Singin' in the Rain: 50th Anniversary Special Edition
Warner Home Video
Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds,
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Review by Mark Bourne
If you've been a fan of Singin' in the Rain's rhapsodic soft-shoe through Roaring Twenties Hollywood since long before this DVD came out, you already understand how beloved the movie is. You don't need me to tell you that this 1952 romantic comedy transcended being simply the best of the MGM Technicolor musicals to become one of movie-making's most pleasurable essential classics.
Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds star in a funny, affectionate, romantic nod to old Hollywood, specifically the troubled transition between silent and sound cinema. Jean Hagen steals the show as a screechy-voiced diva, but the reals stars here are some of the finest song & dance numbers ever put on film, including O'Connor's acrobatic "Make 'em Laugh," the extraordinary "Broadway Melody/Broadway Rhythm" ballet between Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and, of course, Kelly's signature showstopper, "Singin' in the Rain." From the top-shelf songs to the clever cinephilic script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, to the performances and the sheer look of it all, this one's the Taj Mahal, Armstrong's footprint on the moon, the 2001 Arizona-New York World Series, the Clash's London Calling, and the perfect foamy head on an expertly poured Guinness.
If you're already on board with all that, this review isn't for you because there's no point in me preaching to the choir. You're probably already planning to buy this new two-disc 50th Anniversary Special Edition DVD anyway.
No, this time I'm talking to everyone else. You guys like me who, if you picked up the DVD box at Blockbuster with no knowledge of what's inside, you'd give its happy-sappy cover art a smart-ass scowl before putting it down and heading to the Exploding Vehicles & Buildings aisle. If you can say "I don't like musicals" as easily as "I don't like anthrax," stick with me. We're those guys who groove on Tarantino flicks and Samuel Jackson. It's just you and me talking now we red-meat-ordering, ballgame-shouting, coffee-drinking (that's coffee, not "double decaf espresso with a hazelnut shot"), Man Show-watching guys who'd associate the phrase "What a glorious feeling!" with pleasures closer to the solar plexis than to Gene Kelly's tap shoes.
Not only is Singin' in the Rain a fine piece of work even for those who think they hate musicals, but I guarantee you this: There are guys out there who watched this movie for the first time with a date, found to their surprise that they liked it ... a lot ... and that liking it contributed to their getting some glorious feeling later that night. The trouble is, the movie's big blowout dance number near the end generates so much sexual tension that you may, while in the throes of passion, find yourself uttering Cyd Charisse's name at precisely the wrong moment.
Here are a few points to consider if you're on the fence about Singin' in the Rain sharing space on your shelf alongside Pulp Fiction and Fight Club:
1. You can view Singin' in the Rain as a sci-fi movie
Writer Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451) has gone on record to say that Singin' in the Rain is a true-blue old-school science fiction film. When you take the c. 1952 definition of science fiction as a tale having a plot driven by some scientific development, then, Bradbury points out, Singin' in the Rain, although set in its own past and not about a cyborg policeman or a teleportation booth, is essentially a science fiction movie, because the entire plot is driven by how these peoples' lives are changed by the new (to them) technology of sound film. According to Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, while Singin' in the Rain is.
Look at the plot. It's 1927, the days of flappers and silent flickers. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a screen idol of silent films, a swashbuckling romantic hero like Douglas Fairbanks or John Gilbert or Errol Flynn. He co-stars in his hit films with beautiful Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, in perhaps the greatest of all "dumb blond" performances). While Don and Lina are shooting a silent swordplay-and-damsels flick, The Dueling Cavalier, for Monumental Pictures, a new smash by Warner Brothers called The Jazz Singer opens and the first major studio feature employing sound technology is a screaming success. Despite protests from the old guard ("It's vulgar!" intones a Theda Bara vamp), there's no stopping this new scientific advance, so Monumental's producer (Millard Mitchell) stops production until his studio can upgrade before being dinosaured out of business. The bad news is that screen queen Lina's nasal voice could stun a police dog. Plus, she's such an airhead that the fan magazines convince her that she and Don are in love. Her brain cells fire only when she's scheming to get rid of a new personal and professional rival, young showgirl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds in her first major role). The Dueling Cavalier is retooled for sound, but the cast and crew are so inexperienced with the "gadget" that the premiere screening is a disaster. Equipment failure leads to catcalls and laughter from the audience. The Dueling Cavalier is a museum piece and Don believes he is too until Don's old pal from the vaudeville days, Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor, funny and nimble and quick) invents the concept of dubbing Kathy's lovely singing and speaking voice over Lina's and turning The Dueling Cavalier into a musical. Of course, Don and Kathy fall in love, Lina connives and schemes, and disaster almost befalls Don and Kathy and Cosmo and Monumental Pictures until the new technology saves the day just in the nick of time.
