One of the longer lasting effects of the Covid lockdowns is the fact that increasing numbers of people are choosing to stay at home and watch movies on streaming “platforms” rather than go to the cinema and increasing numbers of films (to cinema managers’ ire) are now being “dropped” (as opposed to “released”) by companies like Netflix, Mubi and Apple TV.
It’s heartening to note, therefore, that 2023 kicks off with a significant number of films being properly released on the big screen which celebrate the history of movies; the experience of watching them collectively and also the joys of actually being in the cinema. In coming months we can see, for example, Sam Mendes’ Margate-shot Empire of Light; Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical account of how he learned to make films as a child The Fabelmans and Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, a warts and all account of Hollywood’s excesses in the 1920s. One can’t imagine a similar glut of films about staying at home and turning on the telly heading our way anytime soon – if ever.
It’s pretty obvious (and rather worrying) that the idea of “going to the pictures” is being threatened by home entertainment and that cinemas across the world are going through a pretty tough time. Therefore, it’s great news that the UPP has announced a short season of films “about films” which will be screened in January to tie in with these new releases and which celebrate the idea of cinema as the art form it most definitely is. These are films movie lovers should be itching to (re) see.
Amongst the films being screened – which could easily also have included Basil Dearden’s 1957 The Smallest Show on Earth with Peter Sellers; Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola’s fascinating account of her husband’s adventures whilst trying to film Apocalypse Now and Paul Thomas Anderson’s wry look at the 1970s pornography industry Boogie Nights, one film stands out: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s brilliant 1952 Singin’ in the Rain, which, in this reviewer’s opinion, is a movie best described as bottled joy and, arguably, the finest musical ever produced.
Like horror films (discussed in the October blog about Kubrick’s The Shining) musicals are totally under-represented in the latest BFI Top 100 films of all time, where Singin’ in the Rain is the only one to be found (if you don’t include Some Like it Hot).
That means, according to the list, that there are 99 “greater” films than (deep breath) West Side Story, A Star is Born, Cabaret, Sweet Charity, Top Hat, Meet Me in St Louis, The Wizard of Oz, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Prince of Egypt, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins, An America in Paris, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Funny Face and, uh, Dancer in the Dark. Surely some mistake, eh, Ed?
Whilst Singin’ in the Rain, rightfully, does make it to the BFI’s Top 10; interestingly, it’s the only film not made by an “auteur director.” The fact that it shares its seat at the table, alongside, amongst others, Welles, Hitchcock, Kubrick, Ozu, Lynch and, uh, Ackerman is thus testament to the fact that whilst cinema certainly attracts its fair share of “artists” it’s also, ultimately, a collaborative medium.
So, what makes Singin’ in the Rain so special is not just the fact that the wonderful Gene Kelly starred, choreographed and co-directed. In fact, Kelly directed or co-directed ten other movies during his illustrious career and it’s fair to say that none of these are a patch on Rain. As well as On the Town and It’s Always Fair Weather with Donen, Kelly also starred in, amongst others, Anchors Aweigh, The Pirate, An American in Paris and Brigadoon, for example, which suggest that he could also collaborate just as well with other directors (notably, but not exclusively, Vincente Minnelli).
Nor is it true that Stanley Donen was the real genius behind the film’s success. Donen had kicked off his career in 1949 when he brought On The Town to the screen (with Kelly) and, as well as Rain, also directed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers; (the under-appreciated) It’s Always Fair Weather in 1955, plus Funny Face (with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn) and The Pajama Game (with Doris Day and choreography by Bob Fosse) in 1957. To say he knew what he was doing when it came to musicals is a bit of an understatement. However, his later career included some truly dreadful trash: Saturn Three, Lucky Lady and Blame It On Rio, for example – films you can’t believe were the work of the same director responsible for Singin’ in the Rain’s lightness of touch.
Cyd Charisse (she of the five million dollar legs) is also fantastic in The Band Wagon as well as many of the “other” Gene Kelly musicals mentioned above, so, whilst she is undeniably a pleasure to watch in Singin’ in the Rain, it’s not her sexy presence alone which gives the movie its clout. The same can be said of fellow co-stars Donald O’Connor and Debby Reynolds, who are both superb but also capable of being totally forgettable elsewhere (I “googled” both and realised, to my surprise, that this is about the only movie I’d ever seen either of them in).
So perhaps it’s Rita Moreno, pre-West Side Story who gives the film its lift with her cameo or maybe Brown’s great score or Arthur Freed (who also produced)’s perfect lyrics?
The bottom line is that, when all is said and done, Singin’ in the Rain is a supreme example of how all the various contributors, which also include script writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden; art directors Randall Duell and Cedric Gibbons; costume designer Walter Plunkett; Harold Rossen’s Technicolor cinematography (he had worked on John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in 1950) and Adrienne Fazan’s editing (another of the few women working in key roles at the time of the film’s production – she’d also edit, amongst many others, Minnelli’s Lust for Life, Gigi and Some Came Running) came together to make this one really work.
There’s not a single thing you’d change about it. The dancing is to die for; the infectious lyrics and melodies a dream. The humour remains laugh out loud funny throughout and the portrayal of Hollywood at the time when sound burst on the screen c.1927 is brilliantly realised and evocative.
There’s also those moments of pure, transcendent, unadulterated joy: the tap dancing during Moses Supposes; the slapstick elegance of Make ‘em Laugh and, of course, one man alone with his umbrella and a few puddles, singin and dancing in…the rain, at which point I usually burst into tears, blurting something like, “it’s just too……beautiful.” And to think, the general perception in Hollywood in the 1950s was that musicals were a spent force.
I have a well-known photograph of Gene Kelly on my wall at home. He’s been crossing the road and has been spotted by a paparazzi photographer, who’s probably called out his name. He’s turning to respond to the greeting and is caught slightly unawares. And you know what? If you look closely, you realise that he’s actually dancing on air. Gene Kelly, a guy who never actually set foot on the ground: he always floated slightly above it.
Singin’ in the Rain: a movie which, no matter how any times you’ve seen it, will always make you glad to be alive. Can the same be said of Squid Game? Only time will tell.
The Ultimate Picture Palace is showing Singin’ In The Rain on Sunday 8th (3.30pm) and Monday 9th January (6.15pm). Click here to book tickets.
Dr Andrew C Webber is a Film teacher and examiner with over 37 years’ experience. He currently contributes to both the Cinema of the 70s and 80s magazines (available on Amazon); cassette gazette fanzine (available from cassette pirate on e-bay) and the Low Noise music podcast available on Spotify and Apple podcasts.