Directed by Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
I’m not a fan of musicals, in general, but that’s also what a lot of people say. It’s not fair to write off an entire genre of movies due to personal tastes (though the same can’t be said for country music). And maybe it’s because La La Land is still fresh in my mind and it’s definitely partially because of Debbie Reynolds that I decided to watch this film.
What I like about it, beyond the iconic moments and songs, is how funny and witty the dialogue is. For a movie now 65 years old, this feels surprisingly modern and even a little fresh. I think I’ve said in a past write up that a lot of films not set in modern day culture (rather period pieces or futuristic stories) take place in a time when something is beginning or ending.
Singin’ in the Rain takes place when Hollywood made the leap from silent pictures to “talkies.” This is difficult for everyone involved in the process as they have to get used to microphones and dialogue where before they might’ve just said whatever they wanted sine the words wouldn’t be heard. Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a dreamy Hollywood A-lister alongside his frequent collaborator, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). They are rumored to be a couple, but this isn’t the case. Despite Lina’s expectations that they are in fact a couple (she believes the gossip columns), Don is repulsed by her. He instead has his eyes set on a young actress whom he meets by chance, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).
Don and Kathy later meet when she is picked to be in his next film. The main plot is the struggle to make Don’s and Lina’s newest picture, The Dueling Cavalier into a talkie. Lina’s voice is horrendously grating, and after a test preview, it’s clear the film is doomed to fail. The audience laughs though the film, intended to be dramatic. There are microphone problems, the dialogue is forced and Lina’s voice is like nails on a chalkboard.
Throughout Singin’ in the Rain, we see a handful of impressive song and dance numbers, and it’s not until about halfway through the film that Kathy suggests to Don that they make The Dueling Cavalier into a musical. They do and it works out wonderfully, once they decide that Kathy should provide the voice for Lina, dubbing over her lines. At the film’s premiere, Don orchestrates a plan to reveal that Kathy is the real star of the film.
The plot is ripe for broad comedy, and it’s executed well. It’s neatly structured with a clearly stated conflict and resolution. What I think is especially interesting about this film is the way it dissects the movie industry, pealing back the layers to show us what goes on underneath.
Musicals have always felt to me like make believe in the sense that it pulls you further away from reality (escapism, right?) rather than bringing you closer to it. But with Singin’ in the Rain, the story deconstructs the way Hollywood films are made. Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen poke fun at the concept of tabloid-driven relationships (again, with Lina believing the gossip over what she sees with her own eyes), the ways films are made, the insecurities and vanity of an actor and the disillusionment of many involved in the filmmaking process. It’s just another job.
Yet as it does this, the film pulls you in with songs that are firmly entrenched in pop culture and impressive, even acrobatic dance sequences. The biggest dance number is one from The Dueling Cavalier, played out onscreen as Don pitches it to the studio head. We’re pulled into this fictional story within a fictional story, at its most climactic moment, and we buy in because of the scale of the production. Then we’re pulled right out when Don asks the studio head what he thinks of the pitch.
The film is about filmmaking, clearly, and the work that goes into manufacturing a dreamlike setting such as the ones we see in films. It’s a story of escapism (after all the guy gets the girl, the girl gets the recognition, the character we dislike gets her comeuppance, the friend is always quick with a joke and even the studio head gets involved and dances in the end), but it’s about the stitching together of something that seems so seamless.
The movie buys into itself. It’s a affirmation of Hollywood’s charm by Hollywood itself. It’s been said by a lot of people, perhaps everyone, that Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood and the filmmaking process. It’s like renewing your vows. I don’t know what kind of trends Singin’ in the Rain may have created or how much it’s simply following the musicals that came before it, but it feels like a turning point. It feels like a remix of the movie musical, and it still feels brand new.