'Singin' in the Rain'

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“Dignity. Always dignity,” proclaims Don Lockwood as he looks back on his career in the movies. Lockwood is speaking to an interviewer before the premiere of what turns out to be his last silent film, and he is saying the kind of thing a movie star might still utter today on the red carpet. It is the kind of platitude we kind of want to believe, but know deep down can’t possibly be true.

Our ability as viewers to see the reality of Lockwood’s past through a series of flashbacks – one that is humorously at odds with his self-serving boast – saves us from being suckers. But it somehow doesn’t keep us from adoring Lockwood, outsized ego that he has and revisionist historian that he is.

There’s a bone-deep irony to Singin’ in the Rain. It manifests itself most often in the biting sarcasm of its characters at certain moments. And it feels uncomfortable even to acknowledge it. Why talk about irony when, on the face of it, you have one of the easiest, breeziest, put-a-smile-on-your-face song-and-dance motion pictures in the history of the medium? Well, maybe it’s because this little bit of subversiveness – this contradiction in terms bubbling up every so often – makes it approximately 3.49 percent more interesting.

The spectacle of a perfectly choreographed dance routine and the perfection of Gene Kelly humming “doo-dee-doo-doo doobee-doobee-doo-doo” at the start of the title song only gets you most of the way to greatness. If Singin’ in the Rain had been released during this decade, I would probably sneer at the premise. It is a movie about movies, after all, and the disproportionate acclaim garnered by such films these days has made for a meta-annoyance.

But of course it was released in 1952. Its subject material, elaborate and high quality production values and, indeed, the presence of producer Arthur Freed position it perfectly to comment on the single biggest turning point in film history – the shift from silent movies to talkies. It’s a big job for a film that seems so modest aside from the choreography. And yet it is up to the task. Start with Lockwood, the fictional silent movie star, played by Kelly, scuffling and flailing about as he tries to cope with the almost instantaneous dominance of the talkie. His fate is uncomfortably intertwined with his ever-present co-star Lina Lamont, played by Jean Hagen, and Lamont’s shrill voice sets her atop a precarious perch with the introduction of sound.

Lockwood is at once the establishment and the potential disruption. He has his stardom to protect alongside Lina. And he also has his own potential – a possibly enhanced stardom – to consider should he decide to bend his talents toward the introduction of sound. If this is the central tension of the story, and I would argue that it is, then Singin’ in the Rain is really a celebration of film’s ability to take the best parts of its past with it while also embracing the possibility of the future.

This is Lockwood personified, with his female counterparts – Lina and love interest Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds – representing what should be jettisoned and introduced, respectively, over the march of time. I didn’t realize until after viewing the film – and doing research for this piece – that essentially none of the songs (nope, not even the title track) contained in it were originals.

Indeed, the idea behind the film itself was for it to be a vehicle for Freed’s entire catalogue of work over more than a decade. This explains why the film is so light on plot and so heavy on sentiment. It is a celebration of Freed’s work, of course, but it is a celebration in a larger sense – a love song to the Golden Age of Hollywood and a nod to what came before it. It is at once an acknowledgement of film history and one big “we got this.”

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Consider the principal elements of the film. Think about the spare, light-as-air plot, perfectly engineered to make you root for the hero and heroine and to maximize the number of one-liners delivered. Think about the ornate, intricate musical numbers – the hummable tunes and the dazzling choreography. Think about the slapstick of Kelly and co-star Donald O’Connor – Lockwood’s piano-playing partner Cosmo Brown – in “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes.” Think about the way they contort their bodies, and try not cracking a smile while doing it. Finally, think about the striking colors and the wide pans in “Broadway Melody Ballet” – the movement of the frame and the vibrancy of the hues in the dreamscape Kelly dances across, over and through. The physical brilliance of Charlie Chaplin is coursing through this film’s veins. There is an irresistible gravitational pull to the bottom half of the frame as Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds dance. As with Chaplin, there is a joy just in seeing these stars move. But there is more, of course, to Singin’ in the Rain. There are words and there is music and there is glorious Technicolor. It is nostalgic, but only to a point.

The future of filmmaking is on display here as well. It does not necessarily argue that it is better, and it is certainly appreciative of the past. It seems comfortable with the idea that it is building on something that is already good. In an era where everything from CGI to comic book adaptations to the very concept of “franchising” seems designed to make film geeks cynical, it’s easy to forget that the future doesn’t always look so bad when you consider it fully.