Thursday, 2 December 2010

Singin' in the Rain

17. Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Dir: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen

As I write this review, Britain has ground to a standstill through the heaviest snowfall we've had in decades. Here in Lincoln, all buses, taxis and trains have been cancelled, schools and workplaces are shut or running on a skeleton staff but still the snow comes down outside. I am, quite literally, snowed in. What better occasion could one possibly imagine to reach for 'Singin' in the Rain'?

Producer Arthur Freed headed a unit at MGM that consistently turned out some of the brightest, most uplifting musical films of the 40s and 50s. However, while they are always entertaining and gorgeous to look at, Freed's musicals generally consist of many eye-popping set-pieces appended to a thin plot, resulting in a sporadically enjoyable but ultimately bitty end product. A prime example of this is the multi-Oscar-winning 'An American in Paris' (1951), released the year before 'Singin' in the Rain' and also starring Gene Kelly. Though it scooped the Best Picture Oscar for the year, 'An American in Paris' is very thinly plotted, focusing on its individual musical numbers so much that it ends up seeming like more of a variety revue than one, focused film. Nevertheless, the film was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won six.

By the time 'Singin' in the Rain' came around, the Academy were obviously sick of musicals, offering it a scant two nominations of which it won neither. Watching 'Singin' in the Rain' now, this is an unbelivable snub. Not only is it packed with astonishing musical numbers, all realised to perfection in heart-melting Technicolor, but it strings them together with deft smoothness into a plotline that is not only coherent but also hilarious, emotionally-engaging and informative.

Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent movie star whose career is turned upside-down with the arrival of talking pictures. As if this weren't enough, he simultaneously loses his heart to Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring actress whose car he accidentally winds up in while trying to escape over-familiar fans. Further complicating issues is Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), Don's self-obsessed, empty-headed screen partner. Not only does Lina believe all the celebrity gossip written about her and Don, she also has the most grating speaking voice ever to escape an oesophagus, making her transfer to 'talkies' an impossibility. Luckily, Don's longtime best friend and musical partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) has a few ideas of how to get round these little problems.

For movie fans, 'Singin' in the Rain' is a fascinating glimpse at the business in transition. Of course, it's ficitonalised and simplified but many details are kept authentic, including the intial dismissal of sound as a fad and the subsequent impact of Warner Bros.' 'The Jazz Singer' which pushed other studios to experiment with the medium of talking pictures. Longtime fans of musicals can also play a 'spot the song' game. The reason 'Singin' in the Rain' has such an impeccable selection of material is because Arthur Freed selected the cream of the songs written by himself and Nacio Herb Brown, all but one of which had previously appeared in other musicals pre-dating 'Singin' in the Rain'. Consequently, a wonderful number such as 'Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)' (the only song here not co-written by Brown) can be casually tossed out as an aside amongst the major set-pieces.

And oh!, those set-pieces. 'Singin' in the Rain' weaves them into the story beautifully so that narrative and music are afforded equal respect. You'll never find yourself itching for the next musical number but neither will you be irritated by the music interrupting the story. 'Singin' in the Rain' is strong on both but it is the musical set-pieces that truly make it special. Everyone is familiar with that most iconic of scenes, Gene Kelly's lovestruck dance in the rainstorm to the film's title song, which stands as the ultimate expression of cinematic joy. You'd never know that Kelly had a 103 degree fever during the filming of this sequence. He looks like the happiest man alive.

But that famous sequence is certainly not the be-all-and-end-all of 'Singin' in the Rain' and, in fact, you'll find yourself so mesmerized and amused by everything that leads up to it that you may forget it's coming. Every time Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor dance together, for instance, I'm lost in the genuinely unbelievable flurry of feet in perfect time with one another. Watch them in the 'Moses Supposes' segment or the aforementioned 'Fit as a Fiddle'. It's astonishing! Even more incredible is O'Connor's solo number 'Make 'Em Laugh', the film's one original song (although it was based heavily on Cole Porter's 'Be a Clown'). O'Connor displays a mixture of physical dexterity and comic ability in a cartoonish whirlwind of a performance culminating in his famous but still jaw-dropping run-up-a-wall backflips.

The romantic slow numbers, often a significant drag factor in musicals, are all staged so beautifully that only the most stony of hearts could spend the duration of them indulging in the traditional eye-rolling that accompanies sappy Hollywood love scenes. 'Singin' in the Rain' is so stuffed full of story and music that there's not that much time to focus on the obligatory Kelly-Reynolds romance but the talented pair convince us of their love in a stripped-down performance of 'You Were Made for Me', which sees Kelly declaring his feelings for Reynolds on a huge, empty soundstage, complete with his own lighting and wind effects.

Kelly and Reynolds are thoroughly agreeable in the relatively straight roles but top acting honours go to their two comedy supporting actors, Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen. O'Connor's role was based on and originally intended for Oscar Levant, a very talented pianist who unfortunately couldn't act one bit and proved a distracting presence in Freed musicals such as 'An American in Paris' and 'The Band Wagon' (1953). Mercifully, O'Connor stepped in to take the role of the constantly-joking Cosmo Brown, bringing with him all the comic timing and relentless energy it demands. He dispenses one-liners with an easy charm and throws himself into his dance routines (my favourite in the film) with gusto. But special mention must be reserved for the commendably game Jean Hagen in the role of the hideous Lina Lamont (for which she garnered one of the film's two Oscar nominations). Hagen does not get any major musical set-pieces and spends the film alternating between despicable and just plain stupid (her oft-spoken catchphrase is a shrieked "Whaddya think I am, dumb or sumthin'?'). It's the sort of role that many of the image-obsessed actresses of the era may have balked at but Hagen had the sense to spot a plumb role and her hilarious performance has become the stuff of legend. It's testament to her acting that, in a film bursting with the best musical numbers ever performed, she's still one of the main talking points for audiences when the film ends.

The musical climax of 'Singin' in the Rain' is a fourteen minute sequence entitled 'The Broadway Melody Ballet'. These ballet sequences were a regular fixture of many of Freed's musicals, length climactic set-pieces that aim for the highbrow. The best of these ballets is the closing sequence in 'An American in Paris' in which Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance through sets based on the work of French artists. I remain convinced that this section alone was integral in winning that film its Best Picture Oscar. 'Singin' in the Rain's' 'Broadway Melody Ballet' is based on numbers from the popular 'Broadway Melody' series of films from the 20s and 30s. It is a big, abstract number which features stylised backgrounds and dreamlike sequences. While there are those who consider it pompous and unrelated to the rest of the film, this stunning spectacle is actually a crucial moment. It relates to the opening sequence in which Don Lockwood tells a highly romanticised version of his life story to adoring fans. The ballet gives us a musical representation of something closer to the real story, signifying Lockwood's personal investment in his new talking picture and also giving us a glimpse of his move away from phoney celebrity culture. Whether you agree with this or not, few could begrudge the presence in the film of the knockout sequence in which Kelly and Cyd Charise perform a dance of love with a long, sweeping, white veil, a room full of people instantaneously disappearing so they can be alone.

'Singin' in the Rain' flies by like few other films I can think of. Although it failed to receive the same level of critical success as 'An American in Paris' or even the lumpy 'Gigi' (1958) (which went on to break Oscar records with nine wins) at the time of release, it has rightfully come to be regarded as not only the greatest musical of all time but one of the greatest American films. Very occasionally, everything just comes together right and you're left with as close to a perfect film as you can get. 'Singin' in the Rain' is one of the prime examples of such an occurence.

I've got my DVD copy right here so, as far as I'm concerned, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

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