Singin’ in the Rain (Fathom 70th Anniversary Presentation)

This will be a short post to remind everyone to add a little joy to their life now and then. Last year on my birthday, I finally committed to a top ten list of my favorite films. Number five on my list is this greatest musical ever made featuring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and the delightfully young Debbie Reynolds. It feels like every five years it’s time to celebrate an anniversary by making sure this gem is on the big screen once again. I know I went ten years ago and had a wonderful time and this film made it onto my blog. Five years ago, just after the passing of Debbie Reynolds, there was also a screening I attended, again another Fathom Event. 

There is so much to appreciate about the film that you could spend a couple of thousand words on it before you even get to something new that you wanted to focus on. I’m not going that direction today, I just wanted to take a couple of minutes of your time to focus on one sequence. The “Broadway Rhythm Ballet” section of the film was something I had not seen in my original encounter with the film. Local TV stations in the 60s and 70s would cut a movie to make it fit a weekday afternoon slot, and that sequence was missing the first time I saw “Singin’ in the Rain” on TV. Watching it this last Sunday makes me wonder what kind of monsters they had working for those Stations in those days, who could take out the biggest, brightest and most creative section of the movie, simply to save some time. 

In the film, Don Lockwood is describing the scene to studio head R.F. Simpson, so it is a fantasy scene and it was being plugged into the disastrous “The Dancing Cavalier”. So I can see that it was convenient, because it has nothing to do with the plot of the movie, but boy does it look great on the big screen. Lockwood/Kelly showing us as a country rube, trying to make it on Broadway is funny. The montage sequences where each performance gets more elaborate as they go along, even though the song stays the same is pretty satiric without being mean spirited. It is the nightclub sequence with Cyd Charisse that makes the whole thing finally so memorable. Every costume of the flappers and hipsters of the day was outlandishly garish. Charisse in her bob haircut is enigmatic and beautiful. The grace and choreography that Kelly used in the ballet section with the long dress train is astounding. Even today, with all the technical wizardry at your fingertips, you would be hard pressed to find a way to make that work, Kelly, Stanley Donen and the craftsmen at MGM managed to do so 70 years ago.

Two recent and fairly modern references are going to close out this post. Rita Moreno, who is the last surviving cast member of this film, recently was in Spielberg’s remake of “West Side Story”, which is the film she won the Academy Award for, This movie was almost a decade earlier, but she had a nice bit part which was a little more substantial than I had remembered. I was paying more attention to Rita in this film than I had in the past because of this recent history. The other thing that comes to my mind was a film I watched the day before at home. Hugo Speer, a prolific British TV actor, played Guy in “The Full Monty” a story about a group of working class men trying to put together a man strip review. In his audition for the troop, he wants to demonstrate his athletic dancing ability. He points to the wall and says. “There’s the wall, and I’m Donald O’Connor.” He then proceeds to prove that Donald O’Connor  is a dancing god and the rest of us are mere mortals.

There are so many great numbers in the film, you sometimes forget that the next thing you see will be even better than the last thing you saw. 

Top Ten List for My Birthday #5

I have been writing this blog for over ten years now, and I have resisted putting up a list of my favorite films for that whole time. As the Borg say “Resistance is Futile!” 

This year I am marking another year in my sixth decade of life. I did several birthday posts in the past and enjoyed them immensely. The last two years my heart has just not been into it. This year however, I am trying to push my way back into normalcy, but I don’t have the energy to generate 63 things for a list. So what I am going to do is a ten day countdown of my favorite films.

Every year when I have posted a top ten list, I always point out that it is a combination of quality and subjective enjoyment that creates that list. Those are the guiding principles here as well. I will not claim that these are the ten greatest movies ever made, although I know several of them would be deserving of a spot on such a list. Instead, these are my ten favorite films as it stands at the moment. In a month, I could reconsider or remember something that I have tragically left off the list, but for this moment here is how they rank.

#5  Singin’ in the Rain

I have always been a classic movie fan. Sunday afternoons in Southern California were filled with Sherlock Holmes movies staring Basil Rathbone. Weekdays, after school, before the idea of afternoon strip talk shows sucked up all the air time, local stations would fill the day with edited versions of classic films, and I would put off my homework to watch. In 1974, my best friend Art Franz and I went to see “That’s Entertainment”, an MGM cornucopia of musical sequences from the golden age. One of the films heavily featured was “Singin’ in the Rain”.  Now I had seen that movie a couple of times on TV, put when I later found it on a pay channel, there were sequences that I never knew existed. 

