Singin’ in the Rain: 50th Anniversary Special Edition (1952)
Dolby Digital 5.1
Warner Home Video, $26.99

A perennial favorite on filmmakers’ and film critics’ Top 10 lists – where it often stands out as the only musical – Singin’ in the Rain is a shining example of a genre and a studio at full flower and a raft of creative professionals at the top of their game. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is that its excellence was almost unremarkable when it was released in 1952, thanks to producer Arthur Freed’s prolific output at MGM. The studio was by then churning out 50-60 movies per year, and Freed had consistently defined and refined the conventions of the film musical with pictures such as The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade and On the Town. (To put Singin’ in the Rain in perspective, consider that it arrived on the heels of An American in Paris and was immediately followed by The Band Wagon.)

Freed developed Singin’ in the Rain as a showcase for the songs he and composer Nacio Herb Brown had written for early MGM musicals. He asked writing team Betty Comden and Adolph Green to come up with a story that would tie the songs together. The writers decided to set the story in the late 1920s because that’s when the songs had been written, and after several false starts, they came up with a premise that suited the period: the birth of the talkies.

A seismic event in Hollywood, the advent of sound was probably anything but funny to the filmmakers who lived through it, but Singin’ in the Rain treats the subject with a deft comic touch. At the fictional studio Monumental Pictures, production has commenced on The Dueling Cavaliers, the latest vehicle for silent-film stars Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). When word comes that The Jazz Singer is a smash hit, Cavaliers is immediately reconceived as talkie; Lockwood and Lamont are hustled off to diction lessons – in Lamont’s case, a lost cause – and the Cavaliers set is wired for sound. The results are disastrous, but when Lockwood and his spirited pals (Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds) suggest that the studio take a giant leap and make Cavaliers a musical, a new genre is off and running.

One of the last pictures greenlighted by Louis B. Mayer before he left MGM, Singin’ in the Rain is now a jewel in the crown of the Turner library at Warner Bros. Warner recently celebrated the film’s 50th anniversary with this two-disc special edition DVD. The studio had previously issued exemplary transfers of the film on laserdisc and DVD, but this transfer utilized the new "Ultra-Resolution" digital mastering process, which Warner developed in an effort to recapture the splendor of the show’s three-strip Technicolor cinematography. (Details of the digital restoration, which reportedly yielded a new negative, will be covered in AC this spring.) The film’s saturated, candy-coated palette would be unthinkable without three-strip Technicolor, and this new transfer yields a spectrum and clarity of color that is often breathtaking.

Cinematographer Harold Rosson, ASC brought not only Technicolor expertise to Singin’ in the Rain, but also firsthand knowledge of Hollywood’s transition to sound. He had begun shooting films in 1915 and compiled more than 100 credits before Singin’ in the Rain came along. Rosson was also no stranger to Freed’s bold ideas; he had first teamed with the producer on The Wizard of Oz and later helped him take the musical on location for the first time with On the Town. (One testament to Rosson’s skill is the fact that he filmed four of the most famous minutes in American movies, Kelly’s rendition of "Singin’ in the Rain," day for night, in a driving downpour.)

A great documentary in this package, Musicals Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM (1996), establishes that Freed’s greatest gift was his eye for talent. Among those he brought into the MGM fold were Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Judy Garland, Vincente Minnelli, Cyd Charisse, André Previn and Comden and Green (who won a WGA Award for Singin’ in the Rain). MGM nurtured a number of producers, but Previn recalls that "if you were in the Freed unit, you were untouchable."

This DVD also features a new, equally entertaining documentary about Singin’ in the Rain’s production. However, a commentary track featuring Reynolds, O’Connor, Charisse, Donen, Comden and Green, actress Kathleen Freeman, historian Rudy Behlmer and musicals buff Baz Luhrmann is both overstuffed and redundant – it’s a hodgepodge of quotes cribbed from Musicals Great Musicals, plus a few random remarks by Luhrmann.

In another supplement, clips from the films in which Freed and Brown’s songs first appeared starkly illuminate just how far the movie musical had come by 1952, lending ample credence to Freed’s observation that "some of the first musicals were so bad, it wasn’t hard to improve on them." In the very first MGM musical, 1929’s The Broadway Melody, "Singin’ in the Rain" was performed by a raincoat-clad chorus standing rigid on stage, singing to the camera. Fortunately, when Freed decided to revive the number 23 years later, Gene Kelly had other ideas.

– Rachael Bosley

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.