Singin' in the Rain is one of the most entertaining films ever made, and among all the Classics You Must See, it's the easiest one to watch again and again. MGM made its share of clunker musicals, but at the top rank are some dazzling wonder movies that truly transcend genre and style. Singin' in the Rain is the best of the best.
Already released twice, by MGM and Warners, this two-disc special edition can boast a great improvement in picture, and comes with a terrific set of extras.
Hm. Where to start, and what to say about Singin' in the Rain that hasn't been said upteen times before, better?
Savant only intended to check out the quality of the new transfer (apparently Warners has made a new theatrical digital version of the film) and got hooked by this infectious musical comedy he's seen at least 40 times. It was the first Technicolor movie I saw in a repertory house back in 1971, and its color just knocked me flat.
This time around I had a number of observations:
Singin' in the Rain doesn't date because it's already a spoof of an earlier time, and a very accurate one. When Hollywood did biographies of early stars, or takeoffs on fads like the Pearl White serials, their sense of accuracy was amazingly dull and short-sighted. Singin' in the Rain's details for the transition to talkies is not far off the mark. Technically, the on-set problems hiding microphones, with picky sound men commanding all from an isolated booth, were just as funny as shown in the film. And there indeed were actors whose accents or high-timbred voices kept them from making the grade. The interesting thing is, this spoofy farce is still the most pertinent movie about the early talkies.
Cosmo Brown is the greatest pioneer in Hollywood history. Starting as a lowly hoofer and piano accompanist for romantic love scenes 1 Cosmo invents at least 5 great ideas for the films. He reinvents an unreleasable picture in post production. He does so by making the original film a flashback surrounded by new material. He singlehandly 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.
Very early talkie musicals, the kind rarely shown nowadays, have a lot in common with the examples in Singin' in the Rain. The Beautiful Girl number is actually a bit more dynamic than the many stage adaptations that shot the dancing and singing action as if from the first row of a theater. The Duelling Cavalier, Singin' in the Rain's movie within a movie, is as hammy and thick-headed as many of the 'Vagabond Lover' or 'Desert Song' type of operetta movies, where the actors stood like statues in silly costumes and sang overwrought ballads. No matter how silly Singin' gets, it never really exaggerates Hollywood history.
Donald O'Connor personality redeems what's not always so likeable in Gene Kelly. Always a fascinating dancer, Kelly's too-big smile and high-toned voice, along with his refinement and penchant for uplifting ballet sequences, always made him seem a little too good for us - in his drama films, like The Black Hand, we always felt he was slumming. But O'Connor gives the show a Sancho Panza factor. Everybody loves Cosmo Brown, and we like Don Lockwood too, mainly because Como does. If a great guy like Cosmo can stand being around him, Don has to be good enough for us. This is helped, of course, by Kelly's enthusiasm at making Don so egotistical. Under all the artsiness, there might be a really nice guy.
On the other hand, after 40 viewings, 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 finds out her hitchhiker is a famous movie star. She changes her tune immediately, and scrambles to affect the correct hard-to-get act that will work with a snooty 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 few scenes where Kathy sleeps with Lockwood (sorry to spoil the beauty of the film) and the picture would be a scathing criticism of the Selden character.
As Lina Lamont, Jean Hagen is the best thing in Singin' in the Rain, making a classic performance out of the most 'thankless' role of all time. Not even Judy Holliday could have equalled 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's an original, a Zsa Zsa-like troublemaker whose silly machinations are so transparent, everyone around her has to penetrate 3 levels of irony just to respond to her. The characterization goes beyond broad, back around to ultra-sophistication. We love Lina.
Warner's special edition release of Singin' in the Rain has a lot to recommend it. The remastered picture and newly remixed 5.1 audio track will definitely attract the attention of fans. As I've said before, the lavish 2 disc format allows volumes of extras to be ladled on, without compromising the bit rate of the actual film transfer. At first I thought the transfer looked a bit light, but a comparison with the old MGM disc showed this new version to be sharper, with more accurate colors. On my large monitor, it wanted the chroma to be turned up a bit, but that was all.
The two doumentaries include a new original piece called What a Glorious Feeling! by Peter Fitzgerald, that makes good use of some new interviews with the surviving principals, and handles its music cutting particularly well. For a more general view of producer Arthur Freed's long string of successes at MGM, there's an older docu partially made by the BBC with more good interview and background material, even though its film clips are not of the best quality.
The other extras include the unused You are My Lucky Star scene with Reynolds that we've been seeing for awhile, the usual stills and a remastered trailer, and a large selection of unused or alternate music scoring session cues.
Best of all is a special section with clips from the early talkie musicals where Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown's songs were heard, and in some cases debuted. Some of these are fascinating and some are fall-down funny. The singers range from talent now totally forgotten, to a young Bing Crosby, who in the terrible makeup, looks like a shaved monkey wearing lipstick. His rendition of Temptation, however, is very cool.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Singin' in the Rain rates:
1. ... where incidentally, silent actors were known to say obscene or
irrelevant lines when the cameras rolled, as borne out by the testimony of lip readers!