In real life, people rarely burst into song, which is why musicals are superior to reality. Feeling “meh”? Wanna get happy, fast? Zhuzh up your spirits by streaming Singin’ in the Rain. It’s more than a film. It’s like defib paddles for your mood, a Technicolor valentine to movies that transports you from Ennui Hell to Tinseltown in the Roaring ‘20s.
Forget its rep as a classic. Singin’ was merely a modest hit when it premiered in 1952, despite crushing its genre on every level. I mean, can you picture anyone but Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds in the leads? I can’t. Their BFF chemistry feels genuine, even if Gene was allegedly a brutal taskmaster: Debbie later said, “The two hardest things I ever did in my life were Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth.”
When she got the gig, Debbie was 19 and had never danced professionally. Working for a perfectionist like Gene was physically and emotionally exhausting. The tipping-over-couches last shot in the “Good Morning” number alone took 40 takes to get right. When Gene’s co-director Stanley Donen finally yelled “Cut,” Debbie was carried off-set, thanks to broken blood vessels in her feet. Supposedly, Fred Astaire once consoled the dog-tired teen after finding her sobbing under a piano.
Think Donald O’Connor had it easier? Nope. His “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine required the actor to run up walls, do backflips and smash through scenery. After it was over, Donald reportedly headed to the hospital, though Kelly’s widow refutes that rumor. Upon returning to work, Donald learned that a technical glitch meant he’d have to re-shoot the entire sequence. (By the way, co-director Donen admitted that “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which sounds suspiciously, um, identical to Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” was “100 percent plagiarism.” Fortunately, Porter never sued.)
Singin’ star Jean Hagen slays it as leading lady, Lina Lamont. Having understudied Judy Holliday on Broadway in Born Yesterday, Jean channeled Holliday’s “dumb blonde” persona to perfection. My favorite Lina lines: “What do you think I am, dumb or something? Why, I make more money than Calvin Coolidge put together!” and “If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin’” (Jean’s hard work wasn’t in vain for nothin’ either – she earned an Oscar nod for the role).
Then there’s the music. Only “Moses Supposes” was written for the pic. The other tunes were composed years earlier by producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown: “All I Do is Dream of You,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “You Are My Lucky Star” and the theme, sung by Gene in iconic shots filmed over seven soggy days while he battled a cold and 103-degree fever.
The story was concocted by musical-comedy greats, Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town, The Band Wagon). Decades before TV broke the fourth wall, Comden and Green crafted a sunny script that spoofs the characters’ struggles with Hollywood’s transition from silents to talkies. Whenever I see Singin’in the Rain, it confirms Roger Ebert’s take (he called it “a transcendent experience...no one who loves movies can afford to miss it”) and I smile at the spot-on lyric from the title track, “What a glorious feeling/I’m happy again.”