Singin ‘in the rain wasn’t exactly conceived as a masterpiece. Arthur Freed, head of musicals at MGM, had a back catalog of songs – not all of them classics – that he had co-written for various films in the studio between 1929 and 1939 and had the idea of stringing them together as the song score for a single new one Musical. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were hired to forge a story around the different tunes; Howard Keel, a stubborn bass-baritone in the MGM stable who earned his respectables in Annie Get Your Gun, was cast as the lead.
As a producer, Freed tended to alternate artistically ambitious prestige musicals – just a week before the premiere of Singin’ in the Rain he received the Oscar for best picture for Vincente Minnelli’s gorgeous pop ballet An American in Paris, set to music by Gershwin – with cheerful, cheerful disposable filler. (Remember Pagan Love Song? The Belle of New York? No?) At first you might have expected the sketchily made-up Singin’ in the Rain to land firmly on the B-list.
But that wouldn’t have been a reckoning without Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, something of a dream team for Freed and MGM at the time. Her first film as a director-choreographer duo, the sailor-on-holiday game On the Town, had enhanced its feathery material with visual wit and restless movement; Regardless, Donen had put a light-footed flash in his direction of the Fred Astaire vehicle Royal Wedding while Kelly’s fame was at its peak with An American in Paris. With production on the latter complete and Kelly available, he was handed the script for Singin’ in the Rain. Changes have been made. The rest, as they say, is history.
Of course, history takes time to take shape. Back in 1952, Freed probably would have been surprised to learn that instead of An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain would eventually become the most canonical of all Hollywood musicals — the one that even non-acolytes of the genre routinely cite as one the greatest films of all time. (It has consistently been the highest-rated musical in the last four editions of Sight & Sound’s decennial critics’ poll, twice earning a spot in the all-time top 10.) However, upon its release it was not treated as any type of music of the milestone . Reviews and box office have been good, if not phenomenal; The academy, which squandered six Oscars at An American in Paris the year before, narrowly gave Singin’ in the Rain two nominations. (Even the Globes presented their best music award to the drab Susan Hayward vehicle With a Song in My Heart instead.)
Watching the film 70 years later, one can see why an industry then preoccupied with prestige and TV-surpassing spectacle took time to give the film its due respect. Nothing about Singin’ in the Rain heralds itself as art, or even grand event: it’s a film so light-footed that its genre-bending entertainment looks deceptively easy. The screenplay blends warm romantic comedy, breezy Hollywood satire and imaginative Broadway reverie at a leisurely pace, without striving for punchlines or pathos; There’s an occasional jukebox carelessness about song placements that fits the film’s overall lightheartedness. Squint at the screen and you can see the sweet, fun, throwaway B-musical this could have been had it had a more boring cast and a little less care in directing.
But then, just as you’re settling into the film’s sunny, effortless groove — wondering amidst your glee if it’s perhaps a notch less masterful than you remembered or were told — Donen and Kelly hit you with a shot of pure Blitzes – magic in a bottle. It’s surprisingly slow to start out as a musical: the film’s first full musical number comes nearly half an hour later, with Donald O’Connor’s goofy putty physicality doing a breathtaking gymnastics act out of the frothy Make ‘Em Laugh – one of only two new songs , which were composed for the film, and a shameless copy of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown at that. You don’t need musical freshness with this dynamic performance.
It’s just being warmed up. The romantic overture You Were Meant for Me gets an enactment of heartbreaking romance sandwiched between all the film’s daff stuff. An empty stage, bathed in artificial cotton candy twilight, equipped only with a ladder – a meager playground for the swooning effects of Kelly’s choreography. And yet even that is overshadowed by the film’s truly iconic centerpiece, the one number without which, for all its other marshmallow delights, Singin’ in the Rain wouldn’t be nearly as memorable. (What would it even be called, for starters?) A studio streetscape drenched in fake rain; a lamppost turned dance partner; Kelly is more flexible in a soaked tweed suit than any man has ever been.
It’s hardly the film’s most elaborate set piece: Far more manpower, footwork, and production design went into the film’s extended Broadway tune-pitch sequence, with its shifting sets, swirling fabric banners, and steamy, leggy cameo by Cyd Charisse. But this lengthy number isn’t the first, second, or even tenth thing to remember from Singin’ in the Rain; Its arbitrary purpose and placement in the process functioned as a clever meta-comment to the standard Hollywood musical’s ailing storytelling, making its lavish conception somewhat deliberately self-destructive.
It’s certainly not a game for a single dancer humming a tune and splashing boyishly in a puddle, and maybe that was the point. Set in the late 1920s, the film sees Hollywood in a state of transition where everything is thrown onto the screen to survive while silent films give way to talkies. Meanwhile, the panic-driven production surplus of 1952 came at the right time. The studios’ fixation on oversized, widescreen epics aimed at combating the threat of the small screen began to spread into the humble musical, and the genre’s shape-shifting eventual growth into the gargantuan form of 1960s blockbusters like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. (Significantly, Freed won another Best Picture Oscar in the 1950s for Gigi’s over-decorated frou-frou excess.)
In its shuffling, unfused way, however, Singin’ in the Rain urged Hollywood to cool its jets, take a breath, and appreciate the simpler show: a little dance, a little laugh, a little romance, a little rough weather. It might not have been a big deal back then. But it has reached 70 without a wrinkle.