Some films are intellectually challenging. Some films break your heart emotionally or make you question right and wrong. “Singin’ in the Rain” doesn’t really do those kinds of things. This movie is an emotional injection of joy that celebrates some great entertainment traditions, singing and dancing.

Watching Donald O’Conner and Gene Kelly performing their routines on the vaudeville stage is simply wonderful. Gene and Donald and Debbie Reynolds singing Good Morning, would be the greatest way to start the day ever. The famous title song performed on a soundstage that looks like a Los Angeles street and features rain on the pavement and in puddles, this was simple movie magic but it was still magic. 

Let’s not forget that the story of the film is also the story of films. The transition from silents to sound changed movies forever. Today we see similar sorts of changes although primarily the delivery systems. The only thing constant is change, if only this kind of entertainment could be constant as well. I don’t think I ever turn down a chance to watch this when it comes up on TCM. 

Previous Posts on Singin’ in the Rain

TCM Presents Singin’ in the Rain

TCM The Essentials  

TCM Film Festival Day 4

Sunday mornings in Hollywood are a quiet time most weeks, but when the TCM Film Festival is in town, the pace gets quicker on the last day and it starts early.

Cock of the Air (1931)

This was a Howard Hughes production and it was pre-code so it is definitely a little racy for the time. Although mild by today’s standards, this film must have had tongues wagging with it’s story of a flirtatious aviator and a French Opera singer. The fact that the Opera singer is given a medal for moving away from Paris, where she is a distraction to too many officers, let’s you know that this is not a chaste figure making a sacrifice for her country.

The dialogue is full of innuendo and then there are the stars costumes. They leave little of her decolletage to the imagination. The Hayes office forced 12 minutes of cuts in the film and it was thought that they were gone for good but a decade ago, the Motion Picture Academy discovered an uncensored print that lacked a soundtrack. Using the existing material and a copy of the script, four actors dub in the lines from the scenes that were previously cut. In the screening we saw, the sections that had been cut were identifiable by an icon on the screen that came and went as the story played out.

It was a fascinating experience to see the restored film in excellent shape, but even more so with the “lost” material reinserted and the censors cuts clearly indicated.

The film has a contentious romance at it’s heart but there is also a lot of humor built into the story. There is not really much in the way of battle action but there are a few flying scenes and the bedroom farce sections will keep you in stitches.

Lured (1947)

It’s completely normal to think of Lucille Ball as a television star. That is where she ultimately made her biggest mark, but she also starred in over 70 features and she was sometimes thought of as the Queen of the Bs of her era. This film is a noir inspired melodrama featuring a serial killer, dance hall girls, the personal columns and George Sanders. It is directed by 50s favorite Douglas Sirk, but features the glorious black and white of the late 40s noir films rather than the technicolor of “Magnificent Obsession” or “All that Heaven Allows”.

Lucy is an American actress, stranded in London trying to make ends meet as a hostess in a dancehall. Her friend disappears and Scotland yard uses her to try and bait a serial killer who has been sending poetry inspired by a disturbed bard. It is interesting to see that the procedural of using a profile of a killer has been around a lot longer than “The Silence of the Lambs”.  Working as a police undercover agent, Ball encounters suspects and falls in love with the stylish and snobby George Sanders. Sanders turns out to be a suspect as well. complicating the romance. The use of the personal ads and the cop falling for a suspect reminds me of the Al Pacino movie, “Sea of Love”.

For a film that ultimately relies on suspense, there is a lot of humor and fluff. Balancing a romance with a serial killer story is awkward. Boris Karloff is another suspect, and at first he is played as a bit of a comic character but it does turn dark pretty quickly. I know that I have seen Cedric Hardwicke in movies before, but it is only days later that I realized he played the Pharo in “The Ten Commandments”, I should have made that connection sooner. Charles Couburn as the head of Scotland Yard’s team investigating the murders, makes no attempt to do an English accent, he gets by on his general charm and old man wisdom. Alan Napier was in “The Court Jester” yesterday and interestingly enough is Detective Gordon in this movie. I say interesting because that’s one step away from a part that he did not have in his most famous role. He was Alfred in the 1960s Batman, and there he just answered the”bat phone” when Commissioner Gordon called.

Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara was in attendee and she told a few stories about her father who was featured in this film.

