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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/2/04

Singin' in the Rain
Special Edition - 1951 (2002) - MGM (Warner Bros.)

review by Adam Jahnke of The Digital Bits

Singin' in the Rain: Special Edition Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A-/A

Specs and Features

Disc One - The Film
103 mins, G, full frame (1.33:1), Digipack packaging with slipcase, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), audio commentary (with actors Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Cyd Charisse and Kathleen Freeman, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, co-director Stanley Donen, film historian Rudy Behlmer, and filmmaker Baz Luhrmann),
viewing option, Reel Sound text history, cast and crew bios, awards listing, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens with sound, scene access (38 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 and original mono) and French (mono), subtitles: English, French and Spanish, Closed Captioned

Disc Two - Special Features
NR, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered (no layer switch), Musicals Great Musicals documentary (20 chapters), What a Glorious Feeling documentary, original movie excerpts of Arthur Freed/Nancio Herb Brown's songs, You Are My Lucky Star outtake, photo gallery, 26 scoring session music cues, film-themed menu screens with sound, languages: English (DD 2.0 Surround)

There are very few films I've approached with as much stubborn determinedness to hate as Singin' in the Rain. There are even fewer where I've failed so spectacularly. You see, back before my taste in film became more encompassing, I was a very genre-biased movie-goer. I suppose this is true of most film buffs in their early years. Up until I entered high school, I had very set notions of what I would and would not enjoy. I'd happily plunk down money to sit through any horror, science fiction or fantasy picture. But god forbid you should ask me to watch a western or a musical. These genres were dead, buried, and forgotten and good riddance to 'em. I'd have rather gouged out my own eyeballs and stuffed them in my ears to block out the sound (which, come to think of it, was the rough equivalent of sitting through many of those horror, science fiction, and fantasy pictures).

But in high school, my tastes changed. My dad introduced me to some of the great westerns, while my mom began to slowly indoctrinate me into the classic Hollywood musicals. Wisely, she began my education with the great Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pictures from the 1930's. I quickly fell in love with movies like Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee and it's not hard to see why. Between the Irving Berlin and Cole Porter songs, the art deco sets, the impossibly high level of wealth and sophistication, and the breathtaking ease of Astaire and Rogers' incredible dance moves, there was as much fantasy in these movies as anything in the Star Wars trilogy.

With my new tolerance for musicals, I realized that sooner or later I was going to have to confront what is widely considered to be the greatest movie musical Hollywood ever produced, Gene Kelly's Singin' in the Rain. I sat down to watch it bound and determined to not be won over. After all, musicals from the 30's were one thing. Musicals from the 50's are an entirely different technicolor animal. The few I'd seen had failed to win me over. They were great big sugar pills of a motion picture. Bright, exuberant, and so gosh-darned ready to please that I inevitably succumbed to an exhaustion headache before the end of the first hour. And Gene Kelly was the poster boy for all that was wrong with them. As far as I was concerned, his toothy grin and regular guy attitude was no match for the otherworldly suavity of Fred Astaire.

After about half an hour, I realized a strange thing had happened. Against all odds, my head didn't hurt. My eyes, which I had trained to roll cynically back in my head during such films, were riveted to the screen. And my practiced scowl had been transformed into a smile as wide as Kelly's own. What the hell went wrong? Was it somehow possible that Singin' in the Rain was every bit as good as everybody said it was?

Yeah, as a matter of fact it was and is just that good. For one thing, Singin' in the Rain is, unlike many of its contemporaries, genuinely funny. The story takes place during Hollywood's transition from silent films to talking pictures. Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a swashbuckling matinee idol saddled with a shrewish on-screen partner, Lina Lamont (played to perfection by Jean Hagen). When The Jazz Singer hits it big, Lockwood and Lamont's studio attempts to shoehorn sound into their latest costume drama. The result is a disaster, thanks to problems with the new technology and Lamont's nails-on-a-chalkboard voice. Just when things look their darkest, Lockwood and his musician pal Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) come up with a brilliant "hey-let's-put-on-a-show" idea. They'll turn the movie into Hollywood's first big musical, with Lamont's vocals dubbed by Lockwood's new girlfriend, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Why, it's so crazy, it just might work!

Obviously, we're not talking about a labyrinthine plot here. But the focus on Hollywood means that screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were able to poke fun at a subject they knew very well. This isn't a scathing satire by any means, but laughs are had at the expense of the stars, the studio heads, the directors, the gossip columnists, the fans, even the process of movie making itself. When hired, Comden and Green were given one mandate: write a script around the songs of producer Arthur Freed and his songwriting partner Nancio Herb Brown. Remarkably, the songs feel organic to this story, rising naturally out of the situations and characters. And great songs they are, too, given their most memorable renditions here by the spirited cast. O'Connor and Reynolds are terrific, bringing the screen to life whenever they're around. As for Kelly... as I said, I didn't have much use for him before I saw this movie. Afterwards, I had to go back and reassess my opinion. He's great here, bringing to Don Lockwood the perfect mixture of earnestness and canned ham. It goes without saying that "Singin' In The Rain" is one of the greatest musical numbers ever filmed and virtually all of the credit for that goes straight to Kelly. It's one of the most perfect embodiments of being head over heels in love you'll ever see.

