Cinema and Media Studies Singin’ in the Rain
by
Jerome Delamater
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 September 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0149

Introduction

Called by conductor and composer André Previn, and by many others echoing him, “the best musical ever made,” Singin’ in the Rain (1952) has become a film that embodies numerous aspects of academic inquiry. Overshadowed on its initial release by An American in Paris (1951), today it has achieved classic, canonical status and has become the touchstone film for any discussion of the musical genre and, indeed, Hollywood in the fifties. Its popularity and critical esteem are demonstrated by its recurrent ranking on various all-time-great lists, including number 18 (and the only musical) on Sight and Sound’s 2012 list of the “Top 50 Greatest Films” and number 5 of the American Film Institute’s current (2007) “Top 100 Films.” Notably, as well, it was one of the first twenty-five “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” chosen for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. The varieties of commentary represented by the entries in this bibliography show that it has also become the site of serious film study. Singin’ in the Rain is often cited not only in research into the studio system (MGM in particular) and (as an Arthur Freed production) of the producer-unit system, but also in cinematic analysis of almost every kind, especially cultural, historical, gender, and, of course, aesthetic. Two particular areas of interest for scholars and the general public are: (1) the nature of the authorial relationship between Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, the codirectors, which is complicated by Kelly’s acknowledged roles as star, dancer, and choreographer, and (2) the film’s self-reflexive, satirical look at the birth of sound film and at the nature of the filmmaking process. Made during a major moment of crisis in Hollywood, the advent of television, about another, similar moment of crisis, the advent of sound, Singin’ in the Rain has remained a durable artifact of American culture. It is studied in classrooms, subjected to academic and popular criticism, and admired as a film that, even after more than sixty years, is still—as costar Debbie Reynolds says at the end of the documentary What a Glorious Feeling: The Making of “Singin’ in the Rain”—“wonderfully fresh, wildly exuberant and will always give us that glorious feeling.”

Overviews

The three books and two articles about Singin’ in the Rain cited here complement each other as important overviews by providing quite different perspectives. Hess and Dabholkar 2009 is a carefully researched, detailed, and thorough investigation of almost every aspect of the film and it has an extensive bibliography and capsule biographies of virtually everyone involved in the film’s production. Its use of archival materials and other primary sources helps make it the first resource for anyone beginning to research the film as well as for those with just a general interest in the topic. Comparisons of the final film with the screenplay at different stages, investigations of the complexities of budgeting and scheduling, and details about the collaborations among the creative personnel all contribute to the authors’ attempt to “present a well-rounded history of the film” (p. xi). Although the book places the film within its historical and critical contexts, the survey of scholarly material covers only three pages. Wollen 1992, despite its length (71 pages), is an informative monograph about the film’s position in dance and film history and about Kelly’s relationship to American politics of the fifties. The discussion of the effect the Hollywood Blacklist may have had on Kelly’s career is especially valuable. It is also a solid introduction to issues of genre, authorship, and self-reflexivity that have become central to interpreting Singin’ in the Rain. Like Wollen 1992, La Polla 1997 is a short book that provides significant detail about the film. A brief introduction to the roles of the codirectors and others is supplemented by a credit list, a shot-by-shot description of the opening sequence, lengthy quotations from nine relevant scholarly works, and a selective bibliography. Throughout the book, comparisons with other important, unusual, and classic films place Singin’ in the Rain in historical and generic contexts. The main text is essentially a formal, aesthetic analysis; La Polla centers his reading on the form and function of the musical numbers and posits that the substance and significance of the film reside in them. Cohan 2000 and Cohan 2005 interpret and contextualize the film with requisite and detailed explications of ideas raised in entries throughout this bibliography.

  • Cohan, Steven. “Case Study: Interpreting Singin’ in the Rain.” In Reinventing Film Studies. Edited by Christine Gledhill and Linda Williams, 53–75. London: Hodder Arnold, 2000.

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    An exploration via different perspectives, including a structuralist one of narrative, a deconstructionist take on the film’s binary oppositions, a psychoanalytic look at spectatorship and sexual difference, Kelly as auteur, and the cultural contexts of Kelly’s star image. Cohan does not provide a definitive interpretation but offers a variety of readings that show how a film’s meanings change over time and through different approaches.

  • Cohan, Steven. “What a Glorious Classic: Singin’ in the Rain and Mass-Camp Recycling.” In Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical. By Steven Cohan, 200–245. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1215/9780822387077-005E-mail Citation »

    Explores how “mass camp” contributes to making Singin’ in the Rain “the single musical that still works for everybody” (p. 245). Includes a delineation of the film’s history, reception, parody of the advent of sound, self-reflexivity, and suppression of alternate voices, to name the most important elements explored. Singin’ in the Rain depicts the musical “as the prime Hollywood genre of the modern sound era” (p. 214), according to Cohan, and its mass-camp qualities emphasize the development of the musical as principally a product of MGM.

  • Hess, Earl J., and Pratibha A. Dabholkar. Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2009.

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    Invaluable book that provides step-by-step descriptions of the film’s inception, production, marketing, release, and reception; corrects others’ mistakes and discerns the reasons for various conflicting accounts. Demonstrates why Singin’ in the Rain is an almost-perfect example of how the studio system operated and why it has become such a celebrated example of the genre.

  • La Polla, Franco. Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly: Cantando sotto la Pioggia. Torino: Lindau, 1997.

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    Analyzes the musical numbers as self-referential investigations of Hollywood that function as an anthology of the musical genre. Interprets the numbers as showing a trajectory of the characters’ metaphorical movement from being like marionettes to becoming fully human. Counters the alleged plagiarism accusation against “Make ‘Em Laugh” with the argument that it goes beyond the purpose of “Be a Clown” to become a “celebrazione del cinema” (p. 63).

  • Wollen, Peter. Singin’ in the Rain. BFI Film Classics. London: British Film Institute, 1992.

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    Places Singin’ in the Rain in the context of the histories of dance and the Broadway musical as well as film and post–World War II American politics and provides an overview of the film that also accounts for Kelly’s career and the work of the Freed Unit. An intelligent and insightful attempt to justify Kelly as one who “took the art of cinema . . . to new heights” (p. 66).

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