I really don’t know why, but I continue to have a problem with the classics. Without fail, I express hesitance when it comes to viewing a silent film, one that’s in black and white, or sometimes ones with subtitles. I tell myself that I need to be in the right mood for it, to be in the right frame of mind to appreciate it fully, but invariably when I force myself to watch I find the title is rightly held in high regard among film connoisseurs. Such is the case with Singin’ in the Rain, the extraordinary 1952 musical about the transition from the silent films of yesteryear to the talking films of now-year.
I missed my opportunity to see the film last year when the MCT Live screening was unexpectedly called off on account of… um… the video rental place not having a copy. And though you could say that I’ve had plenty of time to take the plunge on my own since then, the only image of the film in my mind was the opening scene of stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor smiling big goofy smiles while spinning umbrellas and splashing about. That was the extent of my knowledge of the film, leading me to think that it was two hours worth of exactly what the title suggested – a merry lark and nothing more.
Alas, how wrong I was, and the actual opening sets about setting the tone immediately. Silent film star Don Lockwood (Kelly) is stopped on the red carpet at the premiere of his newest smash, asked by a tabloid journalist to briefly talk about how he got to where he is today. He describes the lavish upbringing that he was blessed with, including attending the finest dance schools in the country and touring sold-out concert halls worldwide. Meanwhile, the image on-screen shows Lockwood and his best friend Cosmo (O’Connor) making a racket in bars as children, being booed off-stage at small gigs in even smaller towns, and finally playing little more than stand-ins in film. The discrepancy between Lockwood’s words and the images on-screen is brilliant, setting an inventive and playful mood for a strange beast: a musical about silent films. Indeed, this tendency toward crossing expectations shines through early and often – as Lockwood’s fetching co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) does not reveal the hitch that will keep her out of the talkies until further into the movie’s runtime, and love interest Kathy Selden (Reynolds) earns Lockwood’s affection by noting her distaste for the movies.
But that cinematic experimentation would mean little if it weren’t in service of a great story. Here we see Lockwood at the top of his game, then witness as the game slowly changes and all of the players have to re-learn how to stay on top. An early attempt at transitioning to a talking picture turns out terribly. Actors who have never before had to read lines suddenly sound stilted and amateur; the use of microphones causes an endless amount of technical headaches; the process of combining the image with the vocal track is complicated, and when done incorrectly, causes the actors on-screen to appear to have traded voices. In short, the finished film is a disaster. But we sympathize with Lockwood because he is so charming, because of the loyalty he shows to his friends and the genuine affection he shows for young Kathy.
The large plot (about Hollywood) is interesting, especially if you’re a fan of the movies instead of just a few titles, but we care about how this affects the three primary characters because of their likability. When Cosmo visits his friend during a speech therapy session, the two pals begin a tongue-twisting foot-tapping musical number in easy synchronization. Of course it’s been choreographed, but the easy way the two characters move together gives the sense that these truly are two good friends who are so familiar with each other that they have the ability to anticipate their movements. When Lockwood confesses his feelings to Kathy, he goes about dressing the set – making sure that the lighting is appropriate, turning on fans to allow her hair to feather softly, bringing props to the stage. He’s staging this romantic expression, yet when it comes there is nevertheless a sense of poignancy to it. The “movie” feel that Lockwood cultivated here does not rob the scene of its candor but instead builds upon it by serving as a metaphor for the way he sees this lovely girl.
And I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the now iconic song-and-dance numbers. There’s the title song, of course, O’Connor gets a chance to shine with an energetic set of pratfalls to “Make ‘Em Laugh”, and the trio brings a great liveliness to the song “Good Morning”. And then there’s the epic scope of a little piece called “Broadway Melody”, a simple title that shields the almost surreal visual treat unleashed on-screen – bright lights, hundreds of dancing extras, all sorts of moving parts and distorted fields of vision… it’s masterful. And once it’s through, the film’s producer speaks one of the funniest lines in the film: “I can’t quite visualize it.” Because although we the audience have just witnessed the majesty of the piece, in the world of the movie it’s only being described aloud.
And when you hear “Broadway Melody”, it doesn’t necessarily speak to the fantastic scope of the piece. I think it’s the word melody that’s the problem. It hides something incredible. Likewise, the unassuming title of Singin’ in the Rain hides a much more expansive, colorful, joyous and comical story than I had imagined. It’s a movie for those who love the movies and for those who just love movies in equal measure. It’s a great work, it’s a great experience.
What a glorious feeling.