Don: Anyway, I'm through.
Kathy: Don, you're not through!
Cosmo: Of course not. Why, with your looks and figure, you could drive an ice wagon. Or shine shoes.
Kathy: Block hats.
Cosmo: Sell pencils.
Kathy: Dig ditches.
Cosmo: Or worse still, go back into Vaudeville.
"Singin' in the Rain" (1952) represents perhaps the pinnacle of the Hollywood musical. Starring and co-directed by Gene Kelly (along with partner and co-director Stanley Donen), it's one of those movies that started out well-received though not overly-praised and grew into a classic. A comedic riff on the rise of the talking picture, it pays homage to many of the older MGM musicals of the late '20s and '30s.
A lot of film critics and scholars have called "Singin' in the Rain" the best movie musical ever. I won't pretend to be a particular expert on musicals, but I will say it ranks in the top five on my list of personal favorite movies. What speaks so strongly to me, a 20-year-old male half-a-century removed from the film's release? I think it's the fact that the movie is so damned sincere, along with just being an excellent piece of cinema. Yeah, sure, I try to wear my hip post modern ironic detachment film snob badge whenever I can, but I think a movie this funny and heartfelt cuts through all that and has to resonate with everyone.
Co-starring with Kelly are Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen. Everyone can sing and dance spectacularly, and the script by Adolph Green and Betty Comden gives the musical numbers (with lyrics by the legendary Arthur Freed) relevance within an incredibly clever and funny plot. O'Connor as the sidekick and Hagen as the villain, in particular, steal all of their scenes.
The film is simply an exuberant, glorious celebration of the things that matter most: life, love and movies. Who could ask for anything more?
What a Glorious Feeling: The Story
Kathy: Oh, I don't go to the movies much. If you've seen one, you've seen them all.
Don: (sarcastically) Thank you.
Kathy: No offense. Movies are entertaining enough for the masses, but the personalities on the screen just don't impress me. I mean, they don't talk, they don't act, they just make a lot of dumb show. Well, you know. (She makes silly faces, mocking the style of silent actors.) Like that!
The year is 1927. Movies have been around for more than 25 years, and the Hollywood studio system is a well-oiled machine, capable of producing silent features and shorts with ease. Movies are big business, and the biggest Hollywood stars are adored by fans the world over. With two years before the stock market crash and subsequent depression, we're at the tail-end of the Roaring 20s.
It's in this world of Hollywood glitz and glamour that our movie takes place in (remember, "Singin' in the Rain" was made in 1952, some 25 years after its setting). The film opens at the premier of a new sure-to-be-a-smash film: "The Royal Rascal," starring famous screen couple Don Lockwood (played by Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Hagen). Don is asked by a reporter to tell his life story to his adoring public, and he obliges.
Don: I've had one motto which I've always lived by: Dignity. Always dignity.
That's how Don begins his story, and it's a complete lie. The film uses a device it will use repeatedly, which is to play with dualism using the language of film (doubly funny since much of its story is about film). Often throughout the movie, what somebody says or does is actually masking the truth of the situation. Here, Don narrates a montage of his life where the audience gets to see the truth behind his wild embellishments. His voice-over starts by claiming he and his life-long friend Cosmo Brown (played by O'Connor) went to the "finest schools and academies." The audience gets to see the two of them getting kicked out of pool halls. It's very funny.
After playing Vaudeville for a while, the two friends ended up in Hollywood playing music on the sets of silent movies (since silent productions obviously didn't record sound, the sets were never silent, with music being played and directors shouting orders). Because of his ability to take a punch, Don gets hired as a stuntman and eventually as an actor in the next Lina Lamont picture. From that point forward, he and Lina have been an on-screen couple (with rumors that they're engaged off-screen).
The movie "The Royal Rascal," which we get to see the end of, is a silly trifle with Don as some kind French aristocrat dueling ne'er-do-wells for Lina's hand. But the audience loves it and Don and Lina take a few bows in front of the audience before heading backstage ("We movie stars aren't much good at speeches," Don says).
Backstage, Lina is furious that Don prevented her from saying anything, either before or after the premiere. "What's the big idea!? Can't a girl get a word in edgewise?" she shrieks. In one of the movie's big comic reveals, we find that the elegant and lovely-looking Lina has a voice that sounds like a cat might if an elephant sat on it.
Rod (the studio's head of publicity): Lina, you're a beautiful woman. Audiences think you've got a voice to match. The studio's gotta keep their stars from looking ridiculous at any cost.
Don: No one's got that much money.
Lina: What's wrong with the way I talk? What's the big idea!? What am I, dumb or somethin'?
