SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
Adolph Green and Betty Comden; song lyrics by Arthur Freed, Comden and Green
Why It’s Here
Casual fans of cinema are likely not aware that “Singin’ in the Rain”, the title track to what is widely regarded as the greatest movie musical of all time, was not composed for the film that bears its name; the song originally appeared in an early talkie musical, Hollywood Revue of 1929. In fact, with the exception of “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes”, none of the songs in Singin’ in the Rain were originally written for the film. At the height of the classic studio system, Metro Goldwyn-Mayer was known for producing the most lavish and popular musical pictures in Hollywood, and the production unit responsible for the majority of these eye-popping spectacles was presided over by producer Arthur Freed, who in his former show-business life was a noted lyricist whose most frequent collaborator was composer Nacio Herb Brown. In 1952, Freed decided that MGM’s next major musical production would be a showcase for the extensive backlog of songs he had composed with Brown in the first decade of sound cinema, a catalog to which MGM now owned the rights. So he presented the screenwriters assigned to the production, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with a package of songs and essentially told them, “Build a story around this.” Under those circumstances, one would be hard pressed to expect Comden and Green to deliver even a story that simply made a great deal of sense, much less a cinematic musical masterpiece. But somehow, the screenplay that Comden and Green “slapped together” as nothing but an ostensible framework for their boss’s songs emerged as a benchmark of the studio system’s golden age, and the only live-action musical to find a place on the Movie Zombie’s screenplay countdown.
Taking their cue from the provenance of the film’s songbook, and inspired by the back-to-the-talkies career histories of many of those involved in the production, Comden and Green fashioned a story about the early days of Hollywood sound cinema, and the often brutal growing pains the industry suffered as it converted over to talkies. Perhaps due to the fact that the film’s plot, by necessity, had to exist independently of the lyrical content of its songs, Singin’ in the Rain is one of the rare musicals with a story rich and interesting enough to have potentially supported a film on its own, without utilizing a musical treatment. It is also, and not frequently enough given credit for being, one of the greatest movies about movie-making ever made, an honest but affectionate send-up of virtually every aspect of Hollywood as it was in the early days of the studio system. Comden and Green were themselves old show business troupers, and were able to draw on a deep well of passed-down anecdotes and personal experiences to create a narrative full of hilarious incidents made even funnier by their having been borrowed from real life.
Singin’ begins in 1927, the last year of silent cinema’s reign, at the premiere of The Royal Rascal, the latest production from Monumental Pictures. Outside Graumann’s Chinese Theater, the movie’s star, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), gives a self-serving interview about his early showbiz career that serves as both a sly dig at the studio-manufactured images of Hollywood stars (virtually everything Don tells us about his background is contradicted by the accompanying flashback images) and a deft parody of Citizen Kane’s immortal “News on the March” newsreel scene. Don’s on top of the world, the brightest star in the Hollywood sky, but his rough early days as a vaudeville song-and-dance man, stunt performer, and “mood music” on-set accompanist (a job that Arthur Freed himself once held) have led him to have doubts about his true value as an actor, doubts that are exacerbated after a chance encounter with Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring “serious” actress who calls Don’s movie work “a lot of dumb show”. Things get even worse at the premiere party, where Monumental’s studio chief, R.F. Simpson (a great, gruff performance by Millard Mitchell), shows an experimental sound-film reel and announces that Warner Bros. is making an actual sound feature, The Jazz Singer. Nobody expects much from this “talking-picture” gadget, until The Jazz Singer is a smash hit and a panicked Monumental decides that its entire production apparatus will be switching over to sound, including Don’s upcoming period-swashbuckler epic, The Dueling Cavalier. Comden and Green deftly anatomize the countless troubles that went into the studios’ conversion to sound with an uproarious collection of mishaps, most of which were drawn from actual stories from the early days of the talkies. The actors are forced to speak into awkwardly hidden microphones, with sound fading in and out every time they turn their heads. The premiere screening of The Dueling Cavalier is sabotaged when the soundtrack gets out of sync, causing the damsel in distress’s cries for help to seemingly come out of the mouth of the dastardly villain and vice versa. And of course, there’s the problem of Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for this hilarious performance), Don’s leading lady. A rock-stupid nincompoop who believes the studio-planted fan-magazine articles about her and Don being in love, Lina’s got a voice like a klaxon horn, and it completely clashes with her onscreen image as an elegant romantic heroine. This disjunction between image and voice sadly did bring an end to the careers of a number of flourishing silent-era stars (most notably John Gilbert, Greta Garbo’s favorite leading man), but here the situation is played for laughs, and we don’t feel a shred of sympathy for Lina anyway, even though she is easily the film’s funniest character and gets what is, for my money, the picture’s best line when she bellows, in the midst of an egotistical rant, that “I make more money that Calvin Coolidge put together!”
