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.