Last night, Turner Classic Movies and Fathom Events sponsored a special screening of Stanley Donen’s 1952 MGM film Singin’ In The Rain, starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. Considered by many to be the greatest musical comedy of all time, the feature played in select theaters nationwide, and after more than half a century it remains an enchanting cinema classic.
It is more than just one of the all-time greats, grouped with the likes of Casablanca and The Wizard Of Oz. Singin’ In The Rain is also an off-the-wall lesson in Hollywood history. In 1927, Warner Brother blindsided its rival studios with a little film called The Jazz Singer. Starring Al Jolson as the eponymous crooner, it featured the first synchronized dialogue and musical sequences in a major feature film. Suddenly the moviemaking giants had to offer more than lavish spectacle to hungry audiences. They had to make talking pictures, and for a while it set the industry back considerably. Background noise (including that of the camera) had to be eliminated for clean dialogue recording, and action had to be staged around microphones. Worst of all for some, actors now had to rely on strong voices as well as good looks to charm their audiences.
The recent popularity and critical acclaim of a Hollywood homage like The Artist proves that people still love this kind of story. Indeed, in terms of inspiration The Artist owes much to Singin’ In The Rain, for reasons that will be clear to those familiar with both films.
Singin’ In the Rain is the story of Don Lockwood (Kelly), a superstar of silent film who paid his dues in vaudeville and musical hall revues as a song and dance man. Now he is a full-time swashbuckler for Monumental Pictures, usually paired with leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). The press and the fan magazines have linked them romantically, but settling down with his on-screen love could not be further from Don’s mind. What her adoring fans do not know is that Lina is shrill, self-obsessed, and just plain mean. Nevertheless, she aims to court and cuddle Don as long as he remains a big deal in Hollywood. Don, meanwhile, falls headlong in love with studio ingénue Kathy Selden (Reynolds), whose promising talent and untarnished spirit enrapture him. Don’s best friend, accompanist, and sidekick Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Cconnor) offers mood music, wisecracks, and supporting pratfalls all along the way.
In the midst of this wacky love quadrangle, word comes down that in order to compete with Warner Brothers, Monumental will be re-tooled as a talking picture studio. The first attempt to add sound to their latest picture, The Dueling Cavalier, is a catastrophe, not least of all because of Lina’s screeching delivery. It falls to Don, Kathy, and Cosmo to devise a way to fix the film, showcase their best talents, and save their careers along with the studio. Lina, jealous of Kathy’s newfound success and her romance with Don, does everything in her power to sabotage them all and come out on top.
Singin’ In The Rain is a powerhouse. It has a sharp cast, a relentlessly funny script, and a wealth of memorable musical numbers. Framing its narrative as a movie about a movie within a movie, it drifts smoothly from fantasy to real life to on-stage performance in a marvelous kind of free association. Elaborate staging and imaginative choreography have made songs like “Good Morning,” “Make ‘em Laugh,” and of course the titular tune absolutely timeless.
Movie fans everywhere, be on the lookout for events like this. We happen to be enjoying a summer of uncommonly good blockbusters, but the experience of seeing a time-tested classic on the big screen – especially one that many of us are to young to have seen on anything but home video before – has a unique appeal. The details of a truly great movie are all the greater when enjoyed at full scale.
Those who missed last night’s show, and do not want to wait ten or twenty years for another major anniversary, will be pleased to know that Warner Home Video (which, in a curious twist of fate, now owns and distribute MGM’s early library of films) is releasing a 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray version of Singin’ In The Rain. The video set will be available on July 17, 2012.