Singin' in the Rain (United States, 1952)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Singin' in the Rain is considered by many people to be among the best Hollywood musicals of all time. For those who have seen the movie, the reason for this is not difficult to understand. Watching Singin' in the Rain is an exuberant, magical experience – a journey deep into the heart of feel-good territory. Sitting through the film's 102 minutes is like ingesting a mood-altering drug. It's the perfect antidote to the blues and the blahs, and a way to bolster, enhance, and extend a natural high.

Singin' in the Rain was produced during the height of the movie musical era, well after the genre had become established, but more than a decade before it began to run out of steam. In fact, only a few weeks before the world premiere, Gene Kelly's previous starring vehicle, An American in Paris, buzzed through the Oscars, winning six of the eight awards it was nominated for, including Best Picture. That Singin' in the Rain holds up so well today, more than 50 years after its first release, is a testament to the craftsmanship of the filmmakers and the athleticism of the performers.

Singin' in the Rain represented Kelly's second of three collaborations with co-director Stanley Donen (they also worked together in 1949's On the Town and 1955's It's Always Fair Weather). The man backing the film, Arthur Freed, was a legend at MGM. His lengthy resume as a producer of musicals began with an uncredited behind-the-scenes role in bringing The Wizard of Oz to the screen and concluded in 1960 with Bells Are Ringing. During his career, he frequently worked with the likes of Vincent Mannelli, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Howard Keel, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Fred Astaire, and Stanley Donen.

Singin' in the Rain takes us back to the late 1920s, when the film industry was abandoning silent films in favor of talkies. Today, that might sound like ancient history, but, when Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen brought this story to the screen, it was only a quarter of a century in the past. Many of the silent stars were still alive, and some continued to work. An analogous situation in 2003 would be if a director made a film about Hollywood around the time that Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever came into being.

Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the darlings of the silver screen. They are so often paired romantically in movies that fans are convinced that their relationship extends beyond theaters. Lina, who isn't the brightest bulb in the package, in under the same impression – because she read it somewhere. Don, on the other hand, has little use for Lina except as a co-star. This is especially true once he meets and falls for the demure Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a chorus line girl who is Lina's opposite in almost every way that matters.

Then The Jazz Singer opens, and Hollywood is turned upside down. Monumental Pictures honcho R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) decides that he needs an instant non-silent hit, so who better to turn to than his most reliable stars, Lockwood & Lamont? Unfortunately, Lina's voice is unsuitable to be heard (think of Lauren Bacall on helium), and Don still uses all of the grand, overstated gestures of the silent era. Consequently, test audiences laugh The Dueling Cavalier off the screen. Don is dejected, but his best friend, Cosmo (Donald O'Connor), and Kathy help him arrive at a solution – turn The Dueling Cavalier into The Dancing Cavalier, a musical comedy. Kathy will dub Lina's voice, and Lockwood & Lamont will be able to transition to the talkie era. Of course, things don't turn out to be as simple as they sound. Lina wants her voice to be heard, the actors have trouble remembering where the microphones are, and R.F. makes a bargain with the devil. But all's well that ends well, with Don and Kathy singing and dancing into the sunset together.

Although Singin' in the Rain is a lighthearted effort, it recalls genuine issues that arose in Hollywood during the late '20s, when many stars greatly feared the arrival of talking movies. Charles Chaplin, for example, was so distrustful of the talkies that he was still making silent films after virtually everyone else had capitulated with the new technology. (Chaplin's best, City Lights, was released almost four years after 1927's The Jazz Singer.) Many of the biggest stars were unable to make the transition, either because their style was unsuited to movies with sound, or because their voices made them laughable. Some of the incidents that occur on the set of The Dueling Cavalier are based on actual anecdotes related by crewmembers who had also participated in the early talkies.

Unlike many of the biggest musicals of Hollywood's Golden Era, Singin' in the Rain was not based on a stage production. In fact, only a few of the songs were composed specifically for this movie. Most of them were written by Freed and Nacio Herb Brown in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Freed's original directive to screenwriters Betty Comden & Adolph Green was to develop a script that would incorporate as many of his early songs as possible. Of the 14 tunes used in Singin' in the Rain, 11 (including the title song) were Freed/Brown co-creations from movies released between 1929 and 1939. One number, "Moses Supposes," was new. Another, "Make 'Em Laugh," was essentially a rip-off of Cole Porter's "Be a Clown" from The Pirate.

While singing is an important aspect of Singin' in the Rain, it's secondary to dancing. Kelly's choreography is energetic and irrepressible, and, while he mostly doesn't go for the show-stopping grandness of Busby Berkeley (for whom he worked twice, in 1942's For Me and My Gal and 1949's Take Me Out to the Ballgame), there's an infectious enthusiasm in each of the numbers that has rarely been equaled before or after. The two most memorable singing/dancing sequences in any of Hollywood's musicals occur in this movie: Donald O'Connor's amazing, gravity-defying rendition of "Make 'Em Laugh" and Kelly's unforgettable ode to new love while singing, dancing and splashing in the rain.

