Lin-Manuel Miranda also weighs in on the staying power of the classic movie musical.
Ask today's modern master of the movie musical Lin-Manuel Miranda about the enduring charms and delights of Gene Kelly's masterpiece Singin' In the Rain 70 years after its initial release in April 1952, and his feelings become abundantly clear: "It's the best movie musical — like, full stop!"
"Not only is every musical number in it perfect, it's also about the magic of movies and it's about this pivotal era when film was transitioning from silent films to talking film," Miranda tells Metacritic, noting that the film's many musical sequences are their own individual slices of perfection, adding up to an even greater whole. "'Moses Supposes' is a masterpiece, 'Make 'Em Laugh' is a masterpiece, but then it's also really about something."
Starring the athletically graceful Kelly, who also choreographed and co-directed with frequent collaborator Stanley Donen (Funny Face, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade), with a book and lyrics by Broadway and Hollywood sensations Betty Comden and Adolph Green (On the Town, The Band Wagon, It's Always Fair Weather) and a cast full of singing, dancing star-turns from the likes of Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor, to Jean Hagen and Cyd Charisse, the film celebrates its 70th anniversary with an event at the TCM Classic Film Festival and its 4K debut on home video.
The film has withstood the test of time in several ways. It earned a near-perfect Metascore of 99 from critics, and it is a go-to crowd-pleaser for multiple generations, including other filmmakers and their families. As Miranda puts it: "If my kids have skinned their knees or been injured, I've got 'Make 'Em Laugh' on the shortcuts on my phone. 'All right, we're going to watch "Make 'Em Laugh" 'till you feel better,'" he says.
"It's as charming and funny today as it was ten years ago or 20 years ago or 30 years ago," says Patricia Ward Kelly, Kelly's widow and official biographer who acts as caretaker of the renowned performer's legacy. "It's a combination of the exquisite skills of everybody involved. There's not a weak link in this. They're all of equal import. I think that that's the way they looked at it, and that's the way Gene looked at it, certainly. They all were elevated to this position of working at, really, the top of their games."
Here, Ward Kelly talks to Metacritic to provide further insight on what Singin' In the Rain meant to its creative powerhouse through the years.
Did Gene ever share with you what he thought was the "secret sauce" that made this movie not just a popular film, but also a true classic that endured for generations?
He never really thought it would endure the way it has endured, and I think he would be very surprised that it has continued with the velocity that it has. I mean, I think it's picked up speed in the last few decades — I think I'm seeing and hearing from more and more young people who are being introduced to it, and then are spiraling off into all kinds of Gene's works and into new creative projects. So, I'd say that he really didn't sit back and say, "Boy, this thing, this is just going to be around forever." He never was that way about his work.
But I think he would address and acknowledge the universality of the purpose of the movie for him, which was to bring joy, and the fact that I think he felt that it had succeeded in that. And particularly [during] the COVID lockdown when it was on all these Top 10 lists of films to watch in lockdown and as people were feeling so deserted [and] desolate [and] experiencing loss, I think they began to realize how important that quality of joy is. Not just to watch an occasional movie like Singin' in the Rain, but just to have as an integral part of our lives. And so I think Singin' in the Rain oddly reminded people of how important it is.
One of the things I love about the movie is how much of a fond love letter to Hollywood it is, but also wrapped up with a few pointed barbs — callbacks to an earlier area era, yes, but which also applied when the film was being made. Do you have a sense of what that playful take on Hollywood meant to Gene?
He really credited with Comden and Green with the great script — just the wit of those two, just how smart they were. It's a smart script, and I think that he talked about how they did their research. Everybody was doing their research on this picture to really find out [about the era]. So, the details are valid; the details are real things that were happening and in this transition [to sound].
And so, I think that's what makes it fun: that there's nothing mean-spirited about it. I think nowadays you often see very mean-spirited things, and this isn't mean-spirited. They're poking at fun at themselves. They're laughing at themselves. I mean, I fall over when I see some of the stuff he does, with "Dignity, always dignity!" It's just so not Gene, it's just such a crack up to see him.
Lin-Manuel Miranda pointed out that every sequence is something of a masterpiece in and of itself. Can you speak to that because I know what a meticulous filmmaker and choreographer and actor Gene was. Tell me about getting every piece to be their own sort of perfect, how he strove to do that.
Because Gene is using one camera, and he's very cerebral in his choreography, he's thought that through. People thought he would just come into the set and kind of wiggle and move around. I'd say, "No, he sat in a chair like this and he saw that number in his head, and then he would come in the next day and put it on the dancers." And so, it was all thought-out. He's choreographed the camera movement as much as he's choreographed his own movement — and it's one camera, and that camera is connected by musical beats.
What he has created are puzzle pieces, so this puzzle piece has to go to this puzzle piece. Gene said, "I edited in the camera." It was all ready, even though he couldn't see it. Now they can see it on a video screen as it's happening. He didn't know what he had when he shot it, but he knew what he had conceived, and he knew what he had generated, and then it's pieced together. So it didn't surprise him at the end — it was exactly how he had conceived it.
Nowadays I think what happens is you have maybe eight, nine cameras on a set for one dance scene, and all of that footage is turned over to the editors — and the editors then determine the sequence of things. I've talked to several of the editors on very big pictures and very big musicals and they say they just take it and they try to piece it together. And they might show, if it's a dance thing, the hand going up or the feet, the point shoes or the tap shoes.
Well, that was anathema to Gene. You don't do a closeup of a hand or a closeup of feet: you shoot head-on and you shoot full-figure and you shoot the dance movement. And the dance is moving at the camera and the camera's moving at the dancer. So I think oddly, each is a perfect segment because it was all conceived as perfect: they were all integrated and it was all done by the same mind. It isn't somebody else kind of piecing these things together. Gene certainly talked about that process a lot.
You mentioned that the aim of this film was brought to people over the decades, which it certainly had. What 's your sense of the joy that Singin' in the Rain gave Gene himself, either in the doing of it or in the legacy of it?
I think he said it was a lot of hard work! Everybody says, "Oh my gosh, I can do that — I can go out there and dance and sing in the rain." And they do, they jump up on the lamp posts, and we saw a lot of that during COVID. But I think that kind of undermined him in a way because he makes it look so easy that they forget how difficult it is to do what he's doing. He said it was so hard to make it look so easy.
But I think the joy was in the collaboration. As Gene said, it was all like this big repertory company, so you've got everybody under one roof. He can go meet with the costume people, and he was there when they recorded the scores. He can go over here and dub the taps. He can talk to [music mixer] Bill Saracino about how you create the sound of tap dancing in water.
I think that was the joy for Gene: to have so many extremely talented people, and that they're all part of it. He said, "There are no auteurs in this game. There is no auteur in musical comedy and musical theater, in musical films. The collaboration is the name of the game." And when those collaborators are all carrying their weight as much as he's carrying his weight, I don't think there's anything more exciting than that, and I think that's what was exciting for him.
Where to watch Singin' in the Rain: