So. You know how I grumbled and grumped about movie musicals in the past? You know how I said that the last film, An American In Paris, should have stuck to the dancing and left out the plot? You know how I said that I’ve accepted that I’m a major cynic about movie musicals? Especially jukebox musicals?
I….I think I found one that I like.
I think this time they went with a concept that kind of just works. This time the story is set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, and deals with the switchover from silent films to talkies. Gene Kelly is Don Lockwood, a silent film star with a vaudeville past (his old vaudeville buddy Cosmo, played by Donald O’Connor, is the music director for all his films and is an offscreen sidekick as well). He’s often playing the romantic lead in films with ditzy Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), and bristles at how the fan magazines suggest they’re a couple in real life. ….Lina actually believes the press, which makes it worse. But then Don meets a pretty chorus girl, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who has loftier ambitions. Don tries to get acquainted, but Lina tries to interfere.
However, then their studio discovers talkies – and the studio discovers they have a problem with Lina. During a test screening for “The Dueling Cavalier”, Don and Lina’s first talkie, the audience laughs uproariously at Lina’s heavy Queens accent. On the other hand, Kathy’s just starting to make a name for herself with her own fine singing voice – and while Lina is caught up in some emergency elocution lessons, she and Don have been falling for each other. During one of their dates, Don has a brainstorm – they can team up with Cosmo to write some music numbers, and re-cut “The Dueling Cavalier” as a musical, using Kathy’s voice dubbed in under Lina’s image. Just this once. They won’t tell Lina, even! The studio head is all for it, and set immediately to work, preparing a huge publicity launch to introduce Kathy as “the voice behind the scenes” as well.
But then Lina finds out – and is not happy with the situation at all. And vows to stop them.
So, it’s profoundly silly. Maybe the fact that this is set in the never-never land of Hollywood makes the frothy ridiculousness of a musical somehow make sense. There’s more logic to someone on a stage set randomly bursting into song than there is on a Paris street, at least, and the big dance numbers that bring the whole show to a halt can spring more naturally from “hey let’s show the boss our new act” or “hey let’s work out the latest number”. Or even “hey let’s make fun of this voice coach by ad-libbing a riff on the tongue twisters he’s teaching us” or whatever.
Or maybe…this is just plain fun. Instead of being a “Jukebox” by one artist, where they try to come up with excuses to cram in as many of their greatest hits, this film is a collection of fun and silly songs from the 1920s and 1930s.
And it also has a couple of numbers that even I acknowledge are impressive. Donald O’Connor gets a big solo with “Make ’em Laugh”, an ode to comedy which sees him doing pratfalls and backflips and other acrobatic gallivanting around a soundstage.
And then of course….there is the title number. I’ve always kinda liked the song “Singin’ In The Rain” itself; it’s infectiously joyful, it’s easy to sing, and it’s nearly ubiquitous. And – I confess to having actually sung it to myself when caught in the rain on my way home from dates in the past. I’ve also seen the clip of Gene Kelly’s big solo dance to the song, and got caught up in his sheer exuberance and joy – Don Lockwood is having the time of his damn life, and Gene Kelly is also having the time of his life performing it. And even though I’ve seen it before – it is utterly infectious.
Seeing that made me dig up something I remembered from when I was a kid – Gene Kelly was actually the last guest on the old Muppet Show. There was a running gag on the show that the Muppets were trying to get Gene to perform, but he wanted to just sit and watch this time. And he seemed especially reluctant to sing “Singin’ In The Rain” for people – even when he sees that Kermit has gone to great lengths to recreate the set from that famous dance in hopes.
But the show ended with Gene singing a medley of some of his film hits for the gang backstage – and then finally relenting and singing a few lines of “Singin’ In The Rain”. Towards the end of the bit, he strolls out onto the old set, looks around at it with a fond smile, then smiles into the camera and walks off – and if you look close, you can see that even here, he can’t resist doing a little shuffle-step for a second.
He loved doing this number. You can tell.