Friday, July 13, 2012

SINGIN' IN THE RAIN: 60th Anniversary Blu-ray (MGM 1952) Warner Home Video

Few movie musicals are as deservedly beloved as Singin’ In The Rain (1952), and even fewer as eternally fresh and vivacious on the screen sixty years later. In retrospect it all comes off so effortlessly that one tends to forget just how much hard work was involved along the way, and also, how the film almost didn’t get made at all. Co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin’ In The Rain offers up definitive versions of Arthur Freed/Nacio Herb Brown’s most glorious pop tunes. For years Freed, who had begun his MGM career as a song writer in the twenties before quickly moving up the ladder to full-fledged producer, had toyed with the idea of immortalizing his own song catalogue and why not? The studio had had great success with glorifying the music of Jerome Kern (Till The Clouds Roll By) and Rogers and Hart (Words & Music). And if anyone could pull off another ‘anthology’ musical it had to be Gene Kelly, fresh from his exuberant star turn in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951); the first movie musical to win Best Picture since 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld.
Yet, for a long while the project remained in limbo, first due to a minor contractual dispute with screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolf Green, and then because the duo were all but stumped to conceive of an angle for the story. It may seem remarkable today, but Singin’ In the Rain was originally pencilled in for singer Howard Keel – not dancer Gene Kelly! When Comden and Green learned of this casting decision it nearly broke their stride. For days they tried to fashion a tale about a western rodeo star who makes it big in the movies. When that didn’t work, Comden finally came up with a most brilliant suggestion; tell a fictional story about the early sound era in Hollywood. The team were further inspired by the real life tragedy of silent matinee idol John Gilbert whose career ended with the advent of sound. But since, Singin’ In the Rain was a musical, the hero of Comden/Green’s screenplay would ultimately fare on the sunny side of the street.
As Stanley Donen once pointed out, there is no intelligent reason for naming the film after the song ‘Singin’ in the Rain’; a pop standard since Hollywood Review of 1929, and appearing several more times throughout the 1930s and 40s as either a full-fledged production number or background music in other MGM films. In many ways, the song became an early anthem for the studio – one they had always looked back on with significant pride. Moreover, it was a presold commodity with built-in audience appeal.
Casting was something of a minor challenge. As Gene Kelly had just finished An American in Paris – and yet to learn just how popular the release was to be, Comden and Green reluctantly sent him their script, expecting him to politely decline. Instead, Kelly came to the table brimming with excitement and fresh ideas. Arthur Freed’s first choice to play Kelly’s cohort was Oscar Levant – not surprising, since the two had had genuine chemistry together in An American In Paris. However, Comden and Green were convinced that the part should go to a dancer instead, and so Donald O’Connor was brought in – borrowed from Universal. Likewise, the studio’s first choice to play opposite Kelly as his befuddled girlfriend, Lena Lamont was Nina Foch – judged too sophisticated and quickly replaced by the sadly underrated Jean Hagen.
The part of the ingénue proved the most perplexing. There are conflicting stories as to how Debbie Reynolds was cast. Stanley Donen remembers it as being a mutual decision made between him and Kelly. But the actress recalls being foisted upon Kelly and Donen by L.B. Mayer much to Gene’s chagrin.
“Do you dance?” Kelly reportedly inquired during his first meeting with Reynolds and Mayer.
“No,” Reynolds reluctantly admitted.
“Mr. Mayer,” said Kelly, “She doesn’t dance.”
“She’ll dance!” Mayer thundered.
And indeed Reynolds learned to do just that. Still, it wasn’t easy, and at one point learning to be a perfectionist from the ground up left the actress tearful and whimpering beneath a rehearsal piano during the lunch hour break. To Reynolds’ rescue came none other than Fred Astaire. It was Astaire who provided Reynolds with the knowledge that “dancing is the hardest thing you can do, Debbie,” and validated this claim by affording her the rare opportunity to watch him practise his new routines on another sound stage.
