Singin’ in the Rain is, in the opinion of most contemporary film critics, one of the great movies of the sound era. The mere mention of its title brings a smile to the face of every movie lover, regardless of age. Its central image, that of Gene Kelly joyfully dancing and hanging exuberantly from a lamppost during a downpour, has come to exemplify not only the best of the M-G-M musical but also the high point, the full flowering of the American musical genre. And yet it was not always so. When Singin’ in the Rain first burst upon an unsuspecting moviegoing public in 1952, it was advertised as “the new entertainment thrill from the studio and the star who gave you the Academy Award-winning musical An American in Paris.” It opened in most first-run theatres across the country in April, just in time for Easter, and faced formidable competition. 1952 was a watershed year for Hollywood, and as a moviegoer that month, you had your choice of Cecil B. DeMille’s circus epic The Greatest Show on Earth; John Huston’s adventure-romance The African Queen; With a Song in My Heart, the Technicolor musical biography of singer Jane Froman; Elia Kazan’s Viva Zapata! starring Marlon Brando; Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious starring Marlene Dietrich; Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon starring Gary Cooper; Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Five Fingers starring Judy Holiday; and a re-issue of the Disney classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
Singin’ in the Rain received good reviews, with most critics remarking it was not quite the equal of the aforementioned An American in Paris. The picture played around the country for the next several months very successfully, taking in $7,500,000, making it one of the top grossing films of the year. At year’s end, however, it did not appear on any critic’s “10 Best Pictures of the Year” list, and when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave out the “Oscars,” Singin’ in the Rain lost in the two categories in which it had been nominated (Best Scoring of a Musical Picture [Lennie Hayton] and Best Supporting Actress [Jean Hagen]. De Mille’s The Greatest Show on Earth was voted “Best Picture.”) Thereafter, as with most movies of the time, it disappeared from the nation’s screens, but not, however, from the hearts and memories of moviegoers.
Then, in early 1958, M-G-M began a series of limited re-issues of some of its classic films under the title “Masterpiece Reprints.” Included in the first group of twelve was Singin’ in the Rain; this package was in constant circulation for the next few years, playing short engagements in theatres all over the country—finally becoming a staple of the burgeoning “revival” and “repertory” theatres that were springing up in the major metropolitan areas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most importantly to the re-evaluation of Singin’ in the Rain, however, was the emergence, around this same time, of college and university film societies, where, in addition to the study of the standard American and European film classics from the teens and twenties, some far-sighted professors were now including more contemporary “entertainment” films in the study courses. It was Pauline Kael, in program notes for a 1958 screening of the film at her Cinema Guild repertory theatre in Berkeley, California, who first pointed out that “Singin’ in the Rain . . . is just about the best Hollywood musical of all time.” She was in the vanguard of a new breed of film critics, raised on the delights of Hollywood “entertainments” and persuasive in the argument that “there is more energy, more originality, more excitement, more art in American kitsch like . . . Singin’ in the Rain than there is in the presumed ‘High Culture’ of . . . Hiroshima mon amour . . .” This revisionist attitude toward Hollywood “escapist” films on the part of some influential critics (as opposed to “reviewers” -- and most writing about film was limited to daily reviews until the late 1950s) explains why Singin’ in the Rain was ultimately elevated to the pantheon of “great films.” However, inclusion in this category does not necessarily inspire the love and devotion of the mass moviegoing public.
Singin’ in the Rain, due to its constant theatrical circulation and its frequent prime-time telecasts in the 1960s, became one of the most familiar and beloved musicals of our time. This was due partly to the reasons listed by Ms. Kael: energy, originality, excitement. It’s also due to the screenplay of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, which, shorn of its musical interludes, could still stand on its own as one of the funniest comedies ever written. Set in Hollywood in the late 1920s, when the changeover from silents to talkies was wreaking havoc with careers, economics, production methods and story styles, the script paints an affectionately satiric, humorous and (somewhat) accurate picture of a time, a place and art/ industry. The songs were almost all written by the picture’s producer Arthur Freed and his partner Nacio Herb Brown during the era in which the picture is set, and all were written for early musicals. (The exceptions: “Make ‘Em Laugh,” written by Freed and Brown especially for Donald O’Connor in the film, and “Moses Supposes” by Comden, Green and Rodger Edens.) Contrary to a trend that had begun on Broadway in the 1940s, there was no attempt in Singin’ in the Rain to “integrate” the musical numbers into the plot or make them indicators of character. Instead, the screenplay serves as the framework for a succession of exhilarating musical numbers which exist for no other reason than to bring pleasure and visual stimulation to the audience.
The co-direction by Stanley Donen and the film’s star Gene Kelly distills the essence of all the performance styles out of which the musical comedy genre emerged: Vaudeville, revue, ballet, tap and jazz dancing—all of which were combined with rare precision and fused perfectly in Singin’ in the Rain. The performances of the leads (especially Jean Hagen’s nasally vacuous “Lina Lamont”), the singing, dancing, production numbers, the dialogue, the pacing, energy and the overall joy and exuberance of the movie are what makes Singin’ in the Rain one of the great films. It’s a picture that can be seen over and over again with no loss of its high spirits, its good nature, its wit, humor, energy and imagination. It is, in the words of New York Times film critic Vincent Canby: “. . . an always youthful, joyously indestructible . . . Hollywood masterpiece.”