Thursday, January 5, 2017

My Favorite Stanley Donen Film

Before becoming a director, Stanley Donen made his name as an innovative choreographer in the 1940s, responsible for Gene Kelly's "alter ego" dance number with his own reflection in "Cover Girl," and the "Anchors Aweigh" number with an animated Jerry the Mouse. Despite many later successes on his own, Donen's career remains inextricably linked to Kelly's. They co-directed three musicals together, including Donen's best: "Singin' in the Rain."

The lavish MGM musicals of the Hollywood Golden Age were built around their memorable dance numbers, but "Singin' in the Rain" has an equally memorable story. Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a popular silent film star who is partnered with the vain, unpleasant Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). When their studio decides to transition to talkies, Lina's terrible voice threatens to doom their next picture. Don and his best friend Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) decide to turn the film into a musical, and recruit young actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) to dub Lina's voice and launch her own career.

When I think of Gene Kelly, I immediately think of him dancing in the iconic "Singin' in the Rain" number, splashing through puddles and spinning around with his umbrella. For me, it's not only representative of the best of the musical genre, but the best of Hollywood filmmaking, period. Donald O'Connor's astonishing feats of athleticism and comedy in "Make 'Em Laugh" are certainly a highlight, but there's such a simplicity and playfulness to "Singin' in the Rain" that is irresistible. He and Donen made it look so easy, which was deceptive, of course. Donen has revealed in interviews that the sequence took weeks to prepare, rehearse, and shoot. Kelly was sick at the time, and performed in the downpour with a 103 degree fever.

"Singin' in the Rain" was one of the many musicals produced at MGM by Arthur Freed, and was a product of the studio system at its height. It was intended to be a jukebox musical of sorts, recycling songs written by Nacio Herb Brown in the 1930s. All but one of the songs had previously appeared in other films, sometimes multiple films. It was a struggle to fit them all into a single story. Donen thrived working within limitations, however, and he and the talented crew persevered. If Stanley Donen contributed anything to the American musical, it was to make the musical numbers extensions of a film's storytelling, rather than the older model of Busby Berkeley style spectacle for the sake of spectacle. And so "Make 'Em Laugh" captured the soul of a clown. And "Singin' in the Rain" captured the elation of a man in love.

Comedy is also a vital component of the film, as "Singin' in the Rain" lightly spoofs the filmmaking industry and the studio system. While the typical romantic farce is expertly deployed, Donen also gets a lot of mileage out of depicting all the behind the scenes chaos of making a movie during the transitional era. The early challenges of recording sound for film are turned into a game of where to hide the microphone. The head of the fictional studio, played by Millard Mitchell, is a loving caricature of Arthur Freed. And then there's Lina Lamont, who is so memorably awful, and so much fun to hate. Debbie Reynolds is perfectly charming as the leading lady, but everyone remembers Jean Hagen as Lina.

The production of "Singin' in the Rain" was reportedly difficult, and there are many stories of clashes and injuries behind the scenes. There's a lot of conflicting information about what went on, and many urban legends have had to be dispelled. We know that Donen and Gene Kelly were still getting along at this point, though Kelly had more of the clout and was getting more of the credit. It was Donen who went on to greater successes after "Singin' in the Rain" though. He directed several other musicals in the '50s, and after the genre fell out of fashion, moved on to comedies and romances. He had his share of flops, but worked steadily through the 1970s.

As for "Singin' in the Rain," it was a decent but unspectacular success upon release, that critical reappraisals and decades of delighted fans have raised to the level of a national treasure. And it deserves it, as one of the most watchable, wonderful musicals ever made.

What I've Seen - Stanley Donen

On the Town (1949)
Royal Wedding (1951)
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Funny Face (1957)
The Pajama Game (1957)
Indiscreet (1958)
Charade (1963)
Two for the Road (1967)
Bedazzled (1967)
Staircase (1969)

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