“Gotta sing! Gotta dance!”
In June 1950, screenwriters and lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green were summoned to Hollywood to write an original story and screenplay for the Arthur Freed musical unit at MGM. Their guidance was simply that the film should utilize a number of songs previously written by Arthur Freed and his partner Nacio Herb Brown and would be titled Singin’ in the Rain. As most of the songs were written in the late 1920s, Comden and Green’s first decision was to base their story on the advent of sound in Hollywood. Progress after that was difficult, but a script was finally hammered out just as Gene Kelly was finishing up work on An American in Paris. Kelly, along with co-director Stanley Donen, were both enthusiastic about the script and the rest is history.
Singin’ in the Rain has had an extensive video release record ranging from numerous releases on VHS, several laserdisc versions from both MGM/UA and Criterion, and a DVD release from MGM/UA, followed by a re-release when Warner Brothers acquired the pre-1978 MGM catalogue. All of these versions are now obsolete with the recent appearance of Warners’ admirable 50th anniversary DVD Special Edition.
Young song and dance men Don Lockwood and his friend Cosmo Brown come to Hollywood hoping to make it big. Don gets a break when he successfully replaces a stuntman in a silent western. The management at Monumental Pictures, where he’s working, notices him and he soon finds himself co-starring in a very successful series of films with Lina Lamont. Sound pictures come to Hollywood and silent pictures become passé so quickly that the couple’s latest film has to be turned into a sound picture. There’s only one slight problem — Lina has a terrible speaking voice. Eventually the film, entitled “The Duelling Cavalier,” is completed, but a preview proves to be disastrous and the film has to be shelved. Cosmo, who has managed to hang about as a musical accompanist at the studio, comes up with the idea of turning the film into a musical with Lina’s voice being dubbed by Kathy Seldon, a young aspiring actress whom Don has fallen for. Kathy agrees with the understanding that this arrangement will be for only one film, but Lina has other ideas.
Singin’ in the Rain is another of those great films about which it’s difficult to say anything new. The film is widely regarded as the best musical ever made, having grown in reputation with the passing years. It’s certainly the most entertaining one. One can point to any aspect of the film and find unsurpassed excellence of execution. Of course, that wouldn’t be entirely unexpected, coming as the film does from the MGM musical unit under producer Arthur Freed — a unit renowned for fine musicals over nearly two decades extending from 1939 to the late 1950s. One only has to look at any of the three That’s Entertainment compilations (1974, 1976, 1994) to gain an appreciation of the incredible talent that was available to MGM at that time. Singin’ in the Rain represents simply the pinnacle of the Freed unit’s many efforts.
Let’s start with the story. For many musicals, this aspect is the weakest component, but not with Singin’ in the Rain. Its story concerning the coming of sound in Hollywood was an inspiration, for it allowed for so many different threads to be pursued — the importance of stuntmen in silent film, the ambivalent feelings in the film community about sound being added to silent film, the difficulties that sound posed for those with less than stellar voices, the absurd situations that resulted from trying to make sound in film seem natural, the rapidity with which the success of sound made completed but unreleased silent films obsolete, and so on. The result was a film rich in satire and comic situations that allowed for both subtle repartee and broad slapstick. Very few musicals would be worth watching if all their musical numbers were removed. Singin’ in the Rain is one exception.
But there are musical numbers, and what numbers! We get twelve song and dance efforts that range from individual triumphs (Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” Donald O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh”) to elegant duets (Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds’ “You Were Meant for Me”), comedy duets (Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s “Fit As a Fiddle” and “Moses Supposes”), exuberant trios (Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor, “Good Morning”), and large-scale productions (Gene Kelly and a seeming cast of thousands with “Broadway Melody”). All these numbers seem to just fit perfectly into the film as though they were created especially for each slot they appear in, yet all but two were written well over a decade previously for other films or Broadway musicals by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. (“Make ‘Em Laugh,” which sounds suspiciously like Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” and “Moses Supposes” were the new numbers by Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown, and Betty Comden/Adolf Green/Roger Edens respectively.)
Even more than the numbers themselves, what really impresses is the sheer talent on display. In Gene Kelly, you have one of the two preeminent American dancers of the 20th century (the other of course being Fred Astaire — and I’m not going to get trapped into saying which one was better). In 1952, Kelly was at his peak both professionally and in terms of popularity, having just completed the Academy-Award-winning An American in Paris (1951). Then to see Donald O’Connor is to realize how undeservedly overlooked he tended to be because of the shadows cast by those other two giants. Yet, he easily holds his own with Kelly in their numbers together, and his “Make ‘Em Laugh” is a show-stopper. Throw in Debbie Reynolds and Cyd Charisse, and it’s almost embarrassing to see so much natural musical ability on display in one film. But then, that wasn’t uncommon for films of Hollywood’s Golden Age. If you could see that much musical talent in a year’s worth of today’s films, you’d be very lucky indeed.
