Singin’ In The Rain is not the first movie musical, nor is it the most pioneering, but it might just be the most fun. It is a well-oiled machine rich with laughter, smiles, songs, with dance routines so mind-bogglingly energetic and complex that it’s a grand wonder its three main stars, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor, don’t require hospitalisation and a quick splash of icy cold water.
Donald O’Connor did, in fact, find himself in the hospital after his inexplicably tiring routine for “Make ‘Em Laugh”, a scene in which he singlehandedly heralded breakdancing and threw himself around the room like the stuffed puppet by his side. He was hospitalised, though, because he smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and by the time shooting for that scene ended, his lungs had given up. Still, he was the consummate professional; by watching him on screen, flailing about and running up walls, always with his cheeky smile carrying his steel blue eyes, you’d have no idea his health was so poor.
Likewise for Kelly. In the now famous “Singin’ In The Rain” scene, where Kelly’s character, Don Lockwood, strolls down the street in the pouring rain after having shared a kiss with the girl he loves, it is well known that during photography, Kelly was suffering from a 39˚ fever. But where are the signs? How hard it must have been to maintain a smile, drenched in water that must have been freezing to the touch, cheerfully skipping away and splashing around.
Reynolds, too, suffered a great deal. Perhaps the most. A gymnast by profession, she had no dancing experience at the time Singin’ In The Rain began filming. Reportedly, Kelly abused her for this, an act that led Fred Astaire to take her under his wing. “Singin’ In The Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life”, Reynolds remarked. Her feet, trapped inside the vice of her tap shoes, bled during the song “Good Morning”, and yet observe the determination and joy on her face as she taps and strides alongside her two co-dancers. She works tirelessly to prove Kelly wrong, and her efforts pay off. Sandwiched between O’Connor and Kelly for most of her routines, she never misses a beat. But there is also a visual sense of matured beauty about her. She plays Kathy Selden with unbridled confidence and swagger. When her face is bathed in the glow of the studio lights, you can see straight into her eyes, and you know at once that she gets the picture. She lives within the story and believes it vigorously. As a gymnast, you could argue that rhythm and timing come naturally to her. But as a dancer, she looks like she has been doing it all her life.
Kelly, Reynolds, and O’Connor understand one thing, and understand it well: For the audience to buy into this musical, for them to be absorbed by the humour and the characters and, of course, the dancing, the three of them must buy into it themselves. They cannot, for a second, slip up and show weakness, lest the whole illusion fail. Cinema, after all, is about illusion. It’s about making the audience believe in something that is not always true. Nowadays it is easy. Cinema is a global medium, and kids grow up with a seemingly inherent knowledge about the idea of storytelling, about the codes and conventions of film. By the time they’re old enough to talk, they know what a movie is and what a movie is not. Cinema is nevertheless a young art form (as compared to music or art), and in its earliest days numerous patrons we were not entirely sure where it would go.
Certainly, when the talkies came around, the fans and makers of silent movies were not impressed. Charlie Chaplin was adamant that they were but a phase, a trend that would die out when viewers remembered they were viewers and not listeners. The Tramp cannot speak! And indeed he didn’t, well into the ’30s — Chaplin’s first fully formed line of dialogue came in a speech from 1940’s The Great Dictator, some 13 years after The Jazz Singer’s breakthrough.
This painful transition is where Singin’ In The Rain sits, and it adds a delightful second layer to its entertainment. Yes, at once we remember the songs and the dance routines, but how captivating also is the plot! Singin’ In The Rain was made for everyone to enjoy, but it was written for movie lovers to cherish. It simplifies many of the travails transitional directors and actors had to endure, but it doesn’t undermine them. Microphones were indeed hidden in plain sight, and directors didn’t know what else to do with them. Actors had to undergo speech therapy lessons in preparation for their grand audio debuts, but because many of the microphones lacked clarity and depth, the lessons were wasted. Powerful voices wavered and rippled. Many actors, like the invaluable Lillian Gish, found the transition to be too tedious and cumbersome, and eventually faded into obscurity.
The characters in Singin’ are the resilient ones. They stay where others have left. Don, Kathy, Cosmo (O’Connor), and Lina Lamont, are driven by each other to remain in the business.
What a marvellous character Lina is. As played by Jean Hagen, she is a shrill wench, air-headed, but nevertheless dangerously beautiful. Her fans adore her, and in their adoration they look past her voice, which Roger Ebert shrewdly described as “fingernails on a blackboard”. She also assumes the role of the villain with tremendous ease. Just watch her command of the scene in which she dictates her demands to the studio head, R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell). Lina commands the scene because Hagen commands it. Even when she shares the screen with Kelly, we are drawn to her because she is effervescent in her attempts to be annoying.
Singin’ In The Rain was co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, who exercise a keen understanding of comedy and comedic timing. The movie is very funny, and a big part of that is due to this understanding. Hagen gets the best outbursts, O’Connor gets the wittiest one-liners, and Kelly and Reynolds take turns to exchange verbal blows before they fall in love. Donen pitches the movie just right so that when the cheesy romantic climax arrives, we are moved in spite of its cheesiness. Comedy is also conveyed through dance, as when Don and Cosmo humiliate an English teacher while he tries to teach Don some tongue-twisters.
Most viewers will remember Singin’ In The Rain for these dance numbers, and they have every right to. Hollywood just doesn’t make ’em like this anymore, and even if it does, it’s as homage and not from inspiration. The musicals of Gene Kelly — and by extension, Fred Astaire — existed in their own space/time continuums. They relied so heavily on the skill of their dancers, but their dancers were always up to the task, and they were impossibly charming. What dancing role models do we have now? Well, there are the kids from the Step Up movies, and Battle Of The Year. None of these have produced a Gene Kelly, a Fred Astaire, a Debbie Reynolds, or even a Ginger Rogers. As the movies fade into the treachery of oblivion, so will their dancers. The era of the big band, the Soft-Shoe, and the tap, has departed.
There is, however, another movie musical that I find vivacious, and that is 2007’s Hairspray. Like Singin’, Hairspray uses real issues (this time it’s the racial segregation during the ’60s in Baltimore) as a hanger for a long and ebullient list of song and dance numbers, and it too weaves love stories through its multi-coloured tapestry. Both films feel good about themselves, which makes us feel good about them. They are the kind of movies that turn your bad day into a smile before you sleep. Singin’ has the edge because it’s more expansive yet more controlled, it’s more grounded and its colours are more vibrant, and it doesn’t have John Travolta in drag. But Hairspray has the takeaway line that underpins both itself and Singin’ In The Rain: You can’t stop the beat.