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At 60, The Best Movie Musical Ever Deserves Another Look

Posted: 09/17/2012 2:30 pm

Talk about a movie aging gracefully.

For my birthday last Saturday night, we invited over a group of our closest friends to screen the newly released blu-ray edition of 1952's Singin' In The Rain.

Though I expected a delightful experience, truly timeless movies have a way of surprising you with each new viewing, however many times you've seen them.

Last night was no exception. We were all enchanted, no one more than yours truly.

No doubt part of the grand effect had to do with our new flat screen, and part of it was the blu-ray itself. (Anyone ever notice that scar on Gene Kelly's cheek? I hadn't.)

The colors seemed to pop like never before, particularly in the "Broadway Melody" ballet sequence that launched the leggy Cyd Charisse to stardom. (It's easy to see why!)

Then there's Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" number where he does his famous somersault off a wall. Reportedly the hoofer, a heavy smoker, took to his bed for a week after this gravity-defying display of athleticism.

The Oscar-nominated Jean Hagen had us all in stitches as the screechy-voiced silent star Lina Lamont. (As perfect as she is, it's surprising to learn her part was originally written with Judy Holliday in mind).

The sheer brilliance of this movie seems all the more miraculous when you consider there is precious little new or original in it.

It rests on a familiar Hollywood story (retold just last year in The Artist) of the industry's sudden, seismic transformation from silent pictures to sound in the late twenties. Most of the characters are actually composites of real people then working in the industry. And finally, in lieu of an original score, the movie just recycles a whole bunch of popular songs from that period.

And guess who wrote those songs? None other than the film's producer, Arthur Freed. Decades before heading his own production unit at MGM, Freed had penned some of the most hummable, danceable tunes of the twenties (along with his partner, Nacio Herb Brown).

Of course, Singin' In The Rain is most commonly associated with star/director Gene Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen. And that's as it should be. After all, Don Lockwood has to be Kelly's most winning performance, and it's hard to fault the directors when ultimately what the film delivers is a triumph of execution.

But we should also remember Arthur Freed's multi-faceted contribution in what must have been his most personal film project.

Besides the producer, all hail to the writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

I'm not the first to say this, but it bears repeating: Singin' In The Rain is certainly the funniest musical ever produced, thanks in large part to that fast, clever, buoyant Comden-Green script.

Beyond the succession of peerless gags and zingers, the zany tone and breakneck pacing, the movie skewers all the hype and make-believe of Tinseltown, but does it with considerable affection.

Thus it's pretty baffling that none of the key players were even nominated for Academy Awards- not Kelly, nor Donen, nor Freed, nor Comden and Green. This oversight may have been political, since the prior Freed/Kelly pairing. An American In Paris, took home six Oscars the year before, including Best Picture for Freed.

I guess it speaks volumes that in 1952, a circus picture got the top prize at the Academy Awards (Cecil B. De Mille's The Greatest Show On Earth).

Accolades aside, how can one write about the joyful feast that is Singin' In The Rain, and not mention nineteen year old ingénue Debbie Reynolds, the only major participant in the production still with us?

Reynolds once quipped that doing this picture was the toughest experience she ever had, tied with childbirth. Gene Kelly himself admitted he was a tyrant with this game but green actress, saying years later: "I'm surprised she even talks to me."

One of the great stories of Hollywood: Fed up one day, Kelly stalked off the set after bluntly informing Debbie she was hopeless as a dancer. The dejected Reynolds hid herself under a piano, weeping hysterically.

Then she heard a soft, reassuring voice calling her name. She looked up through her tears, and saw the smiling face of... Fred Astaire.

He'd been visiting the set, and witnessed the confrontation. In an act of supreme professional generosity, he then gently took Debbie Reynolds through her steps.

It sounds like a dream, doesn't it?

Watching the blu-ray of Singin' In The Rain felt like a dream too -- a glorious, vivid dream. No cellphone, just pure celluloid fantasy.

Not a bad way to spend my birthday, celebrating the birthday of the best Hollywood musical ever made.

And one more thing: I should look so good at sixty!


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