The American Film Institute officially proclaimed Sunday evening something most of us already knew: Singin' in the Rain is the greatest movie musical ever made.
Mind you, many of the other musicals on the AFI's all-time Top 25 list also can lay claim to being considered classics. (I'm especially happy to see Bob Fosse's audacious All That Jazz made the cut at No. 14.) But Singin' in the Rain is by far the best of the best. Why? Well, as I've noted in my Guide to Essential Movies, you can take your pick: (A) The virile grace, infectious enthusiasm and self-mocking good-sportsmanship of Gene Kelly; (B) the canny co-direction of Kelly and Stanley Donen, fortuitously teamed dance masters who warmed up with On the Town (No. 19 on the AFI list) before ensuring their immortality with this masterwork; (C) the splendiferous supporting performances of antic Donald O’Connor and endearing Debbie Reynolds; (D) the scintillating screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which artfully commingles spoofery, sentiment and showbiz mythos; (E) the astute conceptualization of producer Arthur Freed, the brilliantly eclectic mastermind who supervised two decades’ worth of musical extravaganzas during the golden age of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; or (F) all of the above.
If you chose (F) -- give yourself an A-plus. Better still, count yourself among the savvy film aficionados who recognize Singin’ in the Rain as one of the more decisive exceptions to the auteur theory. A theory, it should be noted, that Stanley Donen himself has dismissed as simplistic. “Anyone who says that every picture is not a collaboration is an idiot,” he insisted in a late ’60s interview. “It’s a question of how much you collaborate, and who you collaborate with.”
In the case of Singin’ in the Rain, producer Freed – a former Vaudevillian who worked his way up from staff songwriter to Grand Kahuna of musical production at MGM – lays claim to the title of Most Valuable Collaborator. After all, it was Freed who assembled the other members of the creative dream team for this classic, and whose multifaceted showbiz experiences informed both the story and the storytelling.
Long before Baz Luhrmann ransacked a half-century of pop music history to collect the playlist for his razzle-dazzling Moulin Rouge (No. 25 on the AFI list), Freed commissioned a similar, smaller-scaled job of recycling: He directed Comden and Green to concoct a script that would incorporate several tunes Freed had written with composer Nacio Herb Brown for dozens of earlier MGM movies.
“Singin’ in the Rain,” the best of the lot, had been introduced in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, a patchwork of songs, sketches and dances that was hurriedly thrown together at MGM during the early, awkward days of talking pictures. How appropriate, then, that the tune would provide a title – and cinema’s grandest solo production number – for the smart and sassy Comden-Green scenario about the madcap misadventures that ensue as moviemakers make the transition from silents to talkies.
The fun begins at the Hollywood premiere of a silent swashbuckling epic, then segues to an extended flashback as superstar Don Lockwood (Kelly) gives a fawning interviewer a self-serving account of his salad days. Even as Don insists that he and best buddy Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) adhered to a simple motto – “Dignity, always dignity!” – the richly amusing montage shows how they barely made the grade as Vaudeville song-and-dance men (like Freed, perhaps?) until Don stumbled into movies as a stuntman, and Cosmo tagged along as an on-set musical accompanist.
Singin’ in the Rain maintains its puckishly playful tone as we’re introduced to Lina Lamont (the great Jean Hagen), Don’s frequent co-star and (according to the fan magazines, which Lina accepts as gospel) his off-screen love interest.
Lina looks like a fetching goddess – and sounds like a screeching harpy. Like many others in the Hollywood firmament, she runs the risk of becoming a fallen star as talking pictures become the rage. Fortunately, the producers of her first talkie are able to disguise her vocal deficiencies: They arrange for Lina’s singing and speaking to be dubbed by Kathy Seldon (Reynolds), an aspiring actress (and sometime chorus girl) who just happens to be the real off-screen apple of Don’s eye. When she learns of the deception, however, Lina vows to keep Kathy behind the scenes – and away from Don.
Singin’ in the Rain vividly conveys heady atmosphere of panic, promise and improvisation that prevailed in Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies, often alluding to real-life mishaps and missteps that have become the stuff of showbiz legend. (Note the hilarious struggles to camouflage microphones and record audible dialogue.) Indeed, this enduringly entertaining musical merits inclusion in the syllabus of any college-level film history course. But don’t let that scare you off: Donen, Kelly and company never allow facts to get in the way of telling a wonderfully entertaining story, and casting an irresistibly captivating spell.
Because of that, and so much more, Singin' in the Rain continues to shine more than a half-century after its initial theatrical release. Now and forever: This one's No. 1.