Film Reviews

Singin' in the Rain Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen

Rating - 10/10

John Gilbert is a forgotten figure in cinema history. During the silent era, Gilbert rivalled the legendary Rudolph Valentino as a top box office draw. But with the arrival of sound, Gilbert’s career quickly withered away. Although the demise of his career has often been attributed to the actor’s tenor voice, Gilbert suffered the ignominy of being one of the first stars to have been destroyed by Hollywood itself.

A heated skirmish with producer Louis B. Mayer, which occurred following a remark made about the no-show of Gilbert’s fiancée (Greta Garbo) at their wedding, is often believed to be the key contributing factor of Gilbert's decline. Denied quality projects thereafter, Gilbert’s dashing, charismatic figure on screen was punctured through films such as the romantic drama His Glorious Night (Lionel Barrymore, 1929) in which the actor repeatedly declared “I love you, I love you” to co-star Catherine Dale Owen.
What in silent cinema would have been a hyper-romantic scene inadvertently became an overtly comical one for audiences now accustomed to sound; a point noted by then New York Times’ film critic Mordaunt Hall who wrote that Gilbert’s “protestations of affection while embracing the charming girl… caused a large female contingent in the theatre yesterday afternoon to giggle and laugh.”
The scene was later replicated as an example of the unintended follies of the transition between silent and sound cinema in The Duelling Cavalier, the fictional film at the center of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1952 musical-comedy masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain. Released twenty-five years after The Jazz Singer sounded the death knell for the silent era, Singin’ in the Rain was created by screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden at the behest of renowned MGM producer Arthur Freed.
Freed had began his career at MGM a lyricist for songs composed by his musical partner Nacio Herb Brown. By the early Fifties, Freed had become arguably the most important producer of musicals in Hollywood with successes such as Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, 1944), On The Town (Kelly and Donen, 1949) and An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951). Singin’ in the Rain was therefore intended to showcase Freed’s back catalogue. Quickly realizing that the majority of Freed and Brown’s songs were hits during the shift from the silent to the sound era, Green and Comden posited the music around a narrative focused on this awkward transition.
Set at the imaginary Monumental Pictures, the film stars Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood: a stylish romantic silent screen star who, along with his co-star Lina Lamont (the fantastically irritable Jean Hagen), experiences trouble adapting to the new filmmaking process. Whereas Don frets over the quality of his performances, Lina is a complete disaster. A petty, unintelligent diva with a shrill voice, Lina lacks both the craft and acumen necessary to survive. Instead, Lina tries to utilize her star power to force the studio into giving-in to her ridiculous demands, including the firing of Don’s new love interest, a would-be young actress named Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).
Singin’ in the Rain was released during a brief flurry of “backstage” dramas and musicals during the early Fifties aimed at unmasking the previously concealed worlds of cinema (Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful) and theatre (The Band Wagon, All About Eve). Although often categorized as a light musical, Singin’ in the Rain is in actuality one of the sharpest, cleverest and most acidic commentaries on the inner workings of Hollywood.
Co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin’ in the Rain’s satirical nous gnaws away at Hollywood’s self-produced mythology and illusionist tendencies. Opening with the gala premiere of Lockwood and Lamont’s latest picture The Royal Rascal, Singin’ in the Rain exposes Hollywood’s fondness for media-induced nonsense through its diatribes against PR romances, fan magazines and studio biographies: an idea demonstrated in Lockwood’s ironic tale of a venerable and tasteful artistic upbringing to an adoring crowd, which is supplemented by Donen’s contradictory images.
Additionally throughout the film, Donen and Kelly de-mythologize the film-making process. In one musical number, Don adoringly sings "You Were Meant For Me" to Kathy Selden in a giant warehouse, which through a combination of lighting and special effects transforms from an empty building into a dreamlike scene. Furthermore, throughout the tortured sound production of the Duelling Cavalier, both Singin’ in the Rain’s filmmakers and screenwriters mock the silent era’s technological hiccups through poorly recorded sound, nasally voiced stars, clunky florid dialogue and overly dramatized performances. In the latter stages of Singin' in the Rain, the vocal dubbing of musical performers is also repeatedly dissected to unveil the illusory properties of Hollywood musicals themselves.
Singin’ in the Rain also openly critiques the cultural products manufactured by Hollywood. One such scene featuring a depressed Lockwood arriving on set shows the production line machinations at work as multiple silent films are simultaneously filmed in the same studio. When Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy first meets Don Lockwood, she famously informs him that she does not view his films, because “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”
Although Kathy later apologetically retracts her statement, Donen and Kelly’s film includes a sly, throwaway comment regarding the Lockwood and Lamont follow-up to The Royal Rascal entitled The Duelling Cavalier: inferring both films contain essentially the same plot, setting and stock characters. Furthermore, it should be remembered the songs utilized throughout Singin’ in the Rain were themselves recycled from pre-existing cinematic musicals.
Yet, Singin’ in the Rain is also a celebration of the individuals, who worked tirelessly behind the scenes such as stunt men and composers. The latter is evident in Lockwood’s comic sidekick, Cosmo Brown. Played with a vibrancy and fluidity by Donald O’Connor, Cosmo Brown not only embodies the studio system’s overlooked figures, but through O’Connor’s manic and witty performance encapsulates the variegated elements of comedy existing in classical Hollywood cinema: vaudeville, slapstick, witty one-liners and physical comedy.
The star of Universal’s then popular Francis franchise, O’Connor’s loan-out to MGM for the picture offered the comedic physicality necessary to match Kelly’s corporally demanding dance routines. The film’s musical numbers including the film’s title track, O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” and the noirish "Broadway Rhythm" fantasy sequence, which predates Vincente Minnelli’s use of a similar scene in the equally exceptional The Band Wagon (1953), are some of the most endearing, funny and magnificent pieces ever committed to celluloid. The "Broadway Rhythm" ballet sequence, featuring the marvellous Cyd Charisse, is also notable for its superfluous relevance to the film’s narrative.
Ostensibly imagined by Kelly’s Lockwood as the opening for a re-edited sound version of The Duelling Cavalier, the entire scene exists purely in the character’s head. With its mixture New York theatre glitz and performance art, the "Broadway Rhythm" sequence is more attuned to the operatic musical cinema of Powell and Pressburger than the conventional Hollywood Musical of the early Fifties let alone the late Twenties. The lavish spectacle is a wonderfully devious in-joke, as Monumental Pictures mogul R.F Simpson (Millard Mitchell) proclaims at its conclusion that “he can’t quite visualize it;” despite the fact the audience has spent the last fourteen minutes witnessing it.
With its sardonic, witty script penned by Adolph Green and Betty Comden and its stylish choreography and ironic direction by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin’ in the Rain is one of the finest and funniest achievements of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Even without its immortal musical and dance numbers, Singin in the Rain would still be a superb comedy. Fronted by terrific performances from Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Jean Hagen, Singin’ in the Rain still remains fresh in large part, due to its satirical sharpness; revealing not only Hollywood’s illusions and artifice, but also mocking the absurd attitudes and silliness emanating from within America's film production enclave.  
One of the greatest films ever made.