From A Star Is Born in 1937 to The Artist in 2011, the movie industry has exhibited a narcissistic obsession with itself. Drawing on its own experiences of studios stifling creativity, the corrupting influence of fame and money, and the compromises they make for the sake of their careers, many filmmakers have made satires about the movies.
Singin’ in the Rain approaches the movie industry with more affection than others. It sees Hollywood, despite its decadence and eccentricities, as a place where talent can thrive, and it remains one of the finest examples of why that optimism is justified: a movie so brimming with creativity and invention that more than 60 years later, it retains the capacity to inspire and entertain.
End of an Era
Singin’ in the Rain is set in the late 1920s, toward the end of the silent-movie era, and it deals with the need for a studio and its silent star, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), to change with the times. Unless he can learn to work with synchronised sound, Don is destined, in his words, to become “a museum piece.”
His position very much mirrors the status of the musical as a genre at the time that Singin’ in the Rain was released: in 1952, it was a format whose heyday seemed to be passing. There is one memorable sequence when The Dueling Cavalier, a silent movie Don is making with his shallow co-star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), is being reshot for sound. The cast and crew are out of their depth with the new technology; for example, even the talented Don asks for dialogue to be replaced with him repeating “I love you,” unaware of how wooden that will sound in a “talkie.” The scene addresses his fears of replacement, as his skills and methodology become redundant, and the mistakes he makes on account of that anxiety, but it is also about the eclipsing of the musical by other genres of movie.
“If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain’t been in vain for nothin’.”
Lina Lamont / Singin’ in the Rain
A Creative Arc
One of the key themes of Singin’ in the Rain is the undignified and humiliating work that creative people are willing to do in order to get ahead in the industry. This is highlighted in three stories within the movie. In the first, Don reminisces to a journalist on the red carpet at a premiere. As he waxes lyrical about his dignified rise to stardom, the viewer is shown a montage that contradicts his words.
He is seen working his way up from rock bottom as a musical performer, as he and his partner Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) perform in dive bars, get booed off the stage, and stand in the unemployment line. The second story takes place within the extended fantasy sequence “Broadway Melody,” in which Don arrives on Broadway as an eager performer and is then corrupted by fame and adulation, before eventually rediscovering why he wanted to sing and dance in the first place. The final story is that of the movie itself, in which Don evolves from a silent star to his true vocation as a musical performer.
The movie uses these stories to examine just what it is that constitutes artistic success. It is not the same as simply making it, and getting rich—it is about the artist doing what he or she loves without compromise. Don is a movie star from the moment we meet him, yet he is not truly successful until the last scene, when he is in his element, having become a musical star instead of a silent actor, and is with the girl he loves, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), instead of the self-serving Lina. The movie takes an optimistic view, suggesting that the path to finding your creative self is long and difficult, but if you have the talent and conviction, as Don does, you’ll eventually get to where you belong.
Singin’ in the Rain stands out in the pantheon of musicals for a number of reasons. It takes a self-deprecating look at its own craft, and it features several iconic musical numbers (from the titular Singin’ in the Rain to the comedic Make ’em Laugh), but above all it has endured because it speaks to a timeless fascination: the celebration and power of talent. While many movies portray the eventual corruption of talent and creative ambition, Singin’ in the Rain salutes genuine talent as an irrepressible force that will always prevail.