Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain ★★★★½

The main difference between seeing this now and seeing it many times as a kid—besides that I was only able to see it on video as a kid, and it sure does look amazing on a big screen—is that when you have more of a sense of how time works, and how things change, a period piece like this feels both more real and more artificial. For a grownup watching this at the time, 1927 was well within living memory; it'd be like a movie today being set in 1997, and portraying how the Internet was starting to change everything, while also making jokes about '90s pop-culture figures and flip-phones. It's simplified enough that a kid now, or a kid back then who had never seen a silent movie, can still get the basic idea and enjoy the dancing and the clown stuff and the comedy about technical problems (even though, just like period pieces now, it's not very accurate to how things really worked)—while tuning out all the stuff they don't understand that doesn't have much to do with the story, that's aimed more at the grownups. In some cases, the movie is weirdly constructed and digressive because of the same kind of Hollywood machinations that it's making fun of, like how they had a collection of specific songs that had to be worked into the story somehow; or, because they can't resist parodying various things the grown-ups might remember; or in some cases both, like the unbelievably long "Beautiful Girl" number starring the most boring guy in the world, which seems like the filmmakers wanted simultaneously to mock hollow commercialism and to do a fabulous Busby Berkeley thing. The even longer and more elaborate and wild-looking fantasy musical sequence at the end is harder to explain—it's a pretty odd choice to put that much time and style into a thing that's so far removed from the story, and then just drop it—but I can't really complain, since it gave us a great steamy Cyd Charisse bit and also probably put a lot of cinematic ideas into Bob Fosse's head.

Also, speaking of Charisse (but really all three of the leads, too), if you see this as a little kid and think of it as a family comedy, then you probably aren't picking up on how very sexy it sometimes is. How the hell the whole country could watch Gene Kelly's lower body in this, and then four years later think Elvis's hips were too hot for TV, I'll never understand. Even if the story revolves around singing and talking, the movie is really about dancing and jumping and clowning around, and about what a thrill it is to find someone you like to do those things with; it's a world where friendship and romance and performance are all kind of the same thing.

The one thing I like less now than I did as a kid is the treatment of Jean Hagen's villain character; she's a jerk who deserves to lose, but since the movie has only very briefly flirted with the possibility that a more charming person with a nicer voice could also be a jerk (Gene Kelly behaves badly for about five minutes), the general feeling is that our biggest problems are caused by ditzy jealous women who talk funny. It still works because Hagen is great and she makes us happy to see Lina keep doing her thing.

ps. This viewing was also different because it was in a French theater with French subtitles, which included some pretty decent attempts to translate the jokes and cultural references. Lina's line about being more successful than "Calvin Coolidge—put together!" was rendered as "the Three Musketeers—both of them!"

pps. My wife hadn't seen this before, so now she finally knows why I often say, when one of our cats does something ridiculous and then acts like it didn't happen: "Dignity, always dignity."

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