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Singin' in the Rain
1952 - G - 103 Mins.
Director: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
Producer: Arthur Freed
Written By: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen
Review by: John Ulmer
   
Everybody remembers the scene. It's the one where he walks along the street, dancing, and singin' in the rain. The musical sequence has yet to be surpassed by any film -- even my all-time-favorite musical, "Grease" (1978), doesn't stand a chance. In fact, there's another great musical number in "Singin' in the Rain," with Donald O'Connor throwing his body around like a rag doll. Even though the singin' in the rain number is the infamous trademark of the film and musicals everywhere, my personal favorite is "Make 'em Laugh."

Not many people know, however, that Gene Kelly had a 103 degree fever during the filming of the infamous scene -- a dangerous thing to do, in retrospect, considering that he was flailing about and working up a sweat in pouring water with such a high temperature. But even then, not many people know that the "rain water" pouring down on the joyously cheesy street was actually composed of water and milk. The milk was added to the mix in an effort to achieve the effect of raindrops showing up on screen. (Mel Gibson noted once that most of the time during the filming of "Braveheart" it was raining around them, but it was basically impossible to notice any rainfall in the film since the sheets of liquid were so thin.)

"Singin' in the Rain" can probably be called the greatest musical of all time, even though my guilty pleasure is "Grease" (how outdated the film is, and yet how amusing it remains!). Every serious filmgoer knows this movie, and just yesterday as I watched Britain's countdown to the greatest musical ever made, I noted that "Singin' in the Rain" was high on the list ("Grease" was no. 1, although any list that posts "Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Musical" higher on a list than "Singin' in the Rain" can't be trusted).

The film centers on Gene Kelly's character, Don Lockwood, but what startled me on my first viewing recently was that the film isn't just as lighthearted and silly as some critics claim. It actually has a fairly decent plot for a musical -- sure, it's no "My Fair Lady," but I found the satirical side of the film quite funny.

Don Lockwood (Kelly) is a silent film star in 1927, an ex-musician living an on-screen romance with Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) and letting the publicity take their screen relationship to a whole new level (think Ben and Jen's recent tabloid romance). The press loves to think that its two biggest stars are the nation's cutest couple, but in reality Lockwood despises Lamont, and Lamont -- having read trashy magazines -- believes their relationship to be factual. "Oh, Donny!" Lina cries. "You couldn't kiss my like that and not mean it just a teensy bit!" Lockwood: "Meet the greatest actor in the world -- I'd rather kiss a tarantula." Lina: "You don't mean that." Lockwood: "I don't? Hey Joe, get me a tarantula!"

When the silent film studio begins the transition from silent film to new "talkies," it means that Lockwood will have to take acting lessons in able to learn to truly be able to act, and Lamont -- a squeaky-voiced young lady -- will have to learn to learn proper grammar. (Some scenes with a grammar instructor reminded me of "My Fair Lady," truth be told, although it was filmed 12 years afterwards.)

Lockwood meets a young girl named Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who refuses to fall victim to his Hollywood charm but eventually learns to love the guy after he gets her out of a tight squeeze or two.

Meanwhile, Lockwood's pal, Cosmo (O'Connor), suggests that they start to stage film musicals instead of feature "talkies" -- that way, all Lockwood needs to do is sing and dance, something he already excels at. ("Make a musical! The new Don Lockwood: he yodels! He jumps about to music!")

But people want Lockwood and Lamont, not Lockwood by himself, and the prospect of losing money is not a bright prospect for the film company. So Lina is filmed in the musicals with him, and towards the end of our film, sweet young Kathy dubs over Lina's voice and is given no credit for the task. Lamont is too embarrassed to admit that she can't sing, and so she blackmails the film distributor -- if they credit Kathy at the end of her new feature film, she'll take legal action.

And so comes the climatic finale on stage as Lockwood reveals the true singer behind the film (ironic, since it was Lamont herself who dubbed over Reynolds' voice during the sequence). As Roger Ebert noted, the scene where Lockwood bursts onto stage and fingers out Kathy from the crowd of onlookers is corny, but it's sweet and exactly the time of emotionally uplifting moment that is rarely made nowadays.

Gene Kelly's notorious cruelty on the set of "Singin' in the Rain" has become a sort of folklore, and it's true. He berated the actors if they messed up a single dance number. O'Connor later admitted that he was extremely frightened to make a single mistake, afraid that Kelly would lash out at him.

That strictness doesn't shine through Kelly's character in "Singin' in the Rain." In fact, many of the dance moves (such as the frantic splashing in the puddles) look quite haphazard, but they were all choreographed to an extreme.

Is that why the film is highly regarded as perhaps the definitive American musical? That probably has something to do with it. I think it's mostly the joy of it all, though -- bright, cheery, happy, and uplifting, the film is one of the most purely fun films of all time. It doesn't demand anything like some films, but it gives a lot back.

Once again, I make a note that the plot is far better than some critics give it credit for. It's a great satire of the transition from silent films to "talkies" -- I loved the sequence involving a film director desperately trying to get Lina's voice to pick up on a visible microphone on state. Indeed, at the dawn of these so-called "talkies," microphones were often visible placed near the actors. It's this kind of stuff that makes the film not only a fun musical, but a funny one, too.

Debbie Reynolds, 19 at the time, is one determined trooper in this film. Watch her try to keep up with the veteran Kelly and expert O'Connor. Whereas the casting in some musicals can harm the film ("White Christmas" never had great female co-stars, to be honest), "Singin' in the Rain" is soundly cast and perfectly constructed. There's no wonder why it's the great musical it is today.

The ads for "Singin' in the Rain" promised a glorious feeling, and in that way the film lives up to its slogan. It is fun and bright and glorious and entertaining. It doesn't take itself seriously, but it offers the viewer a chance to experience something quite rare -- an all-around great movie.

What a glorious feeling, indeed.
 
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

 
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