Among movie musicals, “Singin’ in the Rain” stands as the greatest of them all. Its nearest competitors, “The Band Wagon” with Fred Astaire, or even Gene Kelly’s “An American in Paris,” produced a year before “Singin’ in the Rain,” are also just as entertaining today as when they were first released six decades ago. But something about “Singin’ in the Rain” gives it a snap that remains timeless.
To begin with, there are real stakes for the main characters. Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen play on-screen silent movie stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, whose careers are in jeopardy because of the impending transition from silent pictures to “talkies.” Along for the ride are Don’s best buddy Cosmo (Donald O’Connor), and lady friend Kathy (Debbie Reynolds). Kelly would seem to have the easier time of transitioning to sound with his smooth croon, but Hagen (in an Oscar-nominated performance) suffers as many silent stars did from a shrill voice and a personality to match.
“Singin’ in the Rain” was one of the first major films I can think of that broadly satirized Hollywood. At every turn, there’s a dig at the establishment, either by turns subtle (“You have to show a movie at a party, it’s Hollywood law,” says Cosmo in an early scene) or grand; a main plot point finds Kathy providing the singing and speaking voice for Lina, even as Don wonders if “anyone will buy it.” Ironic, since that’s exactly what happened in this movie. Betty Noyes dubbed Debbie Reynolds’ voice on two of the musical numbers in the picture, “Would You” and “You Are My Lucky Star.”
Speaking of musical numbers, the songs in “Singin’ in the Rain” are so wonderfully integrated into the plot, you’d almost never know they weren’t written exclusively for the film (save “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes”). Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed basically dreamed up the idea for the movie as a vehicle for songs that had previously been used in almost a dozen older films. “Singin’ in the Rain” is in effect one of the first jukebox musicals. Lest you think that a lazy way to build a film, consider how the songs were transformed through musical arrangement and dance from their earlier forms. Below left is how "Singin' in the Rain" looked in "The Hollywood Revue of 1929."
Compare the creaky number on the left with Gene Kelly's sublime expression of joy on the right (filmed while the star was reportedly battling a 103-degree fever!). There's no contest.
Looking to top his 18-minute ballet from “An American in Paris,” Kelly shoehorns into the movie an elaborate production number that has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of either “Singin’ in the Rain” or the film-within-a-film, “The Dancing Cavalier,” that Don Lockwood is trying to save. Yet the "Broadway Melody" sequence, featuring Kelly paired with the long-legged wonder Cyd Charisse, is so entertaining in and of itself that I find myself just going with the flow like the fictional Monumental Pictures studio head R.F. Simpson does.
To watch this movie with an audience, be it a full theater, or simply your five and seven-year-old kids, is to really experience the joy of “Singin’ in the Rain.” The movie is not only full of beautiful dance numbers, but it’s also very, very funny. There are broad gags, like a cake in the face of Jean Hagen, and witty one-liners. Kids love listening to Lina Lamont’s screechy voice, and they’re floored by the breathtaking dance numbers, especially when Donald O’Connor runs up a wall and flips in “Make ‘em Laugh.”
“Singin’ in the Rain” is a film for the ages. It’s funny, it’s romantic, and beautifully staged. Its gentle ribbing of the Hollywood establishment ensures it will remain timeless as long as studios spend enormous amounts of money “to keep their stars from looking ridiculous at any cost,” as the film notes. The movie promises pure joy and delivers, every time.
“SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN” on BLU-RAY
This is the first time “Singin’ in the Rain” has been available in a high definition format. The film’s Technicolor 3-strip negatives have been given a 4K digital scan, and this is the best I’ve ever seen the movie look on home video. The previous DVD release ten years ago was a very clean picture, but didn’t look much like film. On Blu-ray, the colors look more robust than ever, and there are subtle gradations of skin tone on character’s faces. The image also retains a look of “film grain” that is an important aspect of the theatrical experience.
Warner Home Video has prepared three new editions of “Singin’ in the Rain” for home video for this sixtieth anniversary release. The basic Blu-ray includes the new documentary “Raining on a New Generation,” featuring interviews with choreographers like Paula Abdul, and cast members from “Glee” and “High School Musical,” each talking about how the movie influenced their lives. It’s okay for a while, but at 50 minutes, the feature becomes a bit repetitive. The audio commentary from the 2002 release is included on the single-disc Blu-ray as well.
Disappointingly, all of the special features that were included on the 2002 two-disc set are reserved for the MSRP $84.99 Ultimate Collector’s Edition box. That edition comes with three discs, a lavish 48-page book, and a souvenir umbrella. If you already have the older DVD set, I’d recommend buying the single disc Blu-ray for the film itself and skipping the big box, unless you live somewhere where it rains a lot.
Lastly--and this is a very minor thing--I wish the packaging for this 60th anniversary edition were more like the 2002 release as well. The older set featured classic poster art from the movie but the new Blu-ray's cover is adorned by a stock photo from the film that doesn't look as elegant.
Minor quibbles, all, to what is the greatest musical of all time, and my favorite movie, as well. “What a glorious feeling!”