The Sound of Musicals: Singin' in the Rain
With a film so iconic and endearing, what else can you say that already hasn’t been said, sung, hollered, or yodeled? Sometimes when you revisit or re-watch a classic of this magnitude, there's an air of doubt that could reawaken that little contrarian that lives in all of us to say something like “well, is this movie really that good?”. Some cases can be made for this line of thinking; perhaps modern audiences won’t find The Magnificent Ambersons so magnificent, others might come around to admit that they like Goodfellas more than The Godfather, so upon rewatching Singin’in the Rain were there any visible leaks in the hull of this first class ship? Not at all; Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's classic film exceeds the test of endurance being one of the best of its kind, that only gets better with age.
Musicals are one of the more generous avenues, and Singin’ in the Rain is a film that offers a lot and asks for little more than our eyes and ears. On top of the lustrous musical numbers and choreography, Singin’ in the Rain is more than just brilliantly conceived singing and dancing, it’s a howlingly funny exploration of the movie business that’s all the more clever in its meta-structure.
In many ways this 'all singing all dancing' celebratory panorama is a love letter to the medium of filmmaking, that isn’t afraid to take a few well intended satirical jabs along the way. The narrative arc of the talking era becoming a springboard for the musical is adoringly brought to life by Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor's spirited dedication; the energy is electrifying, and the dialogue crackles with wit, Singin’ in the Rain is a cut above the best for being as intelligent as it is, there are beauty and brains to the film, and everyone in front of and behind the camera are at the top of their game.
As if we need to emphasize how astonishing Kelley’s singing and dancing could be, but when you see the chemistry of the choreography between Kelly, O'Connor, and Reynolds they are so so collectively on point you could set your watch to it. As is the case with the pros these guys always make it look so easy but it's impossible to overlook the herculean feats of energy in these performances. Donald O'Connor's 'Make 'em Laugh' number was shot in only a day. Considering the near abusive commitment to his regiment and flips, and falls, it's a small miracle he pulls off, let alone getting the scene in the can in such a short amount of time.
One of the more popular behind the scenes stories is Kelly slogging through the shoot with a 103-degree fever (after all, he was singin' in the rain..) but the childlike glee as he arbitrarily stomps his way through the puddles, you'd never know. The praise for Kelly and music from MGM's “Freed Unit” is deservedly dished out but I think the talent of Stanley Donen's direction is frequently shadowed by the razzle and dazzle. Partially due to the fact that he's smart enough to take Kelly as a credited director and let the camera flow with fluid weightless, long takes. Donen's a first rate choreographer, and it shows in his framing; as a director the flowing camera movements and pacing are indicative of his peripheral work (discounting Saturn 3) there's no debate if Singin' in the Rain is more Kelly than Donen, they collectively made a masterpiece.
The litmus test for musicals usually relies on the connective pull of the musical numbers next to the narrative; whereas musical cues can take you out of the story, or the story is merely a host for the singing and dancing Singin’ in the Rain will have you aching for both at the same time.
Rarely is a movie so good its filmic crescendos are actually at odds with each other in vying for our attention. The musical numbers are so dazzling you won't want them to end, and the story is so charming you’ll be dying for the dialogue driven narrative to kick back in. The irony of this is bolstered considering Singin' in the Rain (namely the title theme) is something of a jukebox musical, many of the favorite tunes having been culled from the infamous Arthur Freed's (or the Freed Unit) at MGM.
Filmmaker John Landis once said “they should prescribe this movie, because if you're ever depressed put this on, it’ll cheer you up”, and I'm inclined to agree.