I recently saw Singin’ in the Rain with friends for the umpteenth time and had a great discussion on how, great as it is, there are things not quite up to the heights of the very greatest musicals much less to the very greatest of films, claims for the film repeated in practically every Sight and Sound list of top films since the 60s. As Peter Wollen writes in his BFI classic on the film, ‘In the 1962 Sight and Sound poll, only one critic named Singin’ in the Rain on his ‘Top Ten’ list. In 1972, there were five. In 1982, seventeen listed Singin’ in the Rain and it now came fourth overall, running immediately ahead of Fellini’s 8 1/2., Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (p.52). It’s now a familiar resident of top ten lists, often the only musical to figure.
Someone once said comparing Singing in the Rain to Meet Me in St. Louis was like comparing Kurosawa to Ozu ,suggesting that it was like comparing apples and oranges and yet people do keep insisting on how Ozu is a superior type of…well, director. I do wonder, if the film wasn’t so obviously a loving mythologizing of cinema whether film fans would hold it in such high esteem. The film’s movie love is a driver for their own; one which they eagerly take to.
Singing’ in the Rain has its obvious delights; the opening sequence right up to the ‘dignity, always dignity’ montage is wonderful. Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont is a treasure above rubies and endlessly quotable ( I am the most brilliant star in the fih-mah-mehnt; I ca-iiint stahhnd it’); Donald O’Connor in general but his ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ number in particular is a joy; the play on sound and image; the jokes about the mike; the dazzling ending camera movement in the ‘Broadway Ballet’ with Kelly riding the crane and the camera then moving in to his close-up; and of course, the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ number, now become an iconic metaphor for Hollywood Cinema itself; all are wonderful.
The film is undoubtedly great. But is it as great as all that? When I scare my friends by insisting on showing them the very greatest of musical numbers, I never include any from this film. Moreover, isn’t Kelly just a teensy weensy bit hammy; aren’t the songs a bit derivative and unexceptional?; should the theft of Cole Porter’s ‘Be A Clown’ for ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ be forgiven?; isn’t Debbie Reynolds a bit too bland to be the new ‘most brilliant star in the fih-mah-mehnt’? isn’t it a problem that the only bits one remembers of that endless ‘Broadway Ballet’ aside from its ending are the few minutes Cyd Charisse is in it? Doesn’t the film’s relentless kidding of Lina Lamont finally turn into outright and unpleasant meanness in the final revelation? I think so.