Hollywood has produced dozens of dazzling, lively, and artistic musicals over the past eight decades, but if there's one picture that epitomizes the genre and everything we love about it, it would have to be 'Singin' in the Rain.' Though not as sophisticated as 'Gigi,' as groundbreaking or substantive as 'West Side Story,' as romantic or inspirational as 'The Sound of Music,' or as edgy and biting as 'Chicago,' this beloved, tuneful romp explodes with energy, exuberance, satirical humor, innocence, and whimsy. And it contains hands-down some of the most breathtaking dancing in the history of motion pictures. 'Singin' in the Rain' is pure, unadulterated entertainment from start to finish; it doesn't take itself seriously, yet stands as a serious example of why movies captivate our minds and stoke our senses. If I had to choose one word to describe it, I'd pick sublime.
A nostalgic tribute and light-hearted spoof of the early days of talking pictures, 'Singin' in the Rain' honors its industry while savagely lampooning it. Screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green use the transition from silence to sound as a springboard for a perky screwball plot revolving around the romantic and professional travails of conceited silent film star Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), who worked his way up from an intrepid stunt man to become a suave matinee idol. The fan magazines print volumes about Don's torrid love affair with his vampy co-star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who off screen is the quintessential dumb blonde who believes all the gossip written about her...especially when it involves Don. Don secretly loathes Lina, whose screechy voice could grate steel (think Judy Holliday's Billie Dawn from 'Born Yesterday' on steroids), yet cares too much about preserving his precious career to quash the positive publicity.
Enter vivacious flapper Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who Don meets by chance one evening after he flees a flock of rabid fans. The spunky Kathy isn't intimidated by Don's aura, and he quickly becomes smitten. The jealous Lina, however, much to Don's chagrin, tries to shoot down Kathy's rising star, just as the advent of talkies turns the movie industry upside down and puts the career of squeaky-voiced Lina in jeopardy. But Don, his best pal Cosmo (Donald O'Connor), and Kathy hatch a plan that just might work to everyone's ultimate advantage. Or will it?
Along with 'Meet Me in St. Louis,' 'An American in Paris,' 'The Band Wagon,' and 'Gigi,' 'Singin' in the Rain' is one of the crown jewels of MGM's Arthur Freed unit, which produced some of the finest musicals in Hollywood history. Freed amassed a veritable hall of fame of creative talent to mount sumptuous films that brimmed with style, oozed glamour, and burst with irrepressible spirit. Stars such as Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, and Kelly populated his films, yet before his legendary tenure as producer, Freed was a successful lyricist who penned a string of popular songs with composer Nacio Herb Brown. 'Singin' in the Rain' is arguably their most famous melody, and the film was primarily designed to showcase and honor their musical catalogue. In addition to the title tune, such standards as 'All I Do Is Dream of You,' 'You Were Meant for Me,' 'You Are My Lucky Star,' and 'Good Morning' comprise the sprightly score.
Though the script makes good-natured fun of a host of Hollywood foibles - from splashy premieres, backstage backstabbing, and oversized egos to stuffy elocution experts, creative short-sightedness, and performer stereotypes - at its core, 'Singin' in the Rain' is a sweet, naive love story played with winning earnestness by Kelly and Reynolds. Forget the 20-year age difference; the pair crafts a believable relationship that's heightened by one of Kelly's most relaxed and natural performances. At times, Reynolds might seem a tad too vivacious, but the game 19-year-old never seems daunted by her co-stars or overwhelmed by their substantial terspichorean talent. As the wisecracking sidekick, O'Connor garners his share of laughs, but it's Hagen's priceless Lina Lamont who all but steals the show. Hagen was a good dramatic actress, but her peerless comic timing, inflection, and no-holds-barred, over-the-top portrayal of the dumb, delusional, yet devious diva justly won critical raves and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
Nothing, however, can upstage or eclipse the musical numbers, almost all of which can be considered classics. The title song, as performed by the incomparable Kelly, is one of the most recognizable and iconic sequences in the annals of cinema. Simply yet imaginatively and ambitiously staged, it evolves out of the plot and tells its own miniature story. Kelly strategically employs puddles, gutters, and spouts, as he leaps on lightpoles and sloshes through pools in an uninhibited expression of the joy of being in love. His grace, precision, inventiveness, athleticism, and inimitable style all converge to create four minutes of pure magic.
