#241. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

OK well it’s better than the last Gene Kelly movie on the List, An American in Paris, and it’s definitely better than the one before that, On the Town, but even though I enjoyed Singin in the Rain just fine, in terms of the story and music and the dancing, I think I still prefer that first one. Probably cuzza Sinatra. And Vera White.

            I think part of the delight here, the contrast between this one and Kelly’s last two movies, is that Singin in the Rain isn’t so earnest. The others seemed so adamant about setting us up for a good chipper time, or a persuasive romance, a story of tormented love.

            With the opening scene here we see Kelly in the role of a silent film star. He’s at the height of his success, it’s the night of a premiere, and as he’s addressing the masses from the theater’s entrance, speaking into a mic that’s broadcasting to the radio, he’s recounting his journey to success with all of these self-serving embellishments (his voice becomes a voiceover to flashbacks) that are supposed to be funny. It’s a charming little commentary about the phoniness of Hollywood.

Debbie Reynolds doing her voiceover work.

  The movie’s drama is manifold and I suppose the heart of it is a chaste and airy romance between Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, the resolution of which is kinda left to our imaginations, but the plotline that serves as something like a MacGuffin is that this is 1928, The Jazz Singer is coming out, Hollywood is about to be shaken up with a technology that audiences—to the surprise of seemingly everyone in the industry—are going to demand from here on out. Cameras aren’t gonna be as mobile because actors have to stand near microphones (Little Caesar is one of my favorite real-life examples of this). Actors are gonna have to ease up on pantomiming in order to deliver more nuanced performances with their voice.

            Everything’s changing.

            The comedic drama here is that Kelly’s odious leading lady, played by Jean Hagen, has a piercing voice with a thick NJ accent. So Debbie Reynolds, a tough but humble and self-effacing worker trying to make it as an actor, is tasked with voicing Hagan’s lines from offscreen while Hagan lip-syncs.

Hitchcock and Ondra on the set of Blackmail.

            This actually happened during the production of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, one of the first English all-talking pictures and one of my favorite movies on the List. He’d cast a Czech actor, Anny Ondra, in the lead role back during pre-production, when the film was gonna be silent. Suddenly they had to shoot the film with dialogue, though, and now they’ve got a star actor with an impenetrable accent. The English actor Joan Berry was hired to speak Ondra’s lines from just out of the camera’s scope.

Whatever my impression of the movie itself, there’s a meta enchantment to see, within its proper context, one of the most iconic scenes in cinema.

            It’s an ambitious and iconic movie and it’s the perfect embodiment of a great Hollywood musical. Drags a long tail. And so here, like with Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind and Citizen Kane, I feel pressured to say something really insightful, or to do a ton of research so I can better understand how it came about, but, to be honest, I’m just not that interested. I was blown away by the Busby Berkley musicals of the 1930s, particularly 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and those movies are referenced here in a loving way (the solution to salvaging a terrible talking picture that Kelly and Hagan have made is to turn it into a Berkley-like musical). I think it’s even fair to say that Singin’ in the Rain is more than a beautiful homage to the Berkley musicals; I think it’s more like the rightful heir. It moves that kind of musical into the second half of the century with a new sensibility. A new sense of scope and purpose. (I maintain that Berkley, like lots of other Depression-era filmmakers, was just trying to give audiences a great distracting experience.) Comparing it to a musical like Meet Me in St. Louis or Wizard of Oz isn’t quite fair, I don’t think, because they aren’t about show business, and the fun of it. This is a certain kind of musical that celebrates the creation of that music and I think trains an interesting light on the fact that, while we in the audience maybe kneel before the altar of these people’s celebrity, they’re really the needy ones, the insecure ones, kneeling before us in hopes of approval.

            This is an interesting movie and I had some fun with it but with some things, like the “Make ‘em Laugh” number, are more interesting to me in a meta sense.

            I’m watching something that’s culturally significant.

            It’s so innocent and silly and playful and then to stop and think of the hundreds of millions of people who’ve seen this and smiles and handed it down to their children or pulled their loved ones in to join.

            How many people have had their first kiss watching this?

            How many people discovered their vocation because of this?

              The trivia’s fun, too. Like learning that Gene Kelly had a temperature of 104F when he did the eponymous song in the rainy street, or the fact that his best friend and colleague, played by Donald O’Connor, had to be hospitalized after the “Make ‘em Laugh” number, such were its demands on his cigarette-palsied lungs.

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