Classics Corner: Singin’ in the Rain

11 03 2012

What a glorious feeling it was to behold the Best Picture win for “The Artist!”  A celebration of the glory of silent film, a look at the industry’s apprehension during the pioneering days of the talkies, and an ultimate wide-faced grin at what film would become … sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Benjamin Sutton of The L Magazine wrote this in a column back in December: “[T]he lion’s share of ‘The Artist”s many narrative and aesthetic quotations allude to films of the sound era,”specifically naming “Singin’ in the Rain” as a movie he constantly saw parallels to within Hazanavicius’ movie.

I saw “Singin’ in the Rain” a few weeks before watching “The Artist,” and perhaps part of the reason why I felt the movie suffered a slight dearth of originality was because it was so obviously inspired by Gene Kelly’s classic musical.  I don’t, however, intend to judge the original solely in terms of the knock-off.  Such would hardly do justice to a movie that has stood the test of time and is still a fun romp six decades after release.

As a riotously fun musical in its own right and a parody of the overblown proclivities of the genre’s early classics, “Singin’ in the Rain” follows Kelly’s Don Lockwood, a silent film star who exudes more charisma than George Valentin, as he is forced unwillingly by his studio into talking movies.  When he is shown a demonstration of the new technology at a party, he scoffingly laughs it off.  But with the success of “The Jazz Singer,” Kelly has no choice but to add sound to his latest picture.

That brings up a unique problem though: his leading lady Lina Lamont has a grating and screeching voice that would totally destroy her image and the film.  Quick thinking leads him to bring on Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a songbird if ever there were one, to provide dubbing services for Lina.  The zany, crazy situations that follow are as numerous as Gene Kelly’s overblown dance numbers – that man REALLY loves to dance, and darned if we don’t leave this movie knowing it!  And beyond the titular song that everyone knows from rainy days or “A Clockwork Orange,” the film also boasts great tunes like “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Good Morning” that will have you whistling for days.

While the pleasures that exist within the frames of “Singin’ in the Rain” have made it an endearing audience favorite for years, it remains thematically relevant because it speaks to the common fear of technology displacing us.  With 3D, video-on-demand, and streaming services bringing about a new sea change in moviemaking, Kelly’s film speaks loudly to filmmakers past, present, and future.  As A.O. Scott so perfectly put it in his piece “Film Technology Advances, Inspiring a Sense of Loss” back in November 2011:

“The birth of the talkies, it goes without saying, represents the first death of cinema […] The movies survived sound, just as they survived television, the VCR and every other terminal diagnosis. And they will survive the current upheavals as well. How can I be sure? Because 10, 20, or 50 years from now someone will certainly be complaining that they don’t make them like they used to. Which is to say, like they do right now.”



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