“Talking pictures? That means I’m out of a job. At last I can start suffering and write that symphony.”
Some people consider “Singin’ in the Rain” the greatest musical ever made, and it isn’t just the American Film Institute, who voted it the number-one best movie musical of all time. A lot of other folks will tell you the same thing. There is no doubt this 1952 musical-comedy from co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen is a classic among classics, and there is no doubt it is, indeed, among the best of its breed. These days the problem is getting younger viewers interested in a musical at all. It’s a pity, really, an unfair prejudice, but maybe this new, “60th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition” three-disc Blu-ray box set from Warner Home Video will change a few minds and turn a few ears. If this doesn’t do it, nothing will.
Song-and-dance man Gene Kelly (“On the Town,” “Summer Stock,” “An American in Paris”) co-directed the movie with Stanley Donen (“On the Town,” “Funny Face,” “Damn Yankees!”), and Kelly stars in this colorfully lavish spoof of old-time Hollywood, which co-stars fellow hoofer Donald O’Connor and relative newcomer Debbie Reynolds. While the movie’s key image is that of Kelly dancing his way through raindrops and puddles and swinging around a lamppost, the film has a multitude of other good songs and sequences in it to commend, as well as a humorous, sometimes zany plot line. This is one of those films where the whole thing is a joy from beginning to end.
The setting is 1927, the official end of the movies’ silent era and the beginning of talkies with Warner Brothers’ “The Jazz Singer.” Kelly is a conceited silent-screen matinee idol, Don Lockwood, whose on-screen love interest is Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a relationship made in hell as Lockwood can’t stand the lady. But thanks to their romantic silent films and their studio’s overactive public relations department, the public adores them; what’s more, talking pictures loom on the near horizon and the public can’t wait to hear them speak to one another. Two minor problems, and problems faced by any number of real-life silent-movie stars in the late Twenties: Talkies required that an actor have an agreeable speaking voice and the ability to use it to act. Lockwood can’t act, and Lamont can’t speak properly to save her soul. In fact, her voice would peel paint at fifty yards.
The story involves Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talkies and takes a comic and ardent personal spin on the subject with its stars. Debbie Reynolds enters the picture as a young chorus girl, Kathy Selden, with a beautiful speaking and singing voice and a growing affection for Lockwood; while Donald O’Connor plays Lockwood’s best friend and comic sidekick, Cosmo Brown. Millard Mitchell plays the harried head of Monument Pictures, R.F. Simpson. “Lamont and Lockwood: They talk!” exclaims Simpson. “Well, of course, we talk,” responds Ms. Lamont. “Don’t everybody?”
Every time Jean Hagen opens her mouth, I laugh. MGM originally intended her role as the quintessential dumb blonde for Judy Holliday, but Holliday had just scored a big hit in “Born Yesterday” and became unavailable for the role. Hagen more than fills her shoes, possibly even surpassing anything Holliday might have done. Cosmo says of her: “She can’t act, she can’t sing, and she can’t dance. A triple threat!” But when her studio discovers the secret of dubbing someone else’s voice over Lamont’s, things look different. For a while. Until she gets too big on herself. “What do they think I am, dumb or something? Why, I make more money than, than, than Calvin Coolidge put together.”
Kelly’s dancing was always passionately athletic, and O’Connor nicely complements his technique, with the director graciously allowing O’Connor space to do his own thing. So does the sultry Cyd Charisse complement Kelly in a highly stylized and exquisitely executed dance number late in the film. The movie plays on the theme that what you see in Hollywood is not often the reality, and one of the film’s most charming scenes is one where Lockwood professes his love for the talented ingenue Selden on a vast soundstage that filmmakers can transform at the touch of a button into anything romantic they choose: a beauteous sunset with soft breezes, gentle mists, and appropriate background music. Would that real life were so easy. “Singin’ in the Rain” has a good deal of fun satirizing both Hollywood and itself.
Arthur Freed (who also produced the film) and Nacio Herb Brown wrote the movie’s songs for previous movies dating back as far as the mid 1920’s, and they include some highly memorable tunes. In addition to the inevitable “Singin’ in the Rain,” there’s “Fit as a Fiddle and Ready for Love,” “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Make Em’ Laugh,” Beautiful Girl,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “Moses Supposes,” “Good Morning,” “Would You?,” and “You Are My Lucky Star,” among others.