Recreating Hollywood circa 1929 also challenged the production team. The studio had matured in the intervening decades and had divested itself of much of their old props and equipment necessary to convincingly resurrect that bygone era anew. Art director Randall Duell and Set Designer Jacques Mapes spent months in research and months more rebuilding vintage microphones and Cooper-Hewitt stage lights as props while Walter Plunkett feverishly designed the costumes, taking into his sketches an acceptable amount of artistic license in shortening the hemlines to keep up with then contemporary tastes. Freed, a stickler for authenticity objected to these alterations but was eventually vetoed.
The final wrinkle to be ironed out was The Broadway Ballet – a lengthy dance number meant to top the ballet from An American In Paris and lavishly appointed at an initial budget of $80,000 that quickly escalated to $600,000. Without blinking an eye, Dore Schary blindly approved the overrun and Lennie Hayton was called in to transform the song, Broadway Rhythm into an orchestral celebration of the roaring twenties. Meanwhile Gene Kelly got down to business on the title number, choreographing Singin’ in the Rain down to the exact place where he wanted potholes dug out of the pavement on MGM’s New York street to add puddles he could jump through. 
The number was shot with large black tarps covering the outdoor set to simulate a night shoot with a mix of water and milk pumped through an elaborate overhead system of pipes. Regrettably, the number had to be repeatedly delayed after four in the afternoon, when overuse of the California water system from nearby residents drained the pressure in the sprinklers (designed to produce the rain shower in the movie) down to a mere trickle. Worse, wearing a soaked through woollen top coat and pants that had begun to shrink, Kelly caught the flu, but trudged onward, shooting the bulk of the number with a severe fever.
Singin in the Rain is the story of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), a matinee idol who, along with his platinum co-star, Lena Lamont (Jean Hagen) is the envy and toast of silent movies.  Our story begins at a particularly glamorous movie premiere where gossip columnist Dora Bailey (Madge Blake) is grabbing sound bytes from the stars on the red carpet outside of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. First to arrive is film composer Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) who is dealt with short shrift before Lockwood and Lamont arrive. The premiere is a hit. But afterward Don gives his thank you speech alone as Lena reluctantly looks on. It’s only after the two are concealed off stage that we learn the reason why. Lena is a horrible shrike whose voice is disturbingly shrill and grating on the nerves.
Monumental Pictures production head, R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) is unnerved by Lena’s lack of innate acting talent. After all, in silent movies all she really needs to succeed is a pretty face. And Lena certainly has that. Leaving the premiere in separate cars, Don is accosted by a flock of overly adoring fans who tear his tuxedo to shreds. To escape their adulation, he flees into oncoming traffic and mounts a moving street car before tumbling into the passenger seat of an old jalopy driven by aspiring actress, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).  She mistakes him for a masher and then, after learning who he really is, discounts his acting as mere ‘dumb show’ much to Don’s chagrin. Following the premiere, Simpson throws a house party for his stars, where he debuts the ‘new’ talking picture. No one except Simpson pays much attention to this new-fangled invention. Later, Selden – who is working to pay the bills – emerges from the center of a frosted cake to perform a burlesque routine with a pack of pretty in pink chorus girls.
As payback, Don teases Kathy about her job and Kathy, in a spirited moment throws a cream pie at him.  In true slapstick fashion the pie misses its mark and strikes Lena in the face instead. Days later Don cannot get Kathy out of his head. But his inquiries to find her prove fruitless. Happy chance for everyone as Cosmo discovers Kathy hired as an extra by Monumental Pictures and already working. Don takes Kathy aside and woos her in true Hollywood fashion.  She can see that his intensions are honourable and he, in return, has already begun to worship her. The two begin a passionate romance that culminates with Don taking to the streets outside of Kathy’s apartment in the middle of a torrential downpour to sing and dance in the rain.
Regrettably, Lena learns of Kathy’s presence and promptly gets her fired. But when Lena’s voice proves impossible for audio recording on the latest Lockwood and Lamont ‘sound’ picture, Simpson hires Kathy back to dub Lena without her knowing about it. The picture is almost finished and ready for premiere when Lena’s good friend, Zelda Zanders (Rita Moreno) exposes the plan, thereby forcing Lena to exercise the rights in her contract that stipulate the studio cannot do anything that would be detrimental to her career. Backed into a corner, Simpson agrees that Kathy’s dubbing must be kept a secret from the press.
