The runaway success of the Jazz Singer forces the latest Don Lockwood/Lina Lamont romance picture to switch to being a talkie in mid production. No one seems to know how to film sound, and the final product is laughed out of the preview screenings. Lockwood is convinced he can save the picture by turning it into a musical, but his biggest obstacle is his co-star’s weedy voice.
Maybe Singin’ in the Rain is not the greatest film ever released, but it typifies the best of the studio system. It may not be filet, but its still steak, and the portions are huge.
Watching Singin’ for the first time, it was not love at first scene. Sure the introduction of superstar Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), pal Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), and starlet Lena Lamont is near flawless, in that hammy old-Hollywood way. But its followed by another near flawless scene, and another, until the film ground down my defenses and cynicism. It’s one thing to be eager to please, its quite another to be able to deliver the goods with increasing quality as the film progresses. It also bears noting that Kelly’s musicals were not much like the common perception of musicals. He was a fierce athlete and quite a few set pieces wouldn’t look out of place in a Jackie Chan actioner, particularly Lockwood escaping his clawing fans by scaling a moving trolley.
Of all the musical sequences, Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the most representative of the whole film. He begins with another hammy sentiment, throwing his body into broad comedy, that doesn’t quite work. But as the sequence continues, the pratfalls hit evermore harder, and the pace keeps accelerating. O’Connor’s “dance” turns into a pure athletic spectacle, throwing his body to the hard floor and sprinting up walls, flipping and plodding from one end of the frame to another. At this point, who can care about the originality or humor, you’re won over by the sheer effort. By the end of the sequence my audience gave a standing ovation.
Gene Kelly’s solo turn at Singin’ in the Rain feels against type here. It’s pleasures are subtle, and the dance itself so casual as to seem improvised. We know that’s not the case, everything from the placement of the downspout to the puddles on the street and sidewalk were mapped out ahead of time.
The plot of the film was written to connect the pre-selected songs. It should be a trifle. And indeed, if the musical numbers don’t fit in with the story, its the story that takes a backseat. Normally this would kill the momentum of a film in its tracks, but its clear that Gene Kelly has as much enthusiasm for these sequences as those that pertain directly to the story. He stops the film at the climax for an extended impressionistic dance sequence. No momentum is lost through this, even though it’s basically just another variation on the story of an artist “making it” that began the film. The dance sequence is by far the stronger version, but its inclusion should be just as jarring as the final third of 2001.
The blooming, contentious romance between Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, perhaps suffers the most. Their relationship could stand a couple more sequences, especially after Kelly’s successful courtship, but this is a quibble.