It seems somewhat appropriate that I would be talking about a 35mm presentation of Singin' in the Rain immediately after my post on 35mm projection vs. DCP. The print wasn't in the best shape - scratches and some audio drop-outs - but, especially with this film, it was less detracting and more a part of it. This special presentation of the classic Hollywood musical was the closing film for the Wellington Film Society's annual program and it was my first time ever watching it.
I know, this is a foolish tragedy on my part. But let me explain myself a little; this in no way acts as an excuse, merely explanatory detail.
As a young teenage film fan, I was strikingly adverse to musicals. I thought them foolish, cheesy and old hat - I was far more enmeshed in sci-fi, action and anything else that seemed cool (and, often, explodey). Further putting me off was the pop-cultural prevalence of the lead song (and title), Singin' in the Rain - it was ever so much annoying background; a decades old song suffering from over exposure. Why the hell would I, an angsty, hormonal befuddled teenager desperate for peer approval, approach this film with a ten-foot pole?
Thankfully, I grew the heck up. I matured beyond my boring pretensions of discarding things I deemed to be "uncool" and instead opened myself up to enjoyment and new cinematic experiences (an ongoing process). And I'm glad that the first time I saw Singin' in the Rain it was in a cinema. Singin' in the Rain is pure, glorious, unashamed musical cinema.
It's an interesting trick of a film: a Technicolour MGM musical, about the early days of cinema and the move from silents to "talkies". Yep, it was a strange sense of surreal dislocation that set in around me as I sat in a cinema in 2011, watching a musical film made in 1952 set in 1927 at the end of the silent age and the dawn of the sound age. It was like "Old Hollywood" was looking back at "Old Hollywood" in some sort of bizarre mirror effect, reflecting it's light on to me in the now. Woah.
For all of that meta effect, the story is relatively simple: the end of the silent age in Hollywood. Gene Kelly is Lockwood, the male half of a popular duo, with Jean Hagen's ego-centric Lamont. It's lucky for her she became a star in the silent era, as she possesses one of the most comically annoying and horrible voices an actress could have. Unluckily for her, it's the end of the silent era. Kelly's Lockwood is a new star in the firmament, earning his stripes doing death-defying stunt work, something he had an aptitude for due to his rise from the vaudeville stage with his best pal, Don O'Connor's Cosmo (who gets the best routine in the film - the laugh out loud, knock down musical number Make 'em Laugh). So now the grounded and dashingly handsome Lockwood is paired with the shrewish and fragile egomaniac Lamont, who is quickly realising her shelf-life is getting shorter and shorter. As Lamont is on her way down, Debbie Reynolds' sweet and talented young actress, Kathy Selden is, thanks to Lockwood, on her way up. Events come to a head and there is much singing and dancing.
And boy, what dancing! This is joyous, big cheesy grins down the barrel of the camera, tap-dancing. Every single core cast member gives each dance number their all, whether it's O'Connor and Make 'em Laugh or Kelly in the eponymous Singin' in the Rain (and O'Connor had to be hospitalised and Kelly was running a fever). What Singin' in the Rain is, is a great big Hollywood musical love-letter to... great big Hollywood musicals. It's over-the-top, it's simplistic (in the best way possible) and a helluva lot of fun. If you haven't already seen this, do yourself a favour and don't be like me. And if you've only ever seen this on DVD or TV and there's a repertory showing in your town, or near your town, get to it. This is one of those bona-fide films that demand to be seen in a cinema, with an audience.
And yes, for my preference, on 35mm.