“Dignity. Always, dignity.”
The Golden Age of Musicals. The 40s and 50s were an innovative period for both the stage and film in terms of musical storytelling. Coming from an early theatre background, I have a great deal of respect for a lot of musicals, mostly contemporary however. Book of Mormon, Spring Awakening, most recently Hamilton – these are some really stunning works of theatre that continue to solidify the musical as a viable narrative structure. My problem with Singin’ in the Rain is that it doesn’t have much of a narrative at all. So in this review, I dissect everyone’s favorite Golden Age film and share my thoughts on its shortcomings along with things that I truly enjoyed, in hopes that I can get to the bottom of all of this.
Most people that are really into musicals are perhaps far more appreciative of the singing and dancing: the parts of the film most indicative of a stage musical. That’s what these things are about, people say, the music. Doesn’t Debbie Reynolds have such a stunning voice? What about Gene Kelly’s dancing? Did you know so and so routine took weeks to learn? And to an extent, these people are right. Singin’ in the Rain is no small feat of a film or of a performance, and it showcases some of the most top notch talent in the genre. Everyone is talented, and I’m definitely not saying otherwise. The Make ‘Em Laugh routine is a phenomenal display of physical talent, and Donald O’Conner pulls it off so effortlessly that you can’t help but marvel at his undeniable talent and commitment to craft.
When I first watched Singin’ in the Rain for review purposes, I was really thrown off by the narrative. Every song in this whole musical was written before the actual story was conceived, and it’s painfully obvious at times. The non-singing bits of in-between are often hamfisted justifications for the next song. I once heard a lecture about musical theatre in which we were told that every song should either advance the plot, develop setting, promote characterization, or reveal theme, preferable doing many of these things economically. I think this is a pretty fair way to judge the significance of including a song, but Singin’ in the Rain has almost no songs that do these things. The whole story with Gene Kelly trying to make the transition from silent films to “talkies” is a really unique subject for a film, and there are a lot of funny moments that come from this premise, but it just feels like there should be more of a thematic connection. There’s some love interest tossed in, often hit or miss, and the movie can be hard to latch onto at times as a result.
Take the song “Good Morning” for example, one of the most famous from the whole musical. To preface the song, Gene Kelly is speaking with the other two leads about this film he’s making, and they all decide that they’ll turn it into a musical. But suddenly there’s a line where Kelly exclaims “March 23rd is my lucky day!” and Donald O’Connor says “But it’s actually the 24th! We’ve stayed up all night, and it’s morning!” Then they play out this whole song about how it’s now morning. They finish the number, have a nice laugh, and go right back to talking about the plot. The dance number is fun, and if you can enjoy it for its own sake, then there’s really no problem here. You just wouldn’t see this kind of loose attachment between song and story in a newer musical. Perhaps to judge such a film in this way would be unfair, when the conventions of the time called for exactly this type of structure, and there’s definitely some merit to this argument of perspective. However, it’s moments like these that keep Singin’ in the Rain out of consideration as far as “greatest musical ever” in my mind. Musical form has significantly improved since the 50s, and older material such as this film just don’t resonate with me as comparable.
Ultimately, I was still impressed by Singin’ in the Rain, if only let down. There were many entertaining numbers, and I really admire a great number of musicals, but this is a film that never spoke to me in a powerful way that something like Hamilton might do. I even admire all the performances in this movie quite a bit. It just feels boring at times: a spectacle over substance. For me, the mark of a strong musical is the seamless transition from song to song with a building story arc that climaxes in a finale. The “finale” offered up by Singin’ in the Rain is a comedic rehash of the titular number. It’s fun, but it doesn’t feel epic in the way that a great musical typically does.
*As an update, I’ve definitely come to appreciate this movie more after a second viewing, and I’ve even tamed my thoughts above to match this perspective, where I was far more observant and open-minded about the film. I think the plot is a lot stronger on its own than I gave it credit for, and I found that there is a lot of creative genius tucked away in Singin’ in the Rain. I found the Broadway Melody sequence strangely out of place, and I’d probably now consider that the lowest point of the film, but everything else felt far stronger after giving the film a second chance. I think it just took a deeper commitment to immersion in the film, as well as some consideration for the constraints and the standards of the time. As always, however, I’d love to hear your thoughts on where we agree or disagree.
(Updated with new thoughts, November 2016)
Films Left to Watch: 963