Blog Directory CineVerse: We can't stop singing the praises of this musical gem

We can't stop singing the praises of this musical gem

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Last month, one of Hollywood's finest musicals turned 70 years old. All these decades later, Singin' in the Rain continues to satisfy and satiate our desire for unbridled cinematic joy expressed in expert dancing and melody-making. What makes this movie stand apart from other pictures in the genre? Read on for reasons why Singin- in the Rain still matters today (to listen to the Cineversary podcast celebrating this movie, click here).

Why is this film worth celebrating 70 years later, and how has it stood the test of time?

  • It’s been called “the musical for people who don’t like musicals.” Perhaps that’s because it checks the boxes across several musical subgenres:
    • It’s a jukebox musical in which most of the songs are popular tunes, not just original music.
    • It’s a backstage musical wherein the plot is set in a theatrical context that focuses on a stage production or, in this case, a movie production.
    • You can call it a catalogue musical because it often features a catalogue of songs from a single songwriting source, here being MGM’s Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.
    • Singin’ in the Rain is an integrated musical, as well, in which the music is used to advance or mesh with the narrative, and characters don’t just burst into song without reason.
  • It’s worth celebrating because Singin’ in the Rain stands as the pinnacle of the classic Hollywood musical, the apex of works produced by Arthur Freed at MGM – which also include the Wizard of Oz, Cabin in the Sky, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, on the Town, An American Paris, and The Band Wagon.
  • The film also represents a collection of top talents at the height of their powers, in particular Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Stanley Donen, and Arthur Freed, who have debatably never produced better work.
  • It’s cherished, as well, thanks to its chromatic vibrancy, being shot in sumptuous three-strip Technicolor, which really pops in the Broadway Melody sequence and the Beautiful Girl montage.
  • Singin' in the Rain also holds up because many of the songs and dancing seem spontaneous, improvised, natural, effortless, and made up on the spot. Many of the songs serve as musical representations and articulations of a character’s emotions, too. Cases in point: The Moses Supposes scene looks and feels a bit silly because Don and Cosmo apparently find the lessons ridiculous and can’t take the teacher seriously, so they treat the scene and the instructor somewhat irreverently, while Broadway Rhythm plays as kinetic and urgent, suggesting that the need to dance is essential for practical as well as personal reasons.
    • Infectious energy, enthusiasm, and playfulness pulse through these numbers, and you can’t help but tap your toes, hum along, and share many of the emotions felt by these characters. We appreciate the feeling of genuinely falling in love because Kelly sells it so well during the titular dance sequence.
  • What’s more, Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t date because it serves as a minor history lesson in how early movies were made, loosely documenting the problematic transition from silent pictures to talkies. It demonstrates how the machinery of moviemaking pulls off the magic trick: how microphones, lights, cameras, backdrops, and other elements function to help create a film. Because it was set in 1927, the year the first talking movies were released, it serves as a compelling period piece that helps Singin’ in the Rain from feeling outmoded.
    • Consider that the movie business continually confronts times of change and challenging periods of technical transition, whether it was the rollout of 3-D and widescreen in the 1950s or the initiative to install digital projection systems in theaters in recent years.
    • Slant Magazine reviewer Chris Cabin wrote: “The most exquisite and exuberant dream of the dream machine in transition, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain includes perhaps one of the greatest examples of how art, with its constant advances and detractions, can at once wildly embellish and find the emotional truth of an artist’s persona. And it is, of course, the greatest film to date about the pitfalls and promises that come along with change in film, though its ideas are so clear and profoundly realized that they have by now become universally relatable. Made today, it might have been about the move from film to digital, from the theater to VOD, from print criticism to blogging.”
  • Despite winning no Oscars and not being cherished in its own era for its brilliance, Singin’ in the Rain ranks as the best musical ever, per the American Film Institute’s list of the Greatest Movie Musicals, places #5 in the AFI’s 2007 list of the 100 greatest films of all time, and commands a rare 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Lastly, in a movie known primarily for stellar dancing and memorable music, it’s loaded with great comedic lines, like “She so refined – I think I’ll kill myself;” “Dignity, always dignity”; “Call me a cab”/“Okay, you’re a cab”; “Gee, this is dumb”; and the following exchange between Cosmo and R.F: “Talking pictures, that means I’m out of a job. At last, I can start suffering and write that symphony.”/“You’re not out of job, we’re putting you in as head of our new music department.”/Oh, thanks, R.F.! At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony.”

