The Daily Stream: 'Singin' in the Rain' Remains the Platonic Ideal of the Movie Musical
(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)
The Movie: Singin’ in the Rain
Where You Can Stream It: HBO Max
The Pitch: Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a silent film star who finds his career threatened by the transition to “talkies.” When his new film with his frequent movie partner and arrogant diva Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) bombs at the test screening, they decide to rework it as a musical, but there’s only one problem: Lina can’t sing. They hire Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), a beautiful young aspiring actress and Don’s new beau, to record over her voice, but the ruse can only be kept up for so long.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: No one’s doing it like Gene Kelly, and maybe no one ever will.
To this day, Singin’ in the Rain is still one of my favorite movie musicals. It’s my comfort watch, one that I can go back to again and again because I know it backwards and forwards. And yet, despite being comfortably predictable, the 1952 Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen musical still remains in a class unto its own. This is not a dig at any contemporary movie musicals that have recently hit theaters (though I would gladly bash any musical directed by Tom Hooper), but just a chance to express awe at our musical idol of old, Gene Kelly.
Kelly is luminous in Singin’ in the Rain. There are other movie musicals where he does harder stunts (see: his roller skating number in It’s Always Fair Weather) or are more impressive dance-wise (that legendary American in Paris ballet sequence), but Singin’ in the Rain remains the platonic ideal of the Gene Kelly musical — nay, the classic movie musical. I can anticipate West Side Story fans piling on me for this statement, which is fair, but the thing that makes Singin’ in the Rain such a stone-cold classic is not just the iconic songs or how well-choreographed the dances are, but the star power.
For Kelly, I don’t need to explain why. But I will. A skilled athlete (he nearly became a professional hockey player) before he ever went into the movie business, Kelly possesses that kind of all-American charisma and learned grace that comes with being a former athlete who learned how to dance, rather than the other way around. He’s almost preternaturally athletic, but doesn’t have that kind of fleet-footed dexterity that longtime professional dancers like Fred Astaire or even his Singin’ in the Rain co-star Donald O’Connor have. For Kelly, that works in his favor, giving him a sort of grounded appeal of the quarterback who just happens to be able to dance beautifully.
That extends to his performance outside of dancing too. Kelly is the kind of easygoing, effortless star who instantly becomes a magnet for everyone’s eyes — and he knows it. But he’s got the humility to be slightly bashful about it and even poke fun at himself; there’s some grade-A slapstick and physical comedy that Kelly pulls off in Singin’ in the Rain that get overlooked for its more memorable numbers. There’s a reason my favorite number isn’t one of the oft-cited classics, but “Moses Supposes,” a silly tap-dancing two-hander between Kelly and O’Connor that is just the two of them fooling around with a diction coach while breezing through some intricate tap steps. It’s what I think of first when I think of Singin’ in the Rain: that meeting between Kelly’s learned athletic grace and O’Connor’s natural dancerly grace, all during a nonsensical musical number in which everyone gets to play the stooge, but they all look good doing it.
That I can go long on a number that people rarely talk about compared to its most beloved sequences — Singin’ in the Rain, Make ‘Em Laugh, Good Morning, that gorgeous ballet-Broadway number with Kelly and Cyd Charisse — is probably a testament to how good Singin’ in the Rain is. I fear I’ve lost the plot on discussing why Singin’ in the Rain is the platonic ideal of the musical when I realize all I wanted to do was rave about Gene Kelly, but let’s end it here. Singin’ in the Rain is just that good.
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