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EMPIRE ESSAY: Singin' In The Rain Review

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An on-screen silent screen couple are forced into another movie together despite animosity but the whole thing has to be rethought with teh advent of sound. Especially bearing in mind the female star's awful screeching voice.

★★★★★

Once asked how he was going to approach the song and dance centrepiece of Singin’ In The Rain, Gene Kelly famously replied, “It’s going to be raining and I’m going to be singing. I’m going to have a glorious feeling and I’m going to be happy again.”

There is an enticing purity in Kelly’s philosophy, a simplicity that courses through Singin’ In The Rain. The most charming, infectiously exuberant and plain old entertaining film ever to feature on a Greatest Film Of All Time Top Ten (where it usually shares space with such grim-o-ramas as Battleship Potemkin and The Seventh Seal), the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen-directed musical is an ode to joy: to the joy of moviemaking, the joy of friendship, the joy of rhyming Moses with roses and toes-es, the joy of falling in love and the joy of - as the man says - singin’ and dancin’ in the rain.

Centring on a trio of actors (Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor) who attempt to save a disastrous period drama by turning it into a musical, Singin’ In The Rain was conceived as a vehicle for the musical output of songwriting duo Arthur Freed (lyrics) and Nacio Herb Brown (music).

Freed, who headed up the specialist musical unit at MGM, commissioned the screenwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to weave the tunes together. Struggling for six months to come up with a workable plotline, Comden and Green hit paydirt when they stumbled on the idea of locating the story in the Hollywood between the transition from silent movies to sound - exactly the period from which the Freed-Brown songs originate. As such, SITR’s structure owes much to the framework of a typical Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney let’s-do-the-show-right-here-in-the-barn musical, swapping a farmyard theatre for the sound stages of the fictional Monumental Pictures.

But where Singin’ improves on the old-school musical is in its sophisticated deployment of the musical form. Rather than merely stringing its songs together by means of a play-within-a-play, Rain’s tunes - be it the sunshiney Good Morning, the knockabout Make ‘Em Laugh (a shameless rip-off of Cole Porter’s Be A Clown) or the wordplay of Moses Supposes - are adroitly sutured into the story, utilised to underline and enhance plot points or underscore the characters’ feelings and emotions at every turn. Nowhere is this approach more prevalent than in the film’s title showstopper. Originally conceived as a number for the central trio, Kelly nabbed the sequence for himself to illustrate his character’s creative rebirth and growing feelings for Reynolds’ Kathy Selden.

To create the scene, a black tarpaulin was pulled over the backlot to block out the daylight, six holes were dug to create puddles and ink was added to backlit raindrops to make the precipitation visible on film. To create the mood, Kelly regressed into the mindset of a child splashing and jumping around in puddles. Referenced by everyone from Morecambe and Wise to Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange features a savage assault by Malcolm McDowell humming Singin’), the result is ten shots, five minutes of unadulterated movie magic. The only time that Rain awkwardly tacks on its muscial pleasures is in the final Broadway Melody ballet, the climax of the film-within-a-film.

Seeking to top the finale of An American In Paris, Kelly insisted on perfection. As Debbie Reynolds (who was left physically and mentally exhausted by Kelly’s hard taskmastering) could not cut it as a dancer, Kelly drafted in ballerina Cyd Charisse to pull off the complex pas de deux. Made of see-through silk, Charisse’s costume originally failed to cover her pubic hair - following a rethink, costume designer Walter Plunkett quipped, “Don’t worry, fellas, we’ve got Cyd Charisse’s crotch licked!” With aeroplane motors blowing Charisse’s 50-foot scarf in time to the music, the sequence combines physical prowess and technical ingenuity to create the atmosphere of a half-remembered dream.

Yet, where Rain improves on most of its musical contemporaries is in the bits between the showstoppers. From the opening scene - where Kelly’s Don Lockwood embellishes his rise to fame as the images show the truth in a witty demonstration of the film’s obsession with artifice versus reality - to the hilarious attempts at sound recording with microphones hidden in a bush, the writing is crisp, clever, comedic, played to a tee by a clutch of great supporting performances. While O’Connor is pitch-perfect comic relief and Reynolds is well-nigh irresistible, the real performance on show is Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont, the silent movie diva ruined by her shrill tones. In the movie, the songbird Reynolds is co-opted into redubbing Hagen’s high-pitched squeal. In reality, it was Hagen who lent her vocal stylings to Reynolds.

As well as its storytelling sophistication, Singin’ In The Rain also appears ageless through its sky-high level of film literacy. Boasting more filmic references than a Quentin Tarantino scrapbook, Rain is chocker with Hollywood skits and spoofs (the opening premiere is a riff on Show Girls Of Hollywood, and that’s just for starters), mounted with love and affection. With its network of allusion and pastiche, Singin’ In The Rain is a postmodernist film before postmodernism was invented. SITR’s self-referencing is one of the major reasons why it still figures regularly in egghead critics’ Top Ten polls, but it’s not the whole story. A moderate success on its original release (it made $7.7 million on release), it was yanked out of cinemas to make room for An American In Paris, which had just romped home at the Oscars. SITR languished until the ‘70s, when interest was revived by its appearances on TV and a prominent place in the MGM musical compilation flick, That’s Entertainment. This, coupled with the Movie Brat-ish fascination with movies about moviemaking, put Singin’ back on the moviegoing map. That it is The Greatest Musical Ever Made has kept it there ever since.

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Incredible set pieces and songs that have entered the culture forever, this is also extremely well-paced and beautifully played. Truly one of the greatest musicals ever made.

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