It’s Gene Kelly Centennial Month, and so for the penultimate third season episode of Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel over at The Film Experience has assigned what is surely the biggest single title in Kelly’s filmography: no less a genre-defining masterpiece than Singin’ in the Rain, which itself turned 60 earlier in 2012, and so we have double the reason to celebrate.
Now, this film can be approached from many different angles, as befits its status as The Best Of All Hollywood musicals. The one I prefer is to think of it as a celebration of the inherent artifice of the filmmaking process – it is a movie, that is, about how movies lie. This is a common enough theme (just about every movie about cinema touches on it in one way or another), but what is special about Singin’ in the Rain is that it is ultimately not condemnatory but celebratory, though someone who hated the movie, if such people existed, would maybe just call it hypocritical. For it goes through its litany of moments and scenes and plot points that are all driven towards one thing – “see how the movies lie to us all!” – while also indulging in lies just as bald-faced. In fact, the biggest lie within the plot is one that Singin’ in the Rain perpetuates itself: just as Debbie Reynolds is supposed to be dubbing Jean Hagen’s voice, but without receiving any credit for it (boo! hiss!), Reynolds is in fact partially overdubbed by Betty Noyes, who receives no credit (boo! hiss!).
But it’s not the big lies that are at issue but all the hundreds of little ones, for is not the musical the most heavily, overtly artificial of all musical genres? Singin’ in the Rain might well point out that this and this and this and that are all things that movies do that are – shame! – not true, but it’s not suggesting that these are bad things; rather, that the lies movies tell are part of what makes them work as movies, and few indeed are the movies that work better as movies than Singin’ in the Rain itself. And so, celebratory: it is a movie about how the agreed-upon fictions of the silver screen can, in fact, be entertaining and moving and exciting and even though we’re all very smart and sophisticated people who know it’s all so much hokum, can’t we also agree that it’s so goddamn satisfying that the rest doesn’t matter?
And thus, my pick for best shot. It comes near to the middle of the film’s titular number, and it is, for my money, the single happiest moment in the American film musical and therefore among the happiest in all cinema. And it, too, is the product of a great lie, this singularly exhilarating moment, this explosion of sheer joy and uplift. After all, Gene Kelly isn’t really dancing on a rainy Los Angeles street; he’s dancing on a soundstage. And it’s not really rain, it’s a warm water and milk mixture that must have been absolute hell on everybody involved. And he’s not really the happiest man in the world in that second, he was fighting a terrible cold and just wanted to get the dance sequence in the can as fast as possible, especially because he was being doused with warm milk-water at the time.
It’s all faked, then, this best shot of mine. It is a lie, a damned lie, a contemptible fucking lie. But when Don Lockwood, so head over heels in love with Kathy Seldon that he doesn’t care about anything else in the whole world, turns his face to the storm and challenges, with a look of beatific delight, “come on with the rain, I’ve a smile on my face”, it couldn’t possibly matter less. Lie or not, it feels completely, sublimely real, and that is what the movies are all about.