Insert here obligatory reference to my well-documented distaste for musicals. Actually, I almost hate referencing it because today I am talking about Singin’ in the Rain (1952), number five on the American Film Institute’s (AFI) 100 Greatest American Films of all Time. You know how when somebody says they do not appreciate some universally beloved book or piece of art, and that person gets lampooned as possibly being deranged. Well, here you go. I probably should not be so hard on it. It is a well-made film, and even someone as ill-informed as myself on song and dance pieces can appreciate Gene Kelly’s skill, who plays Donald “Don” Lockwood. It is also set during a time with which I am well familiar as a historian: 1927, when cinema began to incorporate talking into movies. Still, for the life of me I do not see what gets people so enamored with this movie. So, go ahead, tell me I am nuts.
Before anyone starts Singin’ in the Rain, we are brought to the entrance of the Chinese Theater in Los Angeles for the premier of Don’s newest silent film. On his arm is his leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who everyone assumes is Don’s sweetheart. He is asked before heading in to recount his career up to this point. While he gives a fictitious account of his path, he tells the press that he did everything with dignity. In reality, he and his performance partner and best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) did every two-bit job in the entertainment business before Don made it big in motion pictures as a stuntman willing to do anything. This is what gets him noticed, and soon he is starring opposite Lina for practically every movie Monumental Pictures, the studio he works for, makes. His fame comes with a great deal of attention, though, and at one point he is forced to flee a mob on the street, ending up in the humble car of Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Don is surprised that she does not immediately recognize him, and is scandalized when she claims that movie acting is not as legitimate as that done for the stage. She aspires to be on Broadway, and he turns the tables on her by making fun of her desires. He ends up feeling bad, though, as he is being dropped off, but his apologies go ignored. Instead, it is off to another party hosted by Monumental Pictures president, R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell). There, he shows the guests an example of film with sound synced to it. Some say it will not last, while others see it as the future. This is interrupted by the evening’s entertainment, a number performed by chorus girls. Don is particularly delighted by this when Kathy pops out of a cake and joins with the rest. Afterwards, she wants nothing to do with him. Thus, it is back to work for Don, though he cannot stop thinking about Kathy. He tries looking for her, but she is nowhere to be found. This is because Lina has asked that Kathy to be fired. Yet, Cosmo spots her one day performing on another stage and arranges for his friend and her to meet. She initially remains determined to be mad at him, but softens her stance when he confesses that he has not been able to stop thinking about her. Meanwhile, Don and Lina’s next picture is halted when Simpson comes to the set and says they either need to make it a talking film or production will be terminated. One thing I have yet to mention up to this point is Lina’s voice. If you can imagine Betty Boop’s voice with none of the charm, then you have an idea of what it sounds like. Her voice lessons are useless, but she remains willfully ignorant as to her own lack of talent. Hence, when they release the movie to a test audience, those watching it cannot take it seriously while listening to her speak. The rest is bad, too, with the microphone picking up every noise because of the compensations they had to make for Lina’s ineptitude. Don believes his career is over. Cosmo and Kathy do not allow his defeatist attitude to take root. Instead, Cosmo comes up with the idea of making the doomed film into a musical, which plays to their strengths anyway. There is only one problem: Lina. Again, Cosmo comes up with the solution of having Kathy say and sing all of Lina’s lines. Given her hatred for Kathy, this is going to prove tricky. Indeed, when Lina discovers what is going on, she confronts Cosmo, Don, and Kathy. Cosmo and Don essentially tell her she is through, but then she goes to her lawyer. Her contract is then presented to Simpson, who finds that he cannot get rid of Lina and replace her with Kathy, legally speaking. If this happens, she threatens to sue. Furthermore, she demands that Kathy continue providing her voice to make Lina sound better. When the new musical opens to wide acclaim, Don wants Kathy to get the credit she deserves, but Lina will not allow it. An argument breaks out backstage at the Chinese Theater between Don, Lina, and Simpson, while the crowd is demanding several curtain calls. During one of these extended bouts of applause, they request that Lina sing a song. Suddenly, the answer presents itself. By this point, Kathy has had enough, and when Don asks that she sing for Lina, she says she will but is so hurt that she does not want to see him ever again. As Lina goes out to perform the title song, with Kathy on the other side of the curtain, the barrier is raised and Lina’s shame is exposed. Don then flags Kathy down before she can leave and they live happily ever after.
As per my usual, I tended to do other things during Singin’ in the Rain’s musical portions. I was mildly entertained by Cosmo’s performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh.” I was baffled by the extended number towards the climax of the movie. To somebody, somewhere, it made sense that, in order to make Don and Lina’s movie into a song and dance number, they had to have Don’s character start in modern times. He would then be knocked on the head and imagine he was in the time of the French Revolution. Huh? What I do recognize is Lina’s vanity. It is born of false pride, which makes it worse. Before I get too critical, I should mention that God blessed Lina with incredible beauty. It is a gift, and Faith teaches us that gifts should be shared. Silent film provides the perfect milieu for her to do so. Unfortunately, God did not see fit to also grant her a commensurate set of pipes. This happens sometimes. God closes one door, and opens another, as the saying goes, and there is wisdom in realizing when this transition is taking place. The problem for Lina is that she cannot let go of the trappings fame and fortune has brought her. Thus, she lashes out in jealousy over Kathy, and does everything in her power to ruin her potential rival. You probably do not need me to tell you that this is not Christian behavior. As such, I feel sorry for her, but she does make a good villain.
To be clear, Singin’ in the Rain does have a number of qualities I appreciate, like a good villain. And as I said in the introduction, Kelly’s virtuosity is plain to see. My only complaint is one that I have repeated many times: the musical numbers are pointless to the plot. They are eye candy with no real substance. At the same time, I would watch this film every day of the week and twice on Sundays than to have to re-watch Babylon, which deals with roughly the same themes.