Film Score: Lennie Hayton Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Starring: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen
The Old Dark House from 1932 is when Melvyn Douglas, on the way to said house in a rain storm, starts crooning “Singin’ in the Rain.” But while the film of the same name wasn’t released until twenty years later, the song is originally from the MGM musical, The Hollywood Review of 1929. This makes sense because Singin’ in the Rain is set in the late twenties as Hollywood was converting from silent to sound films. The new musical sends up the whole studio system and--except for a lengthy, self-indulgent dance number by Gene Kelly at the end--it is an absolutely perfect screen musical. The film is the brainchild of MGM producer Arthur Freed who began working on musicals at the studio in 1929, and all of the songs were either written by him, and Nacio Herb Brown, or had been used in one of the many musicals he had worked on over the years. The production also used existing sets where they could, and costumes already in wardrobe, which fit perfectly with the film’s storyline. Nevertheless, as with most of MGM’s musicals there were cost overruns, especially filming the dance numbers. While the film wasn’t a huge hit at the time, it was a success, making a profit for the studio after going half a million dollars over budget in the course of production. All four principals do a tremendous job and while there were discussions about other to work with Kelly during pre-production, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in those roles.
The credits open on Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor singing the title song in yellow rain slickers and umbrellas behind the opening credits. The film proper begins at a grand premiere of the new silent film by movie stars Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen. Gossip columnist Madge Blake asks Kelly to tell his story and his studio publicity recitation is a wonderfully ironic counterpoint to the actual visuals. The vaudeville song and dance routine of “Fit as a Fiddle” is particularly good. He and O’Connor come to Hollywood with O’Connor playing piano and Kelly doing stunt work, then the studio head puts him in a leading role opposite Hagen. On stage after the premier one thing becomes clear, Kelly won’t let her get in a word edgewise. The reason: she has a horrible speaking voice. Trying to escape fans after the show, Kelly winds up in the car of Debbie Reynolds and she accidentally insults him by saying he’s not a real actor. But the tables turn at a party he attends when she is one of the dancers that comes out of a giant cake. Later, when studio head Millard Mitchell finds out The Jazz Singer has been a huge hit, he wants to convert Kelly and Hagen’s newest film to sound, but with disastrous consequences because of Jean Hagen’s voice and Kelly’s inability to act. The finished product at the sneak preview is one of the funniest moments in the picture. It’s not until O’Connor comes up with the idea of dubbing Hagen’s footage with Reynolds’ voice that it saves the picture--but also unleashes some unintended consequences.
The film does an excellent job of emulating the style of films of the period, the dress and the studio system in particular--Gene Kelly even looks like John Gilbert with his big grin--and the dancing and musical numbers throughout are impressive. Donald O’Connor’s set piece “Make ‘em Laugh,” Gene Kelly’s solo on the title number, as well as the trio doing “Good Morning” are all classic routines of the cinema musical. And the tap routine by Kelly and O’Connor on “Moses” is also outstanding. The only flaws in the picture are when Kelly tries to be too self-consciously artistic. One example is the song “You Were Meant for Me” when he is trying to tell Reynolds how much he likes her in the empty studio, dancing together with nothing but lights on a wooden floor. But at least that song fits in with the plot. When Kelly and O’Connor cook up an idea in the office of Millard Mitchell to change the new film into a modern musical, the endless dance sequence of “Broadway Melody” with Cyd Charisse is pure torture to watch because it is completely out of context and relates to nothing else in the picture. It’s as much of a non sequitur in the film as it is in the onscreen movie they’re making. That aside, however, there’s nothing to complain about in the film. Like a lot of films recognized as classics today, it wasn’t considered so at the time, and the film was only nominated for two Oscars, one for the performance of Jean Hagen and the other for Lennie Hayton’s film score.
The A List essay by Judy Gerstel begins on exactly the right note: “Only a curmudgeonly wet blanket couldn’t love Singin’ in the Rain.” She also goes on to say that there is something “slyly subversive” about the picture, which also rings true. Critic Jacqueline T. Lynch has gone so far as to connect the film with Sunset Boulevard from two years earlier in the way that they both deal with the end of the silent era though in very different ways, while Gertsel also sees it as a negative image of All About Eve from the same year. Gerstel begins with a bit of the historical background before getting to the real reason for the film’s success: Gene Kelly. He not only starred and choreographed the picture; he received co-director credit along with Stanley Donen. But she also accurately assesses the impact that Donald O’Connor has, saying that he nearly steals the show, and how perfect Debbie Reynolds is as an opposite type to the glamorous “movie star” Gene Hagen. Thematically, Gertsel sees the film as pulling the veil back on the illusion that is Hollywood, everything from the wardrobe of the stars at the premiere, to Kelly’s fabrication of his background, to the dubbing of Hagen’s voice by Reynolds, and yet at the same time being able to “still seduce us with that very artifice.” It’s a nice summation of what makes Singin’ in the Rain such an enduring classic and for many--myself included--the quintessential Hollywood musical.