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Around 1970 I "discovered " Singin' in the Rain in an original Technicolor screening at the long defunct Encore theater in Hollywood. It's one of the most entertaining films ever made, and of all the mainstream Classics We Must See, perhaps the easiest to watch again and again. I had begged off seeing it at home three years earlier - what teenager wants to look at some old musical made the year they were born? But after having my eyes knocked out in real Technicolor, as far as I was concerned Singin' was my personal discovery. Instant audiovisual Nirvana.
Everybody should have this experience. It's nice knowing that waiting out there are a zillion kids that might tire of artificial entertainment and pick up on the music, color, talent and magic of a dazzling wonder movie made when Ike and Dick were waltzing into the White House. Real dancing and choreography as seen at the apex of the Hollywood Musical have been scarce commodities in recent decades. Modern media doesn't show off its dancing stars anymore -- in Singin' in the Rain we almost believe that Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor can fly.
After a painstaking new restoration, Warner Home Video is presenting Singin' in the Rain in Blu-ray, in a super-deluxe 60th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition, in an attractive collectors box.
Singin' in the Rain has retained its crown as the Greatest of Hollywood Musicals because it's dazzling, it's funny, and it's also about something. Betty Comden and Adolph Green poke fun at the transition from silent movies to the talkies, which in 1952 was only 25 years in the past. The script has fun with the legends of the silent screen. I imagine that the subject was an easy sell to the MGM brass -- they owned reams of 'twenties music hits just gathering dust on the shelves.
The film begins with a splash at a Hollywood premiere. Egotistic silent movie ham Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) pursues an elusive Hollywood hopeful, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), while being harassed by his gorgeous but bubble-headed leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Talking pictures overturn the movie industry, bringing opportunity for some and disaster for others. Don's lifelong pal Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) saves the day by reinventing Don and Lina's latest silent flop as an all-talking, all singing, all dancing marvel. But Lina's hatred for Kathy doesn't make things easy for anyone.
By the early '40s it seemed as if MGM held the patent on movie musical success. For a nation not yet glued to television sets, a musical offered a full night of light entertainment when one didn't feel in the mood for drama. Most musicals took place in a slightly surreal version of reality, often one where the whole world revolves around the career of a hopeful singer or ambitious dancer. As the dialogue scenes often had little purpose except to keep the songs from bumping into each other, the pictures relied on top radio and stage talent to attract the fans. Singin' in the Rain added something new, a satirical stylization of an earlier decade, an affectionate lampoon filtered through Technicolor visuals in the style of fashion magazine layouts.
The movie is merciless with its parodies of silent movie legends -- the opening premiere presents the vamps, the glamour girls (Rita Moreno!) the gushing gossip maven, the crowds of fans oohing and aahing. Don Lockwood is charming but also a tower of insincerity, with his giant grin and calculated grandstanding: "Dora! Not in front of all these Peee-pulll!" And Lina Lamont is proof that a beautiful image can be entirely hollow. In photos Lina is gorgeous, glamorous, refined. But her shriek of a voice sounds like air leaking out of a tire. She's an ignoramus, but not "dumb or something" -- she knows how to sink her personal and legal claws into her studio and her leading man. Lina actually believes that she and Don are having a romance, even though it's all an illusion "cooked up by the publicity department."
Adding interest is Singin' in the Rain's surprisingly accurate picture of technical matters that Hollywood usually hid or grossly misrepresented. Biographies of early stars, or takeoffs on fads like the Pearl White serials were almost always dull, inaccurate and shortsighted. Singin' in the Rain's account of the transition to talkies is not far off the mark. The technical problem of hiding microphones on the set, with picky sound men commanding all from an isolated booth, was almost as absurd as shown in the film. And there indeed were actors with accents or voices of high timbre that didn't make the grade in talkies. This spoofy farce is still the most pertinent movie about the early talkies.
Donald O'Connor's Cosmo Brown is the greatest technical innovator in Hollywood history. Starting as a lowly hoofer and piano accompanist for romantic love scenes, Cosmo invents at least five great innovations for the films. He rescues an unreleasable picture in postproduction by making the original film a flashback surrounded by new material. He single-handedly introduces the idea of using playback to dub new lines into existing silent dialogue scenes, and to overdub new voices for actors who can't sing.
The very early talkie musicals now available at the Warner Archive Collection have a lot in common with the examples in Singin' in the Rain. "Beautiful Girl" is a stand-in for a typical chorus number barely adapted from the stage. It's actually far more dynamic than the early movies that shot the dancing and singing action as if from the first row of a theater. Singin' in the Rain's movie within a movie The Dueling Cavalier is a hammy and thick-headed ringer for the 'Vagabond Lover' and 'Desert Song' type of operetta movies, where the actors stood like statues in silly costumes to sing overwrought ballads. No matter how silly Singin' gets, it never misrepresents Hollywood history. It only slightly exaggerates it.
