The question ‘What is the best musical?’ is not only a test of a filmgoer’s taste but also of his or her sanity: anyone who doubts Singin’ In The Rain is the greatest musical ever made should certainly not be allowed to vote and probably not permitted to speak. Rain is a masterpiece of entertainment, a master class in the musical, and the most fun you can have inside a cinema without breaking laws on public indecency.
The story of the calamitous journey from silent to sound films at a fictional Hollywood studio, Rain was written primarily so MGM could wring extra revenue from its back catalogue of (often unconnected) musical numbers composed by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown in the 1920s and 30s. (None of the songs featured appears on film for the first time, and several had been sung in a number of movies prior to their performance in Rain). It hardly seems the ideal genesis for a classic of any kind – let alone one frequently held up as hands down the best work in one of the most successful and overpopulated genres in Hollywood history – but this decidedly uninspired beginning was not the worst of the problems that could have hamstrung the picture before its premiere. Virtually every fan of the film knows that Gene Kelly performed its eponymous, puddle-splashing routine with a temperature of over a hundred; most are aware that Kelly’s character was very nearly written as a singing cowboy and played by Howard Keel; and some can offer dozens of other equally valid reasons why the production might well have gone pear-shaped. That it didn’t is just one of the more mildly amazing things about this miracle of a movie.
Put simply, Singin’ In The Rain has ‘it’: that intangible Casablanca quality that means every element of its design and execution is somehow supernaturally better that it could ever have been expected to be, and works wonderfully both separately and together. As in only a very few classic movies (The Godfather and Grease are decent examples), practically every scene is iconic, so often has it been parodied, referenced or ripped off; included in innumerable clip shows and countdowns of most beloved movie moments; or held up as an example of the heights to which Hollywood movies can climb. Because of this, it’s practically impossible for anyone in the Western Hemisphere to see the film for what is truly the first time – but that shouldn’t put anyone off. Sitting down to watch Singin’ In The Rain for the first – or fifth or fifty-fifth – time is so exciting and surprising, so sumptuous to the eye and joyous to the ear, that to deny it to yourself is to miss one of moviegoing’s great experiences.
For many (in fact, for virtually everyone except professional film critics), the test of whether or a film is ‘good’ is whether or not they enjoy it, and it’s worth noting that by that simplest of measures – the amount of delight it engenders in any audience that watches it – Singin’ In The Rain is very possibly the finest film ever made. Every viewing is a 103-minute high to which we never build up a tolerance, and almost every moment is worthy of special praise or study.
Indeed, to highlight one area of the movie’s appeal is to do a disservice to every other one. Its characters are so endearing and amusing, its pacing so perfect (even allowing for the borderline inexplicable, but undeniably beautiful, ballet sequence with Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly), and its musical numbers so spectacular that it seems like some Platonic model of the perfect musical comedy, after which all others are condemned to flounder in imperfect imitation. Even so, there are two standout sequences: Donald O’Connor’s gravity-goading performance of 'Make ’Em Laugh' and Gene Kelly’s 'Singin’ In The Rain' routine are, in all of American musicals, equalled only by each other.
On Oscar night, Rain was all but ignored: nominated for only two awards, it won neither (probably because a year earlier An American In Paris, that other great Gene Kelly musical, had taken six, including Best Picture). But since then organisations major and minor have buried it in awards – the American Film Institute named it one of America’s five best films, Sight and Sound twice named it one of the world’s ten best films, and the Library of Congress deemed it a national treasure – and everyone, or at least everyone who doesn’t belong in the booby hatch, has acknowledged it as the finest musical we are ever likely to see.