Predictably, at the Grauman’s premiere this plan backfires when Lena is asked to sing for her fans. Simpson sets up a microphone behind the curtain for Kathy with Lena out front lip syncing. Don and Cosmo decide that it’s high time to knock this simpering diva out of her stratosphere. They raise the curtain and expose the lie with Don shouting for everyone to hear, “That’s the voice you heard and loved tonight – Kathy Selden!” The scene dissolves to an exterior with Kathy and Don embracing in front of a billboard that heralds their co-starring in a new movie for Monumental Pictures.
Singin In the Rain is a film of such epically refined qualities, so many treasures idyllically on display that it’s difficult to remain objective. The score is certainly first rate. During production a few new songs were added including a comedy solo for Donald O’Connor that Freed wrote on the fly – basically plagiarising the Cole Porter melody from ‘Be A Clown’, loosely reconstituted as ‘Make ‘em Laugh’. Song writer Irving Berlin was quick to point out the glaring similarity between the two. But Porter remained silent and never voiced an objection. Obviously a gentleman, he probably also realized that Freed had backhandedly paid him the supreme compliment by ‘borrowing’ from his repertoire. Flattery, as they say, will get you anywhere.
The dance routines in Singin’ In The Rain are as near perfection as one could hope, particularly Kelly’s exuberant ‘rain soaked’ title routine and the delightful ‘Good Mornin’, superbly executed by Kelly, O’Connor, Reynolds – the latter never missing a step and convincingly keeping up with these two trained dancers. O’Connor and Kelly perform ‘Fit As A Fiddle’ (the last tune Freed and Brown ever composed) and later have an electric dance off with ‘Moses Supposes’.  The biggest number in the film, ‘The Broadway Ballet’ is a mind-blowing spectacle that charts a young man’s aspiring rise to prominence from burlesque hoofer to Broadway star. Kelly shares a pas deux here with sultry Cyd Charisse (guest starring as a devious black widow attracted to money rather than men).
By the time Singin’ in the Rain wrapped it was over budget by $620,996: a forgivable miscalculation considering that its final cost of $2,540,800 was eclipsed by its $7,655,000 gross. That the film was not even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar has always been a source of consternation. Certainly, Singin’ In the Rain deserved at least the nod – and arguably, even the win. Its unfortunate timing – coming as it did one year after An American in Paris had already raided the Oscar closet – is ultimately more responsible for this oversight by Academy voters than anything else. But as MGM’s publicity proudly declared back in the day, “what a joy to see Singin’ In The Rain – forever the testament to Gene Kelly’s prowess as a truly unique American dancer and marking the beginning of the end for MGM’s glorious final flowering of the Hollywood musical as a uniquely American art form. What a joy indeed!
Words to aptly describe Warner Home Video’s lavishly appointed box set Blu-ray. The film has never looked more vibrant. Unfortunately, the video quality is not without issues – the most obvious being the occasional artificial sharpening of the image that tends to create minor halos around background information. This distraction isn’t as bad as it sound herein, but it is present and, at times, obvious. Otherwise, we get an image that does the film proud. Technicolor was a grain reducing process and grain, on this outing, is practically nonexistent. Good or bad? Not quite sure since I never saw Singin’ In The Rain on film stock. There’s no denying DNR has been applied, but the image isn’t waxy or blurred as can sometimes be the case with excessive DNR applications. The audio positively soars – a sparkling 5.1 DTS lossless track that miraculously integrates music, effects and dialogue.
Extras? Oh boy! What a joy to get everything ported over from the old DVD release; including the lengthy tribute to Arthur Freed: Musicals Great Musicals, a making of documentary about the film itself and the original audio commentary track. Add to this a brand new 50 min. companion piece where present day stars affectionately wax about the film and you have entertainment plus value. There’s also a juke box feature where you can compare the songs in the film to their original versions from other movies in the MGM canon. Warner has padded out the video extras with some nice tangibles as well – a handsome collector’s booklet, a reproduction of some original poster art and a tote umbrella! Nice touch. Bottom line: ‘Let the stormy clouds chase everyone from the place!’ Singin’ in the Rain is a no brainer purchase. A must have!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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