Donald O'Connor's personality redeems what's not always likeable in Gene Kelly. Always a fascinating dancer, Kelly's too-big smile and high-toned voice, along with penchant for uplifting ballet sequences, always made him seem a little too good for us -- in his straight dramas like The Black Hand, Kelly seemed to be slumming. But O'Connor lends the show a Sancho Panza factor. We like Don Lockwood mainly because Cosmo does. If a great guy like Cosmo can stand being around him, Don has to be o.k.. This is helped, of course, by Kelly's enthusiasm for making Don so egotistical. Under all the artsiness might be a really nice guy.
On the other hand, after 40 viewings, Debbie Reynolds' Kathy Selden now seems less a sparkling young hopeful and more of an opportunist. Sure, she's fresh and talented, but watch her face when she realizes that her hitchhiker is a famous movie star. Her tune changes immediately, and she scrambles to affect the correct hard-to-get act that will click with a vain womanizer like Lockwood. Yes, yes, ambition is not a crime, and throwing pies and confessing all later is not the work of a climber. But you can't help thinking that as malign as Lina is, she's correct when she protests that Kathy is using Don. It would be fun to see a variation on Singin' in the Rain that's more like All About Eve. Add a scene where Kathy sleeps with Lockwood (sorry to spoil the beauty of the film) and the picture would be a scathing critique of the Selden character.
Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont is the best thing in Singin' in the Rain, the most 'thankless' role of all time transformed into a classic performance. Not even Judy Holliday could have equaled Hagen's complete immersion in the shrill, grating Lina, the star who is remote and gorgeous until she opens her mouth. And even then, Lina is an original, a Zsa Zsa-like troublemaker whose silly machinations are so transparent, the other characters must penetrate three levels of irony just to respond to her. The characterization goes beyond broad, and circles back around to ultra-sophistication. We love Lina.
Gene Kelly got to do his all-out musical ballet barrage in the concluding "Broadway Melody" number, a self-contained rags-to-riches digest summation of New York musicals to date. It's a sidewalk & footlights follow-up to the giant finale of An American in Paris, that doesn't try to upstage Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes. Kelly's co-stars, however, do not get an invitation to the dance -- it's Don Lockwood's show all the way. His dance partner is Cyd Charisse, who raised eyebrows with her role as a dancing nightclub temptress. Although a fixture around the margins of MGM musicals for at least seven years, this must have been the performance that made Charisse a star. She brings a completely unexpected sex factor to the show, even though her Louise Brooks helmet haircut provides the only link to the film's period setting. But that's no Denishawn dance she's doing.
The screenplay begins with flashbacks revealing the truth behind Don Lockwood's lies about his upbringing and theatrical training. The "Broadway Melody" ballet also plays as a big joke on time-shifting trends in screenplay writing. Don leaps up to explain what his proposed big ballet is going to look and sound like, and we immediately see the final result. When it's all over, we return to the screening room, where Don's enthusiastic but indecisive boss says, "Gee, I'll have to see it on film first." Perhaps Singin' in the Rain's biggest accomplishment is to close the gap between what filmmakers imagine their movies to be, and how they turn out. This show may be perfect on its own terms. If it isn't, what would you do to improve it?
Warner Home Video is again showing uncommon sensitivity to its customers. It is releasing both a pared-down Blu-ray of Singin' in the Rain60th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition Blu-ray Box at the same time rather than frustrating buyers by spreading them out. We can choose either the basic movie or the fancy gift box right from the beginning.
The HD transfer common to both titles gives us the "Glorious!" show in a gleaming presentation. The movie is of course a blast of primary colors, all clean and clear. Wth extra resolution and contrast range to bring out subtle tones, we can count threads in the costumes and observe the glints in the actor's eyes -- remember that they had to perform while looking into a lights almost as bright as the sun. Note the textures in the fashion parade, the one that sports a costume that's a dead ringer for Tony Curtis's getup in Some Like it Hot. The yellow-on-green suits worn by Don and Cosmo in the "Fit as a Fiddle" number looked almost electric in Technicolor, and they seem an optical illusion here as well. And every time that Gene Kelly jams his face into a choker close-up we can count his pores, wonder about the slight scar on one cheek and become self-conscious about our own dental issues.
The Ultimate Edition's extras, from the inside out: the Blu-ray and two additional DVDs contain an all-star edited commentary track and a new HD documentary, Raining on a New Generation. Also present is a lengthy Making-Of docu from about ten years ago and an in-depth docu on the Arthur Freed producing unit at MGM. Other video extras are a collection of film clips of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, and an outtake of You Are My Lucky Star sung by Debbie Reynolds. Savant's favorite is a gallery of Singin' in the Rain's songs as heard in vintage movies. Because of his terrible makeup, a young Bing Crosby looks like a shaved monkey wearing lipstick. His rendition of the old song Temptation, however, is quite good.
Opening the deluxe display box we find a 48-page hardbound souvenir book, in full color, on the movie. An envelope contains reproductions of 3 old-fashioned vertical door panel posters. Below in a cushy tray holder is the folding card and plastic disc holder, and the box's special goodie, a full-sized umbrella with a little umbrella charm on its wrist strap. Cleary imagined as a special gift item to accompany a major musical favorite, the Ultimate Singin' in the Rain box will appeal to collectors of unusual movie items.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Singin' in the Rain Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.