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Friday, December 11, 2015

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN -- Movie Review by Porfle

Some musicals are great comedies, others great love stories.  Some are known for their music and songs, some for the wonderful dancing.  But when a musical excels at all four of these--as does SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952)--then you're looking at a prime candidate for the best and most popular musical of all time.

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN comes about as close to creating a colorful explosion of pure, undiluted joy as a movie can get.  Basically a "jukebox" musical--that is, a collection of already-existing song favorites written (mostly) by producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown which have nothing to do with each other besides being fortuitously inserted into the same story--it's a labor of love in which co-directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly teamed up to make sure the music and dance numbers were intertwined seamlessly with the narrative and staged in the most artistic and gloriously cinematic style possible.

The handsome, charismatic Kelly, who shows off his robustly masculine, athletic style in a succession of wild yet precise song-and-dance workouts, plays silent film idol Don Lockwood.  We see him starting out in vaudeville along with his lifelong buddy Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) before becoming a lowly Hollywood stuntman and finally graduating to stardom along with ditzy blonde Lina Lamont, who believes the publicity about their torrid romance even though he can't stand her.  Don, meanwhile, has become smitten with a cute aspiring actress named Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who intially feigns aloofness even though she's secretly a big fan of his.

Wildly comical self-parody abounds as this big Hollywood production pokes fun at big Hollywood productions such as Don and Lina's corny silent epics.  An early highlight is a typical gala premiere where the faux couple display their artificial "lofty artist" personas for an adoring crowd.  But with the release of the surprise smash sensation THE JAZZ SINGER, silents are out and "talkies" are suddenly all the rage, throwing the studios and their stars into a chaotic scramble to give the public what they want. 

Several real-life silent stars such as Garbo's leading man John Gilbert found their careers on the rocks when their voices proved inadequate for sound.  Such is Lina's problem when it turns out her grating accent and horrendous diction threaten to make her a laughing stock on the screen.  Oscar-nominated Jean Hagen (PANIC IN YEAR ZERO) is hilarious in the role, as in frazzled director Roscoe Dexter's (Douglas Fowley) vain attempts to master the new art of sound recording during a florid love scene in which Lina doggedly refuses to speak into the hidden microphone.  

The solution?  Hire Kathy Selden to dub both Lina's speaking and singing voices and then turn Don and Lina's latest silent picture into a musical, "The Dancing Cavalier." But while this arrangement is meant to be only temporary, Lina demands that Kathy henceforth secretly do all of her dubbing, and nothing else, thus derailing Kathy's own promising career.

While all this is going on--which we know will eventually work itself out in wonderful and amusing ways--Kelly, O'Connor, and Reynolds are working overtime to give us the best show that the film medium has to offer.  The results, under the direction of stern, uncompromising choreographer/taskmaster Kelly, are nothing less than incredible. 

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN bursts forth with song at the slightest provocation, yet it never seems less than spontaneous or perfectly fitting for the occasion.  Don and Cosmo's breathless vaudeville montage "Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)" is just a warm-up for their screamingly funny precision dance duet "Moses Supposes" as well as O'Connor's absolutely astounding solo sensation "Make 'Em Laugh", a whirlwind of frenetic energy which he ends by literally running up the walls.  It's one of the most astonishing physical performances in any musical, ever.

Debbie gets into the act with the delightfully breezy "Good Morning", which shows how impressive a dedicated song-and-dance novice can be with Gene Kelly as her tutor.  While the number was obviously an ordeal to get just right, these three make it seem effortless.  With "You Were Meant For Me", Kelly emphasizes the artifice of filmmaking by having Don stage an impromptu love song for Kathy in an empty studio soundstage complete with wind machine and painted backdrop.  It's an elegant moment amidst the frivolity.

Still moreso is Kelly's dazzling movie-within-a-movie, "Broadway Melody Ballet", a lengthy interlude in which he plays an ambitious young hoofer arriving in town looking for stardom, only to be seduced and then discarded by a gorgeous goodtime gal played to perfection by she of the long legs and slinky shape, Cyd Charisse.  Their dance incorporates several styles from jazz to ballet, all of it mesmerizing. 

But most memorable of all is Gene Kelly's immortal "Singin' in the Rain" sequence, in which the lovestruck Don expresses his boundless feelings for Kathy by singing and dancing gleefully down a dark city street in the middle of a downpour.  It's one of cinema's most endearing expressions of pure, uninhibited optimism, made all the more impressive by the knowledge that Kelly performed it that day with a raging fever of 103 degrees.  

One of the best things about SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is that the story of Hollywood's painful transition from silents to talkies is fun and entertaining on its own, while serving as an ideal vehicle for the seemingly unrelated songs--most already decades old, including the 1929 title tune--which are somehow perfectly incorporated into it.  It's a giddy, affectionate, super-charged celebration of song, dance, movies, romance, and sheer joy. 


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