Oh yeah. While all that's going on, Singin' in the Rain packs in some of movie history's funniest scenes, happiest moon-June-spoonin', and most enjoyable singin' and dancin' and splashin' about in a rain puddle. It's fast-moving, exquisitely put together, corny in all the right ways, and this still stuns me so fresh and fun and new that it's hard to believe that it was made fifty years ago.
And here's something else while we're speaking in science fictional terms. When the aliens come, after they look around, load their orbiting planet-buster weapons, and take humanity to task for our demonstrable talents in creating injustice, tribe-minded warfare, resource abuse, poverty, and so many other forms of unnecessary pain we can go a long way toward redeeming ourselves as a species by pointing to Singin' in the Rain and saying, "Okay, but we can also do this."
2. Gene Kelly could kick your ass
You think dancing and singing are for sissies? Compared to Kelly and his clowning co-star, Donald O'Connor, "extreme sports" fanatics are just phony-baloney schoolgirls. Let's see you even try to keep up with what Kelly and O'Connor's athleticism their speed, timing, dexterity, control, and (good God!) stamina. They combined that athleticism with artistry so seamlessly that you can't separate the physical prowess from the exuberant style. And they did it while singing (convincingly lip-synching anyway). Finally, they make it look easy, the hallmark of a pro.
Watch Kelly's title number, "Singing' in the Rain," the most famous dance routine in cinema, and remember that he had the flu and a high fever while shooting it. And during O'Connor's outrageous, all-stops-out "Make 'em Laugh" number (another of filmdom's signature scenes) notice that he performs the entire scene including running up and back-flipping off a wall (twice!) in fewer than ten long "takes" or cuts. Where today could you find anyone willing or able to show that level of skill on screen instead of trying to fool us with cosmetic editing every three seconds or less? Unlike the recent hyperkinetic excesses of Moulin Rouge, what you see here in the real deal.
Add to the evidence these facts: Gene Kelly was 40 at the time, "old" for the demands of his work even by today's standards. He never shows off his physique, but if the Kelly we see in Singin' were to walk into Gold's Gym today, he'd get a nod of approval from the regulars there for being in terrific shape. And he had to deal with the stress and pressures of co-directing as well as supervising the choreography. If all that doesn't earn him a Platinum Guy Card, just remember that Jackie Chan lists Kelly as one of his inspirations, and in three movies Kelly teamed with Frank Sinatra. Bada-bing!
3. Impress a date with your insightful grasp of movie trivia
Singin' in the Rain opened in '52 to stellar reviews. Even then critics and moviegoers knew that this was something special. So you'd think it would have scooped up the Oscars, right? But Singin' earned no Oscars. It was only nominated for two, Best Supporting Actress (Hagen) and Best Musical Score. Hagen lost to Gloria Grahame for The Bad and the Beautiful, and the Best Score award went to With a Song in My Heart, a hit biopic about singer Jane Froman. General consensus agrees that Singin' got screwed because in the previous year Kelly's other superb musical romance, An American in Paris, swept the Academy Awards with wins that included Best Picture, Best Music, Best Cinematography, and Best Writing, plus an honorary award to Kelly "in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director, and dancer, and specially for his brilliant achievement in the art of choreography on film." Oscar is a fickle suitor, and Singin' in the Rain came along too soon after all that Academy lovin'.
What did win for Best Picture? The Greatest Show on Earth, one of the Academy's all-time embarrassing Best Picture moments, just behind Love Story and Titanic.
Notice the in-jokes about the silent-to-sound years and the people who were part of it. The elaborate attempts to hide those enormous, bulky microphones are no exaggeration. Silent actors' tendency to speak words that were wildly, sometimes scandalously, different from what audiences read on the dialogue cards inspired a funny scene between Kelly and Jean Hagen. Speaking of Hagen, the character Lina Lamont spoofs the doomed silent sirens such as pre-talky sex symbol Clara Bow (a particular favorite, Hollywood rumor has it, of USC's Fighting Trojans football team). Clara's harsh Brooklyn accent killed her career. Screen idol John Gilbert was felled by a similar problem, and Rudolph Valentino had the foresight to die just before he faced the issue. Tinseltown gossip columnist Louella Parsons, a one-woman Entertainment Tonight, is parodied by actress Madge Bailey. Decades before becoming Singin' in the Rain's producer, Arthur Freed had been a successful lyricist back during the sound transition years, and Singin' is built around his songs (written with composer Nacio Herb Brown) from that era. Freed the producer receives a ribbing as Monumental Pictures' stuffy studio chief R.F. Simpson. Freed had trouble visualizing the extravagant musical numbers whose scripts and budgets he was approving, so Simpson complains that "I can't quite visualize it, I'll have to see it on film" immediately after we're treated to the eye-popping "Broadway Melody/Broadway Rhythm" fantasia.
