13 December 2005
100 films: Singin' in the Rain
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starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen
written by: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
directed by: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly
NR, 103 min, 1952, USA
Silent film stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are in the midst of production of their latest film when the invention of the talkie forces the film to shut down and the stars are enrolled in classes to learn articulation and how to adapt to this new medium. Lockwood, with his background in Vaudeville, has no trouble, but Lamont's nasally tone does not translate even a little. In a moment of despair they hit on the idea of having Lockwood's new girlfriend Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) dub over Lamont's dialogue and songs. The film is saved, but Lamont, feeling the pressure of losing her career, threatens to sue if Selden doesn't continue to supply her voice.
Ask anyone anywhere what they know about Singin' in the Rain and they will invariably mention the title sequence with Gene Kelly stomping through puddles and twirling around the post of a streetlight. There's something inherently romantic about being so head-over-heels in love that you walk home in the rain with no regard for how foolish you look. Kelly captures that childlike joy so completely that it is the type of number that can melt the heart of the harshest cynic. The image of Kelly hanging from the pole is so iconic that the temptation to mimic it surfaces nearly every time I walk down the street, especially in the rain.
Donald O'Connor's Cosmo Brown carries the responsibility of supplying the film's comic touch, and he does so in a memorable performance. There's a scene early in the film when Kelly is feeling low and O'Connor tries to cheer him up with a song. He launches into "Make them Laugh", punctuating the song with a procession of physical gags that culminates with him running up the wall and doing a backflip. He spends most of the song, which was filmed in one continuous take, throwing himself around the room with abandon in a manner more in line with a stunt double than a song and dance man. And it's definitely him the whole time, no question about it. Actually, O'Connor's character is really the brains behind the whole operation. O'Connor comes up with the impromptu songs, O'Connor comes up with the idea to turn the film into a musical, and O'Connor thinks to have Hagen's voice dubbed.
And what a voice it is, only it doesn't belong to Debbie Reynolds. Ironically, the singing voice they used to dub the awful voice of Jean Hagen was actually dubbed by Betty Noyes. Reynolds does all her own acting, though, and a fine job at that.
The dilemma shown here, of the silent film industry struggling with the move to talkies, was a real one. Many stars, including none other than Buster Keaton, lost their careers when the public found out that they couldn't make the switch. Either they had annoying voices or they weren't articulate or perhaps they were just dumb (or in the case of Lina Lamont, all of the above), but people just didn't want to watch them any more. So I'm sure it was a natural reaction for stars to go the route of Lamont and examine their contracts for any bit of leverage to keep their jobs. Remember that film stars, while well paid back then, didn't make nearly the amount they do now, so most of them didn't have piles of money laying around. If they couldn't manage to keep their style the way Charlie Chaplin did, they had to resort to other means. Dubbing was one method. Veiled threats were another.
But no one watches Singin' in the Rain to learn about the history of the film industry; we watch for the music, for Gene Kelly in the rain, for the dancing, for the chemistry between the trifecta of Kelly, O'Connor, and Reynolds. We watch for a vibrant use of technicolor, where the images seem to jump of the screen. But let's be honest, we watch to see Gene Kelly hanging from that lamppost. And to our surprise, the rest of the film is a thoroughly enjoyable, expertly made musical. You can't ask for much more than that.
 The story is that Kelly performed the number despite having a temperature of 103 degrees. The next day must have been hell.
 But not when it's really cold. A guy's got limits, you know. Regardless, this is not an urge that fits easily into my personality.
 If you don't recognize the name, don't worry. Her only credited acting role was in a TV version of Cinderella in 1965. She played Mother.