Going into production, Kelly and O'Connor were both accomplished dance-men. Fresh-faced Debbie Reynolds, who was only 18 at the time, was not. She had to practice for months in order to be able to keep pace with her two co-stars. (Their big number together is "Good Morning.") Likewise, although O'Connor and Kelly do all of their own singing, Reynolds was dubbed by Betty Noyes for "Would You?" and possibly "You Are My Lucky Star" (which never made it into the final cut, but is preserved as a "deleted scene" on the DVD edition).

Actually, the issue of what is and what is not Reynolds' voice is somewhat confusing. Noyes sang for her once or twice, but the rest of the vocal work is her own. However, on those occasions when Kathy is supposed to be substituting for Lina, the voice doing the dubbing is Jean Hagen's (in its normal timbre), not Reynolds'. Confused? It doesn't really matter. None of these behind-the-scenes tidbits makes a bit of difference to the viewing experience.

Singin' in the Rain was filmed in Technicolor, and the sets and costumes are suitably bright and colorful. This is especially true during the 14-minute "Broadway Rhythm" section, a fantasy sequence where Kelly plays a young hoofer who arrives in New York and becomes enmeshed in a rivalry with a gangster for the affections of a sultry woman (Cyd Charisse). Nothing else in Singin' in the Rain quite matches the imagination shown by the designers in realizing these scenes.

Although Singin' in the Rain is best remember for its musical aspects, it also works exceptionally well as comedy. The wit of Comden & Green's screenplay should not be underestimated. There are a number of laugh-aloud moments, and the dialogue contains several priceless one-liners. Don to Lina: "There is nothing between us. There has never been anything between us. Just air." Cosmo, about Lina: "She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat." And Lina, about herself: "Why, I make more money than - than - than Calvin Coolidge, put together!" For me, the funniest moments come during the filming of the first talking scenes for The Dueling Cavalier, where the director can't figure out what to do with the microphone. (Watch for R.F.'s entrance.)

It's impossible to discuss Singin' in the Rain without talking about "Singin' in the Rain." The signature moment of Kelly's career (and perhaps of movie musicals in general), this represents movie making at its best. It is easily one of the ten most memorable scenes of all time, and remains fresh no matter how many times you watch it. The thing that makes this number so special isn't the singing (which is clear) or the choreography (which is impeccable), but the sense of child-like wonder that accompanies it. Don has just realized that he is falling in love, and his dance through the raindrops and splashing in the puddles is a tangible expression of the kind of emotions we all experience in that situation. From a technical standpoint, it was a difficult scene to capture. Milk had to be mixed with the water to allow the raindrops to be seen, fluctuating water pressure became an issue, and Kelly was running a fever.

During the '40s and '50s, no one was better known for singing and dancing than Kelly. (Fred Astaire was probably better recognized for his footwork and Bing Crosby for his vocals, but Kelly was talented in both areas.) Singin' in the Rain marked the pinnacle of his career, following in the wake of the highly successful An American in Paris. After playing Lockwood, Kelly started concentrating more on work behind the cameras than in front of them. Ironically, many younger viewers may recall him from Xanadu, his ill-fated 1980 attempt at a comeback (opposite Olivia Newton-John). Despite an impressive resume, Kelly never won a "legitimate" Academy Award. In 1952, he was given an honorary Oscar, but he was only once even nominated for Best Actor (1945's Anchors Aweigh), and he lost to Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend).

Donald O'Connor was an inspired choice to appear opposite Kelly, in large part because he was one of the few dancing actors of the time who could keep up. O'Connor enjoyed a long career both before and after Singin' in the Rain, but, as with Kelly, he never did better work than what he accomplished here. For Debbie Reynolds, Singin' in the Rain wasn't the film that launched her career, but it was the one that got her noticed. And Jean Hagen, despite not being the filmmakers' first choice for Lina (that was Judy Holliday, whose 1951 Oscar victory for Born Yesterday, priced her beyond what the budget would allow), defines a perfect comic caricature.

When it was first released in 1952, Singin' in the Rain received favorable (but not superlative) reviews and was moderately successful at the box office. It garnered only two Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actress for Jean Hagen, Best Musical Score), neither of which it won. There seemed to be no reason to suppose that it would go down in history as one of the best of its genre. But time has been good to Singin' in the Rain, and, with the passage of years, audiences have grown to appreciate this as one of the most spellbinding examples of pure cinematic entertainment ever to unspool in a projector. For those who love musicals, nothing beats spending two hours in the company of Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.

Singin' in the Rain (United States, 1952)

Ranked #44 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:42
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "G" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1