A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1952 – Singin’ in the Rain
I mean… yeah.
One of the most iconic moments in all of cinema. Bar none.
So that’s why this is here.
Plus, 1952 is a pretty rough year. The highest grossing movie of the year, and Best Picture winner, The Greatest Show on Earth… well, yeah. Not exactly remembered quite that well. The Bad and the Beautiful also made a lot of money, and probably would have been a serious contender for a choice had I not already done All About Eve. They tread similar ground, and when you put that up against Singin’ in the Rain, it’s a no contest. The Quiet Man is an extremely enticing choice, but still… that movie doesn’t represent film history so much as it is just a beautiful movie that’s a major film in said history.
But again… we’re talking about Singin’ in the Rain as the choice, so what else do we need in the way of explanation and rationalization?
There are a number of things I can talk about for this film. The major one being how it represents Hollywood looking back on its own history, which is what the musical is more apt to do as a genre than the western. That’s why they’re my two favorite genres. They’re the most tied to specific mythologies; American history and film/performance.
This film, though, as we all know, goes back over a very particular time in film history, the transition to sound. And it turns it into a great comedy, while also reminding people of an era in time (which Hollywood loves. Remembering the old days).
But we know all that stuff already. I don’t need to talk about that. What I do want to talk about here is how Singin’ in the Rain is an example – a glorious one at that – of the 1950s Technicolor musical.
The real heyday of movie musicals was from about 1945-1955. There are some outside of that, but mostly, that’s when they hit their peak. Specifically ones in color. And man, did they look good. These things are sharp, they color just jumps off the screen (especially if the movie was directed by Vincente Minnelli. That man just knew set design), and you had a nice little friendly competition that brewed between the genre’s two biggest stars, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
They’re kind of like the Rolling Stones of film musicals, where, even if you like them both, most people tend to have an opinion as to which they like better. Personally, I’m an Astaire guy, and will always be an Astaire guy. But Gene Kelly is also great and arguably might have made better movies overall. But anyway, around this time, they just sort of decided they were going to try to stretch the possibility of the musical number. It’s not like it was a new concept. Astaire had The Continental, which was something like an 11-minute musical number at the end of The Gay Divorcee. And Busby Berkeley numbers routinely stretched for ten minutes.
But these ones were different. These incorporated color and filmmaking techniques to really put forth an immersive experience for the viewer. Berkeley numbers veered off into great patterns and stuff and didn’t really have much full-on dancing in them. And the early Astaire numbers were black and white and didn’t have the kind of budgets and camera flexibility to do what the later ones did. These ones actually had the complete package.
An American in Paris, in 1951, had a sixteen-minute (I think. Something like that) musical number at the end of it, where not a single word of dialogue is spoken. It’s all dancing. And then Singin’ in the Rain one-upped that, with the fantasy musical number at its center, where Gene Kelly plays a small-town boy who’s “gotta dance,” and goes out to make it. And it turns into this giant, Red Shoes-like performance at the center of the film that completely feels separate from the rest of it, yet is so incredible, nobody cares. And then Fred Astaire decided he was going to try to top that and did the Girl Hunt Ballet at the end of The Band Wagon, which is another awesome number (that looks so much like the influence for Smooth Criminal).
Anyway, the point here is, 50s musicals are awesome, and 1952 is so clearly represented by Singin’ in the Rain that it would be ridiculous to try to even make the case for anything else.