TCM couldn’t have foreseen the death of actress Debbie Reynolds when they scheduled Singin’ in the Rain to kick off their 2017 Fathom Events series. Watching the film knowing Reynolds is gone was a bittersweet experience but made all the better by the raucous joy the film inspires to this day. I’ve seen this dozens of times and yet it never fails to leave me smiling.
This is one of the hardest movies for me to review because there is absolutely nothing I dislike about it. Nothing! This is a film that could never exist today, that both reveres the time period it’s depicting while applauding the world of progress (both personal and cinematic). It’s a spectacle in every sense of the word with hilarious and fun acting by Jean Hagen, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, and Gene Kelly – in order of preference. Let’s say goodbye to summer by singing – and dancing- in the rain!
Don Lockwood (Kelly) is one high of a successful Hollywood movie couple opposite the impossible Lina Lamont (Hagen). When the talkies arrive to undo silents, the studio of Monumental Pictures is at a loss as to how to hide Lamont’s terrible speaking voice. As Don and Lina struggle to change, the actor falls for beautiful bit player Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).
If A Star is Born shows the perils of romance between celebrities, Singin’ in the Rain celebrates it. Come to think of it, Singin’ in the Rain celebrates everything about film. It’s a joyous movie showing how far Hollywood has come and where they’re headed. The movie is about progress, both in Don Lockwood’s life and the history of cinema. The movie charts the personal progression of Don starting with his revised history of his youth – a typical device used on stars of the period. As he recounts the cultured upbringing he led, it’s contrasted with the reality of him performing in dive bars and vaudeville. It’s no different from the romanticized world of the French Revolution that’s created in The Dueling Cavalier; Hollywood is all about revision for the sake of entertainment. Don has no problem integrating into the talkies, but he must get over his own ego and learn to adjust his acting talent for a new medium. In a way, Kathy Selden acts as Kelly’s muse to bluntly tell him “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” By the end, as Don goes through the “Broadway Melody” (a.k.a. the “Gotta Dance” number), it’s the culmination of all his progression. He starts out as the young hoofer paying his dues, going to seedy joints – a way of acknowledging his real past? – and being discovered only to have the next “big thing” come his way. You can take the “Broadway Melody” scene in a positive or negative way. For the former, movies have endured and will endure just as actors like Don Lockwood will if they can change with the times; conversely, there will always be progress, the next “Next Big Thing,” that could unseat an actor or a medium.
The dancing in this film is unparalleled from all involved. Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” number consistently appears on lists involving musicals or just best scenes and it’s all warranted. To me, O’Connor’s tried to recapture Singin’ in the Rain through his future pairings and other musicals, and never lived up to this. “Make ‘Em Laugh” is intensely funny through the various comic techniques O’Connor employs such as slapstick and facial humor. The song and dance lives up to its name because I never stop laughing. O’Connor’s dance main dance interlude with Kelly, “Moses Supposes,” is another tour de force; it’s hyper masculine moves and the way O’Connor and Kelly remain in-sync is just startling. Remember, musicals of this era actually stopped moving the camera so you could see the fancy footwork of these guys! Kelly gets almost all the numbers to himself, and thankfully he’s the master of fancy footwork (sorry, Fred). The title song, the aforementioned “Broadway Melody” and “Moses Supposes” always reaffirm the sheer artistry in every step Kelly took. Debbie Reynold was a girl when she made her début here, and was famously yelled at for so long by Kelly that she started crying. She only has two dance scenes, the opening title and “All I Do is Dream of You.” The dancing isn’t particularly taxing, but Reynolds certainly proves her worth. I also want to give kudos to Cyd Charisse in the film that inspired my love of her. She’s briefly in the “Broadway Melody” sequence and as much as I love Reynolds, Charisse was the true partner for Kelly.
As if this movie can’t embody perfection anymore, the comedy is spot-on. Jean Hagen dominates the laughs as the screechy-voiced Lina Lamont. All of Lamont’s lines are comedic gems that I quote endlessly (“I can’t make love to a bush!” “I’m a glittering star in the cinema firmament”). You should have seen my face when I watched Hagen in something else and discovered her voice was just as beautiful as she was! All the character take the material seriously, but Lamont is a character who takes everything – including her publicity and the perceived romance between her and Lockwood – as serious as a heart attack. Debbie Reynolds also has a few moments to shine, but never enough. Her peals of laughter when Don rips his coat always gets me; I think because her laugh is so infectious.
I’ll keep this review brief or else it’ll be come a sycophantic gush. Singin’ in the Rain has been an endurable classic for decades because it’s timeless. The movie may feature the transition from silent film to talkies, but it’s all about transition and progress no matter the situation or decade. The dancing, the songs, and the comedy are perfect; the acting from all included is the best of the best. If you haven’t watched this yet GET GOING!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.