Comden and Green devise a solution to The Dueling Cavalier’s woes that is clever and consistent with the technology of filmmaking. After the picture’s catastrophic premiere, Don figures that his career is over, that he will be a laughingstock and will wind up grinding it out in vaudeville houses again. But then he realizes that he has a secret weapon up his sleeve: Kathy Selden. Turns out that Kathy, far from being the lofty aspiring “Ethel Barrymore” she claimed, was actually a lowly studio contract player (who supplements her income by jumping out of cakes as part of a Hollywood-party chorus line)…not to mention one of Don’s biggest fans. They meet on the studio lot and fall in love, and, with the help of Don’s longtime collaborator, composer Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor, in a Golden Globe-winning performance), come up with the clever notion of transforming The Dueling Cavalier into The DANCING Cavalier, a showcase for Don’s natural song-and-dance abilities. R.F. is skeptical at first. After all, Don may be a talented hoofer and singer, but Lina still talks like a shrieking buzzard, and who can imagine how she sings? Kathy, willing to sacrifice her own career’s forward momentum to help the man she loves, agrees to serve as Lina’s voice, dubbing over both her spoken dialogue and singing without any onscreen credit. (Ironically, the actual “voice” of Kathy performing the romantic ballad “Would You?” was dubbed by singer Betty Noyes, while the speaking voice dubbed in for the shrill, screechy Lina was not Debbie Reynolds, but Jean Hagen herself, speaking in her real, quite pleasant voice.) The picture is saved, but Don and the studio are not out of the woods yet. Lina gets wind of the dubbing subterfuge, and also discovers the studio’s plan to use Kathy’s work on Cavalier as the springboard for a big star push, all the while relegating the pain-in-the-ass Lina to the background. Given the already colossally bad blood between her and Kathy (the chorus girl smacked Lina in the face with a wad of cake at R.F.’s party…though to be fair, Kathy was aiming the cake at Don), Lina threatens to sue Monumental Pictures and make sure that Kathy never works in Hollywood again. It all comes down to the premiere of The Dancing Cavalier, where Lina’s insistence on finally speaking for herself brings her own curtain down, and Don puts his own ego aside to give credit to the real star of his new picture…and of his heart.
This story would be complex enough for a 103-minute picture that didn’t have to include a bunch of songs with only a tangential relation to the plot. Indeed, it’s worth noting that while the songs never actively interfere with Comden and Green’s telling of their story, there are very few moments where the songs seem necessary to the narrative. Most of the numbers are there as diversions, such as the chorus’s performance of “All I Do Is Dream of You” at R.F.’s party, or as showcases for the talents of particular performers, such as O’Connor’s legendary “Make ‘Em Laugh” number, which is so energetic and ebulliently performed that one is willing to overlook the fact that it has nothing at all to do with the rest of the film. Singin’s love ballads, “You Were Meant for Me” (memorably performed by Don and Kathy on a soundstage he carefully arranges for maximum movie-romantic impact) and “You Are My Lucky Star”, are beautiful but not specific to the characters or the story, and the sprawling “Broadway Melody Ballet” sequence, while it provides the always welcome opportunity to gaze upon the glorious Cyd Charisse, practically brings the momentum of the film’s finale to a screeching halt. Still, given the limitations under which Comden and Green were writing this picture, it’s impressive that the songs blend into the story as well as they do, and that even in the most extremely detached-from-the-story cases, they never seem to be simply shoehorned into the film for their own sake. Indeed, most of these songs today are remembered more for their inclusion in Singin’ in the Rain than for their previous life in movies or as songs in their own right. And of course, it would be hard to imagine this film having the same impact without the title number, performed by an in-love-and-loving-it Don in the midst of a torrential downpour on a Hollywood street. The image of Gene Kelly hanging from a lamppost, umbrella in hand, as rain and love wash over him, is one of the most iconic in Hollywood cinema…one made all the more arresting when you know that workhorse Kelly, who also co-directed Singin’ and choreographed the musical numbers, was battling a 103-degree fever when this sequence was shot.
It would be unfair to Freed and Brown’s memorable compositions to say that Singin’ works in spite of the presence of the songs, but Comden and Green’s screenplay leaves much to enjoy besides the musical numbers, something that cannot often be said about even the best cinematic musicals. (Would you want to watch The Sound of Music without the sound of music in it?) Unlike the usually cut-and-dried star-crossed lovers of many musicals, Singin’ actually presents a central romantic couple who are each facing their own interesting dilemma. Their romance, which would, in a lesser musical, most likely take the entire picture to resolve, here is worked out relatively simply, with one heartfelt conversation and musical performance, and this frees up Don and Kathy to engage in much more intriguing personal struggles, albeit now with each other’s assistance and support. Don’s aforementioned issue with his perceived lack of value as an actor is compounded by the studio’s attempts to make him into something he’s not, elocution lessons and all, and the disastrous Dueling Cavalier premiere seems to reinforce his worst beliefs about himself, until Kathy helps him realize that by being what the studio wants him to be, he’s not being true to his own gifts as a performer. Don’s not a dueling cavalier, but a dancing one, and he doesn’t figure that out without Kathy’s help. Likewise, Kathy learns that pretensions to art are all well and good, but if you’ve got a gift like Don has, there’s no reason to be ashamed of sharing it with the world…and she turns out to be quite the natural song-and-dance entertainer herself. Most musicals present us with mismatched lovers in conflict who often don’t resolve their differences until the final reel. Granted, this approach can have its merits (Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made several great pictures trading on just this sort of conflict), but it also deprives us of the pleasures of watching the romantic couple as partners, you-and-me-against-the-world style. Singin’ makes Don and Kathy a true couple, united in goal and deed, and it’s a refreshing dynamic to drive a musical comedy forward.
It also helps that Comden and Green have filled Don and Kathy’s world with memorable supporting characters. R.F. Simpson is a marvelously dry boss, alternately tough and fatherly, and he leaves the apoplectic heavy lifting to Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley), the studio’s star director, whose splenetic blustering and incredulous rage at the technological gewgaws he is now forced to contend with never fail to make me laugh out loud. Many of the film’s supporting players are veiled caricatures of legendary silent-era stars. Rita Moreno, in one of her earliest roles, plays Zelda Zanders, a bubbly flapper type based on Clara Bow, while Judy Landon cuts a hilariously imperious figure as Olga Mara, a moody European vamp in the Theda Bara mold. Kathleen Freeman also scores a few big laughs as the elocution teacher assigned the thankless task of teaching Lina Lamont to speak like a lady (“Rrrrrrround tones, rrrrrrrround tones!”). While most of these characters have limited screen time, they all create the sensation of Don and Kathy’s romance playing out in an authentic, fully populated world, while adding to the film’s mode of tough but warm showbiz satire. Lina Lamont is the film’s comic crown jewel, and Comden and Green create a bitch for the ages, a character who alternately fawns all over her leading man (every time he tells her they don’t really have a romance, she obliviously coos, “Ohh, Donny, you don’t mean that”), rages at her boss, and spits venom and rancor at everyone who gets in her way. It’s not until you step back and really look through the comic euphoria created by
Still, in criticizing Singin’ in the Rain’s storytelling, I feel like someone booing a second-grade Christmas pageant. Sure, it’s not perfect (which is why it’s #76 on my countdown and not #1), but if someone gave me a pile of unrelated songs and told me to build a story around them, I’d be lucky to come up with Moulin Rouge!, much less the greatest Hollywood musical ever made. Besides which, if you’re going to go out of your way to find fault with something that has given so much joy and good cheer to people for almost sixty years now, you might want to look into another line of work, because maybe happiness isn’t really your thing. Betty Comden and Adolph Green took on a ridiculous, seemingly impossible storytelling task and succeeded beyond what should have been anyone’s reasonable expectations. You can walk out of any number of musicals humming the songs, but it’s sometimes a chore to remember the plots of even the most tuneful musicals. Singin’ in the Rain has great songs, memorable characters, quotable dialogue, and even, wonder of wonders, a terrific story. It’s more than a great musical. It’s even more than a great comedy. Singin’ in the Rain is a great movie. Period.
AWARDS WON: Writers Guild of