In July, 2015, the BBC released a list of the 100 Greatest American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. I’m watching them and writing about them as a form of self taught film school. This week in honor of spring being right around the corner, we’re doing number 7: Singin’ in the Rain — directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. As always, there will be spoilers.
I like to imagine moviegoers seeing a talking picture for the first time. The union of pictures and sound into a seamless experience is a seminal moment in the history of movie magic, and I harbor some jealousy toward the generation of people who experienced that revolution first hand. After the resounding success of The Jazz Singer in 1927, it’s no surprise that talking pictures quickly became the new normal. Two films that stand the test of critical time, and portray this shift from dramatically contrasting viewpoints are Singin’ In the Rain (1952) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).
Two titans that explore the downstream effects of technical advances in cinema, Sunset Boulevard reveals the creative and psychological loss brought about by this innovation, whereas Singin’ in the Rain is a resolutely cheerful celebration of its arrival. Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard exalts the isolation of an actor’s expression from their voice and bemoans the lost subtlety of acting without the benefit of sound. Singin’ in the Rain, on the other hand, takes a comedic look at actors and crew members struggling to adjust to the talkies — Lina Lamont’s accent and grating vocals, Don Lockwood’s insistence on writing his own lines, and primitive microphone technology that tended to pick up everything other than the dialogue. What has been ultimately proven over the decades is that the union of sound and image provides audiences with a more realistic portrayal of reality, and a deepened sense of humanity, enhancing our overall experience as well as the capacity for empathizing with the characters we are observing.
Singin’ In the Rain was released in 1952 and set in 1927, granting its authors some distance from the subject they are exploring. Revisiting Singin’ In the Rain sixty-five years after its initial release is to witness the effect of time on entertainment from an even more distant vantage point. While Singin’ in the Rain lightly pokes fun at the growing pains of early sound production, it is a film that draws much of its directorial inspiration from theater, particularly in the dream sequence and the “Beautiful Girl” montage, illustrating how each rung in the cinematic technical ladder draws from the forerunners who pioneered those innovations and established the next foundation to be built upon.
I like to imagine future generations being woken up by parental renditions of “Good Morning” or hanging off of light posts with umbrellas. Some things never change, including our appetite for movies about movies. Our fascination with films about Hollywood is partially fueled by our collective obsession with stardom, a brilliantly featured theme throughout Singin’ In the Rain. The faux relationship manufactured between Lina and Don to drive up ticket sales is a tactic the hype machine has recycled over and over again. From the slapstick red carpet scene to the first time Don and Kathy meet, the film consistently uses fame and celebrity to push the plot forward.
La La Land is the latest big Hollywood production that endeavors to capture the experience of aspiring entertainers in the dreamscape of Los Angeles, and in many ways it is an homage to the musical and cinematic stylings of the golden age of film that Singin’ in the Rain has come to embody. The saturated colors, narrative musical numbers, and the braiding of career and romantic ambitions all work to elicit the same emotion that Singin’ in the Rain evokes from audiences. Both films dazzle audiences in their scope and reiterate the exhilaration experienced when rich imagery, memorable composition, and compelling performances are woven together.
It is the combination of these elements that makes Singin’ in the Rain a resounding success. The late Debbie Reynolds, who the Brattle is honoring in this tribute screening of the film, jumps immediately off the screen and her determination is endearing to not just her, but the film in its entirety. Kathy, like the film itself, is ambitious and fearless, and Reynolds elevates the role with vivacious commitment and jaunty charm.