How was this movie innovative or different, especially compared to previous Hollywood musicals?

  • It integrated different types of dancing, including tap, ballet, ballroom, jazz, can-can, and a more athletic style of hoofing and movement that, for instance, breakdance and hip-hop dancers can appreciate nowadays. Singin’ in the Rain also showcases some of the best male tandem dancing ever and three-person dancing.
    • Kelly, O’Connor, and Reynolds make it look easy, even though it was challenging work choreographing and executing these dance moves.
    • Amazingly, Reynolds had no professional dancing experience before being cast, although she was a skilled gymnast. It was also her first starring role in a musical.
  • Rare for a 1950s musical, most music in the film is recycled: All but two of the 15 songs, Moses Supposses and Make ‘Em Laugh, were used previously in movies, mostly between 1929 and 1939.
  • This musical actually has a solid plot with an intriguing narrative, as opposed to so many previous song and dance pictures. And the story was written directly for the screen—not based on a stage musical.
  • Unlike many prior musicals, where the screenplay was written first and then songs were composed to fit the story, the songs in Singin’ in the Rain existed first, followed by the script.
  • Indeed, it actually tells a story, depicting Hollywood’s challenging crossover from silents to talkies. We learn how the sausage is made: the placement of the microphones, lip-synching, synchronizing the picture and sound, a traveling cyclorama, the importance of test screenings, stiff competition between the studios, and the degree to which Hollywood actors were commodities owned by the studio (recall, for example, that Kathy is obligated to perform because of her contract with Monumental Pictures).
  • In her book, The Movie Musical!, film scholar Jeanine Basinger wrote: “It’s a film about film history, and its musical numbers comply. “Make ’Em Laugh,” with O’Connor doing an amazing tour de force of slapstick dancing, is about the violence of American silent comedy. “Moses Supposes” is like a Marx Brothers routine set to music. “You Were Meant for Me” is a gentle self-parody of typical love duets in movies, showing all the props used and how audiences are manipulated by them. “Beautiful Girl” is a tribute to a 1930s Busby Berkeley number, and “Good Morning” uses an old song as a setting for an imaginatively choreographed tap routine that displays several different types of movie dancing. All the numbers are about movies except “All I Do Is Dream of You” and the title tune.”
  • Furthermore, Singin’ in the Rain stands as an uncommon example in its era of a metafilm—showing movies within the movie and commenting on the creation, editing, and distribution of motion pictures.
    • Exhibit A: This film is chock full of references and nods to previous movies and filmmakers, and savvy watchers can have a lot of fun looking for the bread crumbs, such as:
      • The majority of tunes had been featured in previous Hollywood musicals, as mentioned earlier; in fact, this was the seventh time the song "Singin' in the Rain" was used in a film.
      • Make Em Laugh riffs on Cole Porter’s Be a Clown from 1948’s The Pirate.
      • The movie uses plenty of antique props and older sets employed in earlier films; for instance, Kathy’s jalopy was a fixture in the Andy Hardy series starring Mickey Rooney.
      • Studio boss R.F. Simpson and the musical director character of Cosmo were modeled on Arthur Freed.
      • The Dancing Cavalier director Roscoe Dexter is patterned after musical filmmaker Busby Berkeley.
      • The film mentions 1927’s The Jazz Singer, credited as the first feature-length talking picture.
      • The action scenes in "The Royal Rascal" use footage from the 1948 film The Three Musketeers.
    • Exhibit B: Singin’ in the Rain both lampoons and lionizes Hollywood and show business, hinting at the warts-and-all truth behind filmmaking with comedic criticism while also glorifying the glitz, glamour, and glory days of the studio system and early popular entertainment.
    • Exhibit C: There’s even a meta irony in this film. We see how Lina’s voice is dubbed by Kathy, who is a better singer, but Debbie Reynolds’ singing voice is actually dubbed by singer Betty Noyes in two songs: “Would You?” and in part of “You Are My Lucky Star.”
  • Lastly, Singin’ in the Rain continues Kelly’s trend of utilizing a more athletic, masculine, everyman style meant to relate to everyday people. Kelly is more physical and acrobatic than the Hollywood hoofer he was most often compared to, Fred Astaire, who was more smooth, sophisticated, and graceful. Kelly also enjoyed using props in his dance routines, which he does with much aplomb in Singin’ in the Rain via an umbrella, lamppost, hat, coin, scarf, couch, lampshade, curtains, or briefcase.

