The Artist aped its storyline, but Singin' is more forward-looking than many of today's movies.
With pop culture apparently suffering from a retro epidemic lately, today's 60th anniversary of Singin' in the Rain provides a chance to look back at a film that was ahead of its time in the way that it, too, looked back. Still fresh and charming in present-day viewings, Singin' delivered a sophisticated take on a tremendous transition in moviemaking that had happened decades before its release. But unlike the recent Oscars' slate of history-fetishizing films—The Artist, Hugo, and Midnight in Paris among them—it didn't romanticize the past but rather voyaged happily forward.
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The similarities between the film and this year's Best Picture winner, The Artist, haven't gone unnoticed. The Artist is, in many ways, a tribute to Singin'. In both cases, Hollywood's '20s and '30s shift to talking pictures provides the drama for the story. In both, a comfortable movie star is challenged when the industry and his role in it are turned upside down. Plucky, young, aspiring performers help inspire the leads in both. Gene Kelly and Jean Dujardin even kind of look alike. But the differences in how these stories are told can be revealing, beyond the fact that The Artist is mostly silent.
The Artist plays up the angst and despair its hero, George Valentin (Jean Dujardin), faces as he clings to his silent roots while the world changes around him. The third act shows him sinking into a bitter depression, lashing out at friends, selling off his possessions, and contemplating suicide. He resents change and the idea that stories might be better conveyed with dialogue.
Singin' in the Rain, meanwhile, boasts only two brief moments when Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) laments that he's nothing more than a museum piece and not fit for the change. Both instances of self-doubt are addressed within a few minutes with a solution and a song. That's a crucial difference. Whereas the film from 2011 lets its hero wallow in the loss of a form and the end of an age, the one from 1952 is glad to leave behind the old for the new and uses the situation more as a vehicle for comedy than for charming reflection.
Neither of these two viewpoints is more correct than the other, and both films of course were made with different artistic intentions. They are distinctly products of their own time, though. In 1952, few were wistful for 1927, an era directly preceding a Great Depression and a World War. But as we become further removed from a period, it's easier to decouple moments from larger historical narratives and to indulge in the idea that times really were better before any given technological innovation. It'd be the same as a modern movie about the computer revolution of the early '90s: We'd laugh at the unsophisticated early reactions to the PC, but we'd also sit in giddy, knowing anticipation of the world of social networking, iProducts, and less-clunky car phones that awaits. A little bit of on-screen griping about dial-up modems would be OK, but (modern-day handwringing about being overwired notwithstanding) we'd likely have little sympathy for a character who courts isolation by refusing to use email.