I’ve never seen a negative review of Singin’ in the Rain. Not that I’ve searched high and low to find one, mind you. But there are few films of which it can be said with such certainty that everyone likes them. Even so, I’m convinced that, the world being such a big and diverse place, there must be exceptions out there. This can’t be a perfect film. It was made by human beings. Wasn’t it? I don’t think anyone can find much fault with the film’s execution. The singing and dancing are flawless, the writing and direction both witty and endearing. This leaves us with the story itself and its themes. If I had to come up with something, I’d say that a critic could view this film as self-satisfied and triumphalist — a Hollywood movie about the greatness of Hollywood movies. There are always prerequisites to enjoying a work of art; these things don’t just fall into our laps. This is the question that needs to be answered: In order to love Singin’ in the Rain, do you have to (a) love Hollywood and its culture, (b) love Hollywood movies, or (c) just love movies?
Of course, the title of this post tips my hand as to my own answer. Am I playing the devil’s advocate here, or am I simply setting up a straw man? Neither, I hope. Instead, let’s try and approach this film recognizing all the things that could have been distasteful about it, but aren’t. We can start with the film’s origins, which are right there in the title. As the opening credits state, the film’s script, by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, was “suggested by the song.” Here we see both the wonder of the film as we have it, and its potential ruinous failure. A feature film based on a pop song? This is crass commercialism, putting the opportunity to cash in on an old song catalog above any concern for the story. Then we take a look at an outline for the script, and it doesn’t get much better. The plot of this musical, like so many other musicals before it, will involve characters trying to put on a show. Only this time, it’s about movie stars trying to put on a movie. Not promising.
The film, which came out in 1952, is set twenty-five years earlier, when Hollywood transitioned out of the silent era. There are two extremes which movies about the past frequently fall into: nostalgia and what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” With this specific period of history, it might actually be possible to indulge in both of them. On the one hand, this was a time before the Supreme Court and this new “television” doodad started breaking up the old studio system; a time when films had the world enthralled. Weren’t they glamorous? On the other hand, this was a time when movies either had to be mute or depended on clunky, awkward technology to give them a voice. Aren’t movies so much better now?
I think we’ve found the heart of our hypothetical criticism of Singin’ in the Rain, because this movie doesn’t so much avoid these pitfalls as find a way to balance between them. It is clear-eyed without being cynical, warm without being cloying. It’s a tightrope act.
Singin’ in the Rain is, for many people, the definitive chronicle of the great “talkie” revolution of the late 1920s. Historically speaking, this isn’t entirely helpful, because the movie is in some ways a caricature of how this massive paradigm shift occurred. Exaggerated though it may be, it has a great feel for the period, making it evocative and sympathetic. Silent films are such a foreign, bizarre phenomenon to us in the twenty-first century that it’s easy to simply throw your hands in the air and call them silly. Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t settle for that. It isn’t a defense of the art form — the story is about the blockbusters of the day, not the art films, and cinema’s status as “the seventh art” wasn’t nearly as secure in 1952 as it is now. But this film has a rich understanding of the system as it existed in this prior incarnation. A single shot gets this message across. As Don Lockwood (played by Gene Kelly) walks through a big studio warehouse toward the set of his new film, he passes three sets of films that are being shot simultaneously: a tribal dance, a sports cheerleading section, and a fistfight on the roof of a train. The camera tracks from right to left with him, taking it all in without a cut to emphasize the unity of time and place. This shot conveys multiple ideas. First, it shows us the size and wealth of a film studio, its nearly unlimited resources. Second, it lays bare the artifice of it all, the tawdry illusion of realism. Third, in connection with a later scene, it contrasts the ease and efficiency of making a silent film with the tortured efforts necessary to record even a few lines of dialogue for a talkie.
Throughout the film, all of the many elements that go into making a movie are explicitly emphasized, their uses demonstrated. The microphone, naturally, is given the juiciest role, but we’re also given a sense of how lighting, costumes, and props all contribute to the intended effect. In all, Singin’ in the Rain presents itself as an X-ray of movie magic. It exposes the fakery, but also the ingenuity and skill required. The climactic scene is the most memorable example, as a literal curtain is pulled back to reveal an unknown performer doing the singing for a lip-syncing star. The miracle is that, even while it’s showing us all these things, the film itself manages to be one of the greatest pieces of movie magic ever concocted. Donald O’Connor explains how to “make ’em laugh,” and we do laugh — this movie is incredibly funny, verbally and visually. It’s about the birth of the musical as a Hollywood genre, and it’s absolutely intoxicated with the spirit of that genre.
If you don’t like Hollywood, this movie still works. It takes jabs at the culture and the business of studio filmmaking, particularly the illusion of perfect people that the public is meant to idolize. If you generally don’t like Hollywood movies, this movie still works. It shows how genre can focus and inspire filmmakers, not just restrict them to a rigid template. If you don’t like musicals, get out. Singin’ in the Rain is light as a feather, “fit as a fiddle and ready for love.” Blood, sweat, and tears went into the making of this film, but not a drop is visible on screen, save a few tears on Debbie Reynolds’ face at an appropriate moment. I get nothing but joy from the experience of watching this film. No, it isn’t perfect. There’s one awkward jump cut during the otherwise ecstatically beautiful “Broadway Melody” sequence. But it’s as close to perfect as a motion picture can get.