How was Singin’ in the Rain influential on cinema, comedy, or popular culture?

  • This movie was a major inspiration to later films and TV shows, including Moulin Rouge, High School Musical and its sequels, Chicago, The Artist, Rock of Ages, La La Land, and Glee.
  • Singin’ in the Rain showed how efficiently and effectively you could advance the narrative through dance and music. Ponder how most if not all the songs follow logically from a character’s motivation or previous explanation. Take the Fit as a Fiddle number, which establishes Don’s past and professional relationship with Cosmo, and consider why the title song comes later in the tale because it occurs just after Don realizes he’s in love, serving as a jubilant expression of his sentiments toward Kathy and the joie de vivre he’s experiencing.
  • Particularly with this movie, Kelly perfected a new approach to presenting dance on film. According to Kelly: “I tried to do things uniquely cinematic, that you couldn’t do on a stage. Call it ‘cine-dancing,’ or whatever, but I tried to invent the dance to fit the camera and its movements.”
    •’s Erin McCann wrote: “One of the best examples of this can be seen in Singin’ In The Rain, when the camera pulls back, the music swells, and Kelly dances using wide movements. Then, as the camera closes in on him, the music softens and his movements become less dramatic. This technique focuses your attention and creates a sense of intimacy; it’s a vastly different approach than previously standard massive wide shots attempting to replicate the spectacle of Broadway. It also allows for the increased use of depth in cinematic space.”
  • Singin’ in the Rain boasts perhaps the best and one of the first examples of physical comedy implemented in a dance number with Make ‘Em Laugh.
    • Consider how the Beautiful Girl montage, especially its first 60 seconds, serves as a kind of proto-music video with its colorfully costumed women, stylistic shots of marching female soldiers and a man shouting out of a megaphone, and various beauties clad in ostentatious attire. It feels like a kind of early MTV video with its rapid cuts and eye-catching visuals.

It’s rare for any classic film from the golden age of Hollywood to have two directors. Why were Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly the ideal collaborators?

  • They had co-directed an earlier film together that was a commercial and critical success: On the Town from 1949, starring Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
  • It would make sense for Donen to share directorial duties with the person responsible for choreographing all the dancing and who performed most of the dance numbers.
  • Film critics and scholars have noted Singin’ in the Rain’s longer-than-usual takes and an active camera that consistently travels and tracks with characters.
  • In his essay on this film for Deep Focus Review, Brian Eggert “Kelly learned that movement onscreen depends on the movement of the camera, and viewers of a stage performance saw something different than a film’s audience. On the stage, dancers appeared smaller and had to occupy the entire stage along with their costars, so large movements became more important than acting; on film, the camera could move along with the dancer, and the viewer could better appreciate specific movements onscreen, in particular, the actor’s ability (or inability) to remain in character during the dance…The key to cine-dance was shooting dance in such a way that dance never distracted from the film’s narrative thrust. To accomplish this, Donen used tracking and crane camera techniques that trail the dancing without the wobbly movements of earlier musicals, allowing Singin’ in the Rain’s dance sequences to contain a rare faithfulness to the narrative for a Hollywood musical, as the songs and dance blend seamlessly with the drama and humor.”

What themes, messages, or morals are explored in Singin’ in the Rain?

