Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Singin’ in the Rain (MGM, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I just re-watched Singin’ in the Rain yesterday morning on TCM and was amazed all over again at what a wonderful movie it is — and in tribute I’m posting here my comments on it when my husband Charles and I watched the 50th anniversary DVD edition in 2002, with a welcome set of special features showing clips of the original movies from the 1920’s and 1930’s from which the songs were derived.

I took the time to run Charles the new 50th anniversary special-edition DVD of Singin’ In the Rain. First of all, the transfer is excellent: though the faces get a bit pink now and then, for the most part the colors are warm and vibrant (how refreshing to see a movie that contains a truly spectacular use of color instead of all the dirty greens and browns that predominate in the cinematic palette today — as I said in my review of Personal Velocity, if they’re going to use so little of the visible spectrum anyway why don’t they just shoot these things in black-and-white?) and the image quality is of a breathtaking crispness; the film probably hasn’t ever looked this good since it was originally released in 1952!

Also, the film holds up spectacularly as a movie; though I’m not sure I would rate it as “the greatest Hollywood musical ever made!” (a blurb, complete with exclamation point, from Roger Ebert that emblazons the box this special two-DVD set comes in). Frankly, if I had to pick a “greatest Hollywood musical ever made” it would be Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight from two decades earlier, an even more audacious film in its twists, turns and spoofs of musical conventions (and I’m not even sure I’d rate Singin’ in the Rain as Gene Kelly’s best film: An American in Paris, though not as slashingly brilliant in its scripting, has better music, more vividly realized direction and an even greater big ballet sequence at the end).

Nonetheless, Singin’ In the Rain is a deserved classic and one of Hollywood’s best films about its own history. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green based a lot of it on life — the romantic team of Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are clearly modeled on Sam Goldwyn’s fabled pairing of Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky (he made the transition into talkies, she didn’t — not because her voice was especially nasal but because it was heavily accented); the ridiculous scene in which Kelly kisses his way up Hagen’s arm while muttering, “I love you, I love you, I love you” is an all-too-accurate sendup of the risible scene in which John Gilbert did the same to Catherine Dale Owen in his first (released) talkie, His Glorious Night, which did more than anything else to ruin his subsequent career; and the scenes in which Hagen is “wired for sound” (after she quite understandably protests that she can’t aim her romantic dialogue at the shrubbery-concealed microphone because “how can I make love to a bush?”) and the sneak preview of their first talkie is done in by overly loud jewelry-rattling and a hideous loss of synchronization between film and record (the sound system depicted here is sound-on-disc Vitaphone, not the sound-on-film system that quickly and mercifully replaced it) — problems which were also for real in the early days.

Singin’ In the Rain is also marvelously cast. In previous comments on this movie I’ve lamented that Judy Garland, who’d been let go by MGM a little over a year before it was filmed, would probably have played the female lead if she’d still been there and would have been far more heartbreaking than Debbie Reynolds — but this time around Reynolds’ performance seemed stronger than it has to me before, particularly in the opening confrontation scene between her and Kelly (after that marvelously acrobatic Keaton-esque trajectory gag in which he escapes from pursuing fans by leaping onto a passing streetcar, then leaping off the streetcar into the rattle-trap Model “T” Ford that Reynolds is driving: Mickey Rooney’s old car from the Hardy films!) and the rather fey moment in which, walking with Kelly down the “Monumental Pictures” backlot, she blushingly confesses that she’s more of a Don Lockwood fan than she’d let on before.

One might also shed a tear for producer (and co-songwriter) Arthur Freed’s failure to persuade his filmmakers to accept Oscar Levant as Kelly’s sidekick, but Kelly wanted someone whom he could dance with and Donald O’Connor was ideal in that department. (I even found his big solo, “Make ’Em Laugh,” more amusing this time around than I have before — even though his marvelous ability to twist and turn his facial expressions makes it seem even more bizarre that the Great Rubber Face was chosen to play the Great Stone Face, Buster Keaton, in the 1958 Paramount biopic.) The supporting players are a less interesting lot — Douglas Fowley, who provided that marvelous performance alongside Jean Parker and Lionel Atwill in the 1944 PRC “B” Lady In the Death House, is simply too blustery and overwrought as the director (this movie is a pretty good index of what “official” Hollywood thought of directors in those days!); Rita Moreno is so totally wasted in the virtually insignificant part of flapper star Zelda Zanders that it’s a surprise to see her name in the opening credits; and the very best supporting player in the film, Cyd Charisse, makes an unforgettable appearance in the big ballet sequence but otherwise doesn’t appear at all. (Millard Mitchell appears as the kind, understanding studio head that was always a part of these productions; and Madge Blake has an unforgettable star turn as gossip columnist Dora Bailey, who narrates the opening scene at the premiere of Lockwood and Lamont’s last silent film.)

And speaking of the ballet scene, it’s ironic that, in a film whose script is strongly dedicated to the proposition that acting with dialogue is inherently superior to silent-screen pantomime, the best moment in Gene Kelly’s entire performance is the silent sequence during the ballet in which, rejected by Cyd Charisse for the last time, he lets his face drain of all emotion in a moment of ineffable sadness before he pulls himself together and lets Life Go On. I think one could fairly say of Singin’ In the Rain what James Agee said of Sunset Boulevard: that it makes the days of silent film seem “a good deal hammier than they were at their best” — but still, this is a marvelous film, readily enjoyable and unusually rich for something that started out as just another light entertainment!