It’s interesting to me that so many movies chronicle the rise of the “talkies” and the demise of so many silent film stars once pictures had sound. It must have been the last truly apocalyptic moment in movie-making; the monumental shift in acting from pantomime and stage-ready hamming to smaller gestures and voice-heavy emoting saw an entire class of major stars suddenly fade in a few years’ time, giving rise to a new crop of actors who could look and sound the part.
Some films — like the amazing Sunset Boulevard — take a dramatic look at the toll on the psyche that summary rejection brings you. Singin’ in the Rain takes the path of the romantic comedy, instead, where the disruption of the talkies and the influx of new talent actually allows most of its stars to move on to bigger and better things. Of course, the broad plot is mostly window dressing for a number of really amazing musical productions — mostly choreographed by Gene Kelly himself.
Kelly is Don Lockwood, who is one of the biggest silent screen stars of his day with partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). They’re always in love on film, and Lina has taken to thinking that they’re lovers off-screen as well. Neither Don nor his former partner, Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) like Lina very much, though. When talking pictures hit big, Don’s voice is a perfect fit for the kinds of roles he plays — Lina, whose voice is shrill and high, doesn’t do so well. It’s decided that her voice be dubbed over with Kathy Selden’s (Reynolds), a struggling actress that Don almost immediately falls in love with instead.
It’s easy to guess where the film is going from that set-up, but the destination isn’t the point — how entertained we are getting there is. And that’s where Singin’ in the Rain really shines. Kelly and O’Connor have a great chemistry, and they riff off of each other quite well. Both of them are workhorses when it comes to song and dance, and they attack each number with a ferocity I don’t think I’ve ever seen. O’Connor’s work on “Make ‘Em Laugh” is rumored to be so difficult he was bed-ridden for three days trying to recover, or so the story goes.
Hagen is great as Lina Lamont. She’s calculated her performance with just the right amount of charisma so that you love to hate her. She’s a ridiculously fun villain, and she understands just what she’s for in every scene. So many of the movie’s highlights belong to her; whenever the proceedings are in danger of becoming too sappy, she punches it up with the right amount of tartness.
But the movie unquestionably belongs to Kelly. When people think of the big Hollywood musicals of the 40s and 50s, this is the movie they think about — and with good reason. Every song crackles with energy, the cast is obviously having a great time, the whole affair moves with a briskness that makes its 100-minute running time seem even shorter. It’s an iconic movie, the one that every golden-age musical is judged against. It’s a timeless movie that somehow manages to catch the distinct style of entertainment in the 50s while chronicling a subject that swept through cinema twenty-five years earlier.
If your tolerance for musicals is low, then chances are you won’t really dig Singin’ in the Rain. If you’re curious about them, though, and wonder why a lot of those old movies have such a devoted following after all these years, this should be the film you watch to see why.