  • Illusion vs. reality. Audiences are constantly seduced by the fantastical power of perfect-looking movies. But Singin’ in the Rain reveals that creating films involves sometimes imperfect technology that marries sound to image in a way that fools the mind into thinking that what we are seeing represents reality and looks effortless.
    • Recall how, early in the story, Don reminisces his backstory to the reporter, but we are shown the hard-luck truth of what he is exaggerating.
    • Ruminate on how Kathy portrays herself as a serious actress, but her real job is to jump out of cakes and function as a background player.
    • Mr. Simpson is the head of the studio and wants to come off as powerful, but he is afraid of angering his stars.
    • The plot itself is partially centered on how to get Lina to appear to have more talent than she really does. By peeling back the curtain and presenting Lina as the fraudulent talent she is, the illusion is broken for the crowd she entertains and the truth of Kathy’s singing gift is revealed.
    • The characters of Lina and Kathy, respectively, represent illusion versus reality as well as two distinctly different types of women vying for Don’s attention.
      • Lina is glamorous, rich and powerful, more classically feminine, and a platinum blonde, while Kathy is tomboyish, shorter, brown-haired, and a starving artist.
      • Lina is dim-witted, smart-alecky, urban, and vindictive, while Kathy is sharp, intuitive, humble, small-townish, and morally upright.
      • Lina demands the spotlight, but Kathy is willing to concede it.
  • Dignity vs. humiliation. Time and again, we are shown how Don, Cosmo, Kathy, and Lina try to maintain their self-respect and poise in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood but are regularly shamed, demeaned, and embarrassed.
  • Performing and performances. Singin’ in the Rain continually reminds us of the pressure felt by artists to impress and entertain audiences, nail the opportunity, and perform well in front of and behind the camera.
  • Getting closer to the heart of the matter via increased intimacy. In an interview, film historian Sam Wasson said: “The whole movie can be read as a progression from the exterior – the way it opens with that lie – to the climax of the Broadway Melody number, which is all about (Don’s) imaginings. We quite literally go from outside to inside, and the musical numbers themselves describe that progression.”

What is Singin’ in the Rain’s greatest gift to viewers?

  • Among its many gifts is the title track dance in the downpour by Gene Kelly, easily the most memorable music and visual from the film – one that transcends time and is referenced in popular culture to this day. Not only is this a logistical and technical triumph of mise en scene, but Kelly’s emotionally animated footwork and physical exuberance are unforgettable. We’ve certainly seen him do more athletically impressive movements to music, and this may not be his most complex choreography ever. Yet it’s the most believable dancing many have seen from Gene because it feels and looks like the way a young man might behave upon first realizing that he’s smitten with someone. We may not be able to tap tirelessly and flawlessly across the wet pavement like Mr. Kelly, but we can relate to the sheer joy that electrifies his legs and gives his feet wings. We can recall times in our youth when we stomped around giddily in rain puddles and twirled an umbrella. You simply can’t help but grin by the song’s end and feel young again. (And I’m occasionally reminded of the power and lasting influence of this number when I visit the produce section of my local supermarket; every so often while perusing the rows of carrots, radishes, kale, and spinach, I’m startled by the sudden operation of an automatic overhead irrigation system that plays the disembodied voice of Gene Kelly singing this song as the veggies are delicately misted. It’s little wonder why my produce is so crisp, fresh, and tasty—after all, a Hollywood icon has serenaded them!). Additionally, this song is probably Kelly’s best vocal performance on film, as well.
  • Greatest gift number two is Make ‘Em Laugh, which never fails to deliver on that title’s promise. Donald O’Connor is a sheer force of nature with his funny business here, and his pliant, slapsticky, superhuman performance speaks for itself. (This was the film and this was the scene that got my son to sit down for and pay attention to classic films back when he was five years old and a thousand Disney flicks were vying for his attention.)
  • Greatest gift number three is the Broadway Melody sequence: an uber-colorful medley of fanciful fantasy that blends several discrete dancing and musical styles. It doesn’t exist in the characters’ reality—Don recommends inserting it as a showstopper within a re-edit of the Dancing Cavalier. Narratively, however, it functions as a crucial turning point in Don’s ability to reveal his emotions to Kathy, and it externalizes his internal crisis about his acting skills keeping pace with his dancing aptitude and vice versa. One reading suggests that the Broadway Melody fantasy is a reaction in Don’s mind to Kathy’s criticism of his acting and how Don had compromised himself by not pursuing his true talent—dancing—and how he should return to it. Regardless of your interpretation, the garish hues, elaborate steps, balletic brilliance, nimble camera movement, and sheer number of moving parts in Broadway Melody are stunning, making it a self-contained masterpiece within a masterpiece.

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