Postcards From the Edge (1990)

Just as Robert Osborne’s death hung over the Festival which was dedicated to him, the double whammy of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds was also heavy on many film lovers minds. There were two films being screened to honor the Mother/Daughter tandem that we lost in December. “Singin’ in the Rain” was in the big house at Grauman’s but we had been to a screening in January so chose instead to see the Roman à clef  “Postcards from the Edge”, screenplay by Carrie Fisher. Although Fisher denied that it was based on her relationship with her own mother, the parallels are to obvious to ignore.

Meryl Streep first sang on screen not in “Mama Mia” or “Into the Woods” or “Ricki and the Flash”, but rather in this film, where she plays the drug abusing actress daughter of a famous old time Hollywood singer Actress, played by Shirley MacLaine. There are a lot of Hollywood inside jokes, including a running story line concern the casual mating behaviors of people in the film business. The movie is littered with a variety of well known actors in brief parts including Rob Reiner, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfess, Dennis Quaid, and in one last minor role before she broke out into stardom later in this year Annette Bening.

I can’t say that there is a strong narrative but I can say that the two leads were great in their parts. You can see under the brash enthusiasm of MacLaine’s character to her more vulnerable parts. As usual, Streep is excellent and she is called on to do several district moods. She plays it straight when acting in a not very good film, she is angry as the casual lover betrayed by her own casualness, and she is frightened by the stupidity of her own choices when it comes to drug use. I thought her best moments were with Director Hackman as he tries to be honest with her and rescue her career at the same time.

This was the second Mike Nichols film we saw at the festival. It is not a work as assured and ground breaking as “The Graduate” but it was typical of the kinds of comedic dramas he would specialize in most of his later career.

What’s Up Doc? (1972)

We left the screening of “Postcards” before the guests, Todd Fisher and Richard Dreyfess came out, because scheduling was tight and we wanted to get in to see this second Peter Bogdanovich film. Amanda had seen the bleak but moving “Last Picture Show” the day before, and this was an opportunity to cut loose and see what else he can do. From one year to the next it is hard to imagine a bigger shift in tone that this revival of the screwball comedy, featuring Barbara Streisand and Ryan O’Neal.

Streisand has the role that in the 1930s would have been played by Katherine Hepburn or in the 1940s by Barbara Stanwyk. She is a slightly nutty misfit with a huge pool of knowledge on the tip of her tongue because she has been thrown out of so many colleges and so many majors. She latches onto O’Neal as a cute professor of Musicology with an interesting theory of music and rocks. His fiance introduces us to Madeline Kahn, in her first film role where she steals the whole picture. Kahn is the dowdy and dominating woman that runs the life of the absent minded O’Neal and Streisand is jsut the ticket to relieve him of that burden.

Throw in four identical suitcases with stolen jewellery, secret government information, rock specimens and clothes and underwear and you are all set for the kind of slapstick and mistaken identity that made those films of an earlier era so fun. There is literally a gag with people going in and out of hotel room doors that looks like it could have been cribbed from a Marx Brothers film.  Like most of those older films, this movie has scene stealing character actors and wild shifts in momentum. The last section of the movie features an astounding chase through the streets of San Francisco, on foot, bike and in cars. “Bullit” looks simple by comparison.

 Bogdanovich appeared before the film to talk about the actors and the process of getting the movie made. He seemed to have clearly understood that if he wanted to have the ability to wok in different genres, he need to get to direct this film. This was also a film written in part by Buck Henry, who had been the guest the night before for “The Graduate”.

Speedy (1928)

We finished the festival with a silent film from Harold Lloyd. Along with Keaton and Chaplin, Lloyd is one of the cornerstones of not just silent films but comedy films specifically. This version of the film is apparently widely available but this screening had something extra special to recommend it. It was to be accompanied by a live orchestra playing original music for the film.

The Alloy Orchestra is really a four piece ensemble and they follow the action closely throughout the film. Sprinkled in the score are familiar motifs relating to baseball and carnivals, which are both featured in the story. A feckless young man with great confidence, goes from job to job, trying to impress the parents of the girl he is in love with. His failure as a soda jerk or cab driver is incidental to the wild moments he encounters on the streets of New York and Coney Island.

The film narrative is slight but there are dozens of visual gags and the actors do a nice job playing sweethearts who are unaffected by the upheaval that surrounds them. In the end, the young man saves the day for his future father-in-law, but he ruins a suit and Babe Ruth’s day along the way.  Suzanne Lloyd, Harold’s Granddaughter and keeper of his legacy was present to reminisce with film historian and critic Leonard Maltin.

If you want to see what NYC looked like nearly a century ago, this movie will give you an extensive tour and make you long for the days when Coney Island served cotton candy in paper sacks.