Old Ass Musicals: Singin’ In the Rain (1952)

By  · Published on September 5th, 2010

Every Sunday in September, Film School Rejects will present a musical that was made before you were born and tell you why you should like it.

This week, Old Ass Musicals presents the story of Hollywood at a time of transition, a production in trouble, and a man who foolishly croons in the middle of a downpour.

It’s Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in the immortal Singin’ in the Rain.

I have a confession to make.

We all have a List of Shame – that list of movies we just never saw and never got around to seeing. It makes sense. The hustle of life can keep us from sitting down and taking a few hours to spend with movies that might have come out decades and decades ago. That’s part of the reasoning for this column’s existence.

My confession: up until last night, Singin’ in the Rain was on my List of Shame. I’d never seen it. I didn’t even know the plot outside of the iconic dancing scene where Gene Kelly takes to splashing in the streets to the titular song.

In a way, I’m glad it took this long to see it because what I experienced was surprising. Singin’ in the Rain is a movie for movie lovers. It is a film obsessed with the art of film – and if you only know about Kelly’s waterlogged tap shoes, you’re missing out on something incredible and film-filled.

It’s 1927, and while Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a massive star (alongside his beautiful, screechy-voiced leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen)), he’s about to find life difficult with the advent of The Talkie. The Jazz Singer changes the entire game, and now the studio has to save the latest production by rolling sound on it – an addition which doesn’t bode well for everyone, especially Lina. Fortunately, Lockwood has just met the talented Kethy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) and he’s got his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) by his side to help out.

Singin’ in the Rain is now regarded as one of the best musicals of all time, and that’s all due to the vibrant Hollywood world that director Stanley Donen created alongside the stellar singing and dancing of the main cast. Gene Kelly is at the apex of his charm and ability here, and newcomer Debbie Reynolds is about as sweet as a glass of lemonade on a hot summer day. They make a great couple with strong chemistry, but the best character in the entire film is Cosmo – played by the endlessly energetic Donald O’Connor. He’s quick with a joke, a piano riff, or to literally bounce of the walls if the situation calls for it. Back in the 20s, the situation called for it a lot.

It’s an oddly-structured movie that gets away with stuffing musical numbers into the strangest opportunities – whether it’s right after Selden has jumped out of a cake or in interrupting the transition into the third act by sliding in a technical dream sequence dressed up as the first act for the film they’re making.

In fact, one of the most incredible things about the film (especially if you’re a film geek) is the dedication to references and jokes to the world of movies. It causes a few meta situations.

  1. Most obviously, it’s a movie about making a movie which includes the massive first song and dance number from that movie in the third act of the movie.
  2. There’s a story about Gene Kelly making fun of Debbie Reynolds’s lack of dancing skills before production began- which is appropriate considering that Reynolds’s character immediately mocks Kelly’s character’s profession when they meet in the film.
  3. The songs in the film are from old movies of the late 20s and 30s (“Singin’ in the Rain” was featured in Hollywood Revue of 1929) which creates a celebration of the previous decades of musicals while also creating anachronisms for the film’s time period of 1927.
  4. It directly uses The Jazz Singer as the first talkie and the catalyst for the grand revolution in Hollywood.
  5. The antagonist of the film is Lina Lamont – a bitchy prima donna who is thought to be classy in the silent film world. Unfortunately, she really has the voice of a horse that’s been punched in the throat and the grammar skills of a horse that’s been punched in the throat. At the very least, the story arc is based off of huge silent film star Norma Talmadge who didn’t survive the transition into talkies.
  6. The movie also uses dubbing as a major plot point. In the most confusing self-reflexivity – Jean Hagen plays the awful-voiced starlet who is dubbed by the talented character played by Debbie Reynolds. Oddly enough, it’s Hagen’s own beautiful voice that’s used to dub herself. Plus, despite crediting being a major focus of the last act, Debbie Reynolds’s singing was dubbed by another actress who went uncredited – mirroring the film exactly. Even more confusingly, there’s a scene at the end where Reynolds “sings” for Hagen in a live setting, but it’s in fact Hagen’s voice dubbed for Reynolds’s who is supposed to be live-dubbing for Hagen.

Confusing context aside, the film itself is worth the watch not only for the gorgeous music and a great romantic storyline that has more to do with show business than a couple’s struggles. It’s worth the watch especially if you’re a fan of old movies as the script is full of references to actors of the Golden Era as well as producers, technical situations, and the lifestyle of the time.

I hate to admit that it took me this long to get to this timeless classic, but viewing it through years of film appreciation makes me believe that I cared about it in a different way than I might have if I’d seen it, say, in high school. I’m not the best advocate for musicals. They confuse me in the most basic of ways – seemingly normal humans burst out into song and choreographed dance at a moment’s notice only to return to a conversation as if nothing happened. Still, we’ll be focusing on some of the best musicals of the Old Ass era all month, and I can think of few that would be better to start with than Singin’ in the Rain.

Movie lovers, this one’s for you.

Shun the modern and read more Old Ass Movies.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.