Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Signin’ in the Rain (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 158 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “Of the other movies I love, some are simply about the joy of physical movement.”  One of his examples includes “when Gene Kelly splashes through Singin’ in the Rain.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): Singin’ in the Rain has been voted one of the greatest films of all time in international critics’ polls, and is routinely called the greatest of all the Hollywood musicals. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There are other contenders–Top Hat, Swing Time, An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, Oklahoma, West Side Story–but Singin’ in the Rain comes first because it is not only from Hollywood, it is about Hollywood. It is set at the moment in the late 1920s when the movies first started to talk, and many of its best gags involve technical details.” -from his 1998 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“There is no movie musical more fun than Singin’ in the Rain, and few that remain as fresh over the years. Its originality is all the more startling if you reflect that only one of its songs was written new for the film, that the producers plundered MGM’s storage vaults for sets and props, and that the movie was originally ranked below An American in Paris, which won a best picture Oscar. The verdict of the years knows better than Oscar: Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I’ve become so used to seeing Gene Kelly function as a talisman of big budget musicals of cinema past in throwbacks like Xanadu & The Young Girls of Rochefort that it was exciting for me to finally see him star in an example of The Real Deal, a musical he co-directed himself in his prime. It was strange, then, to see that picture participate in the exact Old Hollywood nostalgia I’d already come to associate him with. Recalling recent films like The Artist & Hail, Caesar!, Singin’ in the Rain is a movie about the storied past of movies as an artform. A comedy about a fictional movie studio’s struggles to transition from the Silent Era to talkies, Singin’ in the Rain takes great pleasure in staging Technicolor recreations of old forms of entertainment like black & white silent romance pictures & traditional vaudeville acts. Hollywood’s favorite subject in general has always been itself, echoing an even more ancient tradition of art about art, and Gene Kelly’s career seems to be an essential part of that introspective self-indulgence.

The biggest hurdle Singin’ in the Rain had to clear in its path to greatness is that its first act is so immaculate that it’s difficult not to feel a little let down once the dust settles. Gene Kelly stars as a Gene Kelly-type star from the 1920s. We meet him on the red carpet at the premiere of his latest silent picture, where he addresses the pandemonious crowd cheering for his presence with an oral history of his life on the big screen. As he gloats about his past as a trained thespian of great prestige, we’re visually treated to his real past in bars, pool halls, vaudeville stages, and dangerous stunt work in a humorous montage. After the screening of what’s sure to be another smash hit (in an old-fashioned theater very similar to The Orpheum, where we watched this picture), Kelly’s handsome hero escapes the roar of his fans by crawling on top of a speeding streetcar and leaping into the passenger seat of a complete stranger’s car in a real life application of his on-screen swashbuckling skills. This passing stranger, played by (the recently deceased) Debbie Reynolds, is an aspiring actress herself, but pokes fun at Kelly’s leading man with verbal jabs like, “Movies are entertaining enough for the masses,” and “Once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.” Their flirtatious sparring as they trade cruel embarrassments at each other’s expense is one of the film’s great pleasures, so much so that it’s somewhat of a letdown once they wholly join forces to save a movie studio from the unavoidable disaster of adapting to talkies.

The industry-specific nostalgia about The Rise of the Talkies has its charm, even if it struggles to stack up next to Kelly & Reynolds’s first act attraction/animosity. Singin’ in the Rain is a much cleaner version of 1920s Hollywood than you’ll find in a harsh, gossipy exposé like Hollywood Babylon, but it does have its critiques. Spineless studio executives, closeted queer performers, and actresses whose shrill voices were never meant to interrupt the reverie of Silent Era pantomime color the changing world around Kelly & Reynolds. As much obvious affection as the picture has for the past, it also no qualms with poking fun at the medium’s early limitations, as well as drawing direct comparisons to 1950s studio musicals’ own reliance on blatant pantomime & vaudeville style entertainment. In the end, a return to simple vaudeville pleasures like singing, dancing, and rigidly structured one-liners is what saves the fictional not-ready-for-talkies movie studio from going under. It’s also the exact formula Singin’ in the Rain relies on for its basic entertainment value. The movie is both a critique of and a nostalgic participation in an artform that never really died, but more or less mutated instead.

Within that sense of vaudeville tradition, the song & dance numbers of Singin’ in the Rain more or less float independent from the plot in a vacuum. I can’t honestly say the songs themselves were my favorite aspect of the film. They’re mostly fine. What’s stunning is the spectacle of the production design that supports them: intensely artificial dream spaces packed with high fashion, glitter, an army of extras, and intensely colored lights. A few straightforward numbers were entertaining for their own sake. Watching Gene Kelly joyously splash about in puddles during the titular song (despite an intense fever he was suffering from during the shoot) has an infectious self-amusement to it. The Jim Carrey-esque best friend character played by Donald O’Connor (who was as undeniably queer as any best friend character I’ve ever seen onscreen) perform a “Make Em Laugh” number that’s initially funny in its basic indulgences in pratfalls, but then crosses into chillingly creepy as the pratfalls become an endless purgatorial loop of eternal punishment and the routine involves a headless female doll as a dance partner (*shudder*). It’s the larger than life Busby Berkeley throwbacks that overwhelm in their sheer enormity, though, allowing for surreal, glamorous imagery to elevate the film from movie industry comedy to fine art. Disembodied gams float in a florescent green void of Technicolor glitter. The high fashion runway walks of The Women are extended into an ultimate reality dreamscape of superb set design. Singin’ in the Rain is just as gorgeous as it is silly & self-indulgent.

It doesn’t seem as if Singin’ in the Rain was especially fun to make. Gene Kelly was reportedly cruel to Debbie Reynolds on-set for her perceived shortcomings as a dancer and the movie was only a modest financial success upon its initial release. You can feel a strain to convey joy despite the technical demand of the production seeping in from the corners of the frame, which might explain why its early adversarial flirtations are its most rewarding exchanges. Still, the film’s love & criticism of Hollywood as an industry & a tradition are powerful opioids even for a modern viewer. In an early scene where Kelly is strolling across a studio lot in conversation with his gay bestie, the pair pass several genre-variant film shoots in a ridiculous display later echoed in one of my all-time favorite films, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. That kind of gleeful enthusiasm for movie magic far outweighs any energy lost after the pleasure burst of the glorious first act and the movie overall feels timeless despite its obsession with the present & the past of its own medium. That seems to be a recurring theme within Gene Kelly’s overall career, not to mention an obsession of Hollywood at large.

Roger’s Rating  (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: The Wizard of Oz (1939)

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 33: Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

  1. Pingback: The Pirate (1948) | Swampflix

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