Among the jewels that Arthur Freed’s musicals unit turned out at MGM in the ’40s and ’50s, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is the Hope diamond. Set in Hollywood in the late ’20s, at the moment when the unimaginable success of Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer sent the other studios into a desperate furor of nervous activity as they closed down all production of silents and wired their stages for sound, Betty Comden & Adolph Green’s screenplay burlesques the movie business with as much deadly accuracy and outrageous wit as anyone ever has. There they all are: the hamstrung mogul without an original thought in his head; the dyspeptic director in his beret and jodhpurs; the gushy columnist; the vain matinee idol thrown into a tailspin when someone suggests he may not be the world’s greatest actor; the territorial star threatened by the fresh-faced ingénue who steals her thunder. And, of course, the narcissistic silent-movie diva who’s so dumb that she believes her own publicity.
Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont is hands down the most hilarious character in any movie musical. She’s not the protagonist, but the plot revolves around her. Forced to turn the latest costume vehicle for her and her co-star, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), into a talkie, Monumental Pictures struggles to find a way around her voice, which sounds like a cross between a crippled foghorn and radio static. Elocution lessons don’t make a dent in it, and she’s such a dope, she can’t even remember to talk into the microphones the sound technicians have planted all over the set. The resulting picture, The Dueling Cavalier, is a fiasco when it’s previewed before an audience, in a sequence that still makes viewers sick with laughter. At the 11th hour, Don’s old vaudeville partner, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), comes up with the answer: he invents lip-synching, and Don’s girlfriend, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a rising contract player, lands the job of providing Lina Lamont’s voice.
The credits list Kelly as co-director, as on his other collaborations with Stanley Donen, because he staged and shot the musical numbers, many of which are classics. Freed had won an Oscar the year before for producing An American in Paris, which showcased the music of George Gershwin, and in Singin’ in the Rain he recycled a handful of tunes he and lyricist Nacio Herb Brown had penned at MGM in the early days of the talkies. The title song had been introduced as the finale of an all-star musical spectacle called Hollywood Revue of 1929, but in movie lovers’ minds it’s forever associated with the image of Kelly swinging from a lamp post, umbrella in hand, and sloshing about merrily in several inches of rain water while proclaiming his new-found love for Debbie Reynolds. The pas de deux for Don and Kathy, "You Were Meant for Me," takes place on a soundstage: it’s a tribute to the irresistible artifice movies create to stylize romance. Donald O’Connor, one of the two most gifted comic dancers in the history of movies (the other, Ray Bolger, also did his stint at MGM), cheers up his downhearted pal with a peerless piece of vaudevillean brio, "Make ’Em Laugh," that climaxes when he dances up the wall of a movie flat and somersaults off it. O’Connor and Kelly duet on "Fit As a Fiddle" and again on "Moses Supposes," a tongue twister set to music. And in "Good Morning" (borrowed from the Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney Babes in Arms), Kelly, O’Connor, and Reynolds express their bottomless joy at solving the Dueling Cavalier problem by dancing over an upended sofa.
If choreographic athleticism was Kelly’s trademark, show-biz satire was Comden & Green’s. They would take on the Broadway musical in The Band Wagon the following year, and TV bathos in It’s Always Fair Weather, another Donen-Kelly picture, in 1955. But Singin’ in the Rain was their finest hour. It’s fitting that a new, 50th-anniversary restoration should open at the Regent mere weeks after Green’s death. Wherever he is, I hope he can hear the audience roaring with laughter.