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You can charm the critics but have nothing to eat! That’s the shrewd warning from Donald O’Connor’s character Cosmo Brown in his legendary song Make ’Em Laugh, in the equally legendary 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and now being rereleased. Forget about the hoity-toity critics and the clueless highbrows, Cosmo proclaims: the real duty – and real artistry – lies in entertaining people. (Jack Buchanan’s song That’s Entertainment in The Band Wagon, directed at Fred Astaire, has a similar moral: be it comedy or tragedy, if it works on stage or screen, then it is entertaining and therefore artistic.)
To some extent, cinema’s crisis of self-doubt is part of what drives this incredible film. Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds, is the wannabe actor and stern ingénue who lectures Gene Kelly’s genially complacent silent movie star Don Lockwood about the superiority of the legitimate theatre over the movies when they meet-cute. Nobody really believes that – not even Kathy, who is making ends meet jumping out of a cake at Hollywood parties and going into a sublime song’n’dance routine to All I Do Is Dream of You. When the silent cinema is forced to accommodate sound, and Don and his co-star make their first faltering attempts to speak from the screen, for an awful moment their acting looks crass, childish and incompetent. Are the naysayers right? Are the movies just silly?
With muscular frankness and grace, Kelly stars (and with Stanley Donen co-directs) playing the easy-going, smiley star in the 1920s routinely paired with a conceited female lead he can’t abide: Lina Lamont (a terrific and underappreciated comic performance by Jean Hagen). His best pal is musical director Cosmo, a stunning performance of almost extraterrestrial comic agility by O’Connor. Don falls hard for gutsy and talented Kathy at the moment when the silent cinema is rendered obsolete, and gets Kathy a job dubbing squeaky-voiced Lina. But they have an even bigger idea: why not put music into these newfangled talking pictures? And so the musical is born. They have created a new stylised convention (bursting into song with music coming from nowhere) to replace the old convention of silent movies, and this has saved the whole seventh art.
The unstoppable joy of the musical numbers, especially with O’Connor, is what never fails to seduce – perhaps especially in Moses Supposes. A pompous schoolteacherly fellow tries to instruct Don how enunciate his vowels and consonants; Cosmo shows up, and soon they have disrupted the entire thing with an anarchic dance number. The prissy business of correct elocution couldn’t be less relevant. The songs themselves often float surreally free of the story, or subtextually provide the joins. In Good Morning (celebrating their all-night conversation in which the genre of movie musical has been invented), Kathy, Cosmo and Don prophetically pick up rain macs, anticipating the legendary number to come.
Kelly’s song Singin’ in the Rain has the briefest possible dramatic introduction: a few lines in which Don wishes Kathy a gentlemanly good night at her door. Then we get the great number in the rain – something that has never looked entirely convincing in the movies, but looks almost real here. In common with the movie-within-a-movie motif, is the surreal Gotta Dance sequence that Don pictures for himself in the new version of the film they’re shooting. In it he gets a long romantic scene with a female lead we haven’t even seen before: Cyd Charisse. It is pure meta-musical heaven.
Singin’ in the Rain emerged in the early 1950s, when the industry had achieved a mature distance from its silent origins, and it’s possible this film helped promote the idea that – with prominent exceptions from the world of comedy – silent cinema was crude and valueless. Now we are moving away from that idea. Michel Hazanavicius’s 2011 smash The Artist was partly inspired by Singin’ in the Rain, and partly by A Star Is Born – though Jean Dujardin (and James Mason) were more fallible and vulnerable creatures. Kelly’s Don Lockwood was always a winner, and is never really tested – and however absurd it sounds, I always feel a twinge at how Lina finally gets her comeuppance. Well, Kelly, Reynolds, O’Connor and Donen do something achieved only by geniuses: they make it look easy.
• Singin’ in the Rain is in UK cinemas on 18 October.
Source: The Guardian
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