Helen Tope reviews Singin’ in the Rain, showing on our screen from Saturday 14 to Friday 20 December as part of our Musical Classics Season.
For many the ultimate musical, Singin’ in the Rain looks at the glamour of old-school Hollywood and just what it takes to make a film come to life.
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, the film looks at a fictional leading man, Don Lockwood (played by Kelly). It is 1927, and Lockwood – handsome, sophisticated and urbane – is an established name, starring in films alongside Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Together they are box-office dynamite. The darlings of Monumental Pictures, Lockwood and Lamont are the studio’s biggest names. As we meet them heading into a premiere, Lockwood is asked about how his journey to stardom began. It is a story he relishes telling.
After the premiere, Lockwood heads home with his loyal pal, Cosmo Brown (played by Donald O’Connor). Cosmo’s car breaks down, and Lockwood’s fans descend. In a desperate attempt to get away, Lockwood jumps into an open car, being driven by Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). The pair initially hit it off, but aspiring actor Selden coolly rebuffs the overly-confident Lockwood, saying that once you’ve seen one of his films, you’ve seen them all.
Lockwood eventually reaches the post-premiere party, being held for him by studio head, R.F Simpson (Millard Mitchell). For a bit of fun, R.F shows his guests some footage from an inventor who has mastered the ability to record sound and film at the same time. A talking picture. Rival film studio, Warner Brothers, have already invested heavily in the new technology. R.F laughs it off, commenting they will lose their shirts. The film they are launching will be The Jazz Singer. Filming for the next Lockwood and Lamont picture, The Duelling Cavalier, has already begun. As The Jazz Singer is released and becomes a sensation, Monumental Pictures scrambles to catch up.
A thoroughly meta-musical. Singin’ in the Rain takes us behind the studio gates and into the world of film-making. As musicals become the most obvious choice for a sound era, a chance audition at Monumental sees Kathy reunited with Don. Along with Cosmo, they contrive to save an early, disastrous preview of The Duelling Cavalier and turn it into a musical. There is only one problem – Lina.
In broad strokes, Singin’ in the Rain appears to be a beautifully-staged, Sunday afternoon musical. The choreography by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen has lost none of its power – a bold, sculptural technique that references ballet, contemporary and jazz. Kelly’s astonishing routines with Donald O’Connor are blisteringly good – Kelly showcases his co-star’s talent with real generosity and respect.
But Singin’ in the Rain aims even higher, with a refreshingly honest look at image and reality in Hollywood. Donen allows an acerbity to cut through the film, even during its brightest moments. For all the technicolour, Donen is keen to show us that what lies beneath is a shade or two darker.
When Don Lockwood is being interviewed at his latest premiere, we see Don’s rough and tumble early life, as he tells a gossip columnist about studying at the finest schools. His personal motto – dignity, always dignity – falls by the wayside as he and Cosmo struggle to find work. Their move from stage – in particular, vaudeville – echoes the start of many double acts, from Laurel and Hardy right up to Morecambe and Wise. Don’s progression from bottom of the bill, to set musician, stuntman and leading man, is indicative of the makeshift early film industry – adaptability was the way in.
As Lockwood moves into the upper strata of the studio system, he remains a cog in the machine – a coyly insinuated relationship between himself and co-star Lina Lamont is the studio’s way of securing the interest of the public and keeping those box-office sales buoyant. As much as a lie as Lockwood’s elegant education, this fiction keeps both stars anchored to each other – a fact that Lockwood deeply resents.
The issue of sexual politics in this film has come under scrutiny in recent years – and it is an aspect that hasn’t aged well. Lina, despite being one half of Hollywood’s most famous couple, is kept out of the decision-making process. As Don, Cosmo and R.F plan how to film and shape The Duelling Cavalier, Lamont has to consult her lawyer.
It is easy to read Lamont as a cardboard villain, but much of her anger and scheming can be read as frustration. Bringing in the bucks as one half of Lockwood and Lamont, but not being allowed a place at the table, is a fate all too familiar for women working in Hollywood. By the film’s release in 1952, the power shift had begun. It is hard to imagine Joan Crawford or Bette Davis being put in the corner.
Jean Hagen’s stellar performance as Lina, as well as being a great comedic turn, explores how women were, and are, treated within the film industry. As Lockwood’s glamorous partner, Lamont is prevented from speaking in public – her fabulous New York accent is deemed inappropriate for a Hollywood princess. Her job is to turn up and look great. Image, in the world of silent film, is king.
As Monumental Pictures moves into sound, the treatment meted out to Kathy Selden isn’t much better. Gifted with a great voice, Selden’s big break is not fronting her own film, but being the voice of a much bigger star. Providing the voice for Lina, she is saving Don’s film from the scrap heap, but at the expense of her own career.
The other female role goes to Cyd Charisse, who is merely credited as ‘Dancer’. In a fabulous Jazz-Age sequence, Charisse is a mobster’s girlfriend – tall, leggy and completely unattainable. She is also silent throughout, although Charisse does a great job of articulating a playful and dangerous flirtation. Kelly’s choreography gives Charisse ample room to develop a form of character, but she is still a woman without words, an object of desire. While well-meaning, the inference is that the preferred mode for a woman in Hollywood is beautiful, talented but ultimately deferential.
As the film comes to a close, Donen hints at a more egalitarian way forward, as secrets are exposed and talent rises to the top. While Singin’ in the Rain lives in the 1920’s, we are being shown its workings from a perspective where the Golden Age of Hollywood is now a memory. Donen’s love letter to the musical is tinged with sadness, as we move away from the big sets and staged numbers into something that leans towards a psychological intimacy. We are about to move into an era where musicals leave their vaudeville roots behind and take to the streets. West Side Story is only a decade away.
Singin’ in the Rain justifiably earns its place as Hollywood’s greatest musical. Every element falls neatly into place, but is delivered with a ferocious energy that makes the film feel contemporary – as Hollywood evolves, it still has stories to tell us. Both optimistic and cynical, Singin’ in the Rain has lost none of its power to charm and persuade. It is a film of contrasts, and more complex than it is sometimes given credit for. But most of all, it is a superb example of its type – a musical at the very top of its game, Singin’ in the Rain will have you right from the start, and down to the very last note.