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The AFI Top 100 Films: Singin’ in the Rain (#10)

Entertainment 150Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds
Written by Adolph Green and Betty Comden
Directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

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.

Every. Single. Song.

They just dance like this for every song.

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.

 
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Posted by on January 29, 2014 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: West Side Story (#41)

Entertainment 150West Side Story (1961)
Starring Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno
Written by Ernest Lehman (screenplay), Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)
Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise

This movie comes with the weight of all its baggage. Granted, a lot of classic movies do, but this one a bit more than most. It’s been parodied a lot, and the basic premise (hey, it’s a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet!) has been done so often that it’s easy to lose touch with what makes this movie special. I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about it going in besides that the Montagues and Capulets were now rival gangs called the Sharks and the Jets, and that there was a LOT of dance-fighting. Both of these things are true, but there’s also a lot more going on than it looks at first glance.

Maria (Wood) is the sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris). They’re a Puerto Rican street gang encroaching on the traditional territory of the Jets, their Polish rivals. Tony (Beymer), best friend of the Jets’ leader and former member himself, falls in love with her right when the turf war between the gangs heats up past its boiling point. Right when both sides are planning an all-out rumble to determine who owns the streets once and for all, Tony and Maria have to try and make their budding romance work while untangling their duty to family and heritage.

This is no straight-up retread. The story is surprisingly and deeply enriched by the change of setting. Maria is caught between two worlds — the promise of a life in the land of opportunity with someone who genuinely loves her, fulfilling her dream of America; or the close-knit community she has with her family and friends, the small Puerto Rican neighborhood that feels it can’t catch an equal break in this country. Maria’s choice reflects the basic decision that so many minorities have to make here — do you follow your optimism and try to blend into the great melting pot of mainstream society, or do you stay with your community and make that stronger, better, livelier? Re-framing Maria’s choice as one of honoring the individual vs. honoring the society that individual is born into makes her decision much more complex and difficult.

The plight of the country’s inner-city minorities wasn’t exactly a huge topic of conversation in 1961; I’m impressed that West Side Story (and the musical it was made from) had the stones to make it the crux of the story. Both the Polish Jets and Puerto Rican Sharks feel like they’re protecting the only space carved out just for them — the wider world (represented by the authority figure Krupke) is hostile and unyielding, and there’s only so much space to go around. It’s understandable that each group would want to own it; if they’re not going to get a fair shake anywhere else, at least they have this small strip of the neighborhood where they can be who they are, make the rules.

It’s the possibility of making over a small part of America in their image that resonates so strongly with these two factions. In the song “America”, Bernardo’s girlfriend Anita (Moreno) sings about how crappy things are in Puerto Rico, how the possibilities are endless here. Bernardo replies with tales of a wall of discrimination between his people and the outside world. If they’re going to embrace the American dream, it has to be here and now. They’ll have to take the opportunity they dreamed of; no one else is going to give it to them.

The movie’s influences extend beyond Shakespeare; a lot of shots were made to duplicate paintings of New York from famous contemporary artists of the day, and co-director Robert Wise fought to shoot within the city. He chose condemned buildings and rough neighborhoods for his sequences to really sell the small, claustrophobic world these two packs of youngsters are roiling in. It’s as much Shakespeare as it is New York, a love letter to two disparate things that actually work in surprising harmony.

The songs are breezy and fun, with lyrics that fall off the tongue of the actors so well. That’s a specialty of Sondheim, who I happen to like. The actors work insanely hard to create a world where the rough life of gang members can be expressed through something as contrary as choreographed dance, and for the most part it works. I felt myself resisting the conceit with the iconic opening number of the movie before checking myself, and you might need to do the same sort of mental adjustment. This is the world of the movie, this the conceit of the story. If you buy this one thing, accept the story in its own language, it opens up to be quite effective.

So forget what you know about West Side Story; yeah, it’s a song-and-dance-infused retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but it’s also a mature and complex postcard of life amongst minorities in 1950’s New York that’s surprisingly intelligent. You can’t ask for more from your pop art, really.

Rating: 4/5.

 
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Posted by on February 21, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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