When my dad asked me a couple of weeks ago which I thought was better, La La Land or Singin’ in the Rain, I told him that I didn’t know cause I’d never seen Singin’ in the Rain before. We decided to watch it together and it helped me truly understand why the film is deemed by so many as not only one of the great movie musicals but one of the great movies to come out of Hollywood. I’ve let it stir in my mind a little and after watching a video last night that said that Justin Hurwitz, the composer for the music in La La Land had said music recorded on the same sound stage that was used for this movie, and the passing of its star Debbie Reynolds, I felt the need to put my thoughts on paper, so to speak. What’s so interesting is that while the two films are deeply connected through references, ideas, and structure, La La Land is truly full of original music while Singin’ in the Rain was formed from a number of older songs that MGM already owned and decided to bring back. The result was a film that came out in 1952 but was set in the late 1920s at the time when motion pictures were transitioning to sound.
The story is both in some sense traditional as a love story and also innovative in its characters and style. Never did I feel that the jokes were too dated or that the musical style itself was too old-fashioned. Every part of the film still feels fresh sixty-four years on, and that is a beautiful thing. The story centers on Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), a silent film star and wonderful singer and dancer who came from a humble background as a sort of vaudeville performer to star opposite Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in a number of pictures. Hagen is convinced that her and Don are actually in love. Don is not so convinced and is in fact somewhat repulsed by Lina and her grating voice. Soon after the premiere of their latest film, The Royal Rascal, the surprise success of The Jazz Singer forces their next film, The Dueling Cavalier to become a musical called The Dancing Cavalier. The plan is flawless except for one thing: no one can stand to hear Lina Lamont talk, let alone sing. In comes Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) as an up-and-coming actress and performer that Don both figuratively and literally falls in love with after a chance encounter. Selden is a wonderful actress and singer and she has Don’s heart, the only thing that she doesn’t have that Lina does is star-power.
In addition to these three key actors, there are two more that form the core of the story: Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) as Don’s best friend and musical companion, and R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), Don and Lina’s boss and the head of the studio. While Mitchell is largely there to be a driving force for the story in a position of power, he does the part well. O’Connor, on the other hand, shines in his screentime as Cosmo Brown, delivering unbelievable, cartoonish faces in the number “Make ‘Em Laugh” and providing an exuberant presence in “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning.” With all of these stars and wonderful song-and-dance numbers, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green had the enviable job of writing for them and stringing them together in a delightful tale of Hollywood vanity, and more importantly a constant search for dignity as artists in an industry that often subjects its actors and plays with their dreams like putty. The film opens with Gene Kelly performing a series of vaudeville acts as his career progresses to stardom, and about 80% of the way through he performs the “Broadway Melody” Montage which brings together a number of classic 1930’s musical tunes into one grandiose performance that no one except for Gene Kelly could have done. It is itself a microcosm of the film: a man arrives to be in show-business only to see that there are plenty willing to use his hope and optimism for their own profit or to use force to keep him from earthly happiness. And as always, Kelly delivers.
When it does arrive, the film’s title number, again performed by Kelly, is something that easily captures the imagination of the viewer and the joyous abandon that comes with falling in love. To see Kelly do so, while also delivering with gleeful singing and dancing, makes one understand how such a scene has become so cemented in our popular mindset. Both Kelly and Reynolds truly suffered for their art. The title song took 2-3 days to film, required the mixing of water with milk in order to appear thicker, and when it was said-and-done Kelly performed the song with a 103 degree fever. Meanwhile the number “Good Morning” took fifteen hours altogether to shoot and left Reynolds’ feet bleeding, and even then Kelly wasn’t impressed with her dance ability. Reynolds would later go on to compare the effort to childbirth in its difficulty. Despite Donald O’Connor’s talent as a singer and dancer, the “Make ‘Em Laugh” sequence wasn’t easy on him. O’Connor smoked four packs of cigarettes a day and the scene landed him in bed for several days recovering. Despite all of these tribulations behind-the-scenes, what’s delivered on screen can only be described as the result of sheer dedication and, one might hope, love for their art. Appropriate enough for this film.
It may be that there are fewer films like Singin’ in the Rain today because producers think that audiences won’t want to see them or that they’ll cost too much money. I think another likely answer is the dedication and craft that would be required to make such a film today. In La La Land Gosling and Stone try their hardest and even then not everything is perfect, although that works to the film’s advantage. What’s apparent with Singin’ in the Rain is that although the work was grueling and at times might have not seemed worth it, there were artists willing to put all that they had to make the best finished product possible. Artists like Gene Kelly and yes, Debbie Reynolds, brought a sense of duty to this kind of filmmaking, and one can hope that with recent successors that films like it may begin to appear once more. What shines through is their talent and their skill. There are few films like Singin’ in the Rain, and there are even fewer stars like Debbie Reynolds. And that’s why both of them shall stand the test of time.