You know it, and there’s a good chance that you love it: a beaming Gene Kelly on a rain-drenched nighttime street in Hollywood, executing a spellbinding, seemingly effortless dance routine that climaxes in with him stomping and splashing in a puddle, childlike and carefree. It is unquestionably one of our most indelible movie scenes, and probably one of our most joyful; it seems now to be less of an MGM musical setpiece than a mission statement for a particularly optimistic way of living. When Jack Haley Jr. compiled the first of his three That’s Entertainment! compilation films, he paid lip service to the American in Paris ballet’s standing as MGM’s most impressive musical number, but it was Singin’ in the Rain that appeared in the truncation-happy clipfest uncut: a bit of obvious, if unspoken, reverence. And in Belgian director Alain Berliner’s recent film Gone for a Dance, a film about three generations of family men who abandon their families for their Broadway dreams, it is Singin’ in the Rain, specifically that serves as a cinematic siren song for a life of dance. The number is pure magic.
But what impresses about the film Singin’ in the Rain is that there is so much more to it than that title number. Pauline Kael wrote that it was “probably the most enjoyable of all American movie musicals,” and I wouldn’t argue. So here, in rough chronological order, are ten reasons why I love Singin’ in the Rain (besides Singin’ in the Rain).
“Dignity, always dignity”: Gene Kelly had a few opportunities to skewer celebrity – and himself – throughout his career (See his self-deprecating turn in the Shirley MacLaine comedy What a Way to Go! for further evidence.), but I don’t know that anything tops his delivery of movie star Don Lockwood’s self-mythologizing monologue at the beginning of Singin’ in the Rain. Clad in head-to-toe white and grinning just a bit too widely, Lockwood pushes past the little people to feed gossip columnist Dora Bailey a load of nonsense about a childhood rife with Moliere and Shaw. A wickedly funny triumph for Kelly, the scene is also a perfect reminder of how the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green is as witty as it is buoyant.
The supporting players: The supporting parts, like Millard Mitchell’s amusing turn as studio head R.F. Simpson or Douglas Fowley’s wild gesticulations as perpetually flustered director Roscoe Dexter, are sometimes lost in the shuffle when the film gets discussed, but they’re certainly a part of what makes the film clip along so pleasingly. Heck, even the uncredited Julius Tannen, as the man in the talking pictures demonstration, makes me laugh until my sides hurt.
“Make ‘em Laugh”: Donald O’ Connor’s comic tour de force continues to wow, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. From the facial gymnastics that begin the number (“Short people have long faces, and long people have short faces…”) to the jaw-dropping running back-flips at its climax, this is the number that best encapsulates O’Connor’s unique screen persona – and demonstrates his considerable talents.
“Beautiful Girl”: A one-off number performed by Jimmie Thompson (representing the leading men of early movie musicals with, to crib a phrase from Kael, the “candied-yam cheerfulness” of Dick Powell), “Beautiful Girl” is one for the movie buffs in the audience. Affectionately parodying everything from the show-stopping fashion-show montages of early musicals (which were later deconstructed beautifully in Jeanine Basinger’s book A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960) to the swooping overhead shots of Busby Berkeley, it also provides a killer showcase for the flippant array of 1920s fashions – designed by famous costumer Walter Plunkett – that help to define the film’s look.
“Moses Supposes”: When Kelly dances with Fred Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies, the pair come across as mildly restrained, too polite to really pursue the rivalry that they kid around about. And when Kelly dances with pal Frank Sinatra in their films together, it’s obvious that the former is reining it in considerably for the latter’s sake. But when Kelly dances with O’Connor in their best number together, “Moses Supposes,” the result is flat-out exhilarating. The joy is not only in seeing the pair so wonderfully in synch, but in the sense that they’re subtly pushing each other as well.
The Dancing Cavalier: Lockwood and Lamont’s first talking picture is a hilarious crash course in everything that was rocky about the transition from silent pictures to talkies. I’m not sure which is funnier: Don Lockwood’s increasingly ridiculous chorus of “I love you”’s, or Lina Lamont’s clueless post-screening optimism (“I liked it!”).
“Good Morning”: Debbie Reynolds – a dancing neophyte when she found herself cast in Singin’ in the Rain – has often spoken of the difficulty of meeting the exacting standards of her co-star (and co-director, with Stanley Donen) Kelly, but it pays off wonderfully here. Linking arms with Kelly and O’Connor, Reynolds becomes just one of the boys, hoofing and goofing with them until all three collapse into laughter. Would that all late night chats with friends could be so well choreographed.
Cyd Charisse: Some have argued that the “Broadway Melody Ballet” number is an unnecessary extravagance (I can’t argue that it isn’t, only that’s wonderful because it is.), but few would be willing to sacrifice the presence of Charisse. She pairs with Kelly as both a tough gangster’s moll and an airy dream girl, and she embodies both with imitable grace and panache. Charisse would go on to work with both Kelly and Astaire on some of the last, and some of the best, of the great MGM musicals, but by the time she knocks Kelly’s hat straight off his head in Singin’ in the Rain, she’s already cemented a place in cinema history.
“People! I ain’t people!”: Jean Hagen’s vanity-free turn as the selfish and self-deluded superstar Lina Lamont continues to earn the critical and audience accolades to this day, and Hagen scores some of the film’s biggest laughs. But among my favorites out her scenes is one that is more slimy than silly. When she unveils her plan for preserving her own image at young Kathy Selden’s expense, purring, “What do think I am, dumb or something?” Lina secures her place as one of classic film’s most memorable villainesses.
“Ladies and gentlemen, stop that girl!”: Writing about the climactic scene of Singin’ in the Rain, Roger Ebert called it “one of those bravura romantic scenes that make you tingle no matter how often you see it,” and I can’t help but agree. It’s Hollywood perfect, and it gets me every time.