Editor’s Note: Welcome to Film Obsessive’s newest feature series, “Off the Shelf.” Each Saturday our writers share the joys of physical media, from reviews of new 4K and Blu-ray releases to reflections on the treasured media they’ve come to collect and cherish over the years.
With various festivities this past month, Warner Bros. has been celebrating the 70th anniversary of Singin’ in the Rain. Back in the second week of April, Fathom Events presented national screenings of the 1952 film as part of their Turner Classic Movies Big Screen Classics series. The big screen rollout peaked with the remastered film’s screening at the TCM Film Festival on April 24th in Los Angeles. The final celebratory measure is the movie’s debut on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray on store shelves April 26th.
In 1989, Singin’ in the Rain was one of the first 25 films selected by the United States Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. The movie ranked 10th on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies list, 16th on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Laughs list, 16th on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list, “Singin’ In The Rain” was 3rd on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs list, and the film was #1 on AFI’s Greatest Movie Musicals list.
Starring Gene Kelly (also a co-director), Donald O’Connor and then-18-year-old newcomer Debbie Reynolds, the film started out as a mild success that became more revered over time. That iconic imagery of Gene twirling, tapping, stomping, and splashing around lamp posts, puddles, and night sidewalks while crooning the title song is fixed in Hollywood legend, but Singin’ in the Rain has a lot more going on than just that one song-and-dance number.
Set in during Hollywood’s feverish transition from silent films to “talkies” in the late 1920’s, Gene Kelly plays silent film star Don Lockwood. Rising through the ranks as a background musician and a stuntman with his best buddy Cosmo Brown (the incredibly comedic Golden Globe winner O’Connor), Lockwood has become a leading man contracted and attached to actress Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen, nominated for an Academy Award). She’s a high-pitched floozy of a leading lady that plays up their supposed “romance” together in the public eye. They two feed off of and play up their stardom every chance they get, for the good of business working for studio boss R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell).
Feeling in a bit of career rut playing the same pantomime ham of an actor in silent films, Don’s self-image and talent get challenged by a straight-talking young singer-dancer-actress, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who doesn’t think much of him. Meeting a woman that really tests him catches his eye and they soon become a item, much to the dislike of Lina who was once shown up and humiliated by Kathy.
While Don and Lina attempt to shoot their latest movie in full sound for the first time, poor technology and Lina’s high-pitched voice cause the film to flop with audiences at an advance screening. Needing a quick turnaround fix for the film and their careers, Don and Cosmo plot to get Kathy’s career her big break and save the picture. They convince the director to replace Lina’s dialogue and singing with Kathy’s and getting her full screen credit.
It’s from these steps in Don and Cosmo’s friendship, the movie-making process, and the growing romance between Don and Kathy that Singin’ in the Rain‘s brilliant musical numbers jump off of the screen. Co-director Stanley Donen (On the Town, Funny Face, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade) and Gene Kelly masterfully blend the songs of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown into their movie-within-a-movie Those great songs (the iconic title track, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Moses Supposes, “Good Morning,” “Broadway Melody Ballet,” and many more) are what gets remembered first for Singin’ in the Rain, but many forget that there’s a legitimate movie going on underneath, with drama, humor, and artistic merit.
The performances are amazing across the board, from the leads to the little role players in between. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are incredible dancers but they also carry stellar acting and screen presence outside of the singing and dancing. Debbie Reynolds will catch your eye as well as she catches Gene’s in the movie. Singin’ in the Rain is nothing short of a performance miracle when you consider all of the physical talent required to play these roles.
Where some movie musicals stop their plot for prescribed song-and-dance numbers, it is constantly impressive how individually unique and how well those set pieces fit with the flow of the movie being told alongside the musical in Singin’ in the Rain. From the classic title song to the flowing veil of Cyd Charisse and the vaudeville moves of Donald O’Connor, each scene captures your eyes as well as your ears like few movie experiences ever have and possibly ever will. The full color and sound restoration undertaken by Warner Brothers is perfectly suited for Singin’ in the Rain‘s 4K release this week.
Warner Bros. spared no expense in the lab or recording studio to make Singin’ in the Rain look and sound its absolute best. The Ultra HD disc presents full 4K resolution with High Dynamic Range (HDR) and a wider color spectrum, offering consumers brighter, deeper, more lifelike colors for a home entertainment viewing experience like never before. Digital options are available on multiple platforms and this new disc set also contains a basic Blu-ray disc containing the same special features as the 4K copy.
This area, however, is the one regrettable aspect of this entire celebration. Compared to the older DVD and Blu-ray sets from years past, the special features for the mainline disc have been massively and egregiously reduced. Gone are the jukebox features, song origin stories, “making of” documentaries, outtakes and scoring sessions. For what stands to be possibly the highest and final physical media release this film may ever receive, the losses are inexcusable.
The three scant components that remain on this 4K release from before are the “Singin’ in the Rain: Raining on a New Generation” documentary, the theatrical trailer, and original DVD’s audio commentary. That final piece, thankfully, is worth every minute and penny.
The preserved audio commentary is (and was) an expansive delight. The track collected testimonials from director Stanley Donen, original composers Betty Camden and Adolph Green, and actors Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse, and Kathleen Freeman. The commentary also featured historian Rudy Behlmer and virtuoso Moulin Rouge and upcoming Elvis filmmaker Baz Luhrmann to tie the new and old appreciation together.
Their united outpourings of compliments, set stories, and industry anecdotes for this musical cornerstone are fluidly combined and wonderfully quaint. Since every single one of those participants, save for Luhrmann, are no longer with us, this audio commentary has become a necessary and important time capsule.
Still, completists are going to have to shell out nearly $90 for an “ultimate” 4K edition that brings out the full red carpet of features. Since so few of the features get the sound or resolution upgrade the main film does, frugal shoppers may want to seek out or keep their limited edition 60th anniversary sets from 2012 and simply swap out the top 4K disc for the main movie in order to have the rest of the good stuff.