So I finally saw Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and I have to say it’s pretty great. Here’s a movie musical with energy, theatricality, and effective stagecraft — in other words, everything Les Miserables doesn’t have. (I know it’s a ridiculous comparison, especially tonally, but I have to make it; it explains perfectly why modern movie musicals leave me cold.) The stylistic difference is stark.
In 1920s Los Angeles, silent film stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are the talk of the town, and presumed to be a Hollywood couple. What the public doesn’t know is that Don has no interest in the vapid, shrill Lina at all. When Don is mobbed by fans on the street one night, he escapes by leaping into the passenger seat of a convertible driven by aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Their cute-meet gradually leads to romance, set against the backdrop of the emergence of talking pictures. The “talkies” look to end the reign of Lockwood and Lamont as Hollywood royalty — until Don, Kathy, and Don’s best friend Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) come up with a plan to rescue their latest film from disaster.
I am not even remotely the target audience for this kind of film, but Singin’ in the Rain won me over; I came away thoroughly entertained. Musicals need magic, and this one has it — a combination of old school film-making magic and effective stagecraft, which revolves around impressive dance numbers. The story is pretty formulaic, but it’s an effective formula (one I suspect The Artist cribbed from fairly liberally). Kelly and Reynolds are sympathetic heroes, and O’Connor is a real scene-stealer in support. I also got a kick out of Hagen’s arrogant, comical villainy, and loved the glimpses of old Hollywood. There’s a reason this one’s a classic.