The most exquisite and exuberant dream of the dream machine in transition, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain includes perhaps one of the greatest examples of how art, with its constant advances and detractions, can at once wildly embellish and find the emotional truth of an artist’s persona. And it is, of course, the greatest film to date about the pitfalls and promises that come along with change in film, though its ideas are so clear and profoundly realized that they have by now become universally relatable. Made today, it might have been about the move from film to digital, from the theater to VOD, from print criticism to blogging.
The film’s proper narrative, however, is centered on Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), one half of fictitious silent-film-star duo Lockwood and Lamant. It’s the mid 1920s and the first examples of talking pictures are starting to make their way around Hollywood, precipitating the arrival of The Jazz Singer in 1927. Soon enough, Lockwood’s boss, studio-head R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), is looking for his own talkie and sets Lockwood and his on-screen partner, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan in a towering comedic performance), to star in The Dueling Cavalier.
Lamant, whose ego’s size is only matched by the Atlantic, has a voice that makes nails on a chalkboard sound positively symphonic and is in need of proxy vocal chords for dubs after a catastrophic test screening, and Lockwood finds the voice in lovely bit player Kathy (Debbie Reynolds). The Dueling Cavalier, with some help from Lockwood’s best friend and creative partner, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), becomes a musical and is promised to be a great financial hit, but it also opens the door for Lamant to wield her power with the studios to secure a hugely lucrative, completely unearned deal for more pictures using Kathy’s voice sans due credit.
As Donen and Kelly see it, the romance that blooms between Lockwood and Kathy is only outdone by the love affair between movie stars and their own voices. Though it’s based on the birth of sound pictures and indebted to the birth of the color image, Singin’ in the Rain is also utterly fascinated and repulsed by the birth and exasperation of celebrity and, by extension, the power of both the image and the familiar. In one glorious sequence, a director is unable to shoot his scene due to Lamant’s inability to understand the concept of a microphone, but she is, after all, the brand R. F.’s studio, Monument Pictures, is selling. And among the film’s seemingly endless enchantments is a sincere appreciation of the technical ingenuity and hard work that goes into making the pictures, even as the film notes how these technicians are often left forgotten in the eyes of the studio.
Donen works with seasoned DP Harold Rosson and editor Adrienne Fazan, a favorite of Vincente Minnelli, to give the film an unhurried but dazzlingly energetic and inventive pace, but the importance of Kelly as co-director cannot be overstated. Of course, each musical number, all but one pilfered from old studio musicals, blazes across the screen with inimitable finesse and a barrage of bold, swoon-worthy colors, and Kelly, O’Connor, and Reynolds show astounding physical abilities, whether it be feet tappin’ or face scrunchin’. The more subtle facet, and arguably more powerful, however, is how Kelly relates the story of his own life as a burgeoning performer through the film and also supplies a loving example of how advanced techniques offer a broader canvas for an artist to explore his form(s) of expression.
This particular contribution from Kelly is most strongly felt by two opposing sequences. One, early on, depicts how Cosmo and Lockwood came up together through the stage and then the studio system, enduring humiliation, boredom, and artistic stagnation. It’s played for laughs (and well), but later Kelly offers a similar but richer portrait via “Broadway Melody Ballet,” where his advancement from Broadway neophyte to seductive expert is set to a glorious whirlwind of white tuxes, glowing bright-light marquees, and sultry tangos. If, as Truffaut suggested, the artist “makes himself interesting and places himself on display,” Kelly has offered himself here with enough visual and auditory ravishments to send the most hardened realist into fits of delight.
Based on a script and story by the legendary team of Adolph Green and Betty Comden, Singin’ in the Rain is, in the end, a film about its own making and the trials that lead to progress in any endeavor. As such, the passage of time is of some interest, especially in terms of what constitutes popular cinema. In the film, The Dueling Cavalier is a swashbuckling adventure, arguably the most universally adored of silent genres, and becomes a musical comedy, which was largely considered the most popular genre at the time of Singin’ in the Rain’s release, and it’s worth noting that, to this day, adventures, musicals, and comedies are still considered the most lucrative genres. It’s not a huge surprise: All three genres take as their focus, in their most basic forms, the unrelenting thrill of physical feats captured in glorious, clear motion, whether it be Chaplin’s body going at odds with the cold, exacting movement of machinery in Modern Times, Errol Flynn prancing and jumping across grand rooms and halls in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling for Donen in Royal Wedding.
Many things reinforce the enduring greatness of Singin’ in the Rain, but its most charming element is the filmmakers’ love for and dedication to the basic tenants of cinema as pure enchantment, and an open indulgence of all the bells and whistles that have been allowed it to grow into something bigger and (arguably) better over the decades.
In the case of a film like Singin' in the Rain, the audio component takes slight precedence over the visual and Warner Home Video has done a note-perfect job of updating the soundtrack for this Blu-ray release. Every Arthur Freed-penned lyric of every song rings out in perfect clarity above a sensational, magnificently balanced back end of Nacio Herb Brown's music, Lennie Hayton's lovely score, and a smattering of perfectly preserved sound effects. It's an astounding auditory experience, but this isn't to say they slept on the visual component. The upgrade from the DVD release of the film is remarkable, catching every bold color and the texture of Gene Kelly's coats, sweaters, and suits and Jean Hagen's various dresses in brilliant definition. Black levels are inky and excellent, as are all facial tones. Put this toward the very top of the company's catalogue thus far.
An embarrassment of riches, the supplements Warner Bros. has adorned this 60th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition with hit all the right spots and gives a full, robust idea of the film's production and lasting influence. It begins with the audio commentary, which covers ample area in terms of the origins of the project, the production of the film, personal anecdotes about the cast and crew, the release of the picture and its influence. Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Stanley Donen are both featured, as is Baz Luhrmann, who speaks largely about the film's influence on him and other modern musicals. The two featurettes on the making of the film and the influence of the film on singers, actors, and choreographers, respectively, are consistently engaging, but the feature-length documentary on the Arthur Freed unit at MGM is essential viewing for any musical lover. The scoring sessions for the film, a collection of the original songs used for the film and the outtake of a Reynolds solo number are great fun, as is the collectible book full of photos from the production. A gallery of stills, a theatrical trailer, the jukebox feature and, no foolin', a limited-edition umbrella are also included.
Warner Home Video’s monumental Blu-ray box set of Singin’ in the Rain should indeed give all those smitten with movie love glorious feelings and plenty of reasons to be happy again.