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Movie Review: Spending Year Sixty with SINGIN' IN THE RAIN

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Singin’ in the Rain is the greatest movie musical ever made.

There are musicals more dramatic (A Star is Born), more extravagant (The Sound of Music), more esoteric (Across the Universe), more satirical (South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut), even more beautiful (Gene Kelly’s own An American in Paris) than this 1952 masterpiece, but none have quite the same appeal.  Ultimately, it boils down to a simple, time-honored fact: people who say they hate musicals love Singin’ in the Rain.

Part of that has to do with that fact that Singin’ in the Rain doesn’t follow the template of most musicals.  You know the format; the flick is humming along, and then BAM!  The characters break out into song-and-dance, and we detour from our regularly scheduled program to watch them swing.  That’s the discipline of the genre, and the thing that people who dislike musicals single out as their main point of contention, that it violates our sense of narrative momentum.  By comparison, Singin’ in the Rain makes only two concessions to this stop-and-go format: the gauzy “You Were Meant for Me” love ballad between Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, and the climactic “Broadway Ballet” suite that, while inventive and visually imaginative, stops the momentum dead just so MGM could show off how much money they were willing to throw at an otherwise sly little showbiz comedy.

For every other music moment, Kelly and his co-director Stanley Donen (the primary architect behind such entertainments as Charade and Bedazzled) make the songs fit the story, and the editing rhythms that result actually remind me more of the modern action movie than a typical musical; the songs act as crescendos to steadily building dramatic tensions.  “Fit as a Fiddle” establishes Kelly and sidekick Donald O’Connor’s vaudeville bonafides – they made it big in pictures because some studio executive saw them hoofing it on stage.  “Good Morning” shows Kelly, O’Connor, and Reynolds regrouping after a long night of songwriting so they can mentally prepare themselves for another day at the creative grind.  The title song demonstrates the extent of Kelly’s affections for Reynolds (he doesn’t care that he’s getting soaked because, as the song goes, he’s ready for love) and sets up the climax’s emotional stakes – Kelly is unsure how much longer he can exploit Reynolds’ talented young nobody, even if being with her means ending his movie career. Nobody sings in Singin’ in the Rain because they want to – they sing because they have to, because the main action can’t progress any other way.

As such, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the proceedings, whether your particular poison is the love triangle between Kelly, Reynolds, and Jean Hagen’s screechy film diva or the film’s affectionately jaundiced eye towards show business.  People often forget that last bit, that Singin’ in the Rain deals primarily in the realities of the movies, and how the shift from silent films to “talkies” forced actors and actresses to adapt or die.  We overlook the gravity of the situation since everything is so bright and funny, but Donen and Kelly never let us forget the harsh side effects of celebrity.  Kelly uses Reynolds to prop his own career up, and even though the movie ends with them united as lovers and movie stars, their happiness comes at the expense of Hagen’s – her celebrity is now on the decline, and the best-case scenario is that her Betty Boop voice makes her viable as a character actress.  Singin’ in the Rain might not drench itself in the bone-dry cynicism of a Player or Tropic Thunder, but it still acknowledges the same dog-eat-dog perils.

And though the film itself offers the glossy, sweet version of Hollywood rot, its actual production provided a far less subtle depiction.  Kelly lorded over his co-stars, driving them to perfect the physical and emotional challenges in the script, and his strict work ethic nearly crippled O’Connor and Reynolds – filming the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number, a physically aerobatic delight that deserves comparison to the best of Jackie Chan or Jet Li, left O’Connor so physically drained that he was hospitalized for a week after shooting (bonus torture: he then had to reshoot the entire setpiece).  Reynolds, an unskilled dancer, worked so hard at her “Good Morning” routine that her feet were bleeding by the end of the shoot.  It was adapt or die for real behind the scenes, but you can’t tell that watching the film; everyone just seems so darn happy, with Kelly, Reynolds, and O’Connor getting highest marks in the practiced joy department.

That’s the magic: you never see anyone sweating here.  Singin’ in the Rain unfolds as if on smoothly guided rails; it remains one of the most effortlessly charming films ever made, musical or otherwise.

Warner has given the film a new 4K digital restoration, and the results are astounding.  The textures are sharper, the image depth is greater, with the Technicolor photography lusher than it’s ever been before.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is free of hisses and pops and digital manipulation; again, perfection.

As for bonuses, we get a commentary from Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Kathleen Freeman, co-director Stanley Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge), and critic Rudy Behlmer; three behind-the-scenes featurettes (Singin’ in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation, Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM, and What a Glorious Feeling: The Making of Singin’ in the Rain); seventy-six minutes of MGM’s scoring sessions; fifty minutes of excerpts from the movies that first used the songs in Singin’ in the Rain; an interactive jukebox for viewers to create their own A/V playlists from the film’s musical selections; a “You Are My Lucky Star” outtake; the theatrical trailer; a photo gallery; and a DVD copy.  The cherry on top?  All of this is packaged in a coffee-table-sized box containing a forty-eight-page book, reproductions of three theatrical posters, and an honest-to-goodness Singin’ in the Rain umbrella.

Singin’ in the Rain is cinematic alchemy, and this Blu-ray represents a triumph for Warner Home Entertainment: the picture and sound are flawless, with one of the most comprehensive bonus supplements package that I have ever seen.

The Singin’ in the Rain: 60th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.