There’s a childlike joy to Singin’ in the Rain that’s really missing from most musicals. It’s hard to believe these songs that are proclaiming joy when the dancers are clearly focused on remembering their choreography or straining under the exertion, but Gene Kelly seems so happy whenever he’s in motion that he reminds me of a child who is dancing just to be dancing. Once he gets going he’s almost always smiling from ear to ear, even if it is raining, and that open-heartedness is totally infectious. I can’t remember the last movie I saw that felt this inviting.
It helps that the script does such a great job of providing a stage for the song and dance numbers. Traditionally, songs in musicals are used to express emotions, but more than one of the songs in Singin’ In the Rain is explicitly sung from one character to another to cheer them up. That does two things: one, it establishes a more real baseline for the movie, because it explains why the characters are suddenly breaking into song. Basically, these showbiz hams are doing that because they’re friends doing bits to entertain each other. Which leads me to my second point: having the songs be pick-me-ups between friends adds to the camaraderie between the characters. Both “Make 'Em Laugh” and “Good Morning” show such a generosity of spirit that it makes the people on the screen seem like people you'd want to be friends with in real life, which you can’t really say about the people in, say, Meet Me in Saint Louis.
The writers also made a smart choice when they decided to give the film a meta-structure. The fact that Singin' in the Rain is a movie about making a movie helps it feel more modern because unlike a lot of musical conceits that sort of plot is still popular. It also keeps the movie from feeling kitschy, because the main reason why musicals fall into kitsch is because the characters don’t know how silly they look but the audience does. By adding in a bunch of in-jokes about how fake Hollywood is and winking at us to let us know that the filmmakers know that this is all fake Singin’ In the Rain gets around that. All the scenes on soundstages where Gene Kelly is grinning like a madman suggest: yes, we know none of this is real but wouldn't it be fun to pretend?
The one problem with the movie is it’s treatment of the Lina Lockwood character. It’s established early on that Lina is your stereotypical Hollywood Diva – shallow, egotistical, fake – so some of the jokes at her expense are fair, but there’s a bit of mean spiritedness to the way this film treats her. I’ve read too much about the early days of Hollywood to not sympathize with an aging actress’ paranoia. The studio heads treated people – especially women – as interchangeable products to be micromanaged and they had absolutely no loyalty to the people that made them a fortune once they were seen as old. There was a lot of cruelty and a lot of ruined lives in the early studio systems and so the movie’s insistence that Lina Lockwood be destroyed is a bit of a bummer. Fortunately she’s barely in the movie, and some of her scenes – particularly the one where she’s too dumb to remember where the microphones are planted – feel goofy, not vindictive.
There’s a reason why this film is seen as a classic: it’s really hard to transmit childlike joy to adults and Singin’ in the Rain totally does that. Gene Kelly had such grace and good will that he seems like the type of guy who could win an Olympic gold medal for doing the world’s most precise cannonball. It’s too bad he never made Singin’ in the Rain 2: Splashin’ in the Pool, because I’d watch the hell out of that.