smallIngin ‘in the Rain was not exactly designed as a masterpiece. Arthur Fried, head of the musical unit at MGM, had a list of songs – not all classics – that he had co-written for various films in the studio between 1929 and 1939 and had the idea to combine them. as a song score for a single new musical. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were hired to compose a story around the different melodies. Howard Kiel, a vulgar bass-baritone in the MGM stable who was acquitted with respect to Annie Get Your Gun, was the protagonist.
As a producer, Freed tended to alternate artistically ambitious musical prestige – just a week before the premiere of Singin ‘in the Rain, he won an Oscar for Best Picture for Vincente Minnell An’s exciting American pop ballet – with cheerful, glamorous disposable filler. (Remember the Pagan Love Song; The Belle of New York; No?) At first, one would expect the contrived Singin ‘in the Rain to fall steadily on the B-list.
But that would make sense without Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, at that point something like a dream team for Freed and MGM. Their first film as a director-choreographer duo, the sailors-on-leave romp On the Town, had elevated its heavy material with a visual spirit and restless movement. Separately, Donen had flown with a foot fleet in the direction of the Fred Asta Royal Wedding vehicle, while Kelly’s celebrity had reached its climax with an American in Paris. When the production of the latter was completed, making Kelly available, the script for Singin ‘in the Rain was transferred to him. Changes were made. The rest, as they say, is history.
History, of course, takes time to form. Back in 1952, Freed would probably have been surprised to learn that Singin ‘in the Rain, and not the American in Paris, would eventually become the holiest of all Hollywood musicals – something that is often reported even by his non-apprentices. kind of as one of the best movies ever made. (In the last four editions of the ten-year Sight & Sound critics poll, it was consistently the highest-grossing musical, ranking twice in the top 10 of all time.) However, after its release, it was not treated as a landmark. The reviews and the box office were good if not amazing. The Academy, having won six Oscars for An American in Paris last year, gave Singin ‘in the Rain at least two nominations. (Even the Globes gave the award for their best musical work to the monotonous Susan Hayward vehicle with a song in my heart.)
Watching it 70 years later, you can understand why an industry that was then dealing with the prestige and the impressive spectacle of television took time to give the film due respect. Nothing about Singin ‘in the Rain is self-proclaimed as Art, or even as a majestic event: it is a film so light that it makes entertainment that combines its genre seem deceptively easy. The screenplay blends hot romantic comedy, cool Hollywood satire and Broadway fantasy fantasy with casual speed, never suffering from chills or passion. occasionally there is a carelessness about the jukebox in the song settings that matches the general indifference of the film. Slightly twist the screen and you can see the sweet, fun, useless B-musical that could have been this, as the casting was duller and a little less directing care.
But then, just as you sit in the sunny, effortless groove of the movie – you wonder, in the midst of your pleasure, if it’s perhaps something less masterful than you remembered or were told – Donen and Kelly hit you with a shot pure lightning – magic in a bottle. It’s surprisingly slow to begin as a musical: the film’s first full-scale music track arrives in almost half an hour, with Donald O’Connor’s stupid physique doing a stunning workout with foamy Make ‘Em Laugh – one of two new songs composed for the film, and a shameless reversal of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown. You do not need music freshness with this dynamism in the tradition.
It just heats up. The romantic overture You Were Meant for Me sets the scene for a shocking romance, wedged between all the suffocating pranks of the film. An empty stage set, bathed in artificial twilight of cotton candy, furnished with only one staircase – a sparse playground for the overflowing effects of Kelly’s choreography. And yet this is overshadowed by the authentically emblematic central work of the film, the only number without which, for all its other marshmallowy pleasures, Singin ‘in the Rain will not be remembered so constantly. (What would it be called, for a start?) A studio on the street, drenched in artificial rain. A lamppost became a dance partner. Kelly is more flexible than any man in a fluffy suit.
It’s not the hardest part of the film: much more workforce, armament and production design entered the film’s extensive Broadway Melody target range, with changing scenes, swirling fabric banners and the steaming, long-distance Cyd Charisse cameo. However, this large number is not the first, second or even tenth thing you remember about Singin ‘in the Rain. Its arbitrary purpose and placement in the proceedings served as a clever meta-commentary on the erratic narrative of the established Hollywood musical, making its rich conception somewhat deliberately self-destructive.
It certainly does not fit with a single dancer humming a melody and splashing like a boy in a puddle, and maybe that was the point. Set in the late 1920s, the film depicts a Hollywood in a state of transition, throwing everything on the screen to survive as the silent give way to the speakers. Meanwhile, the mission of overproduction due to panic was timely in 1952. The commitment of epic oversized widescreen studios to combat the threat of the small screen began to infiltrate the humble musical, changing the form of the genre into it. would eventually become the giant form of 1960s blockbusters like My Beautiful Lady and The Sound of Music. (Fried, honestly, would win another Academy Award for Best Picture in the 1950s for Gigi’s over-adorned Fru-Fru Exaggeration.)
In its mixed, unusual way, however, Singin ‘in the Rain called on Hollywood to cool its jets, take a breath and appreciate the simplest show: a little dancing, a little laughing, a little romance, a little bad weather. It may not have seemed like a big deal at the time. But it has reached 70 with a wrinkle.