AFInity: Singin' in the Rain
By Kim Hollis
September 4, 2009

There's a fine line between crazy and blissfully happy.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#5: Singin' in the Rain

It had been a Very Bad Week, and I needed something uplifting. Walking through the aisles of Blockbuster, I considered It Happened One Night, Annie Hall and Bringing Up Baby before finally deciding that my next update would focus on a film from a genre that always brings me great pleasure - the musical. Somehow, I'd never seen Singin' in the Rain, the movie that is generally considered to be the very best of them all. Sure, I'd seen bits and pieces of it, and as I watched the movie, I realized I knew every single song (though this is partly because only one tune is original to the film). But I needed something to chase my blues away, even if only for a moment, and a lighthearted romp full of singing and dancing seemed just the thing.

Boy, was it ever.

Singin' in the Rain has a high place of regard on the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies list, sitting as it does at number five (it tops their separate list of musicals). There are plenty of reasons for such significant acclaim. The direction, the dancing, the performances, the set pieces, the music, and the underlying themes all play impacting roles in making Singin' in the Rain a truly special movie experience.

Everything stems from the direction by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, which is exhilarating and a case of everything coming together unexpectedly and perfectly to create a magical, time-transcendent story. Considering that the movie was effectively conceived as a vehicle to showcase a number of songs penned by MGM producer Arthur Freed and his writing partner Nacio Herb Brown, it would have been so easy for Singin' in the Rain to have been a haphazard mishmash of tunes sloppily connected by a tenuous story. Instead, the transitions from story to song are well-considered and serve the plot in clever ways.

A perfect example of such incorporation is the theme song itself. Originally planned as a piece for the main trio of stars (Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor), plans were changed and "Singin' in the Rain" was transformed into a celebration of newfound love. (On a side note, Kelly was ill with a fever during the filming of the scene, which was completed in one take. Once again, something that could have gone terribly wrong turns out to become one of the most iconic scenes ever put to celluloid.)

Leading man Kelly was himself responsible for the choreography and dancing in the film, and I was simply blown away by the skills on display as I watched each "number". From the vaudevillian performances of Don Lockwood and Cosmo Brown to the goofy chorus girl scene to the awesome "Good Morning" and of course "Singin' in the Rain", all of the choreography is impressively creative and unique. Though I wouldn't call the technique difficult, necessarily, it looks simply fantastic. My favorite thing about the dancing is that Kelly has made sure that elements from the scenery are incorporated into the numbers. So when Cosmo tries to "Make 'Em Laugh", he's crashing through walls and bopping around a couch. (He also makes some of the goofiest, funniest faces you'll ever see this side of Jim Carrey, all set in time to the music.)

Similarly, in "Good Morning", the lead trio flitters around the room and uses such props as raincoats and hats in the most innovative fashion imaginable. And of course, one always has to return to "Singin' in the Rain", which has Kelly utilizing curbs, signposts, an umbrella and the rain itself to inspire pure joy.

That joy is visible in the faces of the actors, from Kelly to O'Connor to Reynolds to Jean Hagen. Even though we know that Hagen's Lina Lamont is the "villain", there's something just irresistibly adorable about her. She's effectively a Betty Boop bombshell and she's taking such pleasure in the role that you're really laughing with her rather than at her when she gets her various comeuppances. Kelly is the definition of urbanity and oozes cool, while Reynolds is fresh-faced and innocent, untouched by the cynicism of Hollywood's ways.

And even though we know that cynicism lies at the pit of the industry, Hollywood has never looked more colorful or appealing. The set design is simply glorious, with bright primary colors that pop and keep the eye riveted to the screen. The costumes fit right in with the backgrounds behind them, and I frequently found myself being amazed at the perfection of the clothing chosen for each scene. Top to bottom - hats, dresses, suits and shoes - every article was chosen with great deliberation and became a piece of the larger vision.

Of course, all of these more superficial elements would feel awfully empty if there wasn't a little bit of oomph to the story. I find it interesting that like so many of the movies on the AFI list I've reviewed so far, Singin' in the Rain also considers the notion that life and time are passing us by. In this case, the shift is occurring because Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont have been silent film stars, but with the release of The Jazz Singer, the world is starting to embrace "talkies", which means that the pair must adapt to new ways or get pushed out of the business completely. We see how problematic this is for someone with Lina's squeaky voice and lack of smarts, while Don is hindered by bad scripts and even worse, a complete lack of chemistry with his longtime co-star. Unlike other AFI movies, where some of our heroes have accepted that their time in the sun may have come to a close (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Toy Story, A Streetcar Named Desire, Star Wars), Don defiantly stands up and triumphantly adapts. Rather than let his new movie, The Dueling Cavalier, pass into history as a laughing stock and a failure, he - along with the help of his friends - changes it into a musical - The Dancing Cavalier - that audiences lap up.

This upbeat outlook shines through the entire movie, which is essential in making it such a glorious viewing experience. Sure, there's a time and a place for more gravitas, but sometimes, that specific something we need is a celebration of life's joyfulness and elation. It's kind of a shame that so few films today embrace this sort of pure, unbridled positivity. What a delight it is that Singin' in the Rain makes us want to sing and dance right along with it, smiling all the way.

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