Singin' in the Rain Review

It's Hollywood in 1927. The latest romantic swashbuckler starring Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) has opened to tremendous success. Gossip has it that Don and Lina are an item in real life – in fact Don can't stand his co-star but goes along with it for the sake of publicity. Then comes something which threatens all their careers: the talking picture...

In the more than 100 years that cinema has been in existence, there have been plenty of good films, and certainly enough great films to keep most people happy. But there are some films which have moved into a category of their own, which are widely accepted as being amongst the greatest films ever made, to the point where there is little you can say about them that hasn’t been said already. Such a film is Singin’ in the Rain. Fifty years after its release, it regularly features in top ten lists, not just of musicals, but of all films.

I'm not about to disagree. Singin' in the Rain is a tremendously entertaining film from start to finish. Although all but one of the songs already existed, Singin' in the Rain was written originally for the screen and wasn't based on a stage show – although it later became one. It's said that you don't watch a musical for its plot, but Adolph Green and Betty Comden's screenplay does have a solid storyline. Many of the incidents in the film – microphones hidden in bushes or which picked up heartbeats better than voices – have a basis in truth. John Gilbert, Garbo's co-star in the silent era, was the most famous example of someone whose voice was unsuitable for talkies. In this film that happens to Lina (the voice that Jean Hagen puts on for the role has to be heard to be believed) and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a young actress Don has fallen for, has to dub her voice to save Don and Lina's latest film.

Anyone who wants to film a song and dance number could do worse than to look at those in Singin' in the Rain. Nowadays, a director would use quick cutting to disguise a basic lack of ability in his cast. But Kelly and Donen keep the camera back far enough so we can see the whole of the dancer's body and cut as little as possible. Of course it helps that Kelly, Reynolds and Donald O'Connor (who plays Don's musical partner and friend Cosmo) are amazingly athletic dancers. The twelve-minute "Broadway Ballet", where Kelly duets with Cyd Charisse, along with its equivalent in An American in Paris show Kelly's aspirations to serious ballet, which developed into the three-part dance picture Invitation to the Dance. The only slow spot is Kelly and Reynolds's duet in an empty studio, but that's a very minor blemish if indeed it is one.

To make a good movie isn't easy, as it depends on the talents of several people on either side of the camera. To make a great one needs an undefinable extra something, partly luck and partly chemistry...but whatever it is, this film certainly has it. The songs are wonderful and the jokes are still very funny (particularly for film fans). Kelly and Donen's direction is consistently inventive: just look at that crane shot as Kelly sings "There's a smile on my face" during the title song. But just as importantly, Kelly doesn't hog the limelight. O'Connor and Reynolds (who was only twenty at the time) were probably never better, and both add considerable energy to the proceedings. Jean Hagen certainly never surpassed her role here, and comes close to stealing every scene she's in. There may be a smile on Kelly's face, and there should be one on yours at the end of this film.

Singin' in the Rain has always been well preserved, so it should be no surprise that the picture on this DVD is in practically perfect condition, showing off the vibrant colours of Harold Rosson's camerawork. The only defect I spotted was some artefacting on a stage curtain. The DVD transfer is in the intended 4:3 ratio and hence not anamorphic. The sound is the original (single-channel) mono, and clearly recorded and perfectly serviceable it is. A remix into stereo would not be desirable. You have the option of French and Italian dubbed soundtracks and a wide range of subtitles. This DVD must be a contender for shortest average length per chapter stop – no less than sixty in ninety-eight minutes, with at least one chapter consisting of a single shot! You can certainly reach your favourite part of the movie with ease, but perhaps that number of chapters is overdoing it. Some people will certainly not like the cardboard snapper case the DVD comes in, with a rather tacky hand-drawn cover illustration.

There are no extras, not even a trailer. This DVD is a typical bare-bones Warner back catalogue release and is priced accordingly. But considering the status of the film and the fact that this year is its fiftieth anniversary, I do wish that they had made more effort with this title. As I write, O'Connor, Reynolds and Donen are still alive, so what price a commentary or a good making-of documentary? If any film deserves a special edition it's this one.

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