The Gene Kelly classic Singin’ in the Rain reminds me of how little difference there is between dance movies and martial-arts movies. In both cases, you can’t fake it: at some point a physically skilled performer has to do his thing on-camera, and the audience is clever enough to know if he’s replaced by a stunt double. In both cases highly stylized choreography is used to create a world that is almost completely foreign to real life (just like nobody ever bursts into song and dance in the middle of the street, no real-life fights resemble a Bruce Lee film). And both genres allow for a lot of movies-about-the-movies references.*
It may well be that Kelly was the only man who could have made this movie. Fred Astaire and Gregory Hines were both good enough dancers to do it**, but I’m not sure they were good enough singers, and neither man had enough old-school Hollywood ham in them to play the role of Don Lockwood. Don has worked his way up from vaudeville-style goof to stuntman to silent-film superstar, and only Kelly had enough natural self-deprecation to pull the early part of that ascent off.
Don’s livelihood is challenged by the arrival of sound in movies – The Jazz Singer is name-checked several times – and the rise of “talkies” forcing him to change his style of acting. His dim-witted co-star and faux-girlfriend Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) is bringing him down, but fortunately he has his best friend Cosmo (the stellar Donald O’Connor) and new lady-love Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) to help him out. They concoct a scheme where Kathy replaces Lina in secret, by dubbing her voice in Don’s latest movie.
That might not seem like a lot of plot for a 100-minute movie, and the dirty secret of Singin’ in the Rain is that it really isn’t. The film was put together like many of today’s action blockbusters: the plot is just a wisp of a thing, used only to connect set-piece to set-piece. Some of those connections are awkwardly flimsy: there is no apparent reason for the song “Beautiful Girls” to be in the film, and the piece “Broadway Melody” seems so out of place that I wondered if it had been shot for another movie that never got made.
Don’t get me wrong: out of place as they may be, those set pieces are still spectacular. Kelly, O’Connor, and choreographer Stanley Donen pull out all of the stops. Reynolds has said that the song “Good Morning” pushed her until her feet bled, and it’s one of the tamer pieces in the movie. My favorite is how the song “Make ‘Em Laugh” fades into the background as the toughest moves in the dance arrive: some musicals would put on the pretense that their dancers were still singing, but in this movie the filmmakers seem to be saying, “here’s Donald O’Connor doing what he does best. Don’t worry about the song.” They know what we came here to see.
I’ve heard it said that Singin’ in The Rain is one of the best ever “movies about the movies.” I’m not so sure; I don’t think this movie is quite cynical enough. There’s a bit of wryness about show business, and the issue is broached that Lina is too famous and that she has the power to ruin people’s lives behind the scenes. However, from “Make ’Em Laugh” to the scene where Don romances Kathy by using an empty stage, this movie has a sappy sentimental take on the idea that movie-making is the best job ever. In the ultimate irony, events behind the scenes tell the real truth: Debbie Reynolds’ voice was dubbed in many scenes, including songs where Kathy is supposedly faking Lina’s voice!
As sentimental as it gets, there’s a part of us that wants to see it. Are there any women alive who wouldn’t want to be pointed out in a packed theater by the world-famous movie star, and told that they’re the ones responsible for the star’s latest hit? Are there any guys who wouldn’t like to be loved enough that they don’t feel stupid singing and dancing in the street? If you want to make a movie about the process of making movies, it should be a little more cynical; if you want to make a movie about why we watch movies, you can’t do much better than this.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The issue of “Martial-arts movies about movies” could be a whole blog post by itself. Jet Li has done this most often; Once Upon a Time In China even references Singin’ in the Rain, with a scene where Li fights a gang using an umbrella.
**The idea of remaking this movie with Gregory Hines sounds awesome; too bad it will never happen. He died in 2003.