TERRY GROSS, HOST:
"Singin' in the Rain," the 1952 Hollywood musical on most lists of best American musicals, has turned 60. To celebrate, a new edition has been released on DVD and Blu-ray, and a newly restored print was released in theaters for a night in July and returns August 22nd. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz has been to the movies, and he's been watching at home.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN")
GENE KELLY: (as Don) (Singing) I'm singin' in the rain, just singin' in the rain. What a glorious feeling. I'm happy again. I'm laughing at clouds, so dark up above. The sun's in my heart, and I'm ready for love. Let the storm...
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Hollywood is often at its best when it's making fun of itself. And few movies are funnier or more fun than "Singin' in the Rain," a broadly satirical musical comedy about the transition from silent movies to sound. Gene Kelly, who co-directed the film with Stanley Donen, stars as the stuntman-turned-matinee-idol who falls in love with adorable Debbie Reynolds. He even gets to parody his own swashbuckling in MGM's Technicolor "Three Musketeers."
Donald O'Connor is Kelly's wisecracking sidekick and exhilarating dance partner, and the sublimely hilarious Jean Hagen got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Lina Lamont, the silent screen goddess whose glamorous looks hide her vocal and mental shrillness.
"Singin' in the Rain" wasn't a huge hit when it opened, but it's now regarded as one of the best Hollywood musicals of all time.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN")
KELLY: (as Don) Hey, I think it'll work.
DEBBIE REYNOLDS: (as Kathy) Of course.
DONALD O'CONNOR: (as Cosmo) It's a cinch. You know, it may be crazy but we're going to do it. "The Dueling Cavalier" is now a musical.
KELLY: (as Don) Hot dog.
REYNOLDS: (as Kathy) Hallelujah!
KELLY: (as Don) Whoopee. Fellas, I feel this is my lucky day, March 23rd.
O'CONNOR: (as Cosmo) Oh, no. Your lucky day's the 24th.
KELLY: (as Don) What do you mean, the 24th?
O'CONNOR: (as Cosmo) It's 1:30 already. It's morning.
REYNOLDS: (as Kathy) Yes. And what a lovely morning. (Singing) Good morning.
KELLY: (as Don) (Singing) Good morning. We've talked the whole night through.
REYNOLDS: (as Kathy) (Singing) Good morning.
GENE KELLY AND DONALD O'CONNOR: (as Cosmo) (Singing) Good morning to you.
GENE KELLY, DEBBIE REYNOLDS, DONALD O'CONNOR: (as Don, Kathy, Cosmo) (Singing) Good morning. Good morning. It's great to stay up late. Good morning, good morning to you.
SCHWARTZ: The idea for the movie came from Arthur Freed, the head of the MGM unit that, beginning in 1939 and for more than two decades, produced a string of legendary musicals, both adapted from Broadway shows and original scores. Two of these, "An American in Paris" and "Gigi," won Best Picture Academy Awards.
"Singin' in the Rain," is in some ways Freed's tribute to himself. He came to Hollywood as a songwriter, most often teamed with composer Herb Nacio Brown. In 1929, they wrote the title song for the first Oscar-winning sound film, "The Broadway Melody." Freed wanted to make a musical that would use their old hit songs, "Broadway Melody," "You Were Meant For Me," "You Are My Lucky Star," and of course, "Singin' in the Rain."
Among the delights of the new home video release - along with a collectible umbrella - are clips of the songs as they originally appeared. For example, there's Cliff Edwards, also known as Ukulele Ike and the voice of Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney's "Pinocchio" - singing in an onstage downpour in the "Hollywood Revue" of 1929.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE SHOW, "HOLLYWOOD REVUE")
CLIFF EDWARDS: (singing) Why am I happy and why do I sing? Why does December seem sunny as spring? Why do I get up each morning to start happy and head up with joy in my heart? Why is each new task a trifle to do? Because I'm living a life full of you. I'm singing in the rain, just singing in the rain. What a glorious feeling. I'm happy again. I'm laughing at clouds so dark up above. The sun's in my heart, and I'm ready for love.
SCHWARTZ: Freed got Broadway's Betty Comden and Adolph Green to create a screenplay to provide a dramatic context for these songs. They also wrote the lyrics for a tongue-twister called "Moses Supposes His Toeses Are Roses" for the scene in which Kelly is getting diction lessons for his new sound film.
Some of the backstage lore is almost as good as the film itself. The plot of "Singin' in the Rain" hinges on Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen's squeaky voice for the new sound movie, but in that movie's spoken dialogue, it's the lovely voice of the real Jean Hagen that we hear. And though Debbie Reynolds' tap dancing looks terrific, Kelly evidently didn't like the way it sounded and dubbed in his own tapping for the soundtrack.
Of course, the way "Singin' in the Rain" makes fun of silent movies has little to do with the masterpieces of silent film, some of the most profoundly moving and beautiful and intentionally hilarious films ever made. But as sheer comic entertainment, "Singin' in the Rain" doesn't have a dull moment.
I went to the public screening, and on the big screen, the dazzling new print makes clearly visible little details I never noticed at home. And it was great to be rolling in the aisles along with the rest of the audience, many of whom must've been discovering for the first time how much fun you could have at a 60-year-old movie.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. He reviewed the 60th anniversary edition of "Singin' in the Rain." It's on DVD and Blu-ray, and returns to theaters for one night on August 22nd.