I’ll begin my review of Singin’ in the Rain with the disclaimer that I don’t generally like musicals. I had seen Singin’ in the Rain before and it proved to be one of the exceptions. Of the musicals I do like, many tend to have Gene Kelly in them (An American in Paris, On the Town). No big surprise as to my reasons for not liking musicals. I’m sure that among people who don’t like the genre, the number one reason is that we’re turned off by the artificiality of people breaking into song, which draws attention to the artificiality of the entire endeavor. One of the marvels of watching films is getting lost in the experience. I find it distracting when something draws attention to the fact that I am not watching something “real,” unless it’s done for some purpose. I’m looking at you Haneke.
Anyway, that’s a much bigger discussion than I want to lay out here. Often, the musicals I do enjoy involves characters who are musicians and artists where it is less unlikely for them to start singing, often in the context of a staged performance. Singin’ in the Rain falls into such a category, which is one of the many reasons I love this film.
The premise of Singin’ in the Rain is probably very well known. Silent movie stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) find their careers threatened by the advent of talking pictures. Lockwood has the talent to make the transition, but Lamont has a shrill voice that would be unpalatable to audiences. In order to make their new film a success, Lockwood works with longtime friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) to transform it into a musical and they enlist the help of the talented Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to provide a voice over for Lamont, unbeknownst to the latter.
Singin’ in the Rain was co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen. Both Kelly and Donen share roots in dancing and they bring their considerable talents to bear here as the film has several of the most memorable dance sequences in film history. Most of the songs were already popular songs by Arthur Freed. The screenplay by Adolph Green and Betty Comden is witty and laugh-out-loud funny. There’s not a moment that doesn’t work. Singin’ in the Rain is engaging and entertaining from the first minute to the last.
But what makes this film worthy of inclusion on a greatest films of all time list is that it is deceptively insightful and complex. Released in 1952 but set in the late 1920s, Signin’ in the Rain uses its privileged position to be self-aware of the business of film making. Here is a case, perhaps one of the first, in which a film utilizes its own artificiality to to reflect on the tenuous relationship between artist and viewer. It uses the construct of a film which is about making film to question what about a movie is “real.” The film often uses a story within a story within a story to confront viewers about what they are actually seeing. Lockwood and Lamont create a film which is then recreated as a musical in which an actor, who gets hit on the head while reading a book, has a dream about making a film which is the film Lockwood and Lamont create. We’re so deep in, a fan of Inception may wonder what action provides “the kick.”
This complex layering is true of the film as a whole. On two notable occasions, Lockwood reinvents his own life story. The film opens with Lockwood’s tale about how he came to Hollywood. The humor of this scene is driven by the irony between Lockwood’s words and the images the viewer (but not the audience “present” at the telling) sees. Later, Lockwood retells his story again in the lengthy and somewhat problematic Broadway Melody sequence. There’s no way that this sequence would make any sense in the context of the musical that Lockwood and Lamont are making and there’s no way that the complex, Technicolor sequence would even be possible in a film from the late 1920s. And even within that sequence, we have a fantasy within this fantasy as Gene Kelly dreams about dancing with the Cyd Charisse character, who, by the way, looks different than the Cyd Charisse character that Gene Kelly fantasies dancing with. There’s no word for this other than surreal.
Singin’ in the Rain ends with Lockwood and Selden standing in front of a billboard promoting the new film by Lockwood and Selden called “Singin’ in the Rain.” Which begs the question: did we just watch the Kelly/Reynolds Singin’ in the Rain or the Lockwood/Selden Singin’ in the Rain. Is the movie itself just another reinvention of Lockwood’s life story?
On the one hand, the film is based on pre-existing popular tunes, so it shouldn’t be surprising that near then end of the film Lamont mimics the title song, with Sleden providing the actual singing. But on the other hand, if we’re lost in the film and believe that Lockwood’s rendition is a spontaneous outpouring of his affection for Selden then how would Lamont and Selden know this song if we’re not watching Lockwood’s reinvention of his own story?
As always, watching the BFI’s Greatest Films of All Time in chronological order is enlightening. Doing so provides a great appreciation for the technical aspects of Singin’ in the Rain. This film by far is the most accomplish production to date. But watching it on the heels of Rashomon helps place the narrative complexity of this film in context. Questioning the reality of what we witness was definitely in the air and although on first blush, Singin’ in the Rain is just joyful entertainment, a closer look reveals unexpected complexities.
- Metropolis (1927)
- Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
- Citizen Kane (1941)
- Rashomon (1950)
- The Rules of the Game (1939)
- Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
- City Lights (1931)
- Bicycle Thieves (1948)
- Late Spring (1949)
- The General (1926)
- The Man with the Movie Camera (1929)
- L’Atalante (1934)
- Battleship Potemkin (1925)
- The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
Next Up: Tokyo Story
I have not seen Tokyo Story. It’s directed by Yasujirô Ozu who also directed Late Spring. I found Late Spring a little slow but strangely engaging, so I am definitely curious about Tokyo Story, which rates higher on the BFI list.