The Citizen Kane of musicals, as legend would have it

The fact that Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s 1952 Singin’ in the Rain was later to inspire art as different from itself and as unignorable as both Michael Jackson’s Black or White music video and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange suggests that maybe, as legend would have it, it really is the greatest movie-musical of all time.

The 60th anniversary release of Singin’ in the Rain (Fathom Events productions sponsors nationwide theatrical screenings tonight and Warners Home Video has issued a bright restoration on DVD and Blu-Ray) brings it to the consciousness of a culture that has forgotten what once were the movie-musical’s most infectious qualities and to a generation that never knew.

Now that the movie-musical is a rarely practiced genre, it’s the perfect moment to appreciate Singin’ in the Rain as the most affectionate and emotionally accurate memoir of Hollywood movie-making. Kelly-Donen satirized showbiz practices on screen and off in its comedy about the historic turning point when sound revolutionized the industry: studio journeymen and former vaudevillians Don and Cosmo (Kelly and Donald O’Connor) transform a boilerplate romantic melodrama The Duelling Cavalier into The Singing Cavalier, foiling the screechy siren Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen’s memorable comic villain) and debuting the ingenue Kathy (the ingenue Debbie Reynolds).

The historicity that has always distinguished Singin’ in the Rain positioned it as the friendliest summation of cinephilia; coming at the mid-20th century point it celebrates the exuberant creativity of filmmaking processes as much as Citizen Kane while also displaying comparable wit–both in the Betty Comden-Adolph Green screenplay and the amazing, non-stop exuberance of its performers. To love the genre is to love this movie; that’s the secret of the centerpiece “The Broadway Melody” number, the ultimate example of what film scholars call mise-en-abyme with surely the most intense coordination of the spectrum in the history of color cinematography.

Working in the movie-musical tradition established by MGM producer Arthur Freed, Kelly-Donen were also able to comment on those standards and advance them: the ingenious combination of flair and spoofing, expertise and experimental panache (in every montage number or single-set song) is like no other movie musical. This is certainly different from the refinement that Vincente Minnelli exhibited the previous year in An American in Paris. Kelly-Donen’s style pivots deceptively on Minnelli’s sophistication the same way Kelly’s athletic dance style differs from Fred Astaire’s.

Kelly-Donen unleash the folk-art aspect of the movie musical, intensifying dance as much as Hollywood kitsch. Kenny Ortega noted Kelly-Donen’s care for “putting the camera in a place where it’s gonna capture the greatest dynamic of the dance. You capture the energy and the movement of the dance in the best possible way” unlike today’s chop-schlocky style. (That’s partly why Kubrick could subject it to cynicism without destroying it and Michael Jackson could seriously reflect on its optimism). Kelly-Donen knowingly paid tribute to the hokum and sentimentality that persists in the popular forms of music, theater and cinema. (The songs are from the catalog of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed before he became a Hollywood producer and represents his own homage to tradition. Freed‘s contribution to film history is well detailed in Hugh Fordin’s classic book World of Entertainment: The Freed Unit at MGM.)

All this makes Singin’ in the Rain essential, especially since the movie musical genre has been sullied by the ineptitude of Chicago, Moulin Rouge and the insipid TV series Glee and film history has been disrespected by Scorsese’s anti-fun, pedantic Hugo and the vacuous cuteness of The Artist.

And even if this isn’t perhaps the greatest movie musical of all time (there are several considerable contenders from the 1935 Show Boat to 42nd Street, Cabin in the Sky, The Band Wagon, It’s Always Fair Weather, Gigi, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Nashville, Sign O the Times, even Distant Voices Still Lives), no other movie musical explodes or glows like Singin’ in the Rain.

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