The Favorites is a series briefly exploring films I love, to find out what makes them - and me - tick. Singin' in the Rain (1952/USA/dir. Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly) appeared at #31 on my original list.
What it is • First off, it's a joyous parade of classic song-and-dance numbers (from the opening umbrella-and-rainslicker trio to the more immortal fedora-and-topcoat solo, from the cheerfully inventive non sequitur "Calendar Girl" to perhaps the best sequence in the whole film, Donald O'Conner's "Make 'Em Laugh"). But we shouldn't let that distract us from one of the best-scripted musical stories of all time; the plot of the film is no mere clothesline revue, nor a series of preparatory notes and steps to position us for the real narrative heavy-lifting of the showpiece songs. Instead, the film could be stripped of all its musical numbers and you'd still be left with one of Hollywood's most memorable romantic comedies, not to mention one of its most charming films about films. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the most popular stars of the silent cinema - emphasis on "silent," since it turns out Lamont's voice could never withstand public scrutiny. The preview of their first talkie, The Dueling Cavalier, is one of the funniest parodies I've ever seen (worthy of being its own standalone short), especially once the dialogue falls out of sync and lapses into slow motion. Meanwhile, Lockwood is falling in love with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a dancer willing to prick his pomposity when he's riding high and lift his spirits when he's fallen low. Together, he, Miss Selden, and life-of-the-party songman Cosmo Brown (O'Conner) concoct a brilliant plan to save Lockwood's doomed production (and career). Their joyous feat of creativity, and his romantic chemistry with co-creator Selden, launches Lockwood out into the street where he croons the title number - one of the most blissful moments in movie history.
Why I like it •
Well, really, what's not to like? The songs are catchy, the dances are dynamic, and even if you don't care for musicals, the film is a genuinely funny romantic comedy, with quotable dialogue, smart characterizations, and endlessly clever situations. This is also a brilliant, light-hearted send-up of Hollywood, a peek behind the dream factory's curtain at the tail end of an era in which that curtain seemed firmly in place. There's a sense of excitement to getting this glimpse. What do I personally love about it? I think that quality of fantasy/expose may be at the heart of its appeal. The movie manages to have it both ways: winking at us about the silliness of the whole charade while simultaneously wrapping us up inside one of the best examples of how effective that charade can be. The rainy street was really indoors and Kelly actually had a cold; the cheerful demeanor of the actors belied the pressure they were under to perform Kelly's rigorous choreography; the movie skewers romantic cliches but gleefully embodies them as well ("There's the girl you fell in love with tonight!"). In a less effective piece of work, we might resent this attempt to have its cake and eat it too but Singin' in the Rain strikes the perfect balance between letting us in on its secrets and withholding just enough to let us keep believing. It's like being in Disneyland: you know the illusion has been created for you, and somehow this only adds to the fascination. The dream factory has never seemed dreamier...or, ironically, more clear-eyed.
More from me • I explored the film as the first entry in my Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood series, following the film industry's early fifties self-critical oeuvre from most gentle (this) to most harsh (Sunset Boulevard).
How you can see it • Singin' in the Rain is available for digital rental/purchase on YouTube, Amazon, and other sites. The blu-ray/DVD is available on Netflix.
What do you think? • Is there a musical you'd rank higher - even a Gene Kelly musical you'd place above this? What are the differences - to your eye - between Kelly's and Astaire's styles? What other Hollywood-gazes-at-itself movies do you think can stand beside it?
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Yesterday: Easy Rider (#32)
Tomorrow: Red Hot Riding Hood (#30)