Singin’ in the Rain, generally recognized as the greatest of all Hollywood musicals, is 60 years old. For this anniversary, Turner Classic Movies celebrated by releasing a digitally restored print to theaters across the country for a special one-night showing. As a fan of Gene Kelly and the film for the past decade, I bought an advance ticket and joined a fellow fan and friend (Gene Kelly Fans’ contributor Kelly) in order to experience the “glorious feeling” of seeing this film on the big screen.
This wasn’t my first go-round with Don Lockwood and company on the big screen. A decade ago, it was released to select theaters for its fiftieth anniversary. Even so, I was still excited to see it again. Singin’ in the Rain is immensely enjoyable when one watches it alone, but when seen with a crowd, the enjoyment factor seems to be multiplied by the number of people in said crowd. Comedies are not meant to be seen in solitude. Laughter is contagious. Hearing and seeing others react intensifies the viewer’s own reactions.
Last Thursday night, I was fortunate to be sitting right next to someone who chuckled throughout the entire film. One of his companions was someone who had never seen the film before, and I envied her for her many moments of outright howling with laughter. So much of comedy depends on surprise, and to some degree, I took more enjoyment out of anticipating and subsequently witnessing the audience’s response to specific moments than I did in seeing them for the hundredth time myself. For example, I can recall the first time I saw the film, and my reaction to the “no no no/yes yes yes” bit when the sound at the premiere of The Duelling Cavalier goes out of synchronization. I was on the floor, in a manner of speaking, and so were many of my fellow audience members at this showing.
Laughter is not the only contagious product to emerge from viewing a film with an audience. I am not exaggerating when I say goose bumps arose on my arms as the crowd cheered during the familiar opening moments of the film. Oddly enough, I also experienced a wave of pride and joy whenever the audience cheered after a musical number. I am almost embarrassed to admit that with it came a sense of ownership, as though it were my movie that all of these people were clearly so smitten with. No doubt many of them felt the same. After all, it is my movie. It’s their movie. It’s everyone’s movie.
I felt proud and happy for “my” Gene Kelly as well. I never met him, but through learning so much about him, and knowing how hard he worked to evoke that feeling of joy, I couldn’t help but think he would be thrilled to know that 60 years later, audiences young and old still adore what is considered his crowning cinematic achievement.
If Singin’ in the Rain is the pinnacle of movie musical perfection, the title number is the tippy top – the Mount Everest. Like nearly everyone else who was born after Gene Kelly had more-or-less retired, the first thing that came to my mind when I thought about him prior to becoming a fan was his famous rain-soaked paean to the joy of being in love. I knew this number before I ever even saw it. It is almost cinematic wallpaper in that respect: it’s always there and we know it before we know we know it.
I have seen this four and a half minutes of film more times than I could begin to put a number to. And yet it still moves me; it still fills me with joy and awe and a sense of pride and satisfaction – not because I had anything to do with it, but because a human being – one of us – created something so perfect and magical. Part of its purity and perfection stems from its ending. It’s one of the few Gene Kelly numbers (and the only one in this film) that does not hold a pose and invite applause at its finish. This man who reportedly loved to have his ego massaged created his most enduring art when no one was looking, so to speak. There was a modest sprinkle of applause as it closed, but the overwhelming reaction was a collective reverent hush.
It was at this moment that my friend Kelly leaned toward me to whisper: “This part always makes me sad.” It seems a strange thing to say, but I completely and immediately understood what she meant, and realized that I’ve always felt that way as well, though I’ve never fully articulated it to myself. It’s a moment that virtually trembles with poignancy.
First of all, there is the obvious fact that Gene Kelly never rose to such heights again, as the death knell of the classic movie musical was already beginning to sound. As he waves a quiet goodbye to the policeman and saunters silently away in the rain, it is as though he’s waving goodbye to all of us. He made many more movies, but he was (probably) never this good again. Who could be? There is also a more general melancholy that seeps in as we consider, consciously or subconsciously, the fleeting and ephemeral nature of perfection, of happiness, of all being right with the world. This is an iconic moment, but it’s only four and a half minutes long, and then we have to move on to the more mundane and ordinary. So much of life is spent rowing upstream, which makes moments like the one Don Lockwood has on a rainy Hollywood street all the more meaningful.
As big of a fan as I am of Gene Kelly and of this film, during my many home viewings, I confess I often stop watching Singin’ in the Rain as the title number’s music fades and he silently disappears from view. Maybe I only imagined it, but it seemed as though there was a sense of deflation in the audience as well. The rest of the film can’t possibly measure up. The “Broadway Melody” ballet that follows shortly thereafter is enjoyable in and of itself (particularly the sequences with Cyd Charisse), but the way Gene’s ballets stop the driving force of the narrative dead in its tracks became very obvious to me when watching with an audience. I love these islands of pure dance and admire the creative force of the mind behind them, but even I must acknowledge that they do not serve the story.
Still, the movie as a whole is about as close to perfect as a movie can get. As I exited the theater, I smiled to myself as I overheard one young woman talking on her mobile phone. “I have a new favorite movie and I can’t wait to watch it with you,” she exclaimed. Nice work, Gene. You made your mark.