With the tragic news of Debbie Reynold’s death last week, film fans around the globe have been celebrating her life by looking back at her amazing career. Of all the films Ms Reynolds starred in, perhaps the most beloved is 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain.
A breezy comedy-musical charting the struggles of a 1920s film studio to transition from silent movies to “talkies”, Singin’ in the Rain is one of the most iconic flicks in cinema history, and – thanks to its strong cast, influence on the genre, eye-catching visuals, timelessness and charm – it’s arguably the greatest big screen musical ever made.
PITCH PERFECT CASTING
All truly great films feature a knock-out cast, and Singin’ in the Rain is no exception. At the heart of the movie’s success is the acting triple threat of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and, of course, Debbie Reynolds.
Kelly – who co-directed Singin’ in the Rain with Stanley Donen – is disgustingly charismatic as lead character Don Lockwood. In addition to his legendary dancing and vocal skills, Kelly also brings an infectious joy and sly wit to the role, giving us a hero we can really root for.
O’Connor is likewise a perfect fit for comedic supporting player Cosmo Brown, displaying his own impressive ability to cut a rug (he literally runs up a wall at one point!), as well as a possessing a knack for physical comedy. In the wrong hands, a part like Cosmo could come across as obnoxious, but O’Connor’s innate likeability means that this obstacle is easily swerved.
And last, but certainly not least, there’s Reynolds as aspiring actress Kathy Selden. As portrayed by Reynolds, Kathy is assertive, career-oriented and as smart as she is beautiful, whilst still managing to possess an engaging warmth and vulnerability. As well as all this, Reynolds learned to dance for the role (from Fred Astaire, no less!), and her singing voice is sublime.
But what really makes these three performances stand out is how well Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds gel together, with their shared chemistry ensuring the lasting legacy of Singin’ in the Rain.
NO SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN, NO LA LA LAND
It really is impossible to overstate the legacy of Singin’ in the Rain – its continued influence on musical cinema is still felt even today, with current critical darling La La Land only the most recent example.
A lot of this is down to the pioneering direction of Kelly and Donen, which – as with much of their work together – utilised dynamic camera movement, allowing the audience to “follow along” with the dancers, as well a variety of camera angles, heightening the visual appeal of these sequences.
Equally important as the direction is the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which provides the perfect template for how to integrate musical numbers into film’s narrative – or, one suspects, vice versa – in order to create a satisfying overall story.
However, if there’s one area that Singin’ in the Rain has really left an indelible mark on the genre it’s in the visuals department. Even the most casual of cinephiles will be instantly familiar with the image of Don Lockwood swinging elatedly from a lamppost in the midst of a heavy downpour, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this film’s aesthetics.
RAIN OR NOT, THERE’S NO WATERED DOWN IMAGERY HERE
As hinted at earlier, before Kelly and Donen, the majority of big screen musicals focussed heavily on the performances of the artists involved, with little thought paid to the bold visual options provided by the medium. Whilst this is understandable – after all, the singing and dancing are what the audience turned up for! – films like Singin’ in the Rain really solidified what a missed opportunity this presented.
By keeping the camera moving and zooming in and out, Kelly, Donen and cinematographer Harold Rosson captured the energy of the cast so well that this approach has since become standard.
Coupled with striking stage design and vivid, colourful costumes, they proved what a positive impact increased visual appeal could have on cinematic musicals, crafting a truly timeless film in the process.
THERE’S OLD AND THEN THERE’S JUST PLAIN CLASSIC
That’s something that really jumps out at you, re-visiting Singin’ in the Rain 65 years after it was released: it still feels so fresh!
Sure, the period setting helps keep the film from seeming dated, but ultimately, what really does it is that the characters are so archetypal they remain relatable even now, and their struggles – Boy wants to date girl! Girl wants to land her dream job! Boy’s career is threatened by advances in technology! Girl is being screwed over by her workplace! – are the same problems we still face today.
It also doesn’t hurt that the film’s sense of humour – often the first thing to fall flat when modern audiences watch a classic movie – is still as razor sharp now as it was way back when. This is perhaps due to its reliance more on clever wordplay and dialogue/visual contrasts over topical references, but is more likely down to the filmmakers clear desire to sweep audiences off their feet above all else.
MAKE ‘EM LAUGH (AND CHARM THE PANTS OFF ‘EM, TOO!)
Yes, Singin’ in the Rain will undoubtedly charm you, even as it keeps you chuckling along.
It’s the kind of movie that gives you a warm feeling inside for virtually its entire runtime, largely because of how much enthusiasm everyone involved clearly has for the project, as well as the aforementioned general likeability of the characters.
Indeed, even when a musical number starts to drag a little by the standards of today’s low attention span-having viewers, the sheer charm on display will keep you from reaching for the fast forward button, which is surely a testament to just how entrancing the whole endeavour is.