Co-director (and uncredited co-choreographer) Stanley Donen met Gene Kelly on Broadway and followed him to Hollywood, where Donen got his start in movies as Kelly's assistant in 1941, age 17. He was only 28 when Singin' premiered, though by then he and Kelly had already collaborated on On the Town ('49) when he was 25. His other credits include Seven Brides for Seven Brothers ('54), Funny Face ('57), Damn Yankees! ('58), Charade ('63), and Bedazzled ('67). Donen received his own honorary Academy Award in '98, and his on-air singing of "Cheek to Cheek" while dancing with his little gold statue is one of those nice Oscar night memories.
The era of sound films officially began on October 6, 1927, when The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson opened to sell-out crowds. That milestone event occurs during the narrative of Singin' in the Rain. This Special Edition DVD hit the streets on September 24, 2002 just thirteen days short of "the talkies'" 75th anniversary.
Singin' in the Rain was included in the National Film Registry in 1989, and ranks #10 on the American Film Institute's 1998 list of Greatest American Movies, #10 on AFI's 2000 list of the Funniest, as well as #16 on their 2002 Most Passionate list.
4. Cyd Charisse and Debbie Reynolds are hot
Talk about your Bad Girl / Good Girl pair.
Give the word "sultry" flesh in three dimensions and it would slink out of the dictionary as Cyd Charisse in the "Broadway Melody/Broadway Rhythm" showcase ballet near the end of the movie. Her duet with Kelly made it past any studio blue-noses by being Art, but even though not a word is spoken this is one sexually charged "do me now" pas de deux. There she stands in her Louise Brooks hairstyle and breathy-thin dress cut up to there, and when she blows cigarette smoke from her nostrils, reveals her scrumptious leg up close and very personal to Kelly's fantasy hoofer, then accepts his thrusting embrace when she gets under his skin ... if that doesn't steam your jeans right then and there, you might as well cancel your subscription to Maxim.
And as Kathy Selden, fresh-faced 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds, a former Miss Burbank, was as cute as they come and loaded with talent. She's the ultimate pert and pretty girl next door. She was an untrained dancer and an actress of limited experience when MGM signed her for the role, but she took to Kelly's intense tutelage like a pro. Because she was able to hold her own with Kelly and O'Connor, as well as up against the vastly experienced "serious" actress Jean Hagen, the resulting film made her a star. Now she has her own casino in Las Vegas and she's Carrie "Princess Leia" Fisher's mom. How's that for a girl next door?
(In either case, men ... and this is just between you and me ... If you've ever dated a dancer, you know that just thinking about what Reynolds' and Charisse's legs are capable of will put a lift in your stride.)
5. This is one terrific DVD
What puts the ribs on the condom, of course, is Singin' in the Rain's royal treatment for this 50th Anniversary Special Edition.
This all-new 2002 digital transfer from state-of-the-art restored elements delivers one of the best restoration and preservation jobs ever put on a disc. The film was digitally remastered in Warner Brothers' "Ultra-Resolution" process, a new technique that involves scanning the some 400,000 individual film frames from the original Technicolor three-strip masters, then digitally recompositing them. The upshot is that the whole film shows us what the word "pristine" is supposed to mean. The detail and definition are beautiful, and the colors man, how this movie loves capital-c Color are vibrant and rock solid. The DVD's digital transfer is perfect, with no artifacting at all. This disc is what gives DVD technology its reason to be.
Likewise, accompanying the original monaural soundtrack (DD 1.0) is a new DD 5.1 remix that's fuller and more robust than this soundtrack has ever been. Both options are as clean and strong as anyone could ask for, with excellent clarity and dynamic range. Fortunately, the 5.1 remix was engineered conservatively, so the audio is still front-dominant and the surround channels fill out the soundspace just enough to give the musical numbers a little more spacious presence, but no gimmicky or distracting discrete effects "sweetening" was added. Fans who have owned previous home video versions of the film will notice that the 5.1 track really brings out the orchestration, so expect to enjoy more instruments than you may have heard before.
