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Singin’ in the Rain: 60th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Blu-ray Review)

30 Jul, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$14.96 two-DVD set, $19.98 Blu-ray, $84.99 BD/DVD boxed set
Not rated.
Stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen.

The line of people who call Singin’ in the Rain the screen’s greatest musical stretches as long and high as meteorologists can measure, though when I first saw it in the middle 1960s, this notably hyphenated achievement (Comden-Green/Kelly-Donen) was only reasonably high up on a list packed with heavy-hitters (many of which seemed to have been produced as well by Arthur Freed, who, with Nacio Herb Brown, co-wrote the catalogue that provided most of Rain’s score).

At the time, my Holy Grail of personally unseen musicals was An American in Paris, thanks to its six-Oscar pedigree including one for best picture — a viewing feat I somehow wasn’t able to pull off until 1971 at New York’s revered Thalia revival when that Gene Kelly-Vincente Minnelli Gershwin fest got double-billed with The Band Wagon (I went on consecutive nights). Rain, though, was easier to see in that era, starting with its relatively modest TV premiere on NBC’s "Monday Night at the Movies" (in other words, not even a splashier Saturday night showcase on the network’s corresponding weekend show). One thing, though, was obvious even then: Rain’s Betty Comden-Adolph Green script about Hollywood’s painful transition to sound would, by itself, have made for an outstanding straight comedy, even without all the amount of ammo provided by its bang-up production numbers.

The reason it took the picture time to catch on with full impact (after getting a mere two Oscar nominations in its day) was likely due to the making-it-look-too-easy factor. And also, which kind of goes hand in hand, a lack of pretention. The number that launches the movie — Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor performing “Fit as a Fiddle” in what is presented as their characters’ hard-knocks formative years — is staged as a flashback near throwaway that actually gets booed by the rubes in the audience who are watching it being performed on stage. In 90% of the screen musicals ever made, “Fiddle” would be a show-stealer and possibly the high point of the entire movie. Here, it’s just a table-setter that we are told all but invited thrown tomatoes and celery stalks from the hooting patrons in whistle-stops.

Warner Home Entertainment has given this MGM release the full deluxe treatment it ta-da-da-da’s on Blu-ray a few times a year, with sterling sound recording (taking the film’s 60 years into consideration) and a visual presentation that isn’t many notches down from the best vintage Technicolor treatments we’ve seen on Blu-ray — though it’s hardly a surprise that it looked greater on my 37-inch screen than my 57. (I’d put it in the ballpark with last year’s release of Meet Me in St. Louis, which has a somewhat softer brand of cinematography.) This release marks the first time I’ve seen Rain in maybe 15-20 years, though it’s also a movie I’ve reveled in maybe ten times overall, with a very heavy viewing concentration during the ‘60s.

The thing that hit me this time as it previously hadn’t is the degree to which Debbie Reynolds managed to synch with Kelly and O’Connor when she was just 19 (turning 20 just as the film went into release). After all, she was not a professional dancer but a cute singing gymnast and former “Miss Burbank” who (with Carleton Carpenter) had managed a No. 3 Billboard charter with Abba Dabba Honeymoon. This was certainly company both heady and intimidating, and Reynolds’ recollections of bloody feet ring true, just as they do with Ginger Rogers in terms of her Fred Astaire teamings. (Did Astaire ever get bloody feet? Did he ever have to buy a box of Odor-Eaters? Questions, questions.)

What’s more, we tend to think of O’Connor as almost co-equal here with Kelly, though because the guy he plays (“Cosmo”) is subordinate and self-effacing, it’s probably easy to take him for granted, too. In reality, O’Connor was to some degree “made” by Rain following his tenure in a lot of minor Universal musicals in the 1940s, and his screen appearances immediately before and after Rain again found him playing straight man for Francis, the Talking Mule. It was just after Rain’s release that he started getting splashier leads (romantic ones, too) in higher-profile musicals and an Emmy for his appearances on NBC’s Sunday night "The Colgate Comedy Hour." (As a kid, I loved his Saturday night appearances on "Texaco Star Theater" as well).

Rain’s legacy also benefits from a little luck or at least keen timing in its subordinate casting: supporting players Cyd Charisse (who got a huge career boost here) and Rita Moreno later became major personalities — and, in fact, nine years later, Moreno would win a supporting Oscar for West Side Story. On the other hand, what about Oscar-nominated Jean Hagen, who plays the vocal chalk-against-blackboard known as Lina Lamont? Plagued by health issues that substantially curtailed her career, Hagen did become very popular immediately post-Rain as Danny Thomas’s TV wife in “Make Room for Daddy” until she left the series on her own volition. But it’s odd that she’s as obscure today as she is — because in a relatively brief run, Hagen had major roles in three of the great American movies, Rain having been preceded by Adam’s Rib and John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. In fact, if you simply want to add box office to the mix, Hagen was also second-billed in Disney’s The Shaggy Dog (1959) — not exactly a world-beater but a monster commercial smash at the time.

Kelly, of course, was ruling the roost at Metro after An American in Paris, which eventually benefited from a likely best picture Oscar split between A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun. He was at his peak in this period, though it’s probably a fool’s errand to expend too spend too much time who did what in Kelly’s co-director collaborations with Stanley Donen — not only here but also on 1949’s On the Town and 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather (the latter a magnificently composed-for-Scope box office flop I love as much as any musical). Kelly’s famous ego has, over the years, earned him more detractors than screen personalities with his talent usually accrue — though the collaborators on the deluxe Blu-ray’s copious bonus materials just talk of how hard he “pushed” everyone, while emphasizing the point that he pushed himself hardest of all. This has to be true if, as is often noted, Kelly shot the ultimate in carefree-and-gay title number when he was running a 103 temperature. Remember this the next time you’re dogging it at work.

Again making perfection look easy, this set-piece alone has a lot to do with Rain’s looming appeal; when Kelly died, one of the network news shows (ABC’s, if memory serves) simply ran the entire clip as their obit, which turned out to be an inspired idea. And as it turns out, “inspiration” is one of the keynotes of this particular release: even the bargain $20 Blu-ray includes a new 50-minute documentary in which film directors Rob Marshall (Chicago) and Adam Shankman (Hairspray; Rock of Ages) join a lot of engagingly "Glee"-ful young dancers to celebrate Rain’s enduring legacy with convincing affection. This solo Blu-ray is a steal at the price; the much price-ier box is in part for those who didn’t originally shell out for a lot of excellent and elaborate bonus materials that have been carried over from a previous release. The combo collector’s edition also has a few unique features: a 48-page hardback commemorative booklet with glossy stills and paper; miniaturized lobby art from the day; and an official Singin’ in the Rain umbrella (dunno if colors vary, but mine was red). I may try it out during the next downpour — while wearing cheap shoes, of course, for when I attack those curb puddles.

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