Singin' in the Rain is a great American movie musical, standing high within a special genre which no other country ever managed to conquer. If we talk about American movie musicals, we are talking about the world's movie musicals - these confections of song and dance and romance conquered the globe.
Some claim this movie was the greatest of the movie musicals - but just to mention two others, Top Hat and Oklahoma! shows that an undisputed reign would be impossible. But while there may be greater musicals, this may well be the best loved.
The story of its creation is well known - Arthur Freed, head of the unofficial 'musicals' unit at MGM studios, was in the 1920s and 1930s a fine song lyricist with many great songs to his credit. But this was now the start of the 1950s, and his songs were becoming forgotten. He called in the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green and charged them with the task of creating a new musical, called Singin' in the Rain, to feature some of his old songs.
"We knew that it had to feature somebody singing", Betty Comden remembered years later. "In the rain", Adolph added. Adolph and Betty decided to set the musical at the dawn of talking pictures, as studios struggled to adapt to the new medium. It's reported by people who worked in the studios at that time to be an amazingly accurate portrayal of those times. It's also, by the way, brilliantly entertaining and amusing, and as fresh today as when it was shot, back in 1951.
This is an ensemble musical. Three stars are listed on the front cover, Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds (who was only 18 when shooting started), but there was a fourth member of this cast who deserved equal billing - Jean Hagen as the silent film heroine, whose shrill Brooklyn tones can't cut the mustard in the new age of sound.
The film is conceit within conceit, as dulcet-toned Debbie Reynolds is coerced to become the unseen 'voice' of Jean Hagen, who happily mimes away. There is an unseen twist here - at the end we see Debbie singing You Are My Lucky Star as the film reaches its happy conclusion. Except this isn't Debbie's voice. It wasn't quite strong enough in those early years to carry the song. In real life Debbie was miming to the real singing voice of Jean Hagen, who in the movie can't sing at all and who Debbie is singing for. Got that straight?
Singin' in the Rain is a blissful movie which can never fade. And this is a benchmark presentation which sets a new standard for the restoration and presentation of classic movies. Some of the participants are still alive - Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds and co-director Stanley Donen. Adolph Green died just a week or so after this Special Edition was issued. He at least lived long enough to see his movie be given this special immortality.
This is a movie reborn. Watching this, it's almost impossible to believe this was shot half a century ago and that the original negative was destroyed accidentally long ago.
This Academy-ratio full-frame three-strip Technicolor movie has been transferred to DVD using a brand-new process. Instead of transferring the movie from a fine exhibition or archive print, Warners have taken the three strips which represented the original colour separations and have transferred them independently, then combining them digitally.
The result is brilliant and life-like. And the region 4 PAL version, shown alongside the region 1 NTSC release, shows extra definition and far less noticeable scan-lines. The level of detail is uncanny - the sheer quality of the image defies analysis. It seems an even finer transfer than the famous one of that always over-rated movie Citizen Kane which had set the previous benchmark for the treatment of vintage movies.
There has been some debate over the accuracy of the colour - is this quite the brilliance of the original Technicolor? Well, DVD still cannot match the lustre of a fine Technicolor 35mm print. But for home vision, this is a spectacular tribute to a great movie. This is the third transfer of Singin' in the Rain; it should prove to be the definitive transfer for at least the next four to five years.
The sound has been processed into artificial Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. But purists should not wince - no artificial separation or effects have been introduced; there is just a more pleasing, more clearly rounded sound stage than the film would otherwise have had.
The American edition gave us the option of the original mono sound channel. This is present here too, along with French and Italian. But in a very annoying piece of DVD authoring, the viewer cannot toggle between audio channels - the choice must be made from the main menu.
Although the PAL transfer speed-up effect is seen in the running time, which has fallen from the NTSC 103 minutes to 99 minutes, the audio pitch is not noticeably higher. Has pitch been corrected digitally? I can't tell - I don't have perfect pitch - but it does sound just fine.