It becomes abundantly clear that, yes, Lina is actually quite dumb (or somethin'). She believes she's engaged to Don because she read it in a fan magazine. She's nasty, she's mean and her voice suits her personality much more appropriately than her looks. That she plays sophisticated, charming women in the movies is yet another joke.
Anyway, heading to a party after the show, Don gets mobbed by a bunch of his fans and in a great scene he runs up on top of a bus and drops down into the open-top car driven by one very shocked Kathy Selden (played by Reynolds. She's rather put out by a strange man in a ripped-up tuxedo just falling from the sky into a car, but settles down when a cop tells her she's actually picked up famous movie star Don Lockwood.
She offers to drive him home, and he tries to put the moves on her ("We movie stars are awfully lonely"). Wise to his advances, she quickly decimates his ego by letting him know that she doesn't bother watching movies. She's a dignified actress, she says, on the stage, or at least she will be someday. He scoffs at her.
Kathy: What do you have to be so conceited about? You're nothing but a shadow on film... just a shadow. You're not flesh and blood.
Don: Oh, no? (He moves closer to her)
Don: What can I do? I'm only a shadow.
The scene ends with Don mocking her as he steps out of her car, only to get his ruined tux stuck in her car door, ripping it completely in the process. Later at the party, the head of the studio, R.F. Simpson (played by Millard Mitchell, doing a great job as a straight-man), shows off a funny new device some inventor has been bringing by: a talking picture. The inventor's voice, as he says plainly in the movie, is recorded on a record and synchronized with the film. The reaction of guests at the party is mixed.
Guest 1: It's a toy.
Guest 2: It's a scream!
Olga: It's vulgar.
Rod: R.F., do ya think they'll ever use it?
R.F.: I doubt it. The Warner brothers are making a whole talking picture with this gadget. "The Jazz Singer." They'll lose their shirts. What do you think of it, Dexter?
Dexter: It'll never amount to a thing.
Cosmo: That's what they said about the horseless carriage.
After the demonstration, R.F. brings out the floor-show: a chorus of dancing girls, led by... Kathy Selden! Don is quite pleased at this and teases her mercilessly about it. One thing leads to another and Lina accidentally gets "whipped cream in the kisser" (her words) that was meant for Don. Kathy runs out and Don (who clearly likes her) can't catch her.
We cut to a couple of weeks later on the soundstage at Monumental Pictures (which is probably supposed to be MGM) as Don gets ready to film his new movie: "The Dueling Cavalier." Joking about its similarity to Don's last picture, Cosmo says, "If you've seen one, you've seen 'em all." This upsets Don, who is still a bit shaken from Kathy's use of the same words a few weeks earlier.
Trying to cheer up his friend, Cosmo explains that being a comedic actor is every bit as great as being an important dramatic actor with a song (which I'll excerpt, as the content is somewhat relevant to the plot):
Make 'em laugh, make 'em laugh,
Don't you know everyone wants to laugh?
My dad said be an actor my son,
But be a comical one!
They'll be standing in lines
For those old honky-tonk monkey-shines!
Now you can study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you could charm the critics and have nothing to eat
Just slip on a banana peel, the world's at your feet!
This number ("Make 'Em Laugh"), which Cosmo has as a solo, is amazing. O'Connor completely steals the show here, with a fantastic display of physical comedy. Using only the props you'd expect to see in the back of a set, he wrestles with a dummy, contorts his face, runs around on the floor and runs up walls (doing a full backflip while he's at it -- it honestly looks like something out of a Jackie Chan movie). The song is great too, and the scene is in strong competetition with Kelly's famous "Singin' in the Rain" number for "Best Dance Scene Ever".
Cheered up, Don starts work on the production of "The Dueling Cavalier." While filming, he finds out that Lina had Kathy fired from her job at the nightclub. But while the production is going well, R.F. busts in and shuts it all down. "The Jazz Singer" has been a huge success for Warner Bros. and everyone's switching to sound pictures. The studio shuts down for a while to turn "The Dueling Cavalier" into a talkie.
R.F.: (Imagining the billboards) Lamont and Lockwood: They talk!
Lina: Well of course we talk! Don't everybody?
The central problem of the movie suddenly becomes clear: yeah, they can talk, but can they talk well? There are quite a few cases of stars who were unable to make the transition from silent-to-sound film for this very reason. Lina will be one of these stars.
At this same time, Don finds Kathy working elsewhere on the set and they have a little heart-to-heart, where she reveals that she doesn't actually hate movies... and she might even subscribe to a few of the fan magazines. Don, revealing how much of a movie actor he is, has to get Kathy on a stage (complete with proper lighting and mood music) to tell her he loves her (which he does through a song).
