#6 — Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952)
A few years back, when the American Film Institute followed their surprisingly successful AFI’S 100 Years 100 Movies special with annual companion lists of increasing insignificance (anybody really care what wound up on 100 Years 100 Passions?) I was a little surprised that they never hit on the concept of counting down the one hundred greatest movie scenes. As an actual exercise there are too many challenges to determining the parameters of said scenes for inclusion in the consideration process to make it anything but frustrating, so its possible that they saw it as inviting futility onto an already fairly silly endeavor. Though I clearly like pulling these sorts of backward counting games together, I would never want to try to condense the whole of American film into the ten, twenty, or even one hundred best scenes. And yet I have absolutely no doubt as to what I would put at the top of my list. A man in love turns away from a newly closed door, steps down a few slick steps, and waves away his driver in order to walk home in inclement weather. The music starts. Then comes the most joyful scene in the history of movies, made more so by it’s pronounced artistry disguised as spontaneous simplicity.
Singin’ in the Rain was something of a throwaway production, certainly not approached with the same aspiration nor viewed with the same esteem as the previous year’s An American in Paris, which also starred Gene Kelly. Producer Arthur Freed, of MGM’s vaunted Freed Unit, cooked it up as a way to make some use of the catalog of songs he’d written with Nacio Herb Brown for previous musicals. Most of the tunes were around twenty years old. The title song was one of the oldest, first appearing in Hollywood Revue of 1929. There is only one wholly original song in the film: “Moses Supposes,” by Roger Edens and screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. (It happens to be one of the very best in the production.) Befitting the long lineage of the songs, the story also reaches back to the early days of Hollywood, following a silent film star (Kelly) as he adapts to the coming of “talkies,” taking advantage of the new technology to transform his swashbuckler picture into a musical. Singin’ in the Rain is sweetly nostalgic for and sharply cynical about the bygone days of Hollywood, the opposing qualities infusing the film in roughly equal measure. In a movie overstuffed with fleet footwork, that paradoxical appraisal of the business may be the niftiest dance of all.
Credited to Kelly and Stanley Donen as co-directors, Singin’ in the Rain is a consistent marvel. The musical numbers aren’t just light, fun and festive. They are inspired, even jaw-dropping at times. I remember a TCM featurette that featured Donald O’Connor talking about his wild acrobatics in the “Make ‘Em Laugh” scene, remarking something to the effect of “That was a little tricky” as he watched himself run straight up planks and walls to perform backflips. He sounded like he was talking about a moderately challenging chip shot. That relaxed quality abounds in Singin’ in the Rain. Surely, that’s part of what makes it so special. For all the toil and ambition that once went into grand Hollywood productions, a more modest approach can reveal a greater creative wisdom. That’s not to imply that Kelly, Donen, and company didn’t care about what they were making or didn’t try to push themselves. The elegant “Broadway Melody Ballet” is counterargument enough to that faulty notion. But the relative humility of Singin’ in the Rain is a major part of its charm. After all, the familiar, natural occurrence of water falling from the sky can itself hold untold wonders.