We should not overlook the rest of the cast — the non-musical performers who added so much to the film’s comic success. Jean Hagen is the most obvious one because of her hilarious turn as Lina Lamont with the incredible voice, but others such as Millard Mitchell as the Monumental Pictures studio boss, Douglas Fowley as frustrated director Roscoe Dexter, and Kathleen Freeman as voice coach Phoebe Dinsmore are all worthy of mention. Character actors King Donovan, Bobby Watson, and Madge Blake all made welcome appearances and look for a young Rita Moreno as silent film star Zelda Zanders.
Singin’ in the Rain was filmed in three-strip Technicolor, and with its new 50th anniversary DVD release, Warner Brothers has managed to capture the richness of that process gloriously. The film already looked very good in its previous bare-bones DVD incarnation, but the new version is astounding-looking. I’ve seen quibbles elsewhere about the vibrancy of the colours, but honestly I can’t see why. The beauty and brightness of the film just jumps right out at you from this DVD. Warners has reportedly used a new “ultra-resolution” process that allows for all the three-strip frames to be digitized and then the film recomposed to eliminate mis-registration and remove any age-related imperfections. The results are dramatic, yielding an incredibly sharp, clear, and clean image that serves as a demonstration standard. There are no digital artifacts that I could see, the image is free of edge effects, and the experience is as film-like as any DVD I’ve seen.
On the audio side, we get three Dolby Digital sound tracks. There is the original mono (in English and French) and a remixed 5.1 track. The latter is a noticeable improvement over the original mono. There are no particularly dramatic surround effects, but the improved richness of the sound is very pleasing. There is no evidence of age-related hiss or distortion. English, French, and Spanish subtitles are included, and the disc is closed-captioned.
Now we come to the embarrassment of riches that comprise the supplement package. Disc one, which contains the film in a dual-layer format, includes an audio commentary from an ensemble of participants including actors Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, and Kathleen Freeman; director Stanley Donen (who co-directed the film with Gene Kelly); screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who recently died); filmmaker Baz Luhrmann; and author and film historian Rudy Behlmer. The commentary is not scene specific, but is terrific nonetheless. Debbie Reynolds hosts the various comments and they give us a very rounded picture of the entire filmmaking process, with the historical perspective from Luhrmann and Behlmer being particularly effective. Also on the first disc are a short text description of the coming of sound called “Reel Sound,” a theatrical trailer, a listing of awards that the film received, and an interesting branching feature called “Singin Inspirations” that takes you to additional explanatory footage lasting several minutes whenever a film-reel icon appears on screen during the film. This is a useful feature to investigate after you’ve seen the film once. If you’ve not seen the film before, it can be disruptive to the film’s flow and atmosphere on a first-time viewing.
The second disc contains two top-notch documentaries. The first is a newly created making-of featurette running some 36 minutes and entitled “What a Glorious Feeling.” It’s hosted by Debbie Reynolds and features interviews with Donald O’Connor, Kathleen Freeman, Stanley Donen, and Rudy Behlmer. Overall, it’s very well done without too much reliance on clips, but it’s more effective seen before one listens to the audio commentary as a lot of the material is repetitive. Equally as interesting is an 86-minute 1996 documentary on the Arthur Freed unit called “Musicals Great Musicals.” This is a co-production of Turner Broadcasting, the BBC, and Hugh Hefner that really gives Arthur Freed his due. It provides a fine overview of the 40-odd musicals attributable to the Freed unit ranging from 1939’s Babes in Arms to 1958’s Gigi, using plenty of clips along with interviews with the likes of Stanley Donen, Cyd Charisse, Mickey Rooney, Hugh Fordin (Freed’s biographer), Betty Comden, and Adolph Green among others. Another interesting supplement, reminiscent of Criterion’s CAV laserdisc release, consists of original movie excerpts of Singin’ in the Rain’s Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown songs. Each excerpt consists of some brief text and then the pertinent clip. The second disc concludes with a short still gallery, an outtake of “You Are My Lucky Star,” and 26 scoring session music cues (including some multiple takes).
Warner Brothers recently released five double-disc special editions of films that previously had only bare-bones releases or less than stellar transfers — films like Unforgiven, Amadeus, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. All were very worthy titles, but by far the best and most important one was Singin’ in the Rain and Warners has done the film proud with its new 50th anniversary Special Edition. The disc is a demonstration-level effort in terms of video quality. Supplementary content is very thoughtful and extensive for a film of this vintage. Very highly recommended.