When did you first see the film?
I must have been a teenager when I first saw it. My mother showed it to me and I’d have been like ‘uh, I don’t want to see an old film, it’s going to be slow and tedious.’ The idea of watching it felt like a duty, because it’s a classic. I just remember being, from the very start of the film, blown away by just how fresh it felt, how funny and irreverent. It didn’t feel at all dated, and it still doesn’t. It’s one of those films that is just so fresh, lighthearted, spiky and witty. It left me giddy with joy then and it still does now.
The idea of progress in the film is very interesting – it takes place at the time when Hollywood was moving from silent to talking movies. Musicals tend to go in trends and cycles, they often flower at moments of crisis within the film industry or within the country they’re made in. Singin’ in the Rain was made post-WWII but it’s set post-WWI. Both eras where the world was looking for things to make it a more joyful place and Musicals tend to be escapist by their very nature.
The film is essentially an autobiography of Hollywood at the dawn of the talkies moving from silent movies into the sound era. It’s about how that left behind all these silent era stars who couldn’t transition into the new world. Musicals are often frothy and simply about a love story, but this one is actually about something specific. It’s about Hollywood and that’s part of what makes it so special. As a film critic and a film lover I love movies about movies, so that’s also why it always had a special place in my heart.
What is very daring and strange in the film is the way it unashamedly exposes the artificiality of Hollywood. At the beginning, Gene Kelly has to pretend to have a romance with his co star in order to please the press and later in the film, his romantic scene with Debbie Reynolds is on a film set.
Yes, Singin’ in the Rain is a sort of a satire of the studio system, but also enormously nostalgic for it. Some people say that it is a McCarthy-era allegory about blacklisted writers using other writers to publish their work. Certainly when the Blacklist era began Gene Kelly was one of the activists, along with people like Humphrey Bogart and John Huston, who joined the committee for the First Amendment. I think that’d probably be laying it on a bit heavy for such a light film, but you can kind of read that into it, it sort of holds up.
The film is about the cruelty of the Hollywood system, this machine that can crush stars or make them. But if you compare it to something like Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, it definitely doesn’t have that cruelty and edge to it. It’s a satire about how the Hollywood system just wants to make money out of things but in the end the Hollywood system survives. It’s not really challenged, it’s not like people skip off into the sunset and the studio crumbles. The film ultimately perpetuates the Hollywood system and it’s a comedy. But it definitely has this satirical edge to it. At the beginning there are the celebrities on the red carpet with Gene Kelly talking about dignity and giving the official line of his biography, while at the same time we see a very contrasting image of what his life actually was like. That’s definitely the case today when PRs are peddling you stories such as ‘What’s the truth about Brad Pitt?” We don’t know, we never know, but we want to find out. That definitely hasn’t changed today.
How do you think this film compares with La La Land?
I think La La Land being such a big hit is definitely part of why I picked this movie. Although I loved La La Land to me it didn’t have that quality I want from a musical, and deliberately so, it’s a very bittersweet piece. I rather disagree with a lot of the praise that described it as uplifting and full of sunshine. I thought it didn’t really fulfill that brief. To me, the film was about how the system crushes your innocence whereas Singin’ in the Rain does. If you are left a bit hungry by La La Land, you will find a feast in Singin’ in the Rain.
One of the key sequences is La La Land is when Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are dancing on top of the Hollywood Hills but then you compare it to the acrobatics in Singin’ In The Rain, and the skills, and the artistry, they’re just on a whole other level. Even if you hate musicals, you watch Singin’ in the Rain and the amazing ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ sequence with Donald O’Connor is undeniably extraordinary. You cannot believe that you are watching something real. In this day and age, you think ‘ it must have been digitally altered, how can this man do this?’ It’s a skill that you just don’t see in Hollywood anymore, it’s gone out of fashion, unless you’re watching a dance film like Step Up or something. Even then, it’s not combined with the wit and drama of ‘Make ‘Em Laugh.’ O’Connor got the Golden Globe for that, which is one of the few awards the film actually got. It’s also one of the few numbers in the film that was actually written for it. The rest are a weird hotchpotch of songs that had been made before and that they tried to shoehorn into a musical. So it’s kind of funny that Singin’ in the rain is considered this great masterpiece. That sequence gives a flavour of what is distinctive about the film. The acrobatic style rather than the Fred Astaire dance is what defines it. Gene Kelly had just become a big star. He was a legendary workaholic on set, he bullied Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds who was only 19 at the time. He was 39! She said that working on Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things she had to do in her life. She was found crying under a piano by Fred Astaire because Gene Kelly had been so mean to her. You wouldn’t know that watching the film! This joy that radiates on the screen was very hard work.
The joy of genuine artistry like that is very inspiring. Many people don’t like musicals because of the artificiality of characters breaking into song, but when you see the Singin’ in the Rain sequence, it’s such an expression of the joy of this man in love, who doesn’t even notice that it’s raining. The line ‘is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed’ in Four Weddings and a Funeral is so corny, but here you really feel it. This is a man who is so happy he doesn’t care about the rain. He wouldn’t be able put it into words but has to dance it out and that’s when the musical really takes flight. When you really believe that, when the artificiality of the song and dance is gone. In La La Land, when the characters take off into the sky, they had to digitally create that but in Singin’ in the Rain you get that transporting feeling without any digital effect.