Singin' in the Rain: 50th Anniversary Edition

Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor. Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Aspect ratio: 4:3. Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 2.0 (French). Two DVDs. 103 minutes. 1952. Warner Home Video 125695621 27. G. $26.99.

Back in the 1920s and '30s, Arthur Freed was a lyricist whose songs, written with composer Nacio Herb Brown, appeared in such movie musicals as The Broadway Melody. By the 1940s, Freed had advanced to producing musicals for MGM, and in 1950 he asked the screenwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write a script for a new musical, entitled Singin' in the Rain, that would use some of Freed's old songs. As Comden and Green tell the story, the only thing they knew at the outset was that, at some point in the movie, there would have to be someone singing (or perhaps singin') in the rain.

The story they came up with involved the early days of the movies, and centered around the difficulty silent-movie stars had in adapting to the new medium of the talkies. Gene Kelly, who had worked with Freed on several movies, was to be the star. Joining Kelly in the cast were a couple of relative unknowns: Debbie Reynolds, an 18-year-old with no dance training whose previous movie appearances had been in minor roles; and Donald O'Connor, best known at the time for being in movies that featured Francis the Talking Mule (but O'Connor, at least, could dance). The role of Lina Lamont, the silent-movie star with the squeaky voice (originally written for Judy Holliday, who turned out not to be available), went to Jean Hagen, a serious actress who had not done much comedy. When Singin' in the Rain went into production, there was little reason to believe that it would be anything more than an innocuous bit of fluff with a storyline built awkwardly around the songs and a star surrounded by performers out of their depth.

The rest, of course, is movie history. Although Singin' in the Rain did not win an Oscar (thought to be related to the fact that the Freed-Kelly An American in Paris had won several the year before), it's now widely regarded as one of the best movie musicals of all time, and ranks No.10 in the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 American Films of the 20th Century. Comden and Green's screenplay takes affectionate pokes at movies and movie stars, and the old Freed-Brown songs (supplemented by two more written specifically for the movie) are incorporated seamlessly into the story. Debbie Reynolds is adorable, and manages to hold her own with her more experienced colleagues in the dance numbers. Donald O'Connor is a perfect match for Kelly in their vaudeville duo number, "Fit as a Fiddle," and his "Make 'Em Laugh" is a masterpiece of comic athleticism.

As for Kelly—well, I'm not normally given to ranking movies, plays, or pieces of music (art is not a race, in my view), but for me, the performance and filming of the "Singin' in the Rain" sequence reaches a level that I can't imagine being bettered. There are two specific bits of cinematography in this number that I think represent either genius or incredible luck. Both involve camera movement, bringing to mind Hitchcock's view that a moving camera is an emotional camera. The first is when Kelly sings "come on with the rain, there's a smile on my face." He tilts his head up to the falling rain, and as he's doing this the camera swoops in (doesn't zoom in, and there's no cut: Baz Luhrmann please note) and moves up, capturing the joyous expression on Kelly's face. The second moment of pure magic is later in the number, when the orchestra picks up the main theme and Kelly dances a broad circle in the middle of the street, holding the umbrella straight out. The camera now pulls back, again to a higher vantage point, lifting the viewer's heart with it.

Singin' in the Rain has been available in a more-than-serviceable DVD release from MGM/UA, but that is now clearly surpassed by this new 50th Anniversary Edition from Warner Home Video (ironically, the descendent of the film company that was MGM's arch-rival). The digital remastering used the three-strip Technicolor elements and involves what Warner refers to as a "newly developed 'Ultra-Resolution' process." The result is an image with a sharpness, color, and overall "snap" that are quite remarkable for a film of its age. The sound is only slightly better than in the earlier release. [Take the DVD's claimed Dolby Digital 5.1 sound with a grain of salt. It's simply not possible to produce a convincing 5.1-channel mix from a 1952 recording.—TJN]

Among the supplemental materials, the most notable is a new 30-minute documentary, What a Glorious Feeling, hosted by Debbie Reynolds, about the making of Singin' in the Rain. Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM is a 96-minute documentary about the career of producer-songwriter Freed; there's an outtake of "You Are My Lucky Star," and excerpts from movies that are in some way referenced by Singin' in the Rain. All quite interesting.

What's disappointing is the commentary track, again hosted by Debbie Reynolds, with contributions from O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, Kathleen Freeman, Comden and Green, co-director Stanley Donen, film historian Rudy Behlmer, and Moulin Rouge! director Baz Luhrmann. For the most part, the commentary track is a re-edited version of What a Glorious Feeling, with little in the way of personal reminiscences about the filming of specific scenes. Reynolds' role is restricted almost entirely to announcing the name of each commentator, and a lame joke at the end about how Singin' in the Rain was made in Culver City and not, as the credits state, in "Hollywood, U.S.A," but that "at least it wasn't made in Canada." Where are Comden and Green when you need them?