As a film critic (my massive ego refuses to let me call myself a blogger),I have always been a little uncomfortable at certain gaps in my knowledge.
For the longest time, ET was the most glaring of omissions, before I finally watched it two years ago. I hated it, but that’s a story for another article. Then there was Lawrence of Arabia (loved it), The Great Escape (pretty good), and The Bridge over the River Kwai (excellent), all of which I’ve watched during lockdown. Yet, out of all of them, it was Grease that got me really excited. Unlike the films just mentioned – I had never planned to watch Grease, and I had no intention of watching any of the classic musicals, So, with my utterly surprising reaction to Grease the next step was, inevitably, to look for the classics of the musical genre. There was really only one place to start.
I’ve pointed out a lot of obvious truths on this website, but it feels absolutely redundant to say that Singin’ in the Rain is a fantastic film. From the first minute, it’s bursting with energy and joy as it puts one of my favorite subgenre’s through the musical blender: Hollywood backstage. That said, the plot is completely secondary to the song and dance numbers, but it does allow for some spot-on satire. The Hollywood of Singin’ in the Rain is decidedly gentler than the time it is portraying – the switch from silent film to sound – but it’s filled with the kind of back-stabbing, inflated egos, and double standards that Hollywood is still famous for.
Of the musical numbers, I was surprised that Gene Kelly’s solo of the titular song was nowhere near my favorite. Perhaps it was over-familiarity, but the greatest song, and scene in the whole film (hell, maybe all of cinema), is Donald O’Connor’s breathtaking rendition of “Make Em Laugh”. O’Connor mugs his way through the film, but this scene, for me, is the crowning glory of Singin’ in the Rain, it’s message one that all comic performers know: literally nearly killing yourself is worth it to please an audience.
Both Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds are great, but enough has been said about them over the years. Just as I wanted to highlight Donald O’Connor’s contribution, I have to talk about the unsung star of Singin’ in the Rain: Jean Hagen. Hagen, who plays Kelly’s long-time co star Lina Lamont, is the de-facto villain of the film. She’s dumb (she thinks that she and Kelly’s Donald Lockwood are romantically involved because she read it in a tabloid), possessive, and absolutely ruthless.
Except, as much as the film tried to tell me that Lina was the monster to be defeated, I found myself increasingly on her side. What Singin’ in the Rain felt was fair is, unfortunately, the norm in the entertainment business: here it’s the fact that Lina has a terrible voice for sound pictures, which leads Donald to try and replace her with a younger model in the form of Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy Seldon. Kathy is talented, there’s no doubt about that, but from here Lina is in a fight for her career, for her livelihood.
The film tries everything to make Lina unsympathetic, but Hagen is so perfect that you begin to see the tragedy of her character. We are meant to side with Don and Kathy as they slay the dragon that is Lina, but as we rejoice in Kathy’s new stardom, and their blossoming love, take a moment to remember the fallen star who was ruined for the sake of a happy ending.
Singin’ in the Rain, and Grease before it, impressed me because of their complicated moral values and attitudes inherent to the time they were made. Both films portray an idealized version of a period two decades before they were made, and both films play at being simple and fun, but have layers that deserve credit. There might be something to this musical malarkey, after all.
Now, it’s over to you. What musical should I cover next? I’d love some guidance from fans of this strange and wonderful genre.
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By Kevin Boyle
Header Image: Mental Floss