Friday, May 15, 2015

Gene Dances in the Rain

In celebration of National Classic Movie Day our contribution to the blogathon being hosted by the Classic Film and TV Cafe is the magnificent Singin' in the Rain (1952).  We had the pleasure of seeing it recently at the Strathmore Music Center, with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra accompanying the film.  Computer technology, it seems, allows them to strip the music, but leave all the voices in place - thus, Gene and Donald and Debbie get to sing with a magnificent symphony orchestra providing support. 

Singin' in the Rain is the story of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), a silent movie star who is faced with the loss of his career as the sound era begins.  He and his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) hatch a plan - to take the horrid sound melodrama that their studio is about to release and turn it into a musical. The problem? Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), Don's addle-pated co-star, who has a voice like air raid siren.  So, they enlist the help of Don's great love, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to supply Lamont's singing and speaking voice for this one picture.

With the exception of "Moses Supposes" and "Fit as a Fiddle" ("Make 'Em Laugh" contains the music of "Be a Clown", with new lyrics), all of the songs in Singin' in the Rain are recycled from other films (this article will give you a rundown of where the songs first appeared).  And the story, in some senses, hearkens back to early Rooney-Garland "let's put on a show" musical comedies.  Yet, Singin' in the Rain is unique and brilliant, and possibly the greatest musical ever made - certainly the American Film Institute places it highly.  On their list of the 100 Best Love Stories, it placed 16.  On their list of the100 Best Movies, it placed 5th.  It was number in the list of the 100 Best Songs, and in the list of the 100 Best Musicals, it wins as number 1!  There are many reasons why, not the least of which is an outstanding cast, and dance numbers beyond parallel.
Gene Kelly both stars in and co-directs (with Stanley Donen) the film.   His masterful dancing is especially evident in the "Broadway Ballet" (his partner in that number is the glorious Cyd Charisse), and in the even more famous title song routine.  There is a special joy in the latter number that is rarely scene in film.  Don's jubilance in his newly found love is contagious.  It's impossible to watch the him dance through a heavy rain without wanting to join him.

In her first major role, Debbie Reynolds is lovely.  She is a combination of innocence and spunk that only she is able to portray.  She learned to dance on the set; mostly taught by Gene Kelly, but also by Fred Astaire, who was visiting the set one day.  This video from AFI has Reynolds describing the encounter.

Donald O'Connor is masterful in the role of Cosmo.  As impressive a dancer as Gene Kelly is, it is next to impossible to NOT watch O'Connor when they dance together.  It's also hard to understand why O'Connor is not up there with Kelly and Astaire in the oft-named great dancers.  He could do it all - tap, novelty, ballroom; was an impressive actor, and an excellent choreographer.  In this tribute written by Roger Ebert at the time of O'Connor's death,  the genesis of the "Make 'Em Laugh" number is discussed.  O'Connor invented the dance due to an injury that forced Kelly to pass the reigns to him - and gave him some extra time to do it.  He would go on to receive a well-deserved Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.     

Which brings us to the true shining light of Singin' in the Rain, the always wonderful Jean Hagen.  Her Lina Lamont is a work of genius - vain, selfish, quite dense, but not ever stupid, Lina is a character you can't like, but adore anyway.  Like my fellow blogger at A Person in the Dark, I'm appalled that she was snubbed for a well-deserved Oscar (and didn't even get a Golden Globe nomination!)  But we can still revel in her artistry, and laugh at her dialog, delivered in a voice that is far from her own.  When you watch the film, pay close attention to the dialogue in the reworked sound version of  "The Dancing Cavalier".  It was decided by the powers-that-be at MGM, that Debbie Reynolds voice wasn't quite the thing for the dialogue, so they went back to the source - Jean Hagen spoke for herself, without the shrill LaMont cadence.  The section of notes from the AFI Movie Page provides a wealth of backstory on the film, as do these TCM articles.

The film opened on March 27, 1952 at Radio City Music Hall, hallmarking it as a prestige film (the opening also featured the Rockettes in "The Glory of Easter", a pageant second only to their Christmas show).  The New York Times review was not exactly an enthusiastic "thumbs-up".  Bosley Crowther, however, has been proven wrong by history, and we still have this film to watch (repeatedly, in my case).  I'll leave you with Ms. LaMont being wired for sound - a wonderful moment with a great actress, and a bit of film history to boot.

This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Click here to view the schedule listing all the great posts in this blogathon.