The studio sends their stars to diction coaches, to try and get them ready for their talking debut. Don is fine, but Lina seems hopeless. Despite this setback, and a number of other mechanical problems (all of which were inspired by things that actually happened; microphones were particularly problematic for early sound films), production wraps on "The Dueling Cavalier.
There's another premiere, only this time the audience is laughing instead of clapping. The picture is awful: the dialogue is horrible, Lina sounds terrible, there are problems with the sound and at one point the picture and the soundtrack become unsynchronized, so it looks like a badly dubbed Kung Fu movie. The filmmakers are distraught. The movie is set to open in six weeks, and theaters have already been booked: they can't pull the movie.
Cosmo, Kathy and Don gather at Don's house to commiserate. They come up with the great idea to turn "The Dueling Cavalier" into a musical! The plan is to trim the bad scenes, add a few dancing numbers and have a good movie. A problem still remains: Lina. "She can't act, she can't sing and she can't dance. A triple threat," says Cosmo.
Then, while joking about the time the picture and sound went out of synch, Cosmo has a brilliant idea: why not have Lina move her lips, but have somebody else do the voice on the soundtrack? And thus the movie explains the birth of ADR.
Immediately following this scene is the movie's most famous moment, so it's worth mentioning here. Dropping Kathy off at her house, Don kisses her goodnight and proceeds to walk out into the pouring rain. He is so in love with her, and so happy from that love, the rain doesn't bother him, and he breaks into song. Since thbz's write-up, above, has all the lyrics to the song, I won't bother quoting them. What's important about this scene is how well it's filmed.
The choreography seems simple, and the set is pretty spartan. This is something Kelly was fond of, and it holds true through the entire movie (except for the "Broadway Ballet" number later). The scene is just Kelly, as he dances about a sidewalk, hangs from a lamp post and splashes in puddles. It's a very simple scene, and it works because there's nothing seemingly fancy about it. It's just a guy hopelessly in love to the point where nothing else matters. The fact that Kelly is one hell of a dancer doesn't hurt, either.
So the plan to use Kathy's voice instead of Lina's proceeds well. It's kept a secret from Lina, and everything seems to be going smoothly. They invent a framing structure for "The Dueling Cavalier" where the dueling scenes are part of a dream (this convoluted plot is necessary to let them work in modern dance numbers in what would otherwise be a period piece). This leads to a 12-minute sequence called the "Broadway Ballet" which is the movie's big dance number.
Back in 1952, it was pretty inconceivable to make an MGM musical without some huge and elaborate number. So we get this fantasy sequence about a "young hoofer" who, while trying to get a break as a dancer on Broadway, falls in love with the girlfriend of a gangster. Most notable about this sequence is the fact that the girlfriend is played by dancer Cyd Charisse, in a performance that gives her no dialogue but still lets her say a lot. I know it sounds confusing, but I really can't explain it. Watch the movie.
Back in the "real world," Lina catches wind of the scheme involving Kathy right before the movie's release. Citing an obscure clause in her contract that lets her control her publicity, Lina gives "an exclusive story to every paper in town" about how great of a job she did singing in "The Dancing Cavalier" (the movie's new title).
Afraid of Lina suing, R.F. acquiesces and takes Kathy's credit off the movie. The movie has another premiere, and is this time received spectacularly. Anxious to take the credit, Lina rushes on stage to give a speech which is so incredibly funny I'm just going to quote it all:
Lina: Ladies and gentlemen, I can't tell you how thrilled we are at your reception for "The Dancing Cavalier," our first music-cal picture together. If we can bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'.
The audience is, of course, dumbfounded by this ridiculous speech, and doubly so by the fact that Lina sounds nothing like the woman they just heard in the movie. They demand a song, and a nervous Lina rushes backstage. Don has a plan: they'll set up a microphone behind the curtain and Kathy will sing while Lina lip synchs. Kathy thinks this is horrible, but Don commands her to do it anyway. "This thing is too big!" he says. Kathy says she will, but afterwards she never wants to see Don again.
So Lina lip synchs "Singin' in the Rain," and all is well until Don, R.F. and Cosmo pull the curtain. The audience, seeing both Kathy and Lina, figures it out and starts laughing. Lina, in front of the curtain doesn't know what's going on until Cosmo pushes Kathy out of the way and suddenly "Lina's" voice drops a few octaves. Humiliated, Lina rushes off, never to be seen again. My personal theory is that she becomes Norma Desmond from Sunset Blvd.
