revue-style entertainment.

At the time of its release, Singin' in the Rain was only about 25 years removed from the era it depicts; now, the movie is 60 years old, and itself reflects a less elaborate but also extremely skillful way of crafting a musical. Purists will emphasize the long takes that showcase the athletic dancing, and the performers are indeed dazzling in their speed and grace (including Reynolds, who wasn't a trained dancer but keeps up with O'Connor and Kelly in several challenging numbers). But praising the camera for staying out of the dancers' way ignores just how cinematic the movie is, and its skill in using cinematic imagery and style to enhance the musical numbers, rather than simply staging them for the camera.

Indeed, Singin' in the Rain is hyper-aware of cinematic artifice. Early in the film, the camera tracks Don and Cosmo as they walk through a movie studio, with different genres shooting in the background -- a wonderful bit of choreography even with the film's principle dancers doing a simple walk-and-talk. On the disc's commentary, someone mentions that an earlier draft of the script called for an entire musical number in this vein, with Don and Kathy dancing through various; this eventually became the sparer but still stunning "You Were Meant for Me" scene, with the pair dancing on a near-empty soundstage.

Baz Luhrmann talks about this scene on the commentary track, specifically the self-referential way Don decides to create a romantic, movie-like environment for Kathy, complete with fake sunset and wind machine. Luhrmann notes that this sequence "sets a contract and fulfills the promise" that the movie will be aware of its construction but still deliver the requisite movie-musical stage-setting.

Singin' in the Rain (like The Band Wagon) ends with the triumph of old-fashioned showmanship (as at least one talking head points out on the disc's extras, the idea that a romantic drama about the French Revolution could be improved by the addition of an extended modern musical number about Broadway passes without much comment; what the movie pitches as a showstopper is, in context, probably downright avant-garde). But even the stagiest section of the movie takes advantage of its cinematic roots to provide brighter colors and bolder abstractions than would be feasible on many stage sets -- all of which looks terrific in a new high-definition transfer.

The film's alchemy was clearly the result of intense collaboration, so it's appropriate that the commentary, imported from DVD editions of the film, is actually a composite of interviews: strung-together clips of Donen, O'Connor, screenwriters Green and Comden, and Moulin Rouge director Luhrmann talking about the film, matched to specific scenes, and introduced, with characteristic exuberance, by Reynolds. Most of these are excerpted from interviews more visible elsewhere on the disc; collecting them as a commentary makes sense, but it's also a somewhat disjointed experience that may increase your desire to shut off the commentary and just rewatch the film.

A more organized approach can be found in "Raining on a New Generation", a 50-minute feature that strives to put the film's influence in current context -- and in doing so, it can't help but limit the movie's reach. By interviewing current fans of the film like Glee staffers, Usher, Corbin Bleu, Paula Abdul, and directors of successful but undistinguished musicals like Rob Marshall and Adam Shankman, the feature sometimes shortchanges how well Singin' in the Rain works as a movie, not just pieces of intricate choreography.

Why not ask for feedback from directors who don't work near-exclusively in musicals? It might also have been interesting to see more artists from Abdul's music-video background, which became a dominant form of musical-visual communication in the eighties; despite her history with the medium, Abdul seems to have been chosen as much for post-American Idol recognition as for her musical expertise.

The film is also available in a 60th anniversary collector's edition, which does not expand on the Blu-Ray so much as surround it: a large box holds the Blu-Ray, the two-disc DVD version of the same materials, some reproduced lobby cards, a slim hardcover book offering a production overview, and an actual working umbrella.

Of these extras, only the book adds much value (though, to be fair, I have not yet tested the umbrella, for dancing or otherwise). It's not extraordinarily in-depth, but it offers an easier-to-follow history of the production than the commentary or other on-screen features, even hinting at material that didn't (or more likely, couldn't) make the disc: a deleted additional version of "All I Do Is Dream of You" that was cut for pacing (an outtake version of "You Are My Lucky Star" does appear on the disc). Still, as nice as a hardback book is, this sort of production information doesn't really require the format; here, it's essentially a bound version of a Wikipedia entry. The box is a nice keepsake, I suppose, but it essentially dresses up an already-perfect single-disc movie, unable to improve upon its charming simplicity.


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