“Singin’ in the Rain” combines traditional numbers with contemporary styles to produce something new in movie musicals. With a nonstop stream of wonderful songs, dances, melodies, jokes, and patter well integrated into the story line, it’s a film that continues to seem fresh and new to this day.
It’s hard to find anything to grouse about in WB’s remastered, 1.37:1 ratio, Blu-ray presentation. MGM originally made the Technicolor film, and Warners have preserved everything about it with loving care, using a new 4K master, a dual-layer BD50, and an MPEG-4/AVC codec. The colors are bright and natural; the contrasts are vivid; and the image looks sharply defined. What’s more, the only trace of grain is inherent to the print and never an issue. There are a couple of instances of what appears to be haloing, but it’s so minor I should not even mention it. The whole movie shows up looking natural, deep, rich, and vivid. It’s simply beautiful.
The movie’s soundtrack comes to us via lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and as expected it opens up the audio to a broader and more realistic degree than monaural. However, this is not to say it is anything like modern, discrete, five-channel sound, the sonics here being more of a stretched mono across the front speakers with few comparatively low-level signals in the rear speakers. Nevertheless, the overall effect is pleasing, the sound warm and smooth. With a soundtrack free of noise or hiss and possessing a fairly wide frequency range, with surprisingly good dynamics and a strong impact, the audio makes enjoyable listening. Most important, the sound works best in the big musical numbers and this is, after all, a musical.
Disc one of this three-disc “60th Anniversary Commemorative Edition” box set is a Blu-ray containing several items of note. The first is an audio commentary with stars Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, Kathleen Freeman, co-director Stanley Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, and film historian Rudy Behlmer. The second item is a newly made, 2012 documentary, “Singin’ in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation” in high definition. It’s fifty minutes long and includes comments from a flock of young entertainers who explain how the film influenced their careers as well as comments from a number of older filmmakers and critics on the subject of the film’s influence on musicals and movies in general.
The extras continue on disc one with a video “Jukebox,” which allows one to choose any or all of the film’s musical numbers and play them back; a widescreen theatrical trailer; thirty-eight scene selections; English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Czech spoken languages
French, Spanish, Portuguese, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Polish subtitles; and English, German, and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
Disc two, a DVD, contains the extras found in the previous DVD two-disc edition. It begins with a pair of full-length documentaries. The first of these, “Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM,” is eighty-six minutes long, made by Turner Broadcasting in 1996. It contains a wealth of interviews from surviving filmmakers about producer Arthur Freed and film clips from the producer’s musicals from “Broadway Melody” in 1929 through “Gigi” in 1958. Note that Freed came in and went out with Oscar winners for Best Picture. The second documentary, “What a Glorious Feeling: The Making of Singin’ in the Rain,” from 2002 is thirty-five minutes long and features interviews with host Debbie Reynolds, star Donald O’Connor, director Stanley Donen, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and many others. Reynolds and O’Connor admit they had no idea at the time they were making anything but another musical. Next comes a series Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown songs used in “Singin’ in the Rain” shown from their originating movies; an outtake of “You Are My Lucky Star”; twenty-six scoring session music cues (the original prerecorded musical numbers from the show, including multiple takes); and a stills gallery.
Disc three is also a DVD and contains the movie in standard definition, along with the newly made documentary mentioned earlier, a trailer, and a slew of language and subtitle choices.
The three discs come housed in a foldout Digipak container suitable for placing on one’s shelf if trying to figure out what to do with the big box proves a burden. The box also contains a forty-eight page hardcover commemorative book; a collectable full-size umbrella, with an umbrella charm attached; and original reproductions (reduced) of theatrical door panel displays.
Finally, for those folks who love the movie but might find the commemorative box a bit pricey, Warner Bros. make the movie available in a single-disc Blu-ray edition.
So, is “Singin’ in the Rain” really the best musical of all time? I dunno. My personal preferences continue to lean toward “Cabaret,” “My Fair Lady,” and “The Music Man,” but you can be sure “Singin’ in the Rain” is right there with them. The film is light, frothy, and charming, a complete delight from beginning to end. It has fun, excitement, romance, humor, and high good spirits. With the extra materials the Blu-ray sports, plus its high-definition sound and picture, it makes a tempting stab at number one.
“If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’. Bless you all.”