Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, 1952)
With my home projector system still not up and running yet in my new dwelling — leaving my Andy Milligan retro in limbo for the moment (as well as the slew of other long-term retros I’ve been slowly following through on) — I figured why not get out there to the CQ (black fungi-causing Delta variant, be damned!) and check out something in this latest Musique! program, with Singin’ in the Rain on the docket. As the film commenced, I noticed immediately, In true Cinémathèque fashion, while the program guide had indicated 35mm (one of the few in the program, as almost all the others were sadly listed as digital) what was screening before me appeared suspiciously unlike celluloid, and a lot like a bluray… sigh… as they say, the more things change…
Eh, I decided not to complain about the projection mis-advertising (what’s the point with that place anyway) and settled in to catch up with this acknowledged classic… and, wow, was I quickly informed just how much pure joy I’ve been missing not having seen it… reminding me how catching up with some of these classics is gonna be a lot of fun (especially so in the face of all this virus hysteria and the associated, deeply troubling levels of draconian conformity we’re moving towards as a society).
Set in the world of Hollywood itself in the late 20’s, with star and co-director (as in choreographer of the song and dance numbers), the positively (and I mean, like, positive-ly) brilliant Gene Kelly (ironically, like Chaplin, known as a draconian task-masker, and not the kindest of souls… though likely just the type of chap – no pun intended — necessary to achieve the simply breathtakingly precise routines achieved in the film… and, to be fair, I’m sure, like the Little Tramp as well, Kelly wasn’t any less demanding of himself) and Jean Hagen, relishing in her role as a ditsy mean-spirited shrill-voiced diva (the villain of the film) playing fictional silent film romantic star duo ‘Lockwood and Lamont’, in an industry on the cusp of the growing pains of the forced movement into talkies (due to the success of The Jazz Singer, which is specifically named in the film, the only nod as far as I know to actual historical truth), Singin’ in the Rain while providing a few light-hearted jabs at the pretense of the industry and its self-centered inhabitants (starting in amusingly grand fashion right off the bat with Kelly’s Lockwood, at his latest film’s premiere, creating myth for his willingly duped, wide-eyed audience, with the desperate masses eager to live through these stars they worship, as he describes a childhood of privilege and opportunity, while on screen we’re granted anecdotes from the actual dirt-poor upbringing he’s hiding, as the Tinsel Town propaganda machine requires), the film is nothing less than pure joy-driven inspiration (though ironically not behind the scenes, as it’s a film whose making, ironically, Reynolds described as the most arduous and painful experiences of her life next to childbirth!), an open and loving ode to the magic that is the movies (the scene where Kelly’s Lamont serenades his new found love, chorus girl Kathy Selden, played by the cute-as-a-button, yet wilful Debbie Reynolds by bringing her onto a vast soundstage, setting up all the accoutrements of movie magic — lighting, fog and myth — in order to sing his love to her has to be the most beautifully captured illustration – even more Impressive as it’s narratively-driven! — of the transformative and inspirational power of cinema I’ve ever seen).
Okay, okay, perhaps the film is vaguely sexist (with Hagen’s shrill Lamont the butt of almost every joke), a bit uncertain in its final plotting, and lands a bit too much on the side of capitalism in the values it promotes… but the dancing, shoe-tapping and singing machine Gene Kelly remains a wonder (his solo ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ number is worthy of every historical acclaim heaped upon it, while also doing some gobsmacking stunts worthy of Jackie Chan, in one scene jumping across moving vehicles in the streets), the young Reynolds is an immediate star (never mind that she was only 19, stalked – I mean wooed — by a 40-year old Kelly – give me a break, it was a different time! The average joe married man expected to hit up the cinemas for the vicarious thrill of falling in love with a barely legal teen through the male star!), along with the title piece there is just one catchy, toe-tapping number after another, and the other players, like that fabulously hoofing face-contorting Donald O’Connor, the hilariously dimwitted Hagen, and all the others (as with so many of these studio films, with the actors all under contract and having little autonomy, the casting is impeccable), watching Singin’ in the Rain is pure indulgent pleasure (made even more by being shot in stimulating technicolor). As the cliché goes, and seemingly particularly true when addressing old Hollywood musicals, they just don’t make ‘em like this anymore.
If I had one misgiving as I exited the theater (along with the usual coterie of familiar aged folk who I generally inhabit the CQ with), it’s regret that I didn’t take my daughter with me to witness it. Then again, it gives me something show her when I finally get the projector system back up and running (while also providing some ammunition against the accusation that I only show her horror stuff!).