Written by Anthony Gagnon
It was supposed to be just another run of the mill showcase for a back catalog of original songs. Gene Kelly was just supposed to get in front of the camera, do a song and dance, and everyone was supposed to move on with their lives. Money needed to be coming in. Actors needed to act. Production designers needed to design sets. Even craft services needed to serve food. In fact, contemporary audience and critical reception to the film was lukewarm. It just came and went like everyone expected it would.
Everyone knows by now though that it’s one of the best movies, and arguably the best movie musical, ever made. What made this film so much different than the large number of musicals released at the time? Why did public opinion move from indifference to reverence and adulation over the years?
There’s an age old saying: “art is defined by its limitations.” Sometimes, the more constraints placed on creativity, the more opportunity there is for creativity to flourish in the overall piece. In this case, the creators were given a number of random, unrelated songs and were tasked with piecing them together in a cohesive story. That’s a very big limitation to put on someone since writing a coherent story is extremely difficult in itself. The film is a triumph of expert story craftsmanship, with the musical numbers advancing the story organically and remaining as emotionally impactful as the connective scenes between them.
A perfect example is the scene where Debbie Reynolds’ character Kathy emerges from a giant cake and begins dancing at a party that happens to include Gene Kelly’s character Don. In a previous scene, Don and Kathy had serendipitously met, but Kathy was cold to Don’s romantic advances, and eventually insulted him, thinking she’d never see him again. This is a great scene in itself because it subtextually highlights Kathy’s attraction to him. On the surface, she seemed disinterested in Don’s arrogant persona, but the fact that she not only allowed him to stay in the car, but also cared enough to make a very specific and pointed insult, means the audience can recognize that she has deeper feelings than she’s putting off.
Then in the party scene, Kathy bursts through the cake while Don happens to be standing right next to her, creating an embarrassing situation considering she did not think she would see him again. The dance number reveals a large amount of important information about Don, Kathy, and their budding relationship. For one, it illuminates Kathy’s vulnerability, in that her surprise and embarrassment from seeing Don again shows her deepening feelings for him. She could have just ignored him and went about her dancing she was hired for, but she chose to let Don affect her. Don also not only realizes that she’s connected with his production company and he can see her again, but that she has a lot of personality and talent. She’s someone he can pursue on both a professional and a romantic level.
Even though the film is filled with extravagant, flamboyant song and dance numbers, it’s also filled with numerous subtle nuances. Again, in the party scene, Don and Kathy do not see eye to eye in any capacity, but Kathy ironically sings “All I do is dream of you.” Kathy also dances front and center amongst the other girls, and about a half second slower, to single her out in the crowd and further illustrate her importance to Don and his pursuit of her. Arguably the funniest line in the film is a one off punchline after the incredibly elaborate “Broadway Melody” number, when the studio head says he “can’t quite picture” the elaborate sequence that just took place.
While it wasn’t the first film to do so, as there had at least been “Sullivan’s Travels” in 1941, it’s a perfect example of a film that features post-modern reflexivity and self-awareness. It’s littered with references and jokes about making movies. A big reason why the film has stood the test of time is because of its celebratory nature of a very specific time and place. Political thrillers can become outdated. Actual science can surpass science fiction. “Singin’ in the Rain,” is a classical Hollywood film that is about the making of classical Hollywood films. Its self-contained nature allows the audience to appreciate this moment in time on its own terms, free of historical context.
Something must also be said about the pure talent involved in this film. The film is a relic of the last days of the Vaudeville era, where Hollywood was still an extension of live performances people used to go to for entertainment. As such, it is a marvel of energetic dancing and athleticism, with Gene Kelly’s acrobatics, Donald O’Connor’s slapstick, and Debbie Reynolds’ versatility.
What makes a film like this that’s so relentlessly upbeat and positive come off as genuine and not syrupy? It’s the sincerity in its overall theme. The film is about optimism. The characters experience looming uneasiness about the future, whether it be the loss of their silent film careers, or their newfound romantic feelings. Then they learn to keep their head up and keep trying, because successful adaptation to change can only come from a place of positivity. The only character who doesn’t want to change is Lena, and she’s the only one who ends up embarrassing herself. All anyone needs to do in this world is Make ‘Em Laugh.