Singin’ in the Rain is a musical film jointly directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donlen, and was written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green to feature songs written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Brown in a film setting. The film features Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, a Hollywood silent film celebrity caught in the transition from silent films to “talkies” in the Roaring Twenties. With the help of his best friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor) and romantic interest Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), he prepares a musical film while thwarting the romantically jealous efforts of his previous professional partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) to ruin Kathy’s career.
Singin’ in the Rain spoke directly to my elementary, puddle-stomping inner self – it’s witty, it’s cinematically awe-inspiring, yet, it doesn’t take itself too seriously to forgo face-scrunching and full-on slapstick stunts reminiscent of old-timey cartoons. And it’s not a stretch to say it spoke to many others: Singin’ in the Rain tops the American Film Institute’s “Greatest Movie Musicals,” and remains a cultural icon decades later (such that this musical theater layman came across it in their class!).
Despite being 70 years old, Singin’ in the Rain feels fresh – almost timeless. It feels this way to me because it breaks away from gender stereotypes (especially for 1952) through its female lead to give a more modern appeal – Kathy Selden is a strong, independent woman not afraid to take self-agency. Additionally, the story is in of itself witty, meta, and relatable to modern audiences – no matter the demographic – and the numbers are well-integrated spectacles worthy of their attention.
Kathy Selden’s introduction establishes her identity as a strong, independent female lead: she drives her own car (a historical symbol in the US for independence), is not afraid to brazenly criticize Don Lockwood’s livelihood as an actor despite his celebrity status (think about it: if Tom Cruise hopped into your car, would you have the gall to call his acting “dumb show”?), and rejects his aggressive (and frankly, creepy) sexual behavior (See Exhibits A and B).
Further, Kathy feels humiliated when she dances in “All I Do is Dream of You” – a humiliation which highlights Kathy’s independence and character strength. She is dressed in a pink, revealing costume, jumps out of a cake, is bombarded with streamers, and dances a routine that invites the male audience to objectify her. This abstract dance routine (along with the titular lyrics) plainly evokes feelings of ownership and power from this male audience, and when Don teases her about the situation (“I had to tell you how good you were”) she hurriedly tries to sidestep him because of this humiliation. When, however, Don throws salt in the wound (“Now that I know where you live [motions to cake], I’d like to see you home”) by demeaning her as some sort of cake-fairy, she doesn’t let the injury slide, and launches a cake at him. She has respect for herself – while she does take demeaning roles, she does it to create self-agency in a patriarchal society, and doesn’t allow them to define her self worth.
This self-respect is further prevalent when she chooses to not take a role from Don Lockwood’s studio: she chooses self-worth over money, despite the role’s possibility to jump-start her career. She is, however, eventually convinced into joining his studio – and surprise, surprise – confesses that she was a fan of his all along, but this moment gave me a sense of admiration for Kathy Selden’s character. Also, sidenote, it was pretty funny when she rejected the offer immediately after seeing Don Lockwood (because honestly, same). Anyway, Kathy Selden’s character is undeniably strong, and still feels invigorating today.
It’s hard to talk about Singin’ in the Rain’s timelessness and cultural relevance without talking about its most famous number: the titular “Singin’ in the Rain.” The set design is intricate: there’s backlighting for the rain and frontlighting for the characters in the street, the shop windows are ornate, and the street itself looks cheery despite the downpour. The set is almost inviting for the audience – and for me, most definitely cozy. Plot wise, the place of the number is also well-integrated – yes, Don Lockwood does end up bursting out in song, but it makes sense considering his lovestruckness. It also begins as more of a smile-inducing hum (“Do do-do do do”) before crescendoing into full-on singing, emulating a more realistic situation.
I can attest to this situation being realistic – because being completely honest, I’ve also sang in the street before. It wasn’t because of a romance, but just out of pure joy – and something about singing while walking down a dark, lamp-illuminated street by yourself just feels right. Because of this experience, I especially related to “Singin’ in the Rain,” and I’m sure just about anyone who sang out of joy could relate as well – not necessarily to just the romantic aspect of it, but the pure happiness that exudes from the song. You don’t need to be born in the 1900s or be White to appreciate this number, and more broadly, this film: the emotions it evokes are intrinsically human.
The song is in C major, a key that evokes happy emotion. The lyrics themselves are basic, light-hearted, featuring hums (as mentioned before) and has just eleven lines. I suspect this simplicity is what makes this tune so catchy – and it certainly has been incessantly playing in my head for the past week. The lyrics are delivered almost declaratively by Gene Kelly – and drips with his warbling, warm vocals – announcing his happiness to the world.
The dance is initially pedestrian: his feet sweep the street in simple, wide arcs while he walks, communicating his joy. When Gene Kelly begins to tap, however, his dance becomes more aesthetic: illustrating an intensifying joy. In the choreography afterwards, Gene Kelly’s feet are quick and lighthearted – no longer restricted to just walking, they feature joyful skips, twirls, and simple puddle-stomping and balancing on the curb that evoke images of innocent, child-like joy.
This appeal to simple emotion and the refreshing, modern (and witty) plot stood out to me, but it’s also just genuinely hard to find anything objectively bad about this film – and if anything, I recommend you to see it for yourself!