Even in the cases where I hadn’t seen the film, most of the works I’ve watched for the first time during this project have at least been somewhat familiar to me in some way. Oh, there were exceptions, but by and large, I at least knew the plot of the film based off its reputation.
But Singin’ in the Rain was something of a mystery. I knew about the title song, how Gene Kelly sung it, and it’s a delightful little tune. I knew Kelly was as sick as a metaphorical dog when he shot that sequence, and…that was about all I knew about Singin’ in the Rain. How did this film, one so high on the AFI list, become such a blank in my mind? It is the last one I’ll be watching for the first time, but how did I not know what this film was about?
As it is, even though I don’t often care for musicals, this one was pretty good. It hit the right balance for me, since I expect a certain level of realism in film, that many of the songs were not necessarily stuff characters sang to somehow advance the plot, but were part of a performance a character would be putting on for other characters. To be sure, there are a few plot advancers such as the title song. As I said way back in the first entry for this series, Yankee Doodle Dandy, I actually prefer the sort of songs that are presented as a show-within-a-show sort of scenario, and that’s pretty much what a good number of the songs in Singin’ in the Rain turn out to be.
Then we get the other type, and, well, these are just sweet songs. “Singin’ in the Rain” is just delightful, “Make ’em Laugh” is full of manic energy, and “Good Morning,” just sounds like the sort of song a person might want to hear when he or she actually does wake up in the morning. But the film, set in Hollywood, gives the characters plenty of excuses for singing and dancing that other musicals I’ve watched for this feature haven’t given.
Besides, it is easy to see why this film might be as popular as it is among film buffs. For one thing, it’s an ode to Hollywood, and those sorts of things done right always seem to attract fans. And while the film was put together in part as a showcase for the songs, it doesn’t much matter because there actually is a theme going on about how much deception is a part of the business. That becomes clear from the opening minutes when silent film star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) tells his life story for an interview on the way to his next big premier. The story he says verbally is contradicted by a visual representation of his life that is the opposite of what he says. About the only true thing is how his piano player Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) has been his friend since childhood. Sure, Don’s story of rags to riches might actually be more impressive, but that isn’t what the studio wants the fans to know.
The studio also doesn’t want the fans to know Don’s longtime costar Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) sounds terrible. Hagen took on the role after working as an understudy to comedic actress Judy Holiday, and most of her performance here is basically doing the thick, Brooklyn accented voice Holiday was famous for. Granted, she did get some lines in her natural voice, but ironically, it was for lines that were supposedly redubbed by her “voice double” Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Even more ironically, Reynolds herself had a voice double for a song or two of hers.
That’s something that I’ve had to wonder about. I’ve seen more than one musical during this project when the female star was lip syncing while some other woman sang. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, especially when I live in a day and age when Russell Crowe is allowed to sing in a movie.
As it is, this is a delightful film with a simple story, where Don and Lina have problems transitioning to sound until Don, Cosmo, and Kathy decide to make Don’s romantic melodrama set in what looks like the 17th century into a musical. Does the long “Broadway Melody” somehow make sense as a part of the movie he is supposedly making? No. Is it a beautiful set piece? Yes.
Now, Gene Kelly onscreen is a great singer and dancer, and he seems so genial, but as I looked up this film, I did learn that as much as he comes across as a nice guy, as co-director, the man was a total taskmaster. Debbie Reynolds was a gymnast who had never danced before, and Kelly was so hard on her as she learned on-the-job, she was reduced to tears, later saying that the hardest things she ever did were childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain. She was fortunate that Fred Astaire actually took time to help her out. Kelly wasn’t much better to Donald O’Connor, and as good as Kelly was as a dancer, I was equally impressed by O’Connor. I hadn’t heard of him before, but he managed to match Kelly step for step, and given a solo song, the fantastic “Make ’em Laugh,” he snows off some great moves of his own.
However, O’Connor had a four-pack-a-day cigarette and actually injured himself doing that number. He wasn’t gone long. He reported back to set as soon as he could to avoid Kelly’s wrath.
In the end, of course, the one thing that jumped out at me was the whole film seemed to be a set-up to ruin an actress’ career when Lina is revealed to be a fraud. Did she deserve it? The film tries to make it look like she did, but man, it sure was funny when that woman had her whole life ruined! Sure, it’s a comedy, and she’s not a sympathetic character, but that sure did strike me as a bit cruel all the same.
By the by, I did dig this one, but really, why did I not know anything about this one?
NEXT UP: Let’s go for a complete tonal shift from the last two entries with 1993’s Schindler’s List.