Singin' in the Rain is a completist's nightmare. For one thing, it boasts a litany of auteurs and semi-auteurs to keep track of: Gene Kelly (the star and director), Stanley Donen (the co-director), Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (the ace MGM lyricist and songwriter), and Adolph Green and Betty Comden (the screenwriters). For another, the filmmakers cannibalized songs from a half-dozen ancient musicals; that means numerous slogs to Blockbuster if you want to see the ditties in their original films. The new Singin' in the Rain DVD, which is being distributed by Warner Bros., is the first disk to really use the DVD medium as a repository—a trunk into which all extant material about the film has been stuffed.
The film began life as a vague command from MGM: Make a film in which a person or persons, at some point, croon while getting wet. The songs, mostly by Freed and Brown, had been recorded for other films at the beginning of the talking-picture era. So, the makers of the DVD have constructed a browser that lets you watch every one of those songs complete in their original films. The joy isn't just watching the old ditties; it's marveling over how much juice Kelly and Donen pumped into them the second time around.
The pedestrian Hollywood Revue of 1929 Take, for instance, the title song, "Singin' in the Rain," which first appeared on film in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. The song was performed there by Cliff Edwards (who later voiced Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio). Plucking at his ukulele, Edwards doesn't sound glorious at all. He sounds drowsy, and he looks like a turtle, nestled under a raincoat, hat, and galoshes. With the romance fading, an all-female chorus line enters. (Click the still at the left to watch a bit of it.) When Kelly rejiggered the song for Singin' in the Rain, he correctly reasoned that it should be performed solo, nixing a plan to sing it with Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor. Even more important, he knew "Singin' in the Rain" should be sung dripping wet and without raingear. In the unlikely event that Love ever commands you to sashay into a downpour, would you bother with galoshes?
In his book TheAmerican Film Musical, Rick Altman suggests that Kelly owed his stardom, at least in part, to a new way musicals were cast. Beginning with the actor Joseph Coyne, and later Fred Astaire and Maurice Chevalier, directors began picking talented dancers with little formal vocal training for their romantic leads. Kelly didn't talk his songs like Rex Harrison, or croak them like Mickey Rooney, but his voice could be shaky. One of this DVD's biggest pleasures is an audio recording session where we hear Kelly battling a late-breaking bout of puberty. His voice breaks as he sings, I-HYME ready for love.
Debbie Reynolds croons in Singin' in the Rain The DVD also includes "You Are My Lucky Star," the Debbie Reynolds solo number that was deleted from the final cut. Reynolds gazes up at a billboard of her lover and mews; the song was supposed to do for her character what the title song did for Kelly's. (Click at the left to hear the opening notes.) In a documentary, Reynolds says the directors cut it because it stopped the picture dead in its tracks. After watching it here, I'm not sure I agree. In fact, it feels no more out of place than the film's outsized closing number, "Broadway Rhythm Ballet," where the whole show surrenders to spectacle.
Singin' in the Rain's audio commentary track boasts a cast of thousands, with bits from Donen, Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, and many others. Too many voices can spoil a commentary; think of Do the Right Thing, where the track keeps cutting to the cinematographer and set designer when you want to hear from the director. But the editing here is crisp, and it's always clear who's speaking. Plus, Singin' in the Rain has so many important contributors that you need the all-skate approach to tell the whole story.
There's one tricky issue that isn't resolved here: Which of the film's co-directors, Kelly or Donen, gets credit for what? On the commentary, Donen sounds a bit defensive at times, as if he's desperate to remind us that, yes, he, too, had something to do with Singin' in the Rain's success. But the historian Rudy Behlmer, who also pops up on the commentary, casts the co-director's role more narrowly: Donen, he says, manned the chair mostly while Kelly was on-camera; he was the guy who told the star when they needed to do another take.
The disk has only one drawback, and that's that Baz Luhrmann, the director of Moulin Rouge, another modestly staged musical about show business, is among the voices on the commentary track. Why is he here? Well, DVD makers are hot for directors who will pay obeisance to old films. (Steven Spielberg gushed for the Lawrence of Arabia disks.) It's not an awful idea, though Luhrmann is irritating, prattling on about his own film ethos and ignoring the movie. Is this the price we must pay for completeness?