So just how does a run of the mill, averagely successful musical movie become one of the most iconic films of all time? By being huge fun, having some great song and dance numbers and a top notch cast at the top of their game, that’s how.
When it was made, this movie really was thought to be nothing special. It met with some critical acclaim, won a few awards and did OK at the box office but it offered nothing new, with most of the songs dating from twenty years before. It is only with hindsight that we see what the audiences of the time missed.
Gene Kelly co-directed and stars, alongside Donald O’Conner and Debbie Reynolds. All three were established or in the case of Reynolds, rapidly rising stars in the MGM stable while the musical genre was well established with a number of musicals produced each year by all the major studios. Seen as good clean fun, they were popular amongst theatre goers but were expensive and time consuming to make. By 1952 Technicolor was becoming well established and the majority of major musicals of the time were made in colour. The reason that mainstream cinema was slower on the uptake of colour was the limitations around the format. All of the various methods of filming in colour from prism split 3 reel to single reel triple exposure required massive amounts of light, the cameras were huge and therefore shooting on location was tricky. This limitation was not so much of an issue for the largely fantasy based musicals, where the glitz and glamour associated with colour was the perfect match to the bold and brassy dance numbers.
The storyline is set in the late 1920’s and follows three actors as they make the painful transition from silent movies to the talkies. Kelly plays Don Lockwood, one time vaudeville entertainer and stunt man and now partnering leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Ably support by his long-time friend and musical partner Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) he is enjoying his life as a silent movie actor, delivering huge numbers of short, low budget films each year. He bumps quite literally into aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Reynolds) and the attraction is instant, even if Kathy does not admit it straight off. With another movie company enjoying massive success with its first talking picture, studio owner R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) is forced into making them as well. The problem is that while Lina can ham it up, she has a voice that would wilt flowers at a hundred paces. After a disastrous film preview, Cosmo and Don recognise the problem and come up with a plan to “dub” Lina’s onstage performances with the vocal talents of Kathy. The problem is that Kathy and Lina did not exactly hit it off the first time they met and so the boys have to work hard to keep them apart on set. In the late 1920s there really was an issue with some silent movie stars being simply unable to transition to the talkies due to strong accents or even just the ability to walk and talk at the same time!
The ratio of singing and dancing numbers to straight dialogue scenes is very high, but all the songs are very strong and many with comedic overtones. There is little attempt to tell much of the story through the songs, thus avoiding clumsy lyrics , but what we do get is brilliantly choreographed dancing that is still held in wide esteem today. From the slapstick of Cosmo to the tight, heavily rehearsed flapper dance from Kathy, you cannot help but be impressed. Funnily enough the most famous song in the film – “Singin in the Rain” is not the strongest. That honour must go to “Make em Laugh” – a number that almost killed Donald O’Conner. As a 40 cigarette a day man, his fitness was not quite as high as possibly it needed to be to perform the high energy number and he ended up in hospital after collapsing at the end of the shoot. Even Debbie Reynolds described the film as “Painful on a par to childbirth” to make due to the punishing schedule and sheer amount of dance required throughout.
The movie is of course a film about a film, so we see lots of shots of them shooting the movie on older 1920’s equipment. Bearing in mind the size of the silenced Technicolor cameras of the day, not to mention the huge lighting rigs required I am sure the crews would rather have been shooting on black and white! Although this film cannot be taken as documentary evidence of the early talking movie production process, it shows some interesting insights. Many studios were re-built in a hurry to allow talkies to be produced. Sound proofed booths to hold the recording equipment and camera jackets to reduce the clack noise became necessary, along with boom microphones and yet another staff department to stand around discussing their overtime rates!
Jean Hagen may not have received star billing, but her performance as the useless, manipulative air headed starlet is superlative. You have to remind yourself how hard it is to act this dumb and to keep the annoying accent going. Hagen was a most talented actress and singer and in fact sang some of her parts in the movie, but Betty Noyes is credited with most of them and even some of Reynolds as well. In fact, within the cast, Reynolds was probably the weakest and least developed performer at just 19 years of age and it could be argued that her role in the movie was almost the opposite of reality. There is a story that after she overheard Kelly criticising her dancing she was found sobbing under a piano by none other than Fred Astaire! He offered to coach her, building on her gymnastic abilities.
The iconic “Singin in the Rain” scene is beautifully filmed but was not as many believe filmed in one hit with multiple cameras. Back in the 50’s the sheer size of the cameras and the requirement to balance so many different reels of film to a similar colour balance would have been made this simply impossible. Instead, Kelly spent a very damp three days filming the sequence while suffering from a bad cold. Not a lot of fun! Other rumours surrounded using milk instead of water to make it show up on camera better, but this was also not true. Instead, the set was hit with some high powered low level mounted lights focussed on the plane of the rain. This brought them into sharp relief and made them stand out. Any professional performer who has played Kelly’s role in the theatre will know that the contents of the rain tank can vary somewhat, taking on a certain second hand beer nature, particularly if harsh words have been exchanged with the crew earlier in the day… Hopefully Mr Kelly escaped similar punishment!
Back to the story and manipulative Lina finds out who is dubbing her and sets out to wreck Kathy’s career and consign her to being her voice double for ever more. Of course the boys can’t let her get away with this so they hatch a plan to sink Lina and bring Kathy out from the shadows. The finale is very funny and entirely predictable, but still works really well.
The movie is not perfect however, with quite a few continuity and prop related gaffs to spot. The story is good but not original in its basis and in fact the prime idea behind the film – the ability to dub one voice in place of another was not available until sometime after the film was set lets things down a little. Possibly the reason it did not do brilliantly at the time was that pretty much all of the songs had been heard before in various Broadway shows less than twenty years before and were still quite popular. The lack of any depth or suspense also detracts from the watchability to a certain extent, but it is quite easy to forgive these sins in view of the movie as a whole.
The care this Blu-ray release has been made with is immediately obvious from the word go. It is a hugely enjoyable watch and is one of those “must have” movies for the collection.
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