A timeless classic and a love letter to the cinema, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s 1952 Singin’ in the Rain manages to be simultaneously hilarious and profound; a thought-provoking film that entertains and educates through wonderfully choreographed set-pieces.
A little piece of film magic was created when in Singin’ in the Rain a soaked Gene Kelly dances under torrential rain, splashes on puddles and is spotted by a police officer – no other episode in the history of cinema is as iconic as it is idiosyncratic. Although as unforgettable as any edgy, suspenseful scene – perhaps the Russian roulette from The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino) or the coin toss from No Country for Old Men (2007, Joel & Ethan Coen) – taken out of context, the singing is utterly odd. Watched in isolation, we are entitled to ask: What is this guy blabbing about under such a downpour? Well… no reason is necessary for a demonstration of pure joy.
By the late 1920s, on the dawn of sound cinema, former stuntman Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) has finally become a silent movie star. As a formula to sure success he is made to perform alongside popular but arrogant star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who believes they are in love. One day, after running away from fans, Don jumps into Kathy Selden’s (Debbie Reynolds) car. A series of events has Kathy showing increasingly contempt for Don, who instead develops feelings for her. When the head of the studio decides to convert his latest movie, The Duelling Cavalier, into a talking picture, Lina Lamont’s high pitch voice proves to be a problem, making the screening test a disaster.
Thus Kathy, Don and his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) have the idea of turning the film into a musical, which presents the opportunity for using Kathy’s voice and talent as a singer. Cosmo suggests dubbing her singing over Lina’s squeaking and irritating voice. When Lamont finds out about the scheme she is infuriated and threatens to sue the studio, but a compromise is reached when the head agrees to keep Kathy behind the scenes, working uncredited as Lamont’s ‘voice’. At the premiere of the movie, the public asks Lina to sing for them. Having devised a plan to reveal to the audience who the true star of the film is, the head of the studio, together with Don and Cosmo, order Kathy to sing behind the curtain, while Lamont pretends to do so. At the end, they lift the curtain, revealing the movie’s real talent.
..Make ‘Em Laugh All the Way to Magnificence.
That Singin’ in the Rain succeeds tremendously as a light-hearted comedy with great musical numbers as well as a serious reflection on theatricality is the most obvious – even banal – thing to say about this great Hollywood classic. It is nonetheless true though. On the surface the film is all fluff, laughter and melodrama as the creative process throughout the movie seems to indicate. From the first scene (with its over-the-top star adulation and fainting) it becomes evident the light-hearted motif. In fact, the movie’s script was written after the songs were done and was forced to adapt the story to fit the musical numbers. This is surely not a great recipe to compete with the other classic from the same year, also dealing with the film industry, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli).
However, as the movie makes us laugh and dream about the glamour and the romance in Hollywoodland, it also takes us on a journey of self-awareness. Through its 100 minutes it becomes apparent that the main theme of the film revolves around illusion and deception, i.e. the stuff that cinema is made of. There are several pointers to the deceptive nature of storytelling in general, and of cinema in particular: Lina believing that Don really loves her; the ghost voice metaphor as pictured in Kathy dubbing for Lina; the ‘Dignity, always dignity’ motto intoned by Don when telling (or should we say, mis-remembering?) his career development. Perhaps the biggest lies the film ever tells actually happens outside its own fictional realm: Jean Hagen (supposedly being dubbed by Debbie Reynolds) is in fact dubbing Reynolds dubbing herself.
Who isn’t capable of identifying with deception as a survival tool? We all present to our audience (that is, our family and friends, acquaintances or even strangers for whom we might just reserve a single glance) personas that, although partly influenced by our own personalities, are not the true representation of ourselves. To a certain extent that is how we are supposed to live. Just imagine how gloomy and depressing life would become if we could all see the ugly side in everyone. To the fans, part of the appeal of Don Lockwood is the dignified aspect of his life story. If they could see what we can, from outside the picture, and the humiliating jobs he had to do to reach the top, perhaps they would perceive him more like themselves and therefore less like a star. In different ways, we are all like that.
Right from the beginning, at the first premiere shown in the movie, the performance of the extras acting as adoring fans are over the top. Some might be put off by such melodrama, but the exaggerated facial expressions and body language expose the sham behind fandom. Such contrived representation elaborates on the pretended facade of blind admiration. This is pure fiction uncovering an indisputable truth. In the great musical piece Make ‘Em Laugh Cosmo sings: ‘…Oh, you could study Shakespear (sic) and be quite elite / And you could charm the critics and have nothing to eat / Just slip on a banana peel, the world’s at your feet…’ He thus understands that to grab the public’s attention one must appeal to their guts rather than their reason.
As an ode to the cinema, Singin’ in the Rain is unparalleled; as a meditation on illusion, artifice and deception it is illuminating; but as pure escapism – with its ability to takes us inside the magic world of filmmaking, the movie is indeed magnificently timeless.