Am I being given the chance to stand on the peak of the highest mountain shouting at the top of my lungs, declaring my ultimate love for classic films?
When I got the thumbs-up to launch this column, my heart nearly exploded from my chest. There was no question as to which movie would be the first I would review, the movie that rightfully began my love affair with classic film, Singin’ in the Rain.
According to Wikipedia, in 2005 the British Film Institute included it in their list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14. In Sight & Sound magazine’s 2017 list of the 50 greatest films of all time, Singin’ in the Rain placed 20th. Amongst most classic musical enthusiasts, it is considered the best musical of all time.
Almost 70 years after its release, it still undeniably influences multiple genres. The famed “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence has inspired countless parodies – and even then, it is carried out with an underlying respect for its iconic flair.
Singin’ In the Rain is everything a glorious Technicolor classic movie musical should be – catchy songs, impeccable wardrobe, iconic stars, painstaking attention to detail, timeless quality and the ethereal, magnetic Gene Kelly.
It’s the late 1920s and sound is speedily approaching the previously silent moving picture industry. The first talking film, The Jazz Singer explodes onto the scene and “talkies,” as they are appropriately named, is the next reality. The debonair Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the most celebrated acting duo in Hollywood. Faced with the impending new genre of sound, the studios scramble to meet public demand. Unfortunately, Lina’s shrill vocals do not translate, leading to a seemingly unsolvable dilemma. Kathy Seldon, (Debbie Reynolds) Don Lockwood’s love interest, replaces Lina’s voice, and in true musical fashion, the happy ending is found.
An accurate example of the Technicolor medium at its finest, my immediate memory about the first time I watched this film is the scene between Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Red never looked so red. Green never looked so green, and every single color jumps off of the screen, all accomplished with one of the most minimalistic sets on film – besides the romantic ballet sequence between Kelly and Charisse, that is.
From the moment the camera focuses in on Don’s hat dangling on the toe of that green satin heel … and as the camera pans up those lengthy legs, you know something pleasurable is about to happen. (In fact, Cyd’s legs were insured for one-million dollars.) Cyd Charrise, a trained ballet dancer, captivates in her debut role as the sultry, gold-digging Jezebel flapper, and together she and Kelly lay down one of the classiest – yet sexiest – dance sequences in musical film history. You will notice the film cut – censors found the number a bit too risque with Charise wrapping her legs around Kelly’s waist, and adjustments were made.
Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) plays Don Lockwood’s loyal best friend. His sparkling blue eyes, quick-witted one-liners and athleticism add comedic dimension to the film. His famous “Make ‘Em Laugh” musical number was followed by several days of rest due to his five-pack-a-day smoking habit. That’s correct, five packs a day, running up walls and keeping time with Gene Kelly. Adding insult to injury, the camera was not set properly in the original footage of Donald’s famous vaudevillian number, and the sequence needed to be re-shot.
Watching Debbie Reynolds’ performance it’s hard to believe she held no formal dance training. Once, after a 14-hour day of shooting, she was reportedly carried from the set with bloodied feet. Later she would state that Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things she ever did in her life, while simultaneously praising Gene Kelly as the most exciting director she ever worked with. Kelly had similar sentiments, as he complimented her on how quickly she learned complicated routines, calling her, “Strong as an ox.”
Jean Hagen, who was nominated for an Academy Award for this role, churns out an effortlessly convincing performance as the dim-witted, vocally challenged leading lady.
In an ironic twist, the scene where Kathy Seldon dubs Lina’s vocals, Jean Hagen’s authentic voice was actually used.
A discerning eye will catch several glimpses of the feisty Zelda Zanders played by the ETOG, (Emmy, Tony, Oscar, Grammy-winning) teenage Rita Morena.
The fashion show, midway in the film, (“Beautiful Girls”) seems to be a bit of an excuse to once again flaunt the brilliant technicolor mastery of MGM. However, the ensembles are so stunningly chic, one is easily lost in the dream. Women stand in Harpers Bazaar-style poses wearing the flawless fashions of Walter Plunkett (who had no formal training when he became a designer) most famously noted for the period costuming of Gone With the Wind.
One of the many charms of this film is it allows a glimpse to the inner workings of the famed MGM studios, home to such iconic stars as Judy Garland, Clarke Gable, Fred Astaire, Lena Horne, Jean Harlow and countless classic idols.
Hollywood laughs at itself, with characters that inflate the Hollywood star, to pretention. Fast-paced dialogue offers a stereotypical depiction of the Hollywood that once was, and although consciously we are aware we are essentially watching a fantasy, willingly, we fall under its spell.
And what of the famed “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence? Gene Kelly executes a masterful, immaculate performance, that literally carves itself in history while he was battling influenza and a 103-degree fever.
As an essential film for all movie lovers, Singin’ in the Rain delivers a light-hearted, visually stunning, timeless picture where production value was clearly paramount. What few people know is not only did the multi-talented Gene Kelly perform in front of the cameras, he also co-directed the film with Stanley Donen.
Slip into some comfy clothes, open your favorite bottle of wine and transport yourself through time. Spend an afternoon with the gorgeous and graceful Gene Kelly, the adorable Debbie Reynolds and the amiable Donald O’Connor, and experience the sheer delight of Singin’ in the Rain.