The Wizard of Oz, which I reviewed 5 days ago, is the only movie I’ll be looking at this month that I’ve seen in full before. I’ve seen parts of next week’s The Sound of Music, but never the whole movie. I haven’t yet fully decided on the last movie I’ll be looking at this month, but Fiddler On The Roof is in consideration. In any case, apart from being familiar with the title song for this week’s movie, I went into Singin’ in the Rain completely blind.
Singin’ in the Rain is, along with The Wizard of Oz, among the first 25 movies to be selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry when they started the list in 1989. It’s considered a legendary film by many, sometimes even considered the greatest musical film ever made. AFI ranked it as the fifth-greatest American film of all-time in 2007, and in 2005, the British Film Institute included it on their list of the top 50 films to be seen by the age of 14. Yet despite all the fame and recognition it gets today, Singin’ in the Rain was only a modest hit when it released.
Arthur Freed, head of the “Freed Unit” at MGM (responsible for the studio’s musicals), thought up the idea of a movie based on the back catalogue of songs written by himself and Nacio Herb Brown. He approached Betty Comden and Adolph Green to come up with a story. At first they refused, as their agent misinformed them about contract details. When their new agent actually looked over their contract a few weeks later, he found that their previous agent completely invented the clause that “forced” them to decline the offer. They quickly started working on the script.
Since most of the songs the movie would use were created around the same time that silent films were giving way to “talkies”, and musicals were at their peak popularity, Comden and Green decided to base the film’s story in that era of filmmaking. After all, they were quite familiar with it. At first they planned a story about a Western film star who makes a comeback as a singing cowboy, they gradually moved towards a swashbuckling romantic hero who survives the transition to “talkies” by falling back on his song and dance skills. This role suited Gene Kelly quite well, although he couldn’t be approached at the time due to working on An American in Paris.
They were also stuck on three potential openings for the film: a premier for a silent film, a magazine interview with a Hollywood Star, and a star-meets-girl and loses said girl sequence. They were so discouraged with their indecisiveness that they considered dropping the movie altogether. Thankfully, Comden’s husband arrived from Ney York and suggested they combined the three openings into one. They did so, and the script was quickly approved by MGM.
By that time, Kelly finished his work on An American in Paris. When they approached him with the film, he enthusiastically accepted and immediately helped with script rewrites, along with his choreographer, Stanley Donen. All four of the writers were old friends, which helped make the writing process work smoothly. Kelly would end up playing Don Lockwood, a beloved silent movie star who successfully weaves his way into the “talkies” era.
With the exception of the two new songs, “Moses Supposes” and “Make ‘Em Laugh”, every song in this movie has appeared in previous movies. For example, the title song, Singin’ in the Rain, first appeared in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (released in 1929), which was MGM’s second feature-length musical and among their earliest sound films. Even those two original songs are based on previous material. Moses Supposes is based on the English language nonsense tongue twister. Make ‘Em Laugh is considered original, but is very similar to Cole Porter’s 1948 song “Be a Clown”.
Other cast members included Debbie Reynolds in her breakout role as Kathy Selden, a dancer who benefits greatly from the invention of “talkies”, Donald O’Connor as Cosmo Brown, Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, a silent film bombshell who struggles greatly with the arrival of sound films, and Millard Mitchell as R.F. Simpson, who’s in charge of the movie studio that all the in-movie actors are working for. The Lina Lamont character specifically is a dead-on impression of Billie Dawn, Judy Holliday’s character from Born Yesterday. Hagen had been Holliday’s understudy, which won her this role in Singin’ in the Rain.
Unlike most musical films at the time, this wasn’t based on a live show. Instead, there was a live show based on this movie that first opened in 1985. Before we get to the main review, let’s look at a couple of fun facts from behind the scenes. In the sequence where Kelly is singing and dancing the title song in the rain, he was sick with a fever. The water used on-set also caused Kelly’s wool suit to shrink while filming. There’s a common myth where he performed the sequence in a single set, but that’s not true. It took three days to complete that scene.
Reynolds was not a dancer when she began acting in Singin’ in the Rain, although she used to be a gymnast. Kelly insulted her at one point for her lack of dance experience, but later apologized. She proved to be a quick study After finishing the “Good Morning” routine, which took from 8 am to 11 pm to complete, Reynolds’ feet were bleeding. Years later in an interview, she said, “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life.”
Despite enjoying near universal critical praise, the film only earned $6.7 million theatrically, on a budget of $2.54 million. That makes it profitable, and later re-releases bumped that up to $7.2 million, but that only makes it the 10th most profitable movie of the year. No-where close to “The Greatest Show on Earth” and its $36 million earnings. The movie also only received two Academy Award nominations, one for Best Supporting Actress (Hagen), and the other for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture. It lost those two rewards to Gloria Grahame for The Bad and the Beautiful, and “With a Song in My Heart” respectively.
As for my own thoughts – I went into this movie almost completely blind. The only thing I really knew about this movie going in was the title song, and how it’s quite literally sung in the rain. It’s not very often I go into classic movies like this with so little knowledge of them. Anyway, I really enjoyed this movie. It’s consistently entertaining throughout. It satires classic Hollywood while embracing it. Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor make for a great trio of leads. Kelly is charismatic, talented and likeable as Don, but not without his overabundance of pride. When he first meets Reynolds’ character, Kathy, she calls him out on it, and it helps him realize his own faults. In exchange, he helps her expand her own dancing career from merely working as a chorus girl for private parties. She’s quite convincing as an aspiring actress who is emotionally sensitive, but not weak. O’Conner plays Don’s friend, Cosmo, convincingly as a general music lover and a generally intelligent and wise man.
Hagen’s performance as Lina is quite possibly the best in the movie. Lina is a very pretty actress, whose voice simply doesn’t translate well to talkies. She’s also an idiot who doesn’t know how to use a microphone, is a terrible singer, yet believes she’s still worthy of being a big name in the “talkies”. She kind of acts as the film’s main antagonist, sabotaging Kathy’s potential career purely out of jealousy. When test screenings for her first talkie go terribly wrong, and the others go behind her back to get Kathy to dub over her voice, she’s forced to accept a few hard truths. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t continue her dirty tactics and manipulative ways of course. Her actions cause trouble for the growing relationship between Don and Kathy, not to mention potentially ruining Kathy’s film career before it can start. It’s entertaining, and she’s not unlikeable, but her actions cause most of the film’s drama.
The musical numbers are all well performed, well-choreographed, and there’s a good mix of smaller numbers meant purely to entertain, and bigger numbers to give the movie a Broadway feel. “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes” are both funny, the second mainly because it kind of comes out of nowhere, but still feels true to the characters.
I can’t really think of anything to complain about with this movie, and that’s unusual for me. There’s usually at least a couple of nitpicks that I can find even after a first viewing. With Singin’ in the Rain, nope, I’ve got nothing. It’s clearly a classic worthy of its recognition. Even if none of its songs are truly original, every reused song is given an entirely new rendition that change the energy and sometimes even the emotion behind the original version. Every song does something to help advance either the characters or the story. Even if that wasn’t the case, the fact that the movie takes place during the “talkie” revolution in filmmaking would make the songs fit well with the story anyway.
In short, this movie is an easy recommendation, and I kind of wish I watched it a long-time ago. Better late than never though.
Next up is The Sound of Music, which I’ve seen large chunks of here and there. It’s one of my mom’s favourites, but I never stuck around to see the whole thing with her. I’ll talk about that more next week. It’s about time I watch that movie in full.