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 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.
And so, in Singin' in the Rain, the impediment to progress isn't pride. It's concrete physical and technological obstacles that can be overcome with work and experimentation. Lockwood has a vaudeville background—he can sing, dance, and act, and is thus fit for the change. But their lead actress has a shrill and heavily accented voice: not a problem in silent films, but career-threatening in talkies.
The microphone and recording technologies fail the production as well, and accidentally amplify background noises and heartbeats while failing to capture the dialogue from the actors. After one flawed but earnest effort, the characters screen their "100 percent talking" picture for an audience that has already become more sophisticated than the filmmakers.
So they adapt again. Though we never quite learn how they figured out the microphone technology, the protagonists manage to turn their film into a musical, and they dub in a more pleasing voice for their shrill female lead. The "show must go on" attitude of Singin' in the Rain might make the tale seem somewhat naïve, but that doesn't diminish the magnetism of the humor and the songs. It subscribes to the theory of one of the numbers in the film—"Make 'Em Laugh." The point is to entertain.
Beyond the actual backdrop of an industry in flux, Singin' in the Rain's jokes and light parodies of actors and Hollywood culture are still surprisingly insightful and effective. There's the dopey screen siren thinking that she's in a relationship with her co-star because she read it in a gossip magazine. There's Kathy Selden's (Debbie Reynolds) attempt to insult the cocky movie star with her emphatic declaration that "if you've seen one movie, you've seen 'em all." And there's the brilliant segment where Don Lockwood recounts his rise to fame, telling his fans that he was trained at Juilliard and brought up on Shaw and Molière, while we in the audience are treated to an amusing simultaneous montage revealing that he actually cut his teeth through thankless beer-hall performances and dangerous stunt work.
The Artist is a little kinder towards its hero, heroine, and setting. Instead of poking too much fun at the industry or making its leads look too silly, it romanticizes Hollywood through an assortment of sun-soaked Los Angeles images and locations: The beautiful American Film Institute campus doubles as the hospital, the iconic Bradbury building provides the interior for the movie studio offices, and Mary Pickford's home becomes Peppy Miller's residence.
Ultimately, both movies celebrate performance in all of its forms. In each, song and dance help make the transition to talkies much smoother. The Artist concludes by introducing sound through a tap dance sequence, a form that would have looked ridiculous in a silent film. Noise, it turns out, isn't the enemy—it's just a new way to entertain. And entertainment is eternal. That's why Singin' in the Rain, which wasn't even nominated for an Oscar in the 1952 race, remains one of the most-loved films of all time. We'll see if, in 60 years, anyone's fondly looking back on the silent-film experiment that swept the Oscars in 2011.
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