Is Singin’ in the Rain the greatest film musical of all time?
If we take “greatest” to mean “best”, then the question is of course moot. Any discourse around the best of anything – musicals, James Bond theme tunes, biscuits, Brontë sisters – is destined to descend into scrappy subjectivity, culminating in raised voices and, ultimately, the loss of valued friendships. Who hasn’t lost at least a few mates defending Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” and/or chocolate Hobnobs?
But, if we forget about “best”, I can confidently say that Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest musical of all time. No other has reached its monolithic status in cinema history. No other is as universally loved; no other has endured with its freshness. It’s the only Hollywood musical which I can’t imagine being the subject of some cynical takedown in Vice; the only one to unite Pauline Kael, François Truffaut, Charlie Chaplin and Roger Ebert in admiration; the only one which I don’t think will ever lose its power to create smiles. Even Stanley Kubrick’s best efforts haven’t subverted its pure heart. The BFI’s current musical season, “the UK’s greatest ever season to celebrate the film musical”, practically uses Gene Kelly and his umbrella as its logo. Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest film musical because it is the film musical.
What’s the secret to its success? It’d be easy to point to any number of its strengths. The tunes are fantastic, of course – which is in a way unsurprising, since the film was designed to fit around its songs, written decades prior by MGM producer Arthur Freed and Hollywood music whiz Nacio Herb Brown. The dancing is breath-taking – again, unsurprising, once you hear tales of the brutal regime Kelly would enforce on himself and his co-stars (the pressure pushed 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds to tears). It also has funny characters, a convincing romance, a satisfying story, and is shot with the sort of exuberance that has only ever come from the Technicolor era.
Singin’ in the Rain is more than an assortment of really good ingredients, though; there’s a special sort of alchemy at work which has made it endure in such a unique way. It’s a product of its era – in fact, it all-but defines its era – and it simultaneously transcends it. Singin’ in the Rain achieves that rare quality of timelessness; not through its tap shoes or its melodramatic swoons, but through its sustained metatextuality. For it lays bare the truth of Hollywood, and, in turn, the truth of our love for Hollywood.
The film opens with a lampoon of red-carpet culture: ridiculous, shrieking fans await the arrival of silent movie stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont (Kelly and an ear-piercing, you-love-to-hate-her, Jean Hagen). Straight away we have an in-joke: film musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor, the comic heart of the film) is ignored by the shallow, tabloid-addicted crowd – I imagine that went down well with Nacio Herb Brown, the distinctly un-famous songwriter. Then Lockwood tells the story of his classical rise to stardom and hints at the relationship rumours between him and Lamont – but we see his true early days as a shabby youth and reckless stuntman, and see the insufferable Lamont scorn him until she decides to ride his coattails higher up the ladder of fame. Cleverly metatextual and heartily funny, it’s a perfect way of establishing Lockwood as a likeable, down-to-earth hero and Lamont as the ideal bratty villain. But most importantly, it sets the tone and theme of the whole film: the acknowledgement of Hollywood as a complete and utter lie.
All musicals necessarily exist on a bedrock of artificiality. If we’re going to accept that characters break into song every few minutes, we must accept that what we’re viewing is, for want of a better term, unrealistic. This is not a bad thing – we do the same when we accept that Shakespeareans talk in iambic pentameter. The “reality” of a musical is one in which everyone can and does sing extravagant songs backed by miraculous orchestras – it’s not reality at all, but an expressionistic representation of story and character (even both of those are usually secondary to the singing and dancing themselves).
And nothing is more unreal than classical Hollywood. Fakery has always been at the heart of narrative film – consider montage, special effects, costume, acting… the truth found on the screen never equals the truth in front of the camera. Hollywood’s greatest achievement was its perfection in this artificiality; Californian sets have given us everything from Ancient Babylon to the Second World War to the mystical land of Oz. The classic musicals went one step further by ignoring the need to even be remotely convincing – who cares if the backdrop is blatantly painted on when those backwoodsmen are doing front-flips on bits of timber?
Forgery, trickery, smoke-and-mirrors; this is what Hollywood is made of, and Singin’ in the Rain knows it. Don Lockwood’s backstory is a fabrication. His and Lamont’s hinted relationship is a publicity move. When the studio’s attempt at a talkie fails, they fudge it into a musical in just six weeks. Lamont’s awful voice is simply dubbed over and the audience is none the wiser. In fact, Singin’ in the Rain verges on treating its audience with contempt: “Do you think it’ll get by?” asks Lockwood about the hastily arranged musical. “Of course it will!” says Cosmo. Subtext: moviegoers will swallow anything.
But it wisely avoids using its audience as the butt of its jokes. Not only does it nod to the artificiality of Hollywood, it fully embraces it. Count how many times characters look to camera, breaking the fourth wall like it doesn’t exist, inviting us into the jokes. Watch as the camera tracks the performers, ignoring that this reveals the set to have no walls. In “Make ‘Em Laugh”, see Cosmo bounce off fictional sets which look just like the “reality” of the film, complete with furniture all facing camera. The film is always exposing itself, like a cheeky burlesque dancer pretending she doesn’t know her dress has slipped off – but it’s all part of the act. “You Were Meant for Me” has Lockwood woo Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) on a fictional soundstage; he creates a romantic sunset before our very eyes. We see him turn on the wind machine and the flattering lights, but no matter – we’re wooed anyway.
It’s in this seeming contradiction that Singin’ in the Rain lives, and it reaches its apex in the spectacular “Broadway Melody” sequence. Here, the lines between reality, fiction and dream are blurred so much that they become irrelevant. Are we watching a vision, a fantasy, a film-within-a-film, a stage play? Who cares? All that matters is the extraordinary beauty of the images and music we experience. This sequence represents everything possible in the dreamworld of the cinema – in the hands of Kelly and Donen, those possibilities are endless and sublime. Plot, character and logic all fall away, leaving us with simple ecstasy.
The magic of Singin’ in the Rain comes from its tapping into our love of cinema as fantasy. That love is indefatigable, which is why Singin’ in the Rain is truly timeless. As long as we love cinema – the theatrics, the emotions, the beauty, the sheer wonderful nonsense of it all – we’ll love Singin’ in the Rain. When the iconic title song kicks in, we’re not watching Don Lockwood skip down a Beverly Hills boulevard, we’re watching Gene Kelly splash around in an MGM studio lot – and that makes it all the more delightful, because we love Gene Kelly, and we love those studio lots, more than we could ever love Don Lockwood. Hollywood is a lie, but it’s a grand, ostentatious, magnificent lie, and we’ve been in on it all along.
The film’s final shot, a classic happily-ever-after, shows Don and Kathy embracing in front of a billboard advertising their new film. It’s called (what else) Singin’ in the Rain. The ends of the Möbius strip are joined; the film-within-the-film is the very film we’re watching. And so, the happily-ever-after isn’t just for Don and Kathy, it’s for us. It’s for the cinema.
After that, it’s impossible to deny that Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest musical of all time. By embracing Hollywood’s disingenuousness, it emerges as Hollywood’s most genuine offering. It’s as reflexive as 8½, as heartfelt as City Lights, as vibrant as The Wizard of Oz. Watching it is to experience a deep joy, one unmarred by cynicism, sappiness, sadness, or any other drain on good old-fashioned fun. It succeeds as high art without losing its appeal as pure, unfettered escapism.
Isn’t that what Hollywood was meant for?