The hefty library of supplemental extras avoids fluff and filler. For example:
- A full-length audio commentary by Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, co-director Stanley Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Kathleen Freeman, Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann, and author/film historian Rudy Behlmer. Reynolds, in new material for this disc, acts as the emcee as well as offers memories of playing Kathy Selden and working with Gene Kelly, who is lauded and eulogized appropriately from everyone. She guides us through new and archival audio clips assembled together into a smoothly flowing and info-packed track. (Comden and Green's segments are lifted from the "making of" documentary previously released on the 2000 DVD edition.) It's not always scene-specific, but when you combine the reminiscences of those who were there with new "outsider" insights and observations from Luhrmann and especially Behlmer who knows this movie like you know your home address we get a fluff-free track that's made for the movie's fans and will also please film-literate students of Hollywood in the 1920s and 1950s.
- Two well-made documentaries offer a crash course on the making of Singin' in the Rain and the history of the lavish MGM musicals. What a Glorious Feeling is a new 30-minute documentary about the film's creation. Hosted by Debbie Reynolds, it takes us through the entire production from conception to scriptwriting (including plentiful script changes throughout the shooting process) to the set construction and musical numbers. On hand is archival footage supported by new material with Stanley Donen, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, author/film historian Rudy Behlmer, and more.
The second documentary is a 96-minute piece about the career of producer-songwriter Arthur Freed, Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM. This 1997 feature supplies ample film clips from An American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, The Harvey Girls, Annie Get Your Gun, and more, with behind-the-scenes footage with Freed's biographer, Stanley Donen, Comden and Green, plus Mickey Rooney, Leslie Caron (An American in Paris), and Cyd Charisse.
- Reel Sound is a click-through collection of historical text and substantial film clips from four sound films of the transition years 1925-28, including a sword fight scene with John Barrymore in Don Juan (a likely inspiration for The Dueling Cavalier) and Al Jolson's "you ain't seen nothing yet!" number in The Jazz Singer, "Toot Toot Tootsie."
- Only one of Singin' in the Rain's songs, "Moses Supposes," was original to the movie. All the rest came from Arthur Freed's catalog of his own 1920s and '30s songs written with Nacio Herb Brown. One of this DVD's best extras offers a generous collection of twelve film clips from earlier movies that originally carried the Freed/Brown songs. Text introductions support "Good Morning" from Babes in Arms ('39), "All I Do is Dream of You" from Sadie McKee ('34), "Singin' in the Rain" from The Hollywood Revue of 1929, and other toe-tappers in their pre-Singin' incarnations.
- Screen Inspirations. When selected, this awkward "branching" collection of film clips can be activated from your remote whenever a special symbol appears on the screen during the movie. The clips, with supporting text, are footage from earlier films and other touchstones for the conception and writing of Singin' in the Rain. (Note that this selection locks the movie into its 1.0 monaural audio track.)
- Outtake musical number: "You Are My Lucky Star." Debbie Reynold's solo cut before the film's release.
- Scoring session music cues. Here's one of the best apples in this barrel. These audio-only clips come with explanatory text for 18 raw studio tapes covering the recording of the movie's songs: "You Were Meant for Me," "Moses Supposes," "Fit as a Fiddle," "All I do is Dream of You," "You Are My Lucky Star," "Would You?," "Good Morning," "Beautiful Girl," "Make 'Em Laugh," and Kelly proving that he may be human after all when his voice cracks during "Singin' in the Rain" ("and I-I-[bobble]'m reeeady for love....").
- A brief stills gallery of promotional material
- The theatrical trailer.
6. If the guys at poker night don't get it, get a new poker night
No question about it. Here's one of the great films given a worthy DVD treatment. It's got splendid dancing, all that toe-tapping, sticks-in-your-head music, and a couple of real mensch guys cuttin' loose with some sexy babes who know what's what. It's Singin' in the freakin' Rain, bro! If that jackass who never chips in for the beer during the Super Bowl asks why it's up there on your shelf next to Fight Club and Patton, just tell him it's "a guy thing" that he wouldn't understand.Mark Bourne
- Full-screen (1.37:1)
- Two single-sided, single-layered discs (SS-SL)
- Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Digital 1.0 (English, French)
- Subtitles in English, French and Spanish, and English Closed Captions
- Commentary by Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse, co-director Stanley Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Kathleen Freeman, Moulin Rouge director Baz Luhrmann, and author/film historian Rudy Behlmer
- Documentary: What a Glorious Feeling
- Documentary: Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM
- Screen Inspirations
- Reel Sound
- Outtake musical number: "You Are My Lucky Star"
- Scoring session music cues
- Stills gallery
- Theatrical trailer
- Dual-DVD digipak with paperboard slipcase
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