A silent film studio Monumental Pictures and their stars Don Lockwood(Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont(Jean Hagen) are about to make a difficult transition to talkies. Along the way Don falls in love with Kathy Selden(Debbie Reynolds) and goes singin’ in the rain.
In 1927 Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length picture with synchronized dialogue sequences. Parts of the movie were still silent, but its commercial success marked the decline of the silent film. The advent of sound technology in movies destroyed many established careers because some silent era actors didn’t have attractive voices, or they had very thick foreign accents that were difficult to understand. Some studios used sound technology as an excuse to get rid of certain actors for personal reasons. Then there was the fact that some performers just couldn’t act.
Directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly and screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green created one of the best musical comedies. Not only is the film charming and funny, but it depicts a definitive slice of film history. It shows how a new film technology changed the medium and does so in an entertaining way. The film uses clever musical montages of period music that was used in early plotless musical films. It actually redeems some of those songs such as Singin’ in the Rain, first sung by Cliff Edwards who was most know as the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's Pinocchio (1940), Broadway Melody and You Were Meant for Me. Many of the songs lyrics used in the film were written by Arthur Freed, the Producer of Singin’ in the Rain.
The film version of The Broadway Melody (1929) was the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. This film is the antithesis of Singin’ in the Rain. The Broadway Melody is painful to watch, but it’s an interesting dinosaur of a musical with its lead footed dancers and wooden acting. One has to remember that Hollywood was still figuring out how to make a musical. At the time it was cutting edge. Singin’ in the Rain takes a song like Broadway Melody and turns it into full blown story with a beginning, middle and end. We are shown the colorful lurid city where a young hoofer goes to make a success of himself. “Gotta dance” sings Kelly in his characters naïve enthusiasm. He is the newest thing to a bored public looking for entertainment. Cyd Charisse and Kelly’s dance sequences are sexually charged and exciting. The setting is supposed to be the 20’s yet the numbers feeling contemporary.
The iconic Singin’ in the Rain number is simply a joy to watch. Kelly had a 103-degree temperature when he performed this famous number. You cannot tell in his performance. Kelly seems so genuinely jubilant and beatific that we are too when we watch it. I know I’m not the only one who has twirled my umbrella as he does and attempted to imitate him during a rain day. Okay, maybe it is just me. Its depiction of being blissfully in love and showing it in a joyous dance has been anemically copied in many a movie where a couple runs to each other and kisses in the rain. They are not as believable or fun. Kelly skillfully choreographed the dance numbers and was a true artist. It isn’t easy to create dance that can lift the spirit, but Kelly does effortlessly here. How is he so graceful while being hammered by pouring rain? This number is just sublime.
Then there is the acrobatic dancing of Donald O’Connor, playing Cosmo Brown, Kelly’s Don Lockwood childhood pal. His numbers with Kelly are full of vigor and punch. They are well matched in skill during the “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes” numbers. But he is in amazing form during his solo number the tour de force “Make ‘em Laugh.” O’Connor is a human dynamo during this number. His charm is endless and his antics hysterical. His running back flip up a wall defies belief. It is truly incredible. That is a scene to show kids and let them know no digital effects were used to achieve that.
Debbie Reynolds is perfectly cast as Kathy Selden, Don’s dream girl. Reynolds who was not a dancer had a tough time during the filming. Kelly was extremely hard on Reynolds during filming, but you don’t notice any strain in the film. Reynolds holds her own with Kelly and O’Connor. She is young, beautiful and talented. Kelly and Reynolds have great chemistry. This film launched Reynolds career.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the talented Jean Hagen as the vain and talentless Lina Lamont. Hagen is wonderful as the vapid spiteful actress. Her scene with Kathleen Freeman as her elocution teacher is painfully funny. Her comically grating voice mangling the English language is fantastic. Hagen’s real speaking and singing voice can be heard in the song number “Would You” and when Reynolds is dubbing in her voice in the dialogue looping scene. How’s that for confusing? If you have never seen this film you are in for a treat. Every ingredient is perfect. Incredible dance numbers, wonderful music, beautiful colorful costumes and lavish set designs that the Technicolor cinematography emphasizes. Donen and Kelly have fun showing the artificial facades of creating movies, a little glimpse behind the scenes showing the craftsmanship that go’s into creating the beautiful illusion that is film. Musicals are the purest form of fantasy in film. Some people say they can’t watch musicals because they are silly or they can’t watch people break into song. Musicals done correctly are escapism in its most pure form. Musicals are guaranteed to make you happy if you allow their movie magic to flow over you.