Don announces to the audience that Kathy was the voice they all heard and loved, and he sings to Kathy. The movie ends with the two of them in each other's arms, looking at a billboard for a movie called... "Singin' in the Rain," starring Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden.
Shadows on Screen: The Movie's Themes
Okay, I've spent a few pages telling you what happened in the movie. What more is there to say about the content
itself? Quite a bit, actually. For being such a light-hearted musical on the surface, there's some interesting stuff happening if you're willing to dig a little deeper
Most obviously is what the film is saying about movies: they're all fake! This movie was self-aware before it was hip to be self-aware. Are there many more movies that go out of their to demonstrate how fake movies are? Off the top of my head, I can only come up with "The Player" and "Adaptation," and both were dark comedies. Here's a musical saying the same thing.
Now, I'm not suggesting that "Singin'" is ripping movies apart the way those films do. It's a gentler satire, but it's still there. The character of Lina embodies this idea that movies conceal the truth. On-screen, she's a wonderful, caring, sophisticated person. Off-camera she's dull and mean. The cooked-up "engagement" between Lina and Don, invented by the publicity department, is another example of why we shouldn't assume on-screen characters correspond to their actors.
As I mentioned in the beginning of the write-up, the movie also has a lot to say about deception. Everyone in the movie is guilty of some deception at some point. Don has his fake history at the beginning, Lina is basically one big deception, Kathy lies to Don about not liking movies and R.F. and Cosmo and conspire to keep Lina in the dark about Kathy.
Things aren't what they seem to be is the message I'd really take from the film. This is even more true for Hollywood, but it seems to be a bit of a cautionary tale for everyday life.
The Show Must Go On: Trivia about the Movie's Production
First of all, perhaps the most amazing thing about the movie is that only one song ("Moses Supposes") was written specifically for the picture. Everything else was an older song, written by Nacio Herb Brown and producer Arthur Freed for musicals during the '20s and '30s. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were given the assignment of recycling these songs that MGM already had the rights to into a new movie. Since they were dealing with old songs, the two screenwriters decided to simply make a movie about old musicals. The rest came from there. That the movie could be so successful despite being originally conceived as a cheap way to get music is a testament to the quality of the script.
My personal favorite bit of trivia, though, involves the sequences where Debbie Reynolds' character, Kathy, is dubbing Lina's voice. Jean Hagen, playing Lina, didn't actually have an awful voice (quite the opposite). And, since the filmmakers felt Reynolds' voice didn't have the sophistication the movie required, they used somebody else's for those scenes. The person's they used? Why, it was Jean Hagen's, of course! See if you can follow this: Jean Hagen is dubbing Debbie Reynolds' character Kathy, who is dubbing Hagen's character Lina. In effect, Hagen is dubbing herself. To add further complication, the filmmakers weren't particularly happy with either Hagen's or Reynolds' voice for the "Would You?" song that Kathy sings for Lina, so that voice is actually Betty Noyes in an uncredited role. Hollywood. Can't do anything the easy way.
The big "Singin' in the Rain" number was originally supposed to feature all three stars, but Gene Kelly took it for himself (after he got over the fact that his movie's title song was an old one). The opening credits has a bit from the original scene.
Speaking of "Singin' in the Rain," Kelly did the number while he had a severe fever during its filming. Pretty amazing, when you consider how well he manages to splash in the rain.
The "Broadway Ballet" sequence was not originally part of the movie. There was to be another number with Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly, but filming ran long and O'Connor had other commitments. So Kelly, recruited Cyd Charisse and fashioned a new number out of two songs: "Broadway Melody" and "Broadway Rhythm".
A final interesting story about the filming: this was Debbie Reynolds' first big role, and she wasn't nearly as capable a dancer as either Kelly or O'Connor. After a particularly hard day of filming (some accounts say Kelly had criticized her dancing ability), she was sobbing underneath a piano somewhere in the MGM studio when she was approached by Fred Astaire, who gave her some pointers and showed her how difficult dancing was, even for him.
What follows is the title of each song (in order it appears in the movie) followed by the name of the actor or actors singing it:
- All direct quotes were verified by the author by using the DVD (and I took what the characters actually said, not what the subtitles said).
- Trivia came from the liner notes for the 2000 release of the DVD or my own head (a friend has been borrowing my copy of the good DVD, so it is likely I'll have supplemental information whenever I get that back).
- Cast list and most of the technical information culled from the invaluable IMDb (http://www.imdb.com).
- Some information on film rankings came from http://www.cinepad.com/awards/awards_1-50.htm.
- Any other mistakes are probably the author's.