And yet as marvelous as that number is, it's not even my favorite. That distinction goes to 'Moses,' which contains the single greatest display of tap dancing ever committed to celluloid. Kelly and O'Connor tear up the floor with a series of jaw-dropping moves that only the famed Nicholas Brothers could rival. It's flashy, fun, and exhaustingly intricate. Equally awe-inspiring is O'Connor's acrobatic, self-abusive solo turn, the uproariously funny 'Make 'Em Laugh.' Who cares if the song is a shameless ripoff of the Cole Porter standard 'Be A Clown,' O'Connor delights with a series of perfectly synchronized pratfalls, near-misses, contortions, and nimble moves. Add some mugging and slapstick, and you've got a superior example of sheer showmanship that few, if any, dancers could top.
The rollicking 'Good Morning,' featuring more great tap-dancing and impish clowning, is a winner, too, as is the sprightly Kelly-O'Connor duet 'Fit as a Fiddle' and the quietly amorous 'You Were Meant for Me.' And we surely can't forget the sensational 'Broadway Ballet.' A shorter, more accessible, bouncier dance montage than Kelly's opulent 'An American in Paris' ballet a year earlier, this jazzy, sexually charged, yet passionately romantic creation features Kelly dancing with the exquisitely sleek and precise Cyd Charisse. The fireworks between them are extraordinary, and the pair burns up the screen in a sizzling mini-drama of seduction set to 'Broadway Rhythm.'
'Singin' in the Rain' has no message or moral beyond love conquers all or good triumphs over evil, and it didn't advance the art of musical moviemaking. Kelly and his co-director, Stanley Donen, writers Comden and Green, the accomplished cast, and the MGM dream factory merely take the traditional musical blueprint and produce the ultimate offering, a film whose sole purpose is entertainment and singular goal is to send its audience walking home on air. And it succeeds brilliantly on both counts. The lack of pretension, mystifying talent, and sheer joy that emanate from every frame of 'Singin' in the Rain' are what make this beloved film so tremendous and so worthy of repeat viewings. Is it the greatest musical ever made? If it's not, then it's darn close.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
If you own the Ultimate Collector's Editions of either 'The Wizard of Oz,' 'Gone With the Wind,' or 'Ben-Hur,' you'll be familiar with the scope and size of this limited and numbered 60th Anniversary package. Measuring a hefty 8" wide-x-11-1/2" long-x-2-3/4" deep, the simply illustrated white box is sheathed in a clear plastic slide-on cover that lists specs and supplement info. Inside lies a full-size, 48-page, lavishly illustrated hardcover book that features many rare photos, shooting logs, and well-written text. The film's production history, an overview of the famed Freed Unit and its accomplishments, brief bios of the principals and key supporting players, a behind-the-scenes look at many of the movie's numbers, and a list of both changes to the script and deletions after the picture's previews are all included within the pages of this absorbing and beautifully designed volume. Also in the box is an envelope containing miniature reproductions of three posters for the film, as well as a commemorative, fully operational umbrella adorned with a silver umbrella charm dangling off the handle. (I'm usually not a fan of such superfluous swag, but the umbrella is really quite nice!)
The discs are housed in a fold-out, full-color case, featuring publicity photos of Kelly and Reynolds, as well as various scenes from the film. The Blu-ray disc houses the main feature in 1080p with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, an audio commentary, the original theatrical trailer, and an all-new documentary, while a DVD disc contains the film in standard definition. A second DVD disc houses all the supplements that were included on the 2002 special edition DVD release. After the Blu-ray disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no promos or previews precede it. A movie only edition is also available, but in my opinion, this is the set to get.
'Singin' in the Rain' was the first Warner film to be restored using the Ultra-Resolution process back in 2002, and the results were extraordinary. That remaster, however, didn't meet high-def standards, so for this Blu-ray edition, the studio went back to a set of fine grain masters (the original negative was destroyed in a fire in the late 1970s) and struck a 4k scan. Once again, the results are often breathtaking, though I must admit to just a hint of disappointment over this high-def transfer. Don't get me wrong... 'Singin' in the Rain' looks spectacular. Colors, contrast, and clarity are all superb. I just think my own over-inflated expectations set me up for a slight letdown.
