As long as there have been movies, there have been dance movies. Far too often, in an effort to contrast the mundane quality of everyday life with the exuberance of dance, the audience is left with a remarkably unimpressive story. Some dance movies are downright depressing.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is considered by those who are connoisseurs of great film to be the best dance movie ever made and even the summit of the Hollywood musical. Consistently ranked among the 50 best films, it’s light, frothy, unpretentious, and genuinely funny. The songs are fresh, the dances outstanding, and the performances invigorating.
The film was produced in 1952 for MGM by Arthur Freed (no relation to the famous maker of British Dance shoes). Freed also wrote the lyrics to the songs, and they are truly delightful, especially the title number.
Hollywood is at its best when it makes fun of itself, and this movie is no exception. It’s a satire on show business in general and of Hollywood; an exposé of the ruthless ambition of idolized stars, showing the comic possibilities of the problems faced by actors and studios making the challenging transition from silent films to talkies. It’s a great premise for a musical, and Singin’ in the Rain makes the most of the possibilities. Jean Hagan plays a sex goddess of the silent film era who cannot sing, cannot even speak, without her ridiculously grating voice causing hysteria in the audience. An unscrupulous and ambitious actress, we find Hagan thoroughly despicable. But she’s in love with Kelly and he’s in love with the delightfully modest Debbie Reynolds, whose pure heart seems untouched by the corruption of Hollywood. As the story unfolds and we see Debbie Reynolds’ talent usurped as she stands in as the voice of Hagan, building Hagan’s popularity to cult-like status, our dislike towards Hagan increases. This sets up the completely predictable yet fully enjoyable scenario where the deception is eventually revealed and the entire house of cards comes crashing down.
The Hollywood depicted in the film is shown as a lovable, light-hearted and fun-filled place full of hope and happiness, which keeps the film from becoming dark or ugly. This is part of the genius of Freed’s vision and the chemistry between Kelly and Stanley Donen, who co-directed the film. Take the same premise in any modern movie and I doubt any of today’s directors would be able to marry that story to the kind of lightness we find here that leaves you feeling happy when it’s all over. Gene Kelly does an excellent job of playing the Hollywood star who seems unaware of the phony world he lives in, yet we see under the surface a sense that he just may be smarter than he looks.
The production numbers take you through a delightful musical journey of the history of modern dance. The primary numbers are distinctly different, yet all of them have notable qualities that, combined, give us a rich look at the value of dance in our culture.
The title number, the one all dancers know and love, is an emotionally Garlandesque solo by Gene Kelly. “And You Were Meant for Me,” in which Kelly and Reynolds sing and dance a love duet on an empty soundstage, is very much in the Astaire-Rogers tradition. And “Broadway Ballet,” the big production number, is a surrealistic Busby Berkeley type extravaganza filled with unexpected transitions, a huge cast, and wonderful balletic dancing by Kelly and Cyd Charisse. There are other numbers that enrich the movie, heighten the fun of the story, and make the picture such a beautiful anthology of dance styles and techniques.