By Scott Ross
The best movie musical ever made — or, at least, the best that didn’t star Fred Astaire.
The screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, had only one order: Turn the Herb Nacio Brown Arthur Freed song catalog into a movie. All they knew was “at some point, there’d be rain, and someone would be singing in it.” Their first notion, involving a singing cowboy to be played by Howard Keel, was, thankfully, overpowered by their second: a loving if satirical look back at the beginnings of Talking Pictures.
Nearly every sequence works, building on and then topping the one that came before. The repartee is as fast and crackling as a ‘30s screwball farce, and the musical numbers are so well integrated into the movie’s themes and action as to be positively Hammersteinian: when Gene Kelly serenades Debbie Reynolds, he evokes the mood on a Hollywood sound stage and his riotous “Moses Supposes” routine with Donald O’Connor takes off from a pompous lesson in early sound elocution.
The title number is without doubt the most joyous musical declaration of love ever filmed, and the massive “Broadway Ballet” is, seemingly, a satire on Kelly’s own American in Paris ballet of the year before as the actor-dancer and (nominal) co-director deliciously mocks his own egocentric grandeur — the ballet ends with an extreme close-up on his hammy, grinning face. (Never mind that no sound movie camera of 1927 was ever that mobile.)
Reynolds was never more endearingly spunky, and O’Connor out does Danny Kaye in his loony perfection — even if his big “Make ‘Em Laugh” number was an Arthur Freed knock-off of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown.”
If only all concerned had dropped the fey costume parade number, which isn’t funny anyway, and reinstated Reynolds’ charming, cut rendition of “You Are My Lucky Star” — which also would have given the eventual singing of the song by Kelly in the finale a greater emotional force.
Directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen (who allegedly did most of it… although some claim just the reverse.) Cyd Charisse, all legs and green stockings, is Kelly’s icily memorable partner in the ballet.
Best of all is Jean Hagen as Kelly’s impossibly thickheaded screen paramour. A true test of devotion is to imitate her saying, “And I can’t stan’ ‘im!” Those who don’t get it are probably not people you’d want to be around anyway.
Text copyright 2013 by Scott Ross