Nothing could live up to my imagination of what 'Singin' in the Rain' should look like on Blu-ray, so once I got over that I began to appreciate the finer points of this excellent effort. First of all, not a hint of print debris, no scratches, and no marks sully the pristine image, and no evidence of digital doctoring could be detected, so it's impossible not to immerse yourself in the captivating atmosphere of this film. Grain is only slightly evident, yet the picture retains a remarkable film-like feel, and contrast is perfectly pitched, creating a vibrant, balanced palette. All that bold color could create eye strain if left unchecked, but this transfer makes sure all the hues, despite their garish nature, retain as natural a look as possible.
And what glorious colors they are! Designer Walter Plunkett went the extra mile replicating the outlandish flapper outfits of the late 1920s, and the purples, pinks, emerald greens, and sunny yellows truly pop. Sequins, fringe, and feathers are also beautifully defined, and difficult patterns, such as the green and white plaid suits that O'Connor and Kelly don in the 'Fit as a Fiddle' number, are rock solid and resist shimmering. Kelly's yellow vest and Charisse's sparkly green mini-dress in the 'Broadway Ballet' add pleasing accents to the picture, as do all the costumes of the dance extras, each of which possesses its own distinct sense of retro style.
Black levels are rich and inky, but crush is never an issue, and whites, such as Hagen's outfit in the opening premiere segment, are bright but stable. Fleshtones lean a bit toward the ruddy end of the scale in certain scenes, but on the whole are true to life. Background elements are always easy to discern (the all-important rain is brilliantly clear, with individual drops possessing more clarity than ever before), and close-ups ooze Hollywood glamour without appearing overly artificial. Some scenes look a shade softer than others, but the gradation is so slight, most eyes won't even see it.
Warner has always been careful to present classic films as close to their original look as possible, and with 'Singin' in the Rain' they've done a first-class job. We've waited a long time for this title to be released on Blu-ray, and our patience hasn't been in vain.
Warner also has done a great job fashioning a high-quality DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix for this musical classic. 'Singin' in the Rain' was produced before the advent of stereo, so naturally most of the sound is front-based, but the fidelity and tonal depth are so crisp and warm, there's a marvelous surround feel to this track. A wide dynamic scale, featuring bright, crystalline highs and weighty lows, maximize vocal and instrumental intensity while showcasing subtleties with ease. Both Reynolds' brassy delivery and Kelly's delicate tenor come across cleanly, and the 'Broadway Ballet' scoring is alternately vibrant and nuanced, as screaming trumpets and swelling strings fill the room without a hint of distortion. Atmospherics, such as the pouring rain, street noise, and movie set ambience, are solid, too - distinct but not overpowering - and every toe tap is crisp and synchronized.
The audio in the early talkie sequences is especially well balanced, possessing the appropriate degree of roughness without delving too far into caricature. The clanking of Lina's pearls, the clomp of footsteps, and the general imperfections of rudimentary sound recording (static, hiss, pops, crackles) are all meticulously rendered. Thankfully, no age-related defects afflict the rest of the picture, as Warner technicians have scrubbed this track clean.
Dialogue is always well prioritized and easy to comprehend, as are song lyrics, and the musical sequences benefit from a slight level boost that enhances the excitement and vigor of each number. For a 60-year-old movie, 'Singin' in the Rain' sounds surprisingly contemporary, and those who appreciate Golden Age musicals will be thrilled by this track.
A wealth of fine supplements enhance this anniversary release. All the extras that were included on the 2002 special edition DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release, along with an all-new documentary. This is a superior package of material that movie fans in general and 'Singin' in the Rain' aficionados in particular will find especially interesting and enlightening.
What a glorious feeling! 'Singin' in the Rain' at last arrives on Blu-ray, and Warner honors this immortal musical with a fitting ultimate collector's edition that features eye-popping video, excellent audio, and a shower of high-quality extras that will thrill the film's legion of fans. While the enclosed collectible umbrella is an unnecessary bit of swag, the rest of this marvelous set hits the bullseye and is well worth the interminable wait, as well as the hefty price tag. Certain classic movies demand the red-carpet treatment - 'The Wizard of Oz' and 'Gone With the Wind' lead the charge - and 'Singin' in the Rain' is one of them. Filled with humor, great songs, spirited performances, and some of the best dancing you'll ever see on film, this musical icon remains fresh and exhilarating 60 years after its initial release, and demands a spot on every cinema lover's shelf. You'll walk down the lane with a happy refrain every time you experience 'Singin' in the Rain,' especially in 1080p...one more reason this set is a no-brainer must-own!