Given its reputation as one of the most iconic films from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Singin’ in the Rain’s return to cinemas as a part of the BFI’s musicals season provides a unique opportunity to see one of cinema’s greatest musicals on the big screen.
With incredible musical sequences ranging from the tender ‘You Were Meant For Me’ to the brilliantly funny ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ and ‘Moses Supposes’ standing alongside a thoughtful reflection on the purpose and power of cinema, the film strikes a perfect balance of comedy and romance to produce an utterly spellbinding piece of cinema.
Originally conceived by MGM producer Arthur Freed as a production to showcase his musical back catalogue, the film stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor and chronicles the end of the silent film era.
In particular it focuses on Don Lockwood (Kelly), a silent star who initially struggles with the transition to sound. Don, with the help of best friend Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) and love interest Kathy Selden (Reynolds), is able to convince the studio employing him to convert their first disastrous attempt at a “talkie” into a musical, thus saving both the film and his acting career.
From its very beginning, when Don concocts a fictional rise to fame in order to hide his background as a comedy performer and stuntman, the film asks questions about what cinema should be.
During their first meeting in a car, Kathy remarks that Don’s profession is not very impressive and derides film as cheap entertainment for a mass audience. Both of these moments reflect a genuine anxiety in Hollywood that the films they were creating weren’t valuable in the same way as more traditionally respected art forms like theatre.
A fundamental part of what makes Singin’ in the Rain such an enjoyable films to watch is the way that it appreciates cinema’s ability to delight. O’Connor’s magnificent performance during ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ epitomises this. The song has a clear message, that actors should never forget their fundamental role is to entertain the audience, and it embodies this message thanks to his brilliantly funny and technically incredible performance.
Despite several accounts of behind-the-scenes disharmony, the film’s central trio seem to share an effortless rapport. Kelly and O’Connor provide one example of this in “Moses Supposes”. In preparation for his first speaking role on film, Don is sent to an elocution expert but Cosmo’s arrival means the lesson instead erupts into a musical sequence brimming with humour.
Outside the main cast, there’s a sublime Oscar-nominated performance from Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, Don’s self-absorbed co-star. Obsessed with fame and concerned only with her own success, she provides a definite counterpoint to the three protagonists. Despite different ambitions and levels of success, Don, Kathy and Cosmo are all motivated by a passion for entertaining that Lina distinctly lacks.
Although every Hollywood musical since its release has attempted to capture some of the film’s sparkle, few have come anywhere near. By the time the superb ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence begins, it is nearly impossible not to have been captivated. With characteristic charm and grace, Gene Kelly embodies the feeling of unapologetic and indescribable joy that makes Singin’ in the Rain one of the most delightful films ever produced.