BFI Classics: Singin’ In The Rain

Author: Peter Wollen

Made in 1952, Singin’ in the Rain is the perfect Hollywood musical, perfectly encapsulating the Hollywood style of the MGM musical. Starring, choreographed and directed by Gene Kelly with co-director Stanley Donen, this film has grown in stature and respect from critics over the years. It is often listed and cited by critics as one of the top five best films ever made. Wollen gives just enough biography of Kelly and Donen while also going into detail about the production and making of the classic Singin’ in the Rain number that almost everyone must be familiar with and analyses the athletic and balletic style of Kelly as well as drawing on his vaudeville roots. He begins the book by looking at the opening title sequence with Kelly and co-stars Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor singing a faster version of the tune while walking towards camera in the rain wearing yellow raincoats. Wollen explores how Kelly repeated and worked on numbers taken from previous films and would emulate those routines into each subsequent film; in this case the trio of stars in Cover Girl (1944) who would dance down the street singing Make Way for Tomorrow and how the ballet dream sequence with Cyd Charisse in Singin’ in the Rain was also used in Kelly’s previous hit the Oscar winning An American in Paris (1951). Yet many of the tunes in this film weren’t new to it but had been written previously for one of the very first musicals, Hollywood Review of 1929, a compendium showcase musical for MGM. Yet on reading Wollen’s book, I couldn’t help but go back and take a look at that famous sequence of the film in question and admire Kelly’s performance and construction of the sequence (it’s commonly believed that ink was used in the rain to highlight the rainy downpour better).

One aspect about this film that Wollen fails to give too much detail to is the background to the story. It’s set in Hollywood in 1927, during the period when silent film gave over to sound with the arrival of The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson. In Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly plays Hollywood star Don Lockwood who has an on and off screen relationship with an actress called Lina Lamont (played by Jean Hagen) whose gangster’s moll-like voice didn’t transfer well to the screen. In the film’s funniest moments, we see the early rushes of the film the pair are making, a romantic period piece called ‘The Vagabond Lover’ (a very 20s titled film), which expose Lina’s  dreadful voice. She’s subsequently overdubbed by Lockwood’s real girlfriend Kathy Seldon (played by Reynolds). Stories like this ruined many a Hollywood career between 1928 and 1930.

One aspect of Kelly’s career I was totally unaware of was his departure from Hollywood to Europe shortly after the film was completed. Wollen takes time to explain that in Europe Kelly made two films in order to lie low so as his left-wing sympathys weren’t revealed, believing that he may be singled out by the McCarthyist purges of Hollywood in 1952 by the anti-communist HUAC (House of Un-American Activities), and how he, his wife (Betsy Blair) and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green believed they were going to be persecuted for their political affiliations. He returned to the US after 18 months away and made a musical fantasy and critical failure Invitation to the Dance in 1954. Much of this is surprising as Kelly epitomises the all-American Hollywood star – born in Pittsburgh of Irish descent he’d worked as a vaudeville hoofer before becoming a huge Hollywood star. At the age of 39 when he made this film he was at the height of his career – quite old for a dancer. He was very different to the previous generation of Hollywood song and dance men such as Fred Astaire, and went on to represent the all-American figure in such musicals as the New York set On the Town in 1949.

Chris Hick

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