Still, I can understand if some of you are still a bit resistant to the charms of Singin' in the Rain. For some, it's like having birthday cake and orange soda for two hours straight. The movie starts with the three stars singing directly to the camera at the top of their lungs and doesn't let up for a second. By the time you get to the dizzying "Broadway Melody" finale, you might be longing for a bit of a breather. But most people, I think, are won over by the movie's charm and spirit within the first ten minutes. If you're already a fan of Hollywood musicals, you probably already adore this one. If you're not, it might just win over even the most jaded viewer.

As for the DVD, the short answer is that this is one of Warner's best special editions to date. Period.

The long answer? The picture has been restored using Warner's patented "Ultra-Resolution" technique, used notably on last year's Adventures of Robin Hood release. The original negative of Singin' in the Rain is long gone, so I honestly didn't expect great results from this restoration. Remarkably, the picture is dazzling. This is an incredible, jaw-dropping image without a single flaw I could detect. If you know any older people who still don't really appreciate the technical aspects of DVD, this is the disc to show them. I promise you they have never seen this movie look this good. I was impressed by the colors on the soundstage during Kelly's "You Were Meant For Me" number, but I was absolutely blown away by them in the finale. It's fair to say that if you haven't seen this disc, you haven't really seen Singin' in the Rain yet.

The soundtrack has been remastered to a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track, a dangerous proposition when dealing with classic mono films. Fortunately, the results are very good. You're not immersed in artificial surrounds but the music pops to life with brilliant clarity. Dialogue sounds clear and natural without any annoying hiss or echo. For purists, the original (albeit cleaned-up) mono track is available as well. Both choices are top notch.

Disc One contains a few worthwhile extras, something of a rarity for Warner's special editions. First off is a commentary by a number of the movie's cast and crew, plus historian and commentary-track regular Rudy Behlmer and musical aficionado Baz Luhrmann. In fact, this isn't so much a scene-by-scene commentary as it is a skillful editing together of a number of individual interviews. The track isn't bad, though I would have preferred a more direct commentary by co-director Stanley Donen to some of the anecdotes heard here. Debbie Reynolds is an affable hostess for the track but oddly, her participation doesn't extend much beyond that. Cyd Charisse and others talk about her but Reynolds rarely offers up her own perspective. Still, it's worth it to hear her say the name "Rudy Behlmer", though you might not think the commentary is quite as "fabulous" as Reynolds promises it will be. An extended-branching option called Singin' Inspirations allows you to leave the feature for additional background information whenever a movie reel pops up on screen (which actually isn't all that often). Reel Sound is a brief but informative text-based history of the transition from silents to talkies, with film clips illustrating the key points. Finally, Disc One provides the original trailer and the usual Warner cast, crew and awards summaries.

The real goodies (besides the movie itself, of course) can be found on Disc Two. The big draw here is an 85-minute documentary entitled Musicals Great Musicals, detailing the history of the Arthur Freed unit at MGM. Produced for PBS' Great Performances, this is a lively and information packed feature, sprinkled with excellent interviews and clips from Freed's movies (including his other masterpiece, the Fred Astaire vehicle The Band Wagon, a movie crying out for a comparable DVD restoration and release). By comparison, the documentary devoted to the making of Singin' in the Rain, What a Glorious Feeling, comes up a little bit short. Just over half an hour in length, it doesn't tread much ground that wasn't already covered in either the commentary or the other documentary. But if you don't want to devote that kind of time to either of those features, this is a decent enough overview.

Only one of two deleted musical numbers from the picture has survived, Debbie Reynolds' performance of You Are My Lucky Star, and it's presented here on the second disc. Compared to the rest of the movie, it's something of a yawn but it's wonderful that it's included here for the curious. Apart from a small photo gallery, the rest of the extras are musical in nature. No less than 26 alternate and extended music cues are provided from the original scoring stage sessions. Most fascinating to me was the inclusion of excerpts from the original films where Freed and Brown's songs came from. The films date from 1929 to 1939 and the songs are performed by the likes of Bing Crosby, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Sure, Cliff Edwards' performance of Singin' in the Rain from The Hollywood Revue of 1929 can't hold a candle to Gene Kelly's rendition. But most of us know these songs from Kelly and Donen's movie. To see and hear the transformation they underwent is nothing short of extraordinary.

Warner's two-disc Singin' in the Rain is the pinnacle of what they can achieve with this new line of special editions. All classic films should be treated with such reverence and care when they arrive on disc. Where once I was dead-set against enjoying a single second of this movie, I am now delighted to have it on my shelf, ready to bring down whenever I'm in need of a guaranteed smile. This is Hollywood musical making at its peak and happily, it's also Hollywood DVD production at a pretty darn high level, as well.

Adam Jahnke

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