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Singin' in the Rain -- Why Are We So Excited?

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Singin' in the Rain, possibly the greatest movie ever made (I'll explain myself soon, I promise), celebrates its 60th birthday on July 12, with special screenings all over the U.S. If anything, its reputation grows with each decade.

It's not just one of America's favorite films. Even critics like it. Among film reviewers in Australia, possibly my most revered colleague is David Stratton, who co-hosts our version of At The Movies with the colorful Margaret Pomeranz. (The double-act has been required TV viewing for Aussie film buffs since 1986.) Reviewers admire Stratton, and the way he can so effortlessly pronounce film titles like Trois Couleurs: Bleu (not to mention directors' names like Krzysztof Kieslowski). I can't always understand him (for example, I don't know what he saw in Take This Waltz), but we certainly agree on a few things.

Case in point: In 1987, he was one of the international critics surveyed for a book on the 100 greatest films. While you might imagine that his favorite film would be something by Kurosawa, or an obscure Bulgarian masterwork about sharecroppers, he chose Singin' in the Rain, the 1952 comedy-musical. (Citizen Kane was relegated to second place in his list.) This was good to know, because whenever I am asked to compile my own list of favorite films, I also choose Singin' in the Rain.

We're not the only two. When that book was released, compiled from lists by numerous highbrow critics, the top five included Citizen Kane" (natch), Battleship Potemkin (of course), something by Fellini, something by Renoir, and then, among all the arthouse films, that cute piece of Hollywood escapism, Singin' in the Rain.

It seems to appear in many such lists, whether selected by critics or regular movie buffs. You won't find Star Wars or Blade Runner on a critics' list, and you won't find Les Enfants du Paradis or The Bicycle Thieves on a list chosen by regular film buffs.

So what's the big deal? If I (like David Stratton) consider it my favorite film, can I explain myself? Was it influential, like Kane or Potemkin? No, not really. Films shouldn't get votes just because they're influential, or the original version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre would appear on more lists. Singin' in the Rain has a few pioneering touches, but it didn't profoundly change the way that musical films (or any other films) were made. In fact, it was one of the last of the great musicals.

That might be the secret: it was simply the pinnacle of the genre.

Did it make any biting comments about Hollywood? Well, maybe. You could argue that the story of silent movie stars facing the coming of talkies was a sharp satire of modern society. Hey, if you try, you could even make The Hangover sound like a profound satire. The reason Singin' in the Rain is so great, however, is just because it's such an incredible piece of entertainment.

Obviously, it's not the only entertaining film ever made. But while I've seen many enjoyable movies, I can think of no other that leaves me feeling so good, every time I see it. As much as The Seventh Seal or 2001: A Space Odyssey, this film is a lasting experience. Presumably, the filmmakers probably weren't thinking "Let's make one of the greatest films in history." They were a group of craftsmen, joining forces for an utterly commercial film that would make them lots of money. For some reason, everything fell into place, and they accidentally made a masterpiece.

After honing their talents on other movies, and selecting some great songs, they produced some of the best musical numbers ever committed to film. Sure, every great musical has good songs and dances. But the storyline? Musicals rarely bothered with such unnecessary frou-frou as decent stories. This, however, has a clever, complex plot. The writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, even peppered the script with generous amounts of witty dialogue, like a Preston Sturges comedy set to music. Even if you edited out the songs (which would be a really stupid thing to do), it would be a brilliant comedy. (The American Film Institute voted it America's greatest musical, which was no surprise, but in another list, it ranked #16 among America's funniest comedies.)

Soon after The Artist came out last year, I noticed that the star, Jean Dujardin, looked enough like Gene Kelly, the star of Singin' in the Rain, to make it seem like a tribute. The two movies have a lot in common: Hollywood in the 1920s, the movie industry in flux, proud movie stars refusing to move with the times, extras becoming overnight superstars, cool tap-dancing scenes (though the cast of Singin' in the Rain was too good to be upstaged by a dog). But while The Artist is an affectionate tribute to silent movies (even keeping mostly silent itself), Singin' in the Rain was a celebration (and occasionally a parody) of the color, the music and the spectacle that came after.

A 60th-anniversary edition DVD is now available, and it's shocking to realize that I've had the 50th-anniversary edition (or any other DVD) for so long now. I suppose I'll have to buy to new version, for whatever extras it might offer. After all, it's officially my favorite movie. I've even admitted it in a blog.