Friday, May 18, 2012

Movie – Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Singin’ in the Rain is the quintessential Hollywood musical and I am far from the first person to consider it the best traditional musical ever made.  It may surprise you to learn that it started out as nothing more than a recycling of songs and props that had been around for years.  Even the iconic title song had been used in several movies prior to this one.  Screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden had the task of taking various songs and filling in a story around them.  The result was a look back the beginnings of the sound era in Hollywood – something recently revisited in The Artist.

Actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) had started out as a stuntman in silent films.  He worked his way into acting and eventually became a leading man.  Now in 1927 he is a big star and he has been in several silent films with leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, who received an Oscar nomination for this performance).  Just as they did in real life, the studio had concocted a fake offscreen romance between the two in order to increase interest in the movies they did together.  The problem with this for Don is that he can’t stand Lina.  To make it even worse, she takes the fake romance way too seriously.

One day while escaping some fans he ends up in the car driven by Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).  She recognizes him, but instead of being star struck she criticizes him for the cheesy movies he makes.  It turns out she’s just a chorus girl, though, so he gets to turn the tables on her.

The studio head shows Don a test of a sound movie – a “talkie”.  Don’s not impressed by it.  1927’s The Jazz Singer becomes a smash hit, though, and soon the studio decides that the next Lockwood and Lamont film will be a talkie.  What follows are a series of funny scenes with a frustrated director trying to deal with Lamont’s very grating voice and inexperience with having to speak towards the microphone.  Later on, a test screening of the film gets laughs from the audience because of the cheesy dialogue Don speaks, such as repeating “I love you” over and over.  These problems were copied from real life events that led to the end of the careers of many silent film actors and actresses.

Don’s best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) comes up with the idea of turning the film into a musical and dubbing Lina Lamont’s speaking and singing voice with Kathy Selden’s.  Lamont is furious about this and ensures that no one will ever find out about what Kathy is doing.  Things come to a head when the film is a huge success and Lina is asked to perform one of the songs from the film live.

The ironic thing about all of this is that Debbie Reynolds is portraying a woman who dubs the voice of another without getting any credit.  In real life, her singing voice was dubbed by Betty Noyes, who received no credit.  In addition, actress Jean Hagen actually had a great voice and was just putting on the horrible one.  She dubbed the real lines that Debbie Reynold’s character was dubbing for hers.  In other words, it’s Hagen’s own voice we hear when her character is talking in the film within a film.

This was Reynold’s first big film role.  She was only 19 when she was cast.  At first Gene Kelly gave her a very hard time and she sometimes ended up in tears.  She has said that the two hardest things she’s ever done in her life were making this film and giving birth.

O’Connor also had troubles on the set.  He was a very heavy smoker and the iconic “Make ‘Em Laugh” sequence where he dances and does stunts all over the stage left him physically ill afterwards.  It got worse; the original filming was lost and he ended up having to do it all again.  By the way, this song was one of only two original ones in the film (the other being Moses Supposes), and it was even an unacknowledged copy of the earlier song Be a Clown.

Even the iconic scene of Gene Kelly literally singing and dancing in the rain might not have happened if things were a little different.  They covered two city blocks on the backlot with tarp to block out the sun for the night scene.  They then rigged sprayers for the rain, but to make it show up better on film they mixed milk in with it.  There was also a severe water shortage going on at the time.  Kelly came out, and even though he was running a high fever, he insisted on running through the whole sequence even though the choreography for it was only worked out at the beginning and the end.  They started the water, then the camera, and Kelly proceeded to adlib most of his dance routine.  He did the one take…and that’s what ended up in the film.

In addition to making Reynolds a star, this film also raised the career of dancer Cyd Charisse.  She had been in films for close to ten years, but always in small roles as, you guessed it, a dancer.  After this film she got a co-starring role with Fred Astaire in Band Wagon.  Also watch for an early appearance by Rita Moreno in Singin’ in the Rain.

This is a very entertaining film.  Sure, the plot isn’t that complex, but I don’t usually watch musicals for the complex plotting in them.  The song and dance numbers are great and the comedy is quite funny in places.  Unless you hate musicals, I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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13 comments:

  1. I regard it as the best musical of the classic era. It's just perfect despite the thickness of dancing & singing scenes what can be not that popular among many people. It's also very colorful and I appreciate that. Another point that I love about it is that it's partially about movies.

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    1. "Another point that I love about it is that it's partially about movies." I agree. I've got a brainstormed movie category covering films like this. I will write about it someday.

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  2. Yay! Singin' in the Rain! On New Year's Day this year, a local movie theater showed this. I got a chance to see it on the big screen, which had never come up before. I don't say this lightly - it was a transcendental experience. It was like I was seeing it for the very first time (and trust me, I know this movie inside and out). There was so much joy in the (packed) theater that day. I was sitting right up against a 10 year old boy, and when the "Singin' in the Rain" number came along, he actually sang the whole thing along with Gene Kelly. His mother shushed him, but I was actually not annoyed by it - I thought it was adorable.

    It was downright astounding seeing it on the big screen. The audience was cheering at the end. There was applause after most of the musical numbers.

    My favorite number is Moses Supposes. I marvel at the choreography. I marvel at how good Donald O'Connor is, and yet how, next to Gene Kelly, he looks like a hack, because Gene Kelly is just that. damn. good. And Gene Kelly - break me off a piece of that, please.

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    1. Oh, and just wanted to add - great note on The Artist and Singin' in the Rain. I think the two would make a great double feature. Maybe throw in Sunset Blvd for a triple feature... AND - why has Hollywood made so few films about the transition to sound?

      Great review!

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    2. "Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously" Thanks for the comments. That was an interesting story about seeing it on the big screen. Thanks for sharing.

      In regards to your last question, I don't know the answer, but perhaps the combination of the "old days" and the fact that it cost many people their jobs, makes Hollywood still a little skittish about covering it. In my review of Sunset Blvd (you can find it under the category "Narrated by dead people") I said that I felt the movie was absolutely terrifying to Hollywood because it hit so close to home.

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  3. This is one of my favorite musicals of all time. Some of the dance sequences are truly amazing. Gene Kelly appears brilliant at times.

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  4. I love/love this film and Cyd Charisse, is one of my favorite performers.. I would love to see this film on the big screen. I really enjoyed reading your background info. I was also.. surprised to learn that O’Connor was a very heavy smoker.

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    1. Dawn - thanks. I've heard various stories about O'Connor from having a tough time with the routine, to having to be temporarily hospitalized after doing it, to it having affected his health for months. I'm not sure to what extent it affected him, but at least all I've heard agrees that it wasn't easy for him.

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  5. Great review, Chip! Nice behind the scenes details. I was not aware that most of the songs were not original.

    This is another example of a film that I watched years ago, and haven't revisited since. I recall enjoying it at the time. Looks like I'll have to give this another go.

    I don't know if it's just me, but every time I think of the title song, I think of A Clockwork Orange.

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    1. True story: I watched Singin' in the Rain then A Clockwork Orange back to back one evening many years ago. I had no clue that the latter used the classic song from the first film, and it was the first time I saw either film. Needless to say, the song took on a whole new meaning after seeing it in the second film.

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  6. My favourite musical of all time and also one of the few films I can watch again and again and enjoy as much as I did when I saw it the first time. That trivia about the voice and the original/dubbed part is awesome. I had no clue and had it not been for your review probabaly would never know. So now I shall watch the film again and try and figure out the voices :-) Thanks

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    1. Thanks! I appreciate the kind words.

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