Viewer Guide: Singin’ in the Rain and Friends with Money with Richard Peña

May 11, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.

 REEL 13 CLASSIC | SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

Tonight’s classic is Singin’ in the Rain, the beloved 1952 MGM musical spoof of Hollywood’s silent era, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.

Set in 1927 during the waning days of “the roaring twenties,” Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, a dashing Hollywood matinee idol. Don attends the premiere of his latest silent epic, “The Royal Rascal,” along with his beautiful leading lady, Lina Lamont, portrayed in a brilliant comic turn by Jean Hagen. If you believe the fan magazines, Don and Lina are just as hot an item off-screen as they are on-screen. When asked about his rise to fame, Don insists his guiding motto has always been “dignity,” yet a flashback sequence relates how Don’s actual career trajectory has been anything but dignified, along with an off-camera relationship with Lina that’s been anything but romantic.

The fantasy perfection of Don’s movie star life dims further after a chance encounter with a high-minded young theater actress named Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds in a career-making performance, who is thoroughly unimpressed by Don’s melodramatic movie “acting.” The most ominous sign that Don’s days of silver screen glory are numbered occurs at “The Royal Rascal” premiere party, where Don sees—or rather “hears”—the writing on the wall in the form of a short “talking picture,” and learns of the preposterous plans to create a feature-length sound film, something with the improbable title The Jazz Singer. The rest is history. Don’s next swashbuckling romance is halted in order to be re-shot as a sound movie, resulting in an array of comic complications, particularly when it comes to Lina and her “elocution.”

Donald O’Connor also stars as Don’s song & dance partner Cosmo Brown, and Cyd Charisse shines in a series of iconic dance performances. The movie’s much-loved soundtrack is largely made up of songs by composer Nacio Brown and lyricist Arthur Freed, who also happened to be the studio chief of the “Freed Unit,” the division responsible for the MGM “lion’s share” of legendary movie musicals.

In the nearly seven decades since the film’s release, Singin’ in the Rain has come to be regarded as the apotheosis of Hollywood’s golden age of movie musicals. The production was initially conceived as a framework to showcase the songs of legendary MGM producer Arthur Freed and composer Nacio Brown, whose string of memorable tunes had all been featured in earlier movies. Freed assigned scriptwriting duties to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the acclaimed duo who had created On the Town for Broadway with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Since most of the songs dated from the 20s and 30s, once Gene Kelly became attached to the project Comden and Green hit on the idea of lightly satirizing Hollywood’s silent era, which provided a charming variety of witty situations to use as settings for the songs and production numbers.

As lighthearted as it all looks, all that “singin’ in the rain” wasn’t easy. While shooting the title number, Gene Kelly toughed it out with a 103-degree temperature, enduring two days of drenching artificial rain, which was filmed during a Culver City water shortage. Nineteen-year-old Debbie Reynolds was not a trained dancer, and after strenuous rehearsals and multiple retakes of the “Good Morning” number under Kelly’s grueling direction, she left the set with bloody feet. Despite a childhood upbringing in a circus family, Donald O’Connor’s heavy smoking habit required a week of bed rest after filming “Make ‘Em Laugh.”

The production also offered plum opportunities for the supporting cast. Comden and Green had originally written the role of Lina Lamont for their friend Judy Holliday. However, after Holliday’s Oscar-winning success in 1950 with the movie version of Born Yesterday, she was considered too big a star for a supporting role, so Holliday’s Broadway understudy Jean Hagen ended up snagging the greatest role of her career. After years of lingering at the edges of several MGM films, Cyd Charisse finally vaulted to leading lady status with her alternatingly smoldering and lyrical appearances in the lavish “Broadway Melody” dance number.

The film is also a good lesson in film history. The movies transition to sound was a difficult process, as beautifully depicted in the filming of Don and Lina’s first sound sequence. There were multiple problems—range, pitch, directionality, focus, not to mention synchronization—that plagued early sound filmmaking, working with still primitive recording equipment. Happily, within a few years the technology