Never one to ignore an opportunity to wring more royalties out of his back catalogue of songs, Arthur Freed got Comden and Green to write a film to showcase some of them. If it were not for the relentless plugging of MGM, would anyone even know these days that Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown wrote songs? As a song, “Singin’ in The Rain” has little of any merit about it. It could have been written by Kalmar and Ruby, De Sylva, Brown and Henderson, or any of the Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths. “Beautiful Girl”, “You Are My Lucky Star”, “All I Do Is Dream Of You” are so generic that you have to concentrate very hard to prevent yourself from drifting off into some nostalgic haze: they are so generic that they could almost be parodies.
The programme notes were an excerpt from a biography of Gene Kelly written by Clive Hirschhorn – a PR man’s biography, if this excerpt is representative. “Though the rest of Singin’ In The Rain never quite equals the magic of those five minutes of Gene dancing into the night, every number is still light years ahead of what was being seen in other screen musicals of the time.” Of course, he does not try to back up this claim, because it is a peculiarly idiotic and clumsy version of the puff direct. It also, unfortunately, misses what is genuinely good about this film.
It was comparatively rare for Gene Kelly to find himself with dance partners attuned to his style. The liveliness and vitality of Debbie Reynolds, the athleticism and boisterous enthusiasm of Donald O’Connor suited him so much better than, say, the elfin grace of Leslie Caron in American in Paris, which made him seem elephantine and lumbering. The sleek sophistication of Cyd Charisse as the gangster’s moll in the “Broadway Rhythm” ballet was much more interesting than the coolly academic stepping and posing of Vera-Ellen in On The Town. In Singin’ in The Rain, his tendency to get pretentious was halted by the fact that he had to work hard to outdo his partners on his natural territory.
In “Make ‘Em Laugh”, Freed and Brown got so close to the melodic line of “Be A Clown” from the Freed unit’s film The Pirate that you wonder why Cole Porter never insisted on a co-writing credit. The sheer exuberance of Donald O’Connor’s routine is probably the high spot of the film – sorry Mr Hirschhorn. Because he was working so hard, Kelly did not fall back on his lazy devices – the teetering skittle only crops up for a split-second in “Good Morning, Good Morning”, itself a strange echo of a number with Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth and Phil Silvers (sic) from Cover Girl (“A New Day Tomorrow”). “Fit As A Fiddle” was an especially arduous number, which Kelly could never have performed with, say, Frank Sinatra, and the testimony is that both of them only went through with it for fear of losing face with the other.
“You Were Meant For Me” is a clear example of why this film stands out in Kelly’s career. The routine is almost identical with “Our Love Is Here To Stay” from American in Paris and yet Kelly is transformed – no longer massive and lumbering. Maybe Stanley Donen was a better director than Minnelli – heresy – or at least more sympathetic to Kelly’s aims. He keeps the camera moving and uses a lot of long-shots which lend grace to the dance rather than emphasise Kelly’s power. Also, Reynolds’s style of dancing just works better with Kelly: she is not striving for poise and line at all times. It is less self-conscious, more natural. Kelly does not start the routine by self-consciously taking up a stylised posture to invoke the Muses.
As for the title song, I have probably seen it too often to be objective and singing in the rain to express your joy is almost a cliché, if you have seen enough Hollywood musicals. I suppose it bounces along happily enough. The real joy, though, is the perfection of the camerawork. Donen and Kelly used complex tracking shots in just about all the big numbers, the camera whirling around in a manner that would make Max Ophuls swoon. Often, the camera ends up in odd places – such as the floor-level shots in “Good Morning” or the extreme high angles of “You Were Meant For Me”, the zooms in “Broadway Rhythm”. But in the title track, the camera movement is an extreme case. You have to wonder what the grips were saying as they laid down and took up tracks, moving the boom up and down and sideways, while the complicated dance was going on and the set was sluiced with water. It is hard enough in a dialogue scene to coordinate everything so that the camera and actors hit their marks at the right times; just how much more difficult does this get to manage it for a dance routine! As an unexpected bonus, the man to whom Kelly gives his umbrella at the end of the dance turns out to have been played by Snub Pollard.
For the moments when the screen is not occupied by a number by Freed and Brown, there is some witty dialogue and some fine character acting. Millard Mitchell as the studio boss and Douglas Fowley as the harassed director stand out. Yes, it is a fine film but is it really so much better than 42nd Street, Love me Tonight, Top Hat, The Band Wagon…?