Singin ‘in the Rain was not exactly conceived as a masterpiece. Arthur Freed, head of the musical unit at MGM, had a back catalog of songs – not all classics – that he had written together for various films in the studio between 1929 and 1939, and got the idea to put them together as a song score for a single new musical. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were hired to make a story around the various tunes; Howard Keel, a solid bass baritone in the MGM stable who had acquitted himself respectfully in Annie Get Your Gun, was pencil in as the lead role.
As a producer, Freed tended to alternate artistically ambitious prestige musicals – just a week before Singin ‘in the Rain premiered, receiving an Oscar for Best Picture for Vincente Minnelli’s enchanting, Gershwin-scored pop ballet An American in Paris – with cheerful, luminous disposable filler. (Do you remember Pagan Love Song? The Belle of New York? No?) At first you would have expected that the brilliantly conceived Singin ‘in the Rain would fall solidly on the B-list.
But that would have been the bill without Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, at the time something of a dream team for Freed and MGM. Their first film as a director-choreographer duo, the sailors on leave frolicking On the Town, had lifted its featherweight material with visual wit and restless movement; Individually, Donen had brought the navy-footed flash to his direction of the Fred Astaire vehicle Royal Wedding, while Kelly’s star status had peaked with An American in Paris. When production on the latter ended, making Kelly available, the script for Singin ‘in the Rain was passed on to him. Changes were made. The rest is, as they say, history.
The story, of course, takes time to take shape. Back in 1952, Freed would probably have been surprised to learn that Singin ‘in the Rain, rather than An American in Paris, would eventually become the most canonized of all Hollywood musicals – the one routinely quoted even by non-acolytes. of the genre as one of the best films ever made. (In the last four editions of Sight & Sound’s Decades of Criticism, it has consistently been the highest-scoring musical, twice ranked in the all-time top 10.) After its release, however, it was not treated as any kind. of milestone. The reviews and ticket office were good, if not phenomenal; The Academy, after winning six Oscars at An American in Paris the year before, gave Singin ‘in the Rain barely two nominations. (Even the Globes handed over their best musical award to the sad Susan Hayward vehicle with a song in my heart instead.)
When you watch it 70 years later, you can see why an industry that at the time was preoccupied with prestige and TV-striking spectacle, took the time to give the film the necessary respect. Nothing about Singin ‘in the Rain advertises itself as art, or even as a grand event: it’s a movie so light on its feet that its genre-blending entertainment looks misleading. The script mixes warm romantic comedy, airy Hollywood satire and imaginative Broadway dreaming with relaxed speed that never strains from punchlines or pathos; there is occasionally a jukebox carelessness at the song placements that fits with the general discomfort of the film. Tie a little to the screen and you can see the sweet, entertaining, wasted B-musical it could have been, given duller casting and a little less directorial care.
But just as you settle into the film’s sun-drenched, effortless groove – during your enjoyment, you wonder if it might be a tooth less masterful than you remembered or had been told – Donen and Kelly hit you with a shot of pure lightning – magic in a bottle. It’s surprisingly slow to start as a musical: the film’s first full-scale musical number comes in almost half an hour, with Donald O’Connor’s silly spat making a fantastic gymnastic act by the frothy Make ‘Em Laugh – one of only two new songs composed for the film, and a shameless knockoff of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown. You do not need musical freshness with the dynamics of delivery.
It’s just getting warmed up. The romantic overture You Were Meant for Me gets a staging of heart-stopping romance, squeezed in between all the film’s daffy farce. An empty soundscape, bathed in artificial twilight with cotton candy, furnished with only a ladder – a sparse playground for the dizzying effects of Kelly’s choreography. And yet this is also overshadowed by the film’s truly iconic centerpiece, the single track, without which Singin ‘in the Rain, despite all its other marshmallows, would not be remembered so permanently. (What would it be called at all, first of all?) A studio street picture, soaked with artificial rain; a lamppost who became a dance partner; Kelly more agile than any man has ever been in a soft tweed suit.
It’s hardly the film’s most troublesome set piece: far more crew, hoof, and production design went into the film’s expanded Broadway Melody pitch sequence with its shifting set, spinning fabric banners, and steamy, long-legged Cyd Charisse cameo. Still, the long track is not the first, second, or even tenth thing you remember about Singin ‘in the Rain; its arbitrary purpose and placement in cases served as a clever meta-commentary to the battered storytelling of the standard Hollywood musical, making its lavish performance somewhat deliberately self-destructive.
It’s certainly not a match for a single dancer humming a tune and splashing the boy in a puddle, and maybe that was the point. The film takes place in the late 1920s and depicts a Hollywood in a transitional state that throws everything on the screen to survive while the silent succumb to talkies. Meanwhile, its launch of panic-driven production surplus was timely in 1952. The studios’ fixation with large widescreen epics aimed at combating the threat of the small screen began to bleed into the humble musical, changing the genre’s form to what would eventually become the gigantic form of 1960s blockbusters like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. (Freed would, reportedly, win another Oscar for best picture in the 1950s, for the hyper-decorated woman-wife surplus of Gigi.)
In its mixed, incoherent way, however, Singin ‘in the Rain called on Hollywood to cool off their jets, take a breather, and appreciate simpler showmanship: a little dancing, a little laughing, a little romance, a little harsh weather. It might not have seemed like a particularly big deal at the time. But it has reached 70 with almost a wrinkle.