The most enduring of the four MGM collaborations between Gene Kelly and his director and co-choreographer Stanley Donen, Singin’ in the Rain rises ten places from 20th in 2012 to land in the top ten again. The film’s ascent almost feels like a given, due to the effervescence that may be its defining characteristic and the scarcity of that quality in our trying times.
Yet, typically for anything that seems so effortless, Kelly and Donen’s achievement was in fact the product of an enormous amount of toil and trouble. At the project’s outset, the legendary writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green tried and failed to get out of the gig when MGM musical head Arthur Freed ordered them to build a new movie on top of a batch of tunes by Freed and his partner Nacio Herb Brown that were gathering dust. (Indeed, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ itself had made its screen debut in The Hollywood Revue of 1929.) Debbie Reynolds’ ordeal filming the ‘Good Morning’ tap-dance number famously left her with bloody feet. As for the title song, six months of rehearsal culminated in Gene Kelly gamely splashing about while running a high fever.
None of that suffering is discernible on screen, which is one of the many delightful ironies about Hollywood’s most deeply cherished movie about the making of a Hollywood movie. Pulling back the curtain to show yet more dazzling drapery, Comden and Green celebrate an earlier era of Tinseltown chancers and hustlers with a tale of a production caught between the silent and sound eras. Kelly’s plucky hoofer and stuntman-turned-star Don Lockwood leads the charge to retrofit a swashbuckler picture named The Duelling Cavalier to take advantage of the new vogue for sound, with his new sweetie Kathy (Reynolds) being his best means of disguising the squawky voice of his leading lady Lina (a hilarious Jean Hagen).
There are several movies besides Don’s latest somehow contained within the text of Singin’ in the Rain (including, if we are to believe the deliciously meta billboard in the final shot, Singin’ in the Rain). Cheekily purporting to reveal its own means of production while still delivering one unabashedly theatrical showstopper after another, Kelly and Donen’s masterwork anticipates the brassy postmodernism of Moulin Rouge! (2001). But like such fellow homage-payers as The Artist (2011) and La La Land (2016), Baz Luhrmann’s rendition feels meagre compared to the original and its seemingly inexhaustible bounty of ingenuity, bravado and sheer unabashed joy.