Amazingly, for as long as I’ve been into musicals and classic films in general, I have never had the chance to watch in full the one musical which so many—including the American Film Institute—consider to be the best one ever made. And today, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the launch of Turner Classic Movies, which has become an important oasis for the preservation of cinema history and such a profound influence on generations of film buffs and filmmakers both old and new, I felt that it would be appropriate to finally take the time and watch one of the most essential classic films ever made.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is set in the late 1920s and primarily follows Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly, who also co-directed alongside Stanley Donen), who alongside his musical best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) has worked his way up to become one of the top stars at the fictional Monumental Pictures studio, forming an onscreen “couple” with Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in the process—one, however, that doesn’t translate to real life if Don has anything to say about it. Meanwhile, the film industry is faced with the advent of talking pictures, and Monumental, like everyone else in Hollywood, rushes to start making sound films following the success of Warner Bros.’ THE JAZZ SINGER (and not only that film, but even its real-life producing studio and ironic future owner of this movie, gets a namecheck!). As part of the transition, a formerly silent film starring Don and Lina is turned into a musical. Unlike Don, who of course has an attractive voice to match his good looks, Lina has a shrill, grating, New York accent-laden voice. When Don comes across chorus girl and aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), Cosmo gets the idea to secretly dub Lina’s voice with Kathy’s—and, of course, Don falls in love with Kathy in the process.
Arthur Freed, in addition to producing this film, also wrote most of the lyrics to the songs featured herein, with music to most of those songs by Nacio Herb Brown—sounding a lot like something I would do. In fact, Freed conceived this movie as a vehicle for his own songs that were featured in previous MGM musicals (the title song, for instance, made its first film appearance in THE HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929), and screenwriters Betty Comden & Adolph Green conceived the time period and story of this film in order to reflect that of the songs themselves, and also because they were very familiar with the transitional era themselves. Although Howard Keel was mentioned as a potential lead, the screenwriters kept gravitating toward a story more suited for Kelly, who jumped at the chance almost immediately coming off the eventual Best Picture Oscar® winner AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. In fact, the only two songs not written by Freed were written specifically for this film by Comden & Green, with music by the film’s musical director, Roger Eden.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, far more than being a mere jukebox showcasing the songwriting knack of its producer, is the very definition of a Golden Age musical masterpiece. There is never a dull moment in its story or staging, which is full of good-spirited fun and humor throughout. Kelly and O’Connor have standout performances both individually and collectively, while Reynolds’ career effectively launched alongside her fictional counterpart. The rest of the supporting cast fit into their roles just as well as the leads. And as with PARIS before it, the culmination of this film is an elongated ballet sequence with Kelly (and also featuring Cyd Charisse as his vampy dance partner during one portion) that alone is one of the greatest Technicolor splendors ever photographed. It is a timeless spectacle of dance, color, and song; the pinnacle of film musicals; and one I highly recommend that everyone see at least once in their lives—and, if possible, more than once.
A few other notes regarding this film:
- Gene Kelly was sick with a fever when performing the title song on MGM’s New York Street backlot; the sequence took several days to film despite a common myth claiming he was able to do it in a single take (which would be far easier to do now than it would have been in the early 1950s, anyway).
- Another common myth, considering that technology was not as sophisticated at the time, is that the raindrops were mixed with milk to show up better on camera. However, Kelly himself noted that all the rain had to be backlit, which was an extremely difficult challenge, but somehow they managed to pull it off.
- The relationship between Kelly and Reynolds was rather frosty at first, with Kelly criticizing Reynolds’ lack of dance experience (something he later regretted, although he was surprised that Reynolds was still willing to talk to him). Fellow MGM star Fred Astaire eventually helped Reynolds with her dancing after seeing her crying under a piano following the incident. Reynolds’ feet were bleeding after a gruesome 15-hour shoot for the “Good Morning” number, and she later stated in a 2003 interview that this film, and childbirth, were the two hardest things she ever did in her life.