SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, 1952)

Singin’ in the Rain, co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, the star of the film, is tuneful, playful and, at least intermittently, entertaining; but it’s also, for me, a loathsome experience, unworthy of the great Hollywood musicals that are actually about something. Pauline Kael, in her blistering review of West Side Story (Jerome Robbins, Robert Wise, 1961), used Singin’ in the Rain as the exemplary Hollywood musical with which to club West Side Story into the ground, but, it seems to me, that these films are in a way identical. They are both heartless, vapid, mechanical, manipulative. One aims to please self-pitying adolescents; the other aims to please us all.

Formally, Singin’ in the Rain is a train wreck; the next time you watch it (if you do), note how arbitrarily its most celebrated part, in which Kelly is “singin’ and dancin’ in the rain,” is inserted into the piece. It’s an undeniably beautiful number, but it’s just poked in for emotional highlighting; it isn’t at all organic, like the great Astaire-Rogers song-and-dances. One must recall, of course, the impetus for the film: to showcase a folio of songs composed and written over the years by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, the latter of whom also produced the movie. It’s a wonder, given the narrow and onanistic inspiration involved, that Singin’ in the Rain is even the least bit good.

The plot turns on the commotion into which Hollywood was plunged in the late 1920s when sound replaced silence in the movies that were being produced, making song-fest musical movies possible. Careers were ruined when silent film stars’ voices were deemed inadequate for the microphone—or so the legend goes, although one wonders how then someone like Katharine Hepburn, with her perfectly dreadful nasal voice and what Andrew Sarris has described as her “faintly absurd Bryn Mawr accent,” ever rose to stardom during the early period of sound. More than likely, studios used the excuse of sound to weed from their stables the stars who, for other reasons, they wanted to get rid of. Whatever. The moment is of historical interest; but is the Donen-Kelly film about anything? Does the industry crisis that forms the narrative backdrop in their film contribute to the development of some actual theme?

There are, it seems to me, two possibilities either one of which the film might have pursued in order to reflect and comment on reality in the early 1950s, when the film was made. Two things were throwing, or about to throw, the motion-picture industry into crisis. One was, actually, a few years away: the hysteria into which Hollywood was plunged by the mass popularity of television, which the movie people inaccurately feared would subvert their livelihoods. In effect, this would prove a replay of a crisis that Hollywood had already faced: the popularity of radio. I suppose, therefore, that it’s possible—remotely possible—that the microphone in Singin’ in the Rain is a satirical symbol for Hollywood’s penchant for pointless and groundless hysteria in its greedy pursuit of profits. Hollywood’s delusion that its existence is precarious might make for a good satirical film, but I don’t see how Singin’ in the Rain could be that film. If this is the intended theme, it is vague and indistinct.

The other possibility pans out even less, and it is for this reason that I despise the film. As it happens, the industry was in the throes of a genuine crisis in the late forties and fifties that was generated by the Hollywood blacklist and the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Due to anti-Communist hysteria whipped up by self-serving right-wing politicians, people of the Left—not just Communists, but all manner of artists left of center—were barred from working in their industry. In many cases, their careers were ruined. People saved their own careers by denouncing brethren, and the losers in this part-public, part-hidden ordeal sometimes found themselves harassed into heart attacks and into committing suicide. This, then, might have been a fitting theme for Singin’ in the Rain to pursue, a use of a past industry crisis to reflect on a current one by the use of parallel or metaphor. Outrageously, however, the film ignores this possibility. The silent film star with a hideous voice—Jean Hagen, doing a nasty version of Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn, gives the film’s best performance—is blackmailing her studio and co-stars in order to retain her job and keep a romantic rival from divesting her of her leading man onscreen and off. Nothing in this comical situation reflects anything of the real tragedy of the situation in the American film industry at the time the film was made. Singin’ in the Rain fiddles while America burns.

But what does this matter now, more than fifty years later? Can’t the film be enjoyed for what it simply is? Must it be denounced for what it once wasn’t? I’m afraid so. Far from existing outside of time, films carry with them the context of the times in which they were made. There can be no exoneration for a work such as this, one that might have made a positive contribution to its nation at a needy time but, instead, pranced and danced down a yellow-brick road. Kelly and Donen’s musical represents the worst kind of escapism. Its idea of giving audiences a good time is to wash over the bad real times, engaging which wouldn’t have detracted from its own capacity to provide entertainment but, instead, would have deepened its value, providing a stronger foundation for its songs and its dance.

Not that it matters, but the script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green generates few laughs. The film includes lots of industry and movie in-jokes, such as Kelly’s being made up at one point to look like Harold Lloyd.

Vamping it up in a dance with the ever unctuous and effeminate Kelly, Cyd Charisse is spectacular. Really, the film is best processed as a series of musical numbers.

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