There’s a distinct romanticism that surrounds Hollywood’s Golden Age – stories crammed to the bow tie with glamorous women, handsome fellows, wondrous frocks, and dancing, dancing, dancing. Film critic and television personality David Stratton shares why one movie musical is dearest to his heart.
Throughout the 1940s, and for most of the 1950s, the musical movie was, alongside the western, the most popular form of entertainment. Almost all the songs that made it to the hit parade originated in movie musicals, and hardly a week went by without a new musical being launched – and these were almost always screen originals, rarely adaptations of Broadway shows. I grew up on a diet of such films, and I loved them. Each of the major studios had their distinctive house style, but the musicals made at MGM, especially those produced by Arthur Freed, stood head and shoulders above the rest. The best of them was Singin’ in the Rain, released in 1952, and inspired by songs that Freed and others had composed about 25 years earlier.
One of the most appealing elements is the setting: Hollywood in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer, the year that that newfangled invention ‘the talkies’ started to replace that unique art form, the silent film. Although the screenplay, by husband and wife team Betty Comden and Adolph Green, makes fun of the excesses of silent screen acting, the film is surprisingly accurate in its depiction of the panic that swept the industry when sound was introduced. For Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), the Douglas Fairbanks-like swashbuckler, the advent of sound poses few problems as he has an acceptable ‘voice’. But for his glamorous co-star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) it’s another matter altogether – though she herself seems unaware of it, Lina has a voice that could shatter glass.
The now familiar plot involves the transformation of the pair’s latest romantic swashbuckler into a musical, with Kathy Seldon’s voice used in place of Lina’s (there were many actual examples of this: in 1929, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail featured Czech actress Anny Ondra playing a Londoner, and her voice was dubbed by Joan Barry).
Singin’ in the Rain was the second of three films co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, himself a dancer and choreographer; the pair had met during the Broadway production of Pal Joey, in which Kelly had played the leading role, and they had devised the choreography for several Kelly musicals since. Their first collaboration, On the Town (1949), was distinguished by musical scenes that were shot on the streets of New York – something almost unheard of at the time. Singin’ in the Rain was made entirely on the MGM backlot, but the skill with which Kelly and Donen devised the musical numbers, and the creative camerawork that complements the dance, made the film an instant classic when it was released. It won no Oscars in 1952, but this was probably due to the fact that the previous year another Kelly musical, Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris, had won the Oscar for Best Film and Kelly himself had been awarded for his choreography.
“It’s a supreme example of the MGM musical at its finest.”
A number of elements make Singin’ in the Rain a timeless experience. As noted above, the storyline is based on truth, and this fact anchors the comedy and the drama. It’s also one of the funniest musicals, partly thanks to Donald O’Connor, a former child actor whose performance as Cosmo, Don’s long-time friend (perhaps the Stanley Donen character) is hilarious, especially in the Make ‘em Laugh number; O’Connor was never able to equal his performance in this film. Kelly has fun with his own screen image, playing up the corniness and vanity of Don. Jean Hagen’s Lina is ridiculous and, eventually, rather sad – and the reality behind the character is what makes her so engaging. And Debbie Reynolds, who was 19 when she was cast as Kathy, personifies innocence and grit in her first screen role. It’s deeply ironic that, in a film that makes fun of the habit of dubbing the voice of one actor with that of another, that Reynolds’ herself was dubbed; her singing voice in the film belongs to somebody else.
There are many standout scenes. My own favourites are the Good Morning number, in which the three leads celebrate the fact that they have worked out how to salvage the disaster of The Duelling Cavalier; the aforementioned Make ‘em Laugh routine; and, of course, the great title sequence in which Kelly sings and sloshes his way through a studio constructed Hollywood set and the camera soars above him as the music rises and he happily dances out into roadway. The sequence is an enduring masterpiece.
The big set-piece, Broadway Melody, that climaxes the film, and features the dancing of Cyd Charisse, is typical of similar ‘ballet’ scenes used in musicals at the time, and probably the best of them. It’s the supreme example of the MGM musical at its finest. In 1970, I was invited to visit Gene Kelly at his home in Beverly Hills. We spent the day talking about his career and particularly about Singin’ in the Rain. I’ve met many actors and directors over the years, but none was as gracious, relaxed, funny and open as Kelly. He was a remarkable talent, and his masterpiece is, and always will be, my favourite movie.
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David Stratton is an English-Australian film critic and television personality. From 1966 – 1983, Stratton was Director of Sydney Film Festival. In 1980, he was appointed Feature Film Consultant and host for SBS programs Movie of the Week, Cinema Classics and most famously The Movie Show, with Margaret Pomeranz. In 2004, the program moved to ABC and was renamed to At The Movies. In December 2014, it completed a record 28 year run. Stratton has also worked as a film critic for The Australian, America’s Variety and has written for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Bulletin. He’s written numerous books, is a film history lecturer and has served as a member of numerous film critic juries. In 2015, Stratton was awarded Member in the General Division of the Order of Australia at the Australia Day Honours. He is an Honorary Doctor of Letters (University of Sydney and also Macquarie University) and a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters of France.