Friday, 7 December 2012

BFI Friday: Singin' in the Rain

All the way back in August, the British Film Institute, through Sight and Sound, published their new list of 50 top films. You may remember that after fifty years at the top, Citizen Kane gave way to Vertigo as the BFI's greatest film ever made. You may further remember that to mark the occasion, I wrote a retrospective review on Vertigo here. Given that I've only seen eighteen out of the top fifty films, it's high time that I made an effort to get through the lot. Accordingly, from today, every other week I'm going to write a review of every film on the list.

Since we've already seen top dog Vertigo, we're going to kick off BFI Friday in style, the all singing, all talking, all dancing classic, Singin' in the Rain at number 20. Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly's 1952 classic tells the story of Don Lockwood, a Hollywood stuntman-turned-actor making his way to the Big Time. Set in the late 1920s, the film's characters must negotiate the challenges posed by the close of the silent era and the dawn of sound. They do this of course, by singing and dancing through elaborate routines on lavish sets, all in gloriously rich, intense technicolour. Even in the non-musical sequences, the camera is almost always in motion, swishing and zooming around the actors, and giving the whole affair a lightness of touch. The film, in short, is an unparalleled joy to watch. Where last year's The Artist, functioning as an extended and rather lovely homage to Singin' in the Rain, used black and white to depict its silent-era setting, Singin' in the Rain's cinematographer Harold Rosson saturates the picture in colour, joining films like The Wizard of Oz (also by Rosson), A Matter of Life and Death, and Vertigo as the one of the most accomplished uses of colour in cinema. The reds are deep and rich, the blues are iridescent, and the yellows glow with warmth. The visuals, like a rich chocolate cake after a meal, are sweet, profoundly satisfying and simply full of life. For a film that is about sound, it looks unspeakably gorgeous.

All singin', all dancin', pure joy

That's not to say the music is secondary to visuals, mind. All of the song and dance routines are beautifully choreographed by star Kelly, with the film's title song providing unadulterated joy, wit and charm. Other standouts include Gotta Dance, the movie's most elaborate set piece, featuring the vampish Cyd Charisse, the tongue twisting Moses Supposes and the delightful Good Morning. I could describe in depth these sequences but really, there's nothing like watching them for yourself. There are so many movies that try for what Singin' achieves, but so often fall into the categories of saccharine, overcooked, or simply irritating. But here, there's something utterly infectious about the whole affair; just as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves draws us into the tragic lives of its two main characters, or Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity invites us down a path to destruction, Singin' in the Rain perfectly lifts us up, unquestioning, into colour, music, and vibrancy. Few films, except perhaps for the aforementioned The Wizard of Oz, are capable of having such an effect. But more than that, it's a film that transcends genre; I defy anyone who says they don't like musicals not to enjoy Singin' in the Rain.

Who could resist a dance with Cyd Charisse?
The whole thing is deliriously entertaining, a gigantic sweet shop for the eyes and ears, but what elevates Singin' in the Rain further is the story and characters, who epitomising the allure of Hollywood, take us on a romantic, thrilling journey through the ups and downs of golden-era stardom. Kelly and the delightful Debbie Reynolds provide incredibly likeable leads, in a beautiful-people-doing-wonderful-things heightened reality. Jean Hagen plays Lina Lamont, a Monroe-esque dumb blonde character who turns out to have a cripplingly annoying voice when the movies become talkies. Deluded and manipulative, she convinces the studio to let her remain a star, while Reynolds' character dubs her voice over the top. Intriguingly, it was actually Hagen who dubbed her voice over for Reynolds during post production. For a film about film-making, this lends another delightful layer of subtext. And indeed, much of Singin' in the Rain is about the inherent falsity of cinema: voice over, the exaggerated performances in silent films, and the deliberately fake-looking sets all acknowledge the manufacturedness of big studio productions. And yet, out of that surface deception springs genuine, authentic emotion: it's difficult, for example, not to feel sorry for Lina when she gets her just desserts at the film's close, but you're rooting so much for Kelly and Debbie to make it through that it hardly matters. In fairness, there's never any real sense of peril: we all know where this is going, but that doesn't diminish the climax's sense of triumph or warmth one bit. Instead, Singin' in the Rain gives us Great Big Emotions, served up with astonishing technical skill and passion; a lovely, rich dessert of a movie that never slips into the saccharine. It's an overused phrase, but they really don't make pictures like this anymore. A sparkling, magnificent treat.

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