I used to love all the old Hollywood musicals when I was a kid. On the Town, Anchors Aweigh – basically anything populated by all-singing, all-dancing sailors. If homosexuality had been allowed in 1970s Sunderland, I would have been a shoo-in. But it wasn't. And my parents were of the generation that believed Liberace when he said he was straight, because it was easier. Anyway, I wasn't gay. I just liked sailors and musicals. And I loved Singin’ in the Rain.
Now that I’m all growed up, however, my tastes have changed. It’s very rare I’ll watch a musical now. In fact, I’ll actively spurn the opportunity when it arises. So, with so much water having passed under the bridge since I’d last sat down and properly watched Singin’ in the Rain, I wasn’t entirely sure if it would reach me.
I needn't have worried. It held me rapt and enchanted from the opening roar of the MGM lion.
It opens on the red carpet, with movie stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont (Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen) playing at partners and mugging absurdly for the cameras. Then there are flashbacks to Don and Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) doing vaudeville. They do a rendition of Fit as a Fiddle that is so breathtakingly, overwhelmingly joyful that when they're done, I want to stand up and applaud. But I don't.
There is so much to love in Singin’ in the Rain that it's ridiculous. There's an embarrassment of riches. There's Debbie Reynolds, who's sassy and delightful. There's Jean Hagen, who's terrifying and hilarious. There are the musical numbers, many of which are genuinely exhilarating.
The whole film, in fact, is exhilarating, and so much more so than so many modern films that are routinely plastered in CGI. When I compare how I felt watching the choreography in Singin’ in the Rain compared with how I felt watching the extended fight scene-cum-firework display that is Doctor Strange, for example, there’s really no competition. I actually nodded off during Doctor Strange, and then I left. Singin’ in the Rain had me spellbound and transported in a way that no amount of CGI ever could.
When I was a kid, it was Donald O’Connor as Cosmo that I loved the most, and Make ‘Em Laugh used to knock me out. This time round, however, although his physical performance is still both jaw-dropping and gobsmacking, what struck me most about Make 'Em Laugh was that it didn't make me laugh. It's actually one of the film's least funny scenes.
I just found this on Wikipedia, however, and this gave me a chuckle:
‘Donald O’Connor had to stay in bed for several days after filming the Make ‘Em Laugh sequence. He smoked up to four packs of cigarettes a day.’
All told, Singin’ in the Rain is quirky and edgy and exuberant and ridiculous and dated and romantic and gorgeous. It's also a fascinating document of cinema history, with insights into both the advent of sound in the 1920s and the studio system of the 1950s.