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DVD Review: Singin' in the Rain

By Glenn Abel

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Singin' in
the Rain art "Singin' in the Rain," the favorite Hollywood musical of just about every movie critic who matters, comes splish-splashing back in a splendid 50th anniversary DVD edition.

Anyone still on the fence about getting a copy of this vividly restored gem can get their feet tapping on down to the software shop: This is one of the year's best DVD packages, quite possibly the best.

Warner Home Video's two-disc special edition (retail $26.99) features significant improvements over the images on its 2000 DVD. The older disc had its charms in a Good Guys kind of way -- especially the cartoonlike Technicolor images on the fantasy dance sequences -- but suffered from major speckling and flatness. The new version, from restored elements, removes virtually all signs of wear and delivers the ever-changing color schemes with authority.

Viewers don't have to wait long to see the upgrades. Check out the shot of the aging fan at 2:14 and of star Gene Kelly at 9:35. Flesh tones look perfect, and contrasts are rock solid -- just amazing for a film made in 1951. Or the men's tuxedos and white shirts not long after that. Further proof: Take a look at the vixen's stockings in Chapter 30 -- there's plenty of detail over the vast geography of Cyd Charisse's legs.

As with the older DVD, the film comes full-screen (1.33:1). The remastered 5.1 Dolby Digital sounds fine, conservative in its surround mix -- it's basically all upfront. Viewers may want to see if they prefer the original mono track.

Two contrasting documentaries anchor the extras.

"Musicals, Great Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit at MGM," from 1996, tells the story of the legendary musicals maker and his "untouchable" stable of song and dance talent. Producer Freed, a longtime songwriter, wanted "integrated musicals," in which the tunes no longer popped up out of nowhere but served the plot. Freed, Charisse says, "changed the look of musicals -- suddenly we're not old-fashioned looking anymore." Stanley Donen, the co-director with Kelly of "Rain," says of Freed: "He wanted to do something quite remarkable. He didn't approach it as if he were going to blow up the system." "Rain" came somewhat near the end of Freed's remarkable career and is one of the best expressions of his uplifting, upbeat aesthetic.

The new "What a Glorious Feeling" making-of featurette has a nice breezy tone but is far less ambitious than the Freed docu. It trots out some fun trivia: Kelly's iconic "Singin' in the Rain" solo wasn't in the original script; Judy Holliday suddenly became too famous for the squeaky actress part, then memorably played by Jean Hagen; Oscar Levant had the Donald O'Connor role but couldn't handle the dance parts. There is a great clip of Kelly's stunt double leaping from a bus into a jalopy in the Sunset Boulevard scene. "Rain" love interest Debbie Reynolds hosts the piece and seems right if quite fluffy.

Less successfully, Reynolds introduces the often awkward audio commentary pieced together from interviews with key surviving talent and commentators. The speakers' comments come in at appropriate times, but they are not reacting to the film as it unspools, as has become customary. The DVD set has a lot of duplication, so some of the audio clips will sound familiar if you've been through the other features.

Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green give a lite version of their clash with Freed over the project, which was to showcase songs the producer wrote with his partner years before. Freed's direction? There would be singin' and there would be rain, Comden says. Left with old songs and no plot, the red-hot writers wanted to walk and did, briefly (their agent, "Swifty" Lazar, came to the project's rescue).

O'Connor tells how he and Kelly worked so well together because they both had the unusual tendency to begin dance moves to the left. The film's rubber-faced sidekick also breaks down his solo "Make 'Em Laugh" song-and-dance, a greatest-hits version of his shtick moves. He gracefully credits Kelly with helping shape the sequence, adding that most directors would have cut it. "He's not that kind of guy," O'Connor says. Good thing: The number still cracks up even today's seen-it-all young viewers.

More complicated was the relationship between Kelly and his longtime collaborator Donen. The co-director says he got along with the fairly inflexible Kelly because he was behind the camera while the star was in front of it. Donen makes several mentions of "abrasive" conflicts with Kelly but says that, in the end, it was a "wonderful marriage." A harder-edged view of the relationship and Kelly's temperament is offered on Warner's companion release of "Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer," an excellent 85-minute profile that ran on PBS' "American Masters" (retail $24.98).

One extra on the "Rain" DVD set should be of particular interest to hard-core fans. Fifty minutes of clips from old musicals show how the "Rain" songs originally appeared (they all were written by Freed and Nacio Herb Brown). Most if not all of the clips make their debut on DVD with this set. The original "Good Morning" number with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney (from "Babes in Arms") swings right along. The old "Singin' in the Rain" song is not too shabby for a black-and-white production number. And Marion Davies does a must-see turn as the vamp in "Tango (Temptation)."

Songs from "Rain's" prerecording sessions are offered in audio only, giving us a chance to hear Kelly clear his throat before nailing his big number. A few of the tunes have quite distinct stereo separation ("Moses"). Those seeking even more audio can check out the generous two-CD soundtrack set from Rhino Movie Music and Turner (retail $17.98). The CDs contain plenty of outtakes and alternate takes as well as the original songs as seen on the DVD. Worth the cost of the CDs alone is the booklet's reprinted 1972 essay from Comden and Green that goes over the birth of "Rain" and their mini- strike over having to write the thing.

Other DVD features include a trailer that shows MGM had no idea it was dealing with a great film, additional clips that pop up when prompted during the film, a brief photo gallery and Reynolds crooning her deleted "You Are My Lucky Star" song to a giant profile of Kelly on a billboard. "Moulin Rouge" director Baz Luhrmann talks about "Rain" on an Easter egg (he also contributes to the commentary).

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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