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Singin' in the Rain (1952)

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Like Fine Wine, 'Singin'' Improves with Age

by Vince Staten

The Louisville Courier-Journal, April 25, 1992 page 17S

It is "probably the most enjoyable of all movie musicals," according to Pauline Kael; "one of the best musicals Hollywood has produced," in the words of Leonard Maltin; and "perhaps the greatest movie musical of all time," in the opinion of Steven Scheuer.

It's everyone's favorite movie musical, "Singin' in the Rain" (MGM/UA, $19.98), the peppy 1952 dancefest with Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds. A spiffed-up edition has just arrived in video stores.

Today everyone agrees it's a classic. But when it was released 40 years ago, it wasn't treated with such reverence. In fact, it wasn't even nominated for Best Picture of 1952. In that regard it probably suffered because the previous collaboration between actor Kelly and producer Arthur Freed, "An American in Paris" (MGM/UA, $19.95), had won Best Picture the year before.

None of the contemporary reviews predicted people would still be celebrating the film 40 years later. What's the old saying: "A prophet is without honor in his own country"? We could add, "and in his own time."

Not that "Singin' in the Rain" was jeered. It's just that in 1952 not very many folks predicted immortality for what was, frankly, a synthetic film.

Freed gave the film its title before he planned any rain scenes. Or any plot, for that matter. He told Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen that he'd always wanted to make a film with that title.

Kelly and Donen got together with writers Adolph Green and Betty Comden to put a story to the music that Freed gave them.

The songs came from here and there, but mostly from Freed's own portfolio. The title song was written by Freed and Nacio Herb Brown for "The Hollywood Revue of 1929" (not on video) and recycled in the 1932 Buster Keaton comedy "Speak Easily" (not on video) and the 1942 Judy Garland vehicle "Little Nellie Kelly" (MGM/UA, $19.98).

Reynolds' solo, "All I Do Is Dream of You," also from the pen of Brown and Freed, had been in the Joan Crawford weeper "Sadie McKee" (MGM/UA, $19.95) and later in "Broadway Melody of 1936" (not on video).

Kelly's "You Were Meant for Me," another Brown-Freed composition, came from 1929's "Broadway Melody" (MGM/UA, $19.95) and had also shown up in "Forty Little Mothers" (not on video), "Hullabaloo" (not on video) and "You Were Meant for Me" (not on video).

You get the idea. Freed was recycling songs and mostly his own songs. He was a master at recycling. He and Kelly had recycled songs in their 1951 hit, "An American in Paris," but those songs were Gershwin songs.

Many of the critics at the time held "Singin' in the Rain" up to "An American in Paris" and found the new musical wanting.

Time magazine's anonymous critic lamented, "The result, though pretty and tuneful, is not so opulent as ('An American in Paris') nor so inventive as ('On the Town'). The wordy book about the era when the movies were learning to talk is a rather strenuous satire, without much warmth or wit."

The Christian Century, a leading magazine of the day, chimed in, "Some bits of good comic satire and a few inventive dance sequences, particularly one performed by Kelly on rain-drenched street. Others, while intended to satirize the opulence of past musicals, are lost in elaborateness of setting. Rollicking and spirited but not up to Kelly's 'American in Paris.' "

Even the critics who gave the film its due managed to find a flaw or two.

Catholic World's reviewer griped, "The plot line is very slight -- some assembly-line material about a dashing silent screen hero and the two ladies in his off- and on-screen life . . . (but) the dances, except for one or two objectionable bits, are sheer delights."

Commonweal's [sic] critic was more positive. "Besides being a very entertaining film, 'Singin' in the Rain' comes up with some clever satire on Hollywood." But even he found something to carp about. "Many of the song- and-dance numbers are top-drawer stuff -- with Kelly doing one of his refreshing solos to the title tune, and Donald O'Connor (who is in his best comic style throughout) carrying on in a solo to 'Make 'em Laugh.' . . . While some of them run a little too long, they are mighty pretty to look at -- what with Technicolor and all."

In fact, the only out-and-out rave that I could find came from Saturday Review. "To make this a far more gladsome Easter season all around, MGM brings forth 'Singin' in the Rain,' a big bouncy Technicolored show that has just about everything you could ask of a musical. Its story is a sturdy and delightful spoof of the early talkies, and it provides a valid excuse for reviving a good dozen pleasantly nostalgic tunes and dances that gently parody the lavish routines of Busby Berkley's girls or vigorously set forth the Charleston and Black Bottom for a new generation. Through it all Gene Kelly moves smoothly and easily, Donald O'Connor clowns with an adroitness hitherto unsuspected and Jean Hagen proves herself an extraordinarily able comedienne."

It's the only review I could find that even hints that "Singin' in the Rain" might stand the test of time.

Vince Staten, formerly a Courier-Journal entertainment writer, now reports weekly on the video scene as a free-lance writer.

1992 The (Louisville, Kentucky) Courier-Journal

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