It’s interesting how some of the best Hollywood movies of the early ’50s—thinking specifically of Singin’ in the Rain and 1950’s Sunset Blvd. but several others fit the bill as well—seized the moment to look back acidly on the transition of the industry from silents to talkies. That’s the story here, set in the late ’20s, as Donald Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (played nicely as Judy Holliday send-up by Jean Hagen), a beloved Hollywood couple of the grand era, are forced to confront the coming realities of sound.
But wait a minute, does the plot here even matter at all? Singin’ in the Rain backfills its narrative with any number of clever ways to show how film technology continually failed everyone in those times—most notably, of course, jarringly wrong voices emanating from beloved faces, but taking on as well the necessity for static microphones on set, troubles such as the incidental sounds inevitably captured, precarious synchronization, and words that worked on title cards failing miserably as dialogue. But the answer to that question remains decidedly no. The plot doesn’t matter here in the least.
In its best moments, Singin’ in the Rain is nothing less than dazzling, kinetic, vibrantly colorful spectacle, with set pieces so elaborate and yet so apt as to render one stupefied open-mouthed, an otherworldly hallucination inflected by athletics and bonhomie and, what do you know, enough pure yuks along the way to practically charm your socks off. “I’ve had one motto which I’ve always lived by,” Lockwood unctuously tells a red-carpet interviewer early on. “‘Dignity. Always dignity.'”
He then takes a few minutes to relate his rise to prominence, in voiceover, the scenes playing out in front of us ever belying his own words, and soon enough we are face to face with “Fit as a Fiddle,” with Lockwood and his sidekick Cosmo Brown (played by Donald O’Connor) decked out in garish green-and-white-checked suits, playing the hayseed circuit. It comes on like a throwaway, a brief sequence meant to illustrate more of Lockwood’s prevarications, but the dance moves are fascinating, complex, and difficult, as the pair leap around, on and off of one another, sawing away at their own fiddles and each other’s.
That’s the nature of this picture generally, which no doubt stems from the circumstances of the writers having a bundle of 25-year-old songs thrust at them and told, “Here. Write a movie around these.” The plot points come along like drunken men back to work late from lunch, churning fitfully in that mode, with some of this, a little of that, and then, blammo! Gotta dance! And we’re off and hoofin’. Story, what story?
Co-director, choreographer, and leading man Gene Kelly is clearly the star here, as he should be, but it’s not always easy to make out his co-star. It could equally be O’Connor, who makes a great shadow to Kelly, doubling and harmonizing the choreography of many of the bits, and who indeed gets one of the best moments in the whole picture for himself, “Make ’em Laugh”; or 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds, playing the plucky Kathy Selden, Lockwood’s love interest; or even Cyd Charisse, as a dancer who shows up at the most obvious point where the movie loses all interest in telling a story and plunges instead into a long, exuberant, brilliant sequence, “Broadway Melody,” which eventually becomes almost a pure abstraction of Kelly, Charisse, movement, and stunning color.
There is indeed something so deeply surreal to the musical trappings here and all throughout that at times the film almost feels as if it is verging on a psychotic break, as if one has suddenly found oneself full-blown stoned on very strong hallucinogen. The homage early on to Busby Berkeley gives some indication of where the production as a whole is coming from, but they seem set on topping even that level of weird abstraction, in radioactive color yet, attacking the problem with palpable enthusiasm.
The willingness to take the production so deeply into such bizarre precincts is remarkable, not least because at the same time it remains so resolutely mainstream—determinedly so, as optimistic and American as initial entry into war, with Kelly’s uncanny glowing smile, the puppy romance between Lockwood and Selden, the preppy college high-jinks of the three of them with Cosmo.
Kelly’s gorgeous, spectacular turn on the title number is the moment when both impulses seem to fall in and join forces, which probably doesn’t have a thing to do with Kelly’s reported 103-degree fever on that day of shooting, although it’s certainly clever to think it might. The result, at any rate, is one of the great moments in movies, from start to finish, a nearly perfect externalization of what it feels like in the very moment one falls in love. All that water in combination with the sunny song in combination with Kelly’s overwhelming charisma—the whole thing, altogether all at once, inventive with energy to spare, is absolutely unforgettable.
I’ve never been much for musicals, but this is a stone classic, utterly so.
JPK is an arts journalist and professional writer and editor who owns and operates the blog Can’t Explain, which covers movies, music, and books of the past.