Singin’ in the Rain was not exactly conceived as a masterpiece. Arthur Freed, head of the musicals unit at MGM, had a back catalogue of songs – not all of them classics – that he’d co-written for various films at the studio between 1929 and 1939, and had the idea of stringing them together as a song score for a single new musical. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were hired to cobble a story around the disparate tunes; Howard Keel, a stolid bass-baritone in the MGM stable who had acquitted himself respectably in Annie Get Your Gun, was pencilled in as the lead.
As a producer, Freed tended to alternate artistically ambitious prestige musicals – just one week before Singin’ in the Rain premiered, he picked up a best picture Oscar for Vincente Minnelli’s ravishing, Gershwin-scored pop ballet An American in Paris – with cheerful, brightly disposable filler. (Remember Pagan Love Song? The Belle of New York? No?) At the outset, one might have expected the sketchily contrived Singin’ in the Rain to fall firmly on the B-list.
But that would have been reckoning without Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, at that point something of a dream team for Freed and MGM. Their first film as a director-choreographer duo, the sailors-on-leave romp On the Town, had elevated its featherweight material with visual wit and restless movement; separately, Donen had brought fleet-footed flash to his direction of the Fred Astaire vehicle Royal Wedding, while Kelly’s stardom had reached a peak with An American in Paris. When production on the latter wrapped, making Kelly available, the script for Singin’ in the Rain was passed on to him. Changes were made. The rest, as they say, is history.
History, of course, takes time to take shape. Back in 1952, Freed would probably have been surprised to learn that Singin’ in the Rain, rather than An American in Paris, would eventually become the most canonised of all Hollywood musicals – the one routinely cited even by non-acolytes of the genre as one of the greatest films ever made. (In the last four editions of Sight & Sound’s decennial critics’ poll, it has consistently been the highest-scoring musical, twice placing in the all-time top 10.) Upon its release, however, it wasn’t treated as any kind of milestone. Reviews and box office were good if not phenomenal; the Academy, having lavished six Oscars on An American in Paris the year before, gave Singin’ in the Rain a scant two nominations. (Even the Globes handed their best musical award to the drab Susan Hayward vehicle With a Song in My Heart instead.)
Watching it 70 years later, you can see why an industry then preoccupied with prestige and television-beating spectacle took time to give the film due respect. Nothing about Singin’ in the Rain announces itself as Art, or even as a grand event: it’s a film so light on its feet as to make its genre-melding entertainment look deceptively easy. The script shuffles warm romantic comedy, breezy Hollywood satire and fanciful Broadway reverie with casual speed, never straining for punchlines or pathos; there’s occasionally a jukebox carelessness to the song placements that fits with the film’s general insouciance. Squint slightly at the screen, and you can see the sweet, amusing, throwaway B-musical this might have been, given duller casting and a little less directorial care.
But then, just as you’re settling into the film’s sunny, effortless groove – wondering, amid your pleasure, if it’s maybe a notch less masterful than you remembered or had been told – Donen and Kelly hit you with a shot of pure lightning-in-a-bottle magic. It’s surprisingly slow to start as a musical: the film’s first full-scale musical number comes nearly half an hour in, with Donald O’Connor’s silly-putty physicality making a stunning gymnastics act of the frothy Make ’Em Laugh – one of only two new songs composed for the film, and a shameless knockoff of Cole Porter’s Be a Clown at that. You don’t need musical freshness with that dynamism in the delivery.
It’s only getting warmed up. The romantic overture You Were Meant for Me is given a staging of heart-stopping romanticism, wedged between all the film’s daffy farce. An empty soundstage, bathed in artificial cotton-candy twilight, furnished with only a ladder – a sparse playground for the swoony effects of Kelly’s choreography. And yet this too is overshadowed by the film’s genuinely iconic centrepiece, the single number without which, for all its other marshmallowy delights, Singin’ in the Rain wouldn’t be nearly so enduringly remembered. (What would it even be titled, for starters?) A studio streetscape, drenched in artificial rain; a lamppost turned dance partner; Kelly more limber than any man has ever been in a sodden tweed suit.
It’s hardly the film’s most effortful set piece: far more manpower, hoofing and production design went into the film’s extended Broadway Melody pitch sequence, with its shifting sets, twirling banners of fabric and steamy, leggy Cyd Charisse cameo. Yet that lengthy number isn’t the first, second or even tenth thing you remember about Singin’ in the Rain; its arbitrary purpose and placement in proceedings functioned as a clever meta-commentary on the ramshackle storytelling of the standard Hollywood musical, making its lavish conception somewhat deliberately self-defeating.
It’s certainly no match for a single dancer humming a tune and splashing boyishly in a puddle, and perhaps that was the point. Set in the late 1920s, the film depicts a Hollywood in a state of transition, throwing everything at the screen to survive as silents gave way to talkies. Meanwhile, its sendup of panic-driven production excess was timely in 1952. The studios’ fixation with supersized widescreen epics, aimed at combating the threat of the small screen, began to bleed into the humble musical, changing the shape of the genre to what would eventually become the gargantuan form of 1960s blockbusters like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. (Freed, tellingly, would win one more best picture Oscar in the 1950s, for the hyper-decorated frou-frou excess of Gigi.)
In its shuffling, unfused way, however, Singin’ in the Rain called on Hollywood to cool their jets, take a breath and appreciate simpler showmanship: a little dance, a little laugh, a little romance, a little rough weather. It might not have seemed a very big deal at the time. But it’s reached 70 with nary a wrinkle.