Monday, July 18, 2011

It's Raining; The Sound of Music

It's among the American Film Institute's Top 100 Films. Sight & Sound magazine has listed it among the best ten films of all time. It's an American classic, and most everyone has at least HEARD of it. Donald O'Connor won a Golden Globe for it. How then has Mr. Anderson managed to miss this classic film? Well, the answer is right there in the word "classic", as subjective a term as ever there were in film. In the past I would often be accused of favoring more "modern" film, and that argument is certainly not without merit; most of what I've seen the past few years has rarely further back than the 1980's, and even before then I've been wary of "classic" films that were supposedly iconic for their time, since many have failed to live up to that standard (I'm looking at you, Sunset Boulevard). I've seen my fair share of them, but most have been coaxed upon me, not purposely sought out by myself for my entertainment. This was also true when my friend Anne reintroduced Singin' in the Rain, and I had to admit it was about time. Long regarded as one of Hollywood's best, I couldn't for the longest time get past the (in my eyes) ridiculous scene were the hero actually sings and dances in a downpour. Of course I realized the film had to be about more than that, but it was still enough to keep my interest at bay. Finally compelled, it has become the latest oldie recommendation for Hello Mr. Anderson, and as I'll finally be getting back to the new releases this week, perhaps the last DVD review for a while.

Most living people only know this one scene
Like the aforementioned Sunset Boulevard, Singin' in the Rain is a Hollywood film ABOUT Hollywood. In fact, the film covers a remarkable event in cinematic history, that of the introduction of talking pictures, or "talkies" as they were referred to at that time. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are famous silent picture stars who live in the hearts of their fans, and are rumored to be connected romantically as much as they are professionally. This couldn't be further from the truth, as Don has never been fond of Lina, whose shrill voice and snotty personality has long been hidden from the public by the nature of her performances and her bosses and fellow stars, who never let her speak to the public. One night, by chance Don meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), an aspiring singer and dancer who has yet to really break in. Despite not getting off on the best of terms, Kathy's career gains some traction thanks to support by Don and his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor, who won a Golden Globe for this role). Don wants a real relationship with Kathy, but Lina stands in his way with a mind full of vengeance and public opinion on her side. Is there any way for Don to be with Kathy and for Kathy's career not to end after it's barely begun?

This is of course the downside of musicals: everybody sings
Packed with big (at the time) stars, Singin' in the Rain is unfortunately one of those type of film that carries the worst pretensions of Hollywood: the film about Hollywood. By the same mindset that makes D-List celebrities like Heidi & Spencer and the Real Housewives so popular among the masses, films surrounding Hollywood suppose that the everyday workings of a Hollywood studio are worth committing to celluloid. At least these older films carried a certain amount of respect for their industry, unlike many similar titles today which are quick to spoof that which is considered low-brow (such as No Strings Attached's dashboard copy of High School Musical). The change from silent pictures to talking films was a huge milestone for the industry, and while that doesn't necessarily mean that it had to be made into a full-length motion picture, at least the RESPECT for the event is there.

A lesson to those who would dare turn their backs on Donald O'Connor
The respect is also apparent in the numerous musical numbers that inhabit this relatively story-short film. In fact, it would be safe to say that there would be no Singin' without the dancing, tunes and yes singing that make up the vast majority of the movie. Most of the songs are in the high quality range, especially O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh", which has been copied faithfully by many an entertainer over the years (perhaps most recently Joseph Gordon-Levitt's rendition when he hosted SNL a few years ago) as well as the eponymous "Singin' in the Rain", which Kelly delivers with pitch perfection and amazing dance choreography. Some of the other musical numbers manage to go on far too long, such as "Beautiful Girl" and the completely unnecessary "Broadway Melody" which seemingly only take up time that otherwise wouldn't be used. Still, most of the music is well-used, and the choreography of Kelly is put to good use as not one dancer looks out of place at any time during the production.

That's quite an ankle you've got there...
Back in the old days of Hollywood, talent was just as important (if not more) as good looks when it came to an actor's star power. An performer was not only expected to look good and pull off a decent acting job, but since these people often came from the bright lights of Broadway, song and dance was often a necessity for success. Gene Kelly was one of the ones who had it all, from a chiseled jaw that would make Brad Pitt and George Clooneycombust or melt away at the end of his career. Every performance in this film is highly animated, almost to the point of being all over the place. In this regard he's countered nicely by O'Connor. O'Connor didn't have the good looks of Kelly. If anything, he looked perpetually like Superman's little buddy Jimmy Olson during his career, and character-wise that comparison holds up nicely between him and Kelly. Still, where Kelly is pure energy, O'Connor is the same but in distilled form; he's no less talented than Kelly when it comes to singing and dancing, but he manages to instill subtlety and grace where Kelly is decidedly lacking. He's simply a wonderful performer, and that he worked at an ice cream shoppe with my father's mother has no bearing on that fact. Debbie Reynolds was not a dancer when she was signed to this film, and it was only thanks to help from the acclaimed Fred Astaire that she was able to do as well as she did. That said, the final product has her holding her own against Kelly and O'Connor, so that's certainly more than what people might have expected. Jean Hagen is both funny and vicious as the film's main antagonist, a dangerous blend that many of the best bad guys can pull off. She perfectly plays an actress who will have no chance once talking pictures become the norm, and she really manages to make herself unlikable to the audience who might have otherwise searched for an excuse to like her.

No close ups, please, Mr. Demille...
While a few minor elements of the film are a bit silly and overly simplistic, the biggest problem is the story, which ran in fear from the sheer number of musical numbers added to the script. Add atop that the pretension of the idea and by today's standards you'd rightfully have empty theaters and bad reviews. Back in the day this was a major phenomena however, and Singin' in the Rain was a flagship title that basically dictated how musicals were presented to the public for decades to come. That isn't to say this film succeeds only as a byproduct of its era, however. Expertly acted, with wonderful music and radiating pure entertainment, this film is a perfect example of the good kind of "classic," deserving its place among the tops of "best films" lists. More entertaining than you might expect, Singin' in the Rain is certainly one I don't regret taking time to see on the small screen.

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