#286) Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
OR “The Music of Sound”
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green. Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.
Class of 1989
The Plot: It’s 1927 Hollywood and talkies have exploded onto the scene. Silent film leading man Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is convinced it’s a fad, but studio head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) insists on reshooting Don’s latest vehicle, “The Dueling Cavalier”, with sound. The transition is a bumpy one, exasperated by leading lady Lina Lamont’s (Jean Hagen) pronounced Queens accent. After a disastrous preview, Don thinks his career is over, but his best friend Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) and chorus girl Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) convince him to play to his strengths and turn “Cavalier” into a musical. What follows is sheer perfection set to the Brown/Freed song catalog.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of the greatest musicals ever filmed” and praises Kelly, Donen, the main cast, and the title number.
But Does It Really?: Case closed: “Singin’ in the Rain” is the greatest musical ever made. Many come close, but none can match this movie for its sheer joy (Doctors should start prescribing it as an anti-depressant). You can tell there’s something special going on right from the start. The combination of talent from Donen and Kelly on down makes this the rare grand-slam home run of films. “Singin’ in the Rain” is at the top of my preservation-worthy list, and I hope every future generation has the privilege of watching it.
Shout Outs: A few historical references to “The Jazz Singer” throughout. I’m sure Warner Bros. appreciated the free publicity.
Everybody Gets One: Most of these players appear throughout the other “Freed Unit” musicals on this list, but the main standout is Donald O’Connor, on loan from Universal, running up the walls of film immortality as Cosmo Brown.
Seriously, Oscars?: While successful in its day, “Singin’ in the Rain” faced unavoidable comparisons to “An American in Paris”, which was re-released in 1952 after its Best Picture win. “Singin’ in the Rain” received two Oscar nominations, and lost both. Best Scoring of a Musical Picture went to the Jane Froman biopic “With a Song in My Heart”, and, most conspicuously, Jean Hagen lost Best Supporting Actress to Gloria Grahame’s brief performance in “The Bad and the Beautiful”.
- That’s a pretty gutsy move to be the head of your own movie studio unit and then propose a film comprised entirely of your own songs. You got lucky this time, Arthur Freed.
- Future EGOT winner Rita Moreno plays the disappointingly minor role of Zelda Zanders. Don’t worry Rita, “West Side Story” isn’t too far away.
- We’re only at “Fit as a Fiddle” and I’m already exhausted watching this choreography. The precision leaves me speechless.
- The nice thing about Lina Lamont is that she’s allowed to be more dimensional than your traditional comic foil. She’s shrewish, yet shrewd.
- Donald O’Connor is a well-oiled comedy machine. His timing throughout the film is remarkable, and “Make ‘Em Laugh” is a tour-de-force. While we’re on the subject, I hope Cole Porter sued.
- My favorite line in the movie: “Hey Joe, get me a tarantula!”
- Shoutout to costumer Walter Plunkett, who not only had to design ‘20s clothing for everyone, but also wardrobe for a variety of film genres. Where was his Oscar nod?
- The stories of this film’s difficult production are legendary – even Kelly himself said he was too hard on Reynolds and O’Connor – but amazingly, none of that comes through the final film. It looks like everyone’s having the time of their lives.
- Character actor Kathleen Freeman spent most of her seven decade career playing everyone’s sassy maid/mom/secretary, but here she’s wonderfully against-type as unflappable dialect coach Phoebe Dinsmore (“And I cahn’t stahnd him.”)
- Moses supposes his toeses were roses? Man, wandering the desert will mess you up.
- How many people over the years have wrecked their furniture trying to reenact the last shot of “Good Morning”?
- And now the main attraction: the title number is one of those perfect moments captured on film. Unlike the other songs, “Singin’ in the Rain” stems organically from the character. Don is so happy, he can no longer speak, so he sings. The entire scene is powered by Kelly’s infectious energy. I’m getting chills just writing about it.
- You know what tainted Jean Hagen’s performance for me? Judy Holliday in “Born Yesterday”. Holliday was the first choice for Lina (Comden & Green wrote the role for her), but she was unavailable, so her stage understudy Hagen got the part. Don’t get me wrong, Hagen is flawless in the role, but I suspect the Holliday comparison is one of the reasons Hagen didn’t win the Oscar. Holliday won for “Born Yesterday” two years earlier, and a vote for Hagen must have felt like “been there, done that” to the Academy.
- Filmdom’s Greatest Irony: Debbie Reynolds is dubbed when Kathy is looping Lina for “Would You?”.
- Filmdom’s Second Greatest Irony: Jean Hagen dubbed some of Lina’s speaking lines in “The Dancing Cavalier” using her natural voice.
- Most of these numbers are so good you don’t care how lazily shoehorned into the film they are, but “Broadway Melody” really stretches that hospitality. It’s good, but Gene Kelly is clearly trying to out-“American in Paris” himself. That being said, Cyd Charisse is worth the trip out.
- Debbie Reynolds doesn’t get as much screen time as you remember, and the love story is just there because it’s a musical comedy, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t tear up when Don wins Kathy back. Damn you two and your star quality!
- The more I watch this movie, the more I’m disappointed in “La La Land”.
- Gene Kelly reached his musical apex with “Singin’ in the Rain”, but a few business conflicts with MGM, mixed with the slow decline of the movie musical, caused Kelly to never again reach those same cinematic heights.
- Stanley Donen went on to direct “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. They can’t all be winners.
- Debbie Reynolds became a bona fide star thanks to this movie, leading to her Oscar-nominated turn in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”.
- “Singin’ in the Rain” got its inevitable stage adaptation in the ‘80s. With the right cast it’s charming, but why mess with perfection?
- Countless parodies and allusions over the years, but will anything surpass “A Clockwork Orange”?
- Whenever a Pittsburgh Pirates home game is rained out, the ballpark plays a clip of native son Gene Kelly.
- Oh my god we made him break dance.
- And of course, the Great Movie Ride.
Further Viewing: The earliest performance of “Singin’ in the Rain” from “Hollywood Revue of 1929”, sung by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards.