Singin’ in the Rain at 70: The Hollywood musical remains a winner | Sing in the rain

Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t exactly intended as a masterpiece. Arthur Freed, head of the musicals unit at MGM, had a catalog of songs – not all of them classics – that he had co-written for various films at the studio between 1929 and 1939, and had the idea to chain them. as a song score for a new musical. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were hired to cobble together a story around the disparate tunes; Howard Keel, a solid bass-baritone from the MGM stable who had performed respectably in Annie Get Your Gun, was named as the lead.

As a producer, Freed tended to alternate artistically ambitious prestige musicals – just a week before the premiere of Singin’ in the Rain, he snagged the Best Picture Oscar for Vincente Minnelli’s ravishing pop ballet An American in Paris – with cheerful and bright musicals. disposable filling. (Remember Pagan Love Song? The Beauty of New York? No?) Initially, one might have expected the sketchily crafted Singin’ in the Rain to fall firmly on the B list.

But that would have counted without Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, at that time something of a dream team for Freed and MGM. Their first film as a director-choreographer duo, Sailors on Leave On the Town, elevated its featherweight material with visual wit and restless movement; separately, Donen had brought a light-footed flash to his direction of the Fred Astaire Royal Wedding vehicle, while Kelly’s stardom had peaked with An American in Paris. When production on the latter wrapped, making Kelly available, the script for Singin’ in the Rain was passed to her. Changes have been made. The rest, as they say, is history.

The story, of course, takes time to take shape. In 1952, Freed would probably have been surprised to learn that Singin’ in the Rain, rather than An American in Paris, would eventually become the most canonized of all Hollywood musicals – one regularly cited even by non-acolytes of the genre like one of the greatest films ever made. (In the past four editions of Sight & Sound’s ten-year critics’ poll, it has consistently been the highest-rated musical, twice placing in the top 10 of all time.) Upon release, however, it didn’t was not treated as some sort of milestone. Reviews and box office were good if not phenomenal; the Academy, which had lavished six Oscars on An American in Paris the previous year, had granted Singin’ in the Rain only two nominations. (Even the Globes gave their best music award to Susan Hayward’s lackluster vehicle With a Song in My Heart instead.)

Watching it 70 years later, you can see why an industry then preoccupied with prestige and TV spectacle took the time to respect the film. Nothing about Singin’ in the Rain promises to be art, or even a grand event: it’s a film so light on its feet that it makes its genre-melding entertainment feel like deceptively easy. The script blends warm romantic comedy, playful Hollywood satire, and whimsical Broadway daydreaming with laid-back speed, never looking for punchlines or pathos; there’s an occasional jukebox sloppiness in the song placements that matches the film’s overall carelessness. Squint slightly at the screen, and you can see the smooth, fun, disposable B-musical that it could have been, with a duller cast and a little less care from the direction.

But then, just as you settle into the film’s sunny, effortless groove – you wonder, amidst your enjoyment, if maybe it’s a notch less masterful than you remembered or what you were told – Donen and Kelly hit you with pure bottled magic thunderbolt. It’s surprisingly slow to start as a musical: the film’s first full-scale musical number comes in nearly half an hour, with Donald O’Connor’s silly physique doing a jaw-dropping gymnastics number from the sparkling Make ‘Em Laugh – one of only two new songs composed for the film, and a shameless knockoff of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown. You don’t need musical freshness with this dynamism in the delivery.

Photo: Mgm/Allstar

It’s just warming up. The romantic opener You Were Meant for Me is staged with jaw-dropping romance, wedged between all of the film’s goofy pranks. An empty soundstage, bathed in an artificial cotton candy twilight, furnished only with a ladder – a sparse playground for the faded effects of Kelly’s choreography. And yet that, too, is overshadowed by the film’s truly iconic centerpiece, the single number without which, for all its other marshmallow delights, Singin’ in the Rain wouldn’t be so lastingly remembered. (What would it even be titled, for starters?) A studio streetscape, drenched in artificial rain; a lamppost that has become a dance partner; Kelly more lithe than any man has ever been in a soggy tweed suit.

It’s not the film’s most labor-intensive setting: Far more manpower, clogs, and production design have gone into Broadway Melody’s extended pitch sequence, with its changing sets, banners of twirling fabrics and his raunchy, leggy cameo from Cyd Charisse. Still, that long number isn’t the first, second, or even tenth thing you remember about Singin’ in the Rain; its arbitrary purpose and procedural placement worked as a clever meta-commentary on the ramshackle storytelling of the standard Hollywood musical, making its lavish design somewhat deliberately self-destructive.

It’s certainly not up to a single dancer humming a tune and wading through a puddle, and maybe that was the point. Set in the late 1920s, the film depicts a Hollywood in transition, throwing everything on the screen to survive as the dumb gave way to the talkies. Meanwhile, his timely dispatch of panic-driven production excesses in 1952. Studios’ fixation with oversized big-screen epics, aimed at combating the threat of the small screen, began to bleed into humble comedy. musical, changing the shape of the genre into what would eventually become the gargantuan shape of 1960s blockbusters like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. (Freed, tellingly, would win another Best Picture Oscar in the 1950s, for Gigi’s hyper-decorated excess frou-frou.)

However, in its chaotic, infused way, Singin’ in the Rain asked Hollywood to cool its jets, breathe, and appreciate a simpler showmanship: a little dancing, a little laughter, a little romance. , a bit of bad weather. It might not have seemed very important at the time. But he hit 70 with barely a wrinkle.

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