One of the most popular classic Hollywood films of all time and certainly the best-loved musical from that heady Freed unit MGM era, Singin’ in the Rain endures for good reason. As a catalog musical, it brings together a stable of previously available songs in a beautifully cohesive manner. As a backstage musical, it toes the line precisely between derision and admiration in its self-reflexive nods to the movie business. As a showcase for Gene Kelly’s breathtaking physicality and effortless choreography, it’s unmatched. And as a testament to the similarly effortless-seeming direction by Kelly and Stanley Donen, it’s in a league of its own.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s warm, knowing screenplay tells the story of silent film star Don Lockwood (Kelly) and his longtime costar Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who are rumored to be an item by all the fan magazines. In reality, Don has little patience for the arrogant, screeching Lina, but he’s got a much bigger problem on the horizon — talkies. Initially dismissed by Hollywood types as a mere fad, synchronous sound films are soon all the rage, leading studios to scrap plans for more silents and learn the new technology on the go.
This bodes poorly for the latest Lockwood/Lamont feature, another generic romance that’s set in the French Revolution era. Don’s typically effusive acting style doesn’t translate and Lina’s obnoxious voice isn’t exactly the talking audiences wanted to hear. After a disastrous test screening, Don assumes his career is on a steep downward trajectory, but an inspired idea by aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) and the music know-how of best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) give Don the motivation to turn the film into a musical. They’ll just have to do something about Lina’s voice.
Nearly every number in the film has achieved iconic status by this point — O’Connor’s manic clowning in “Make ‘Em Laugh,” Kelly’s magical rain dance for the titular song, the lead trio’s effervescent joy in “Good Morning,” the sublime, ravishing Technicolor beauty of the extensive “Broadway Melody Ballet,” featuring the incredible Cyd Charisse. One forgets how episodic the film can feel, but it’s hardly a weakness — each of these moments is given room to stand on its own. Singin’ is an exceptionally well-integrated musical, but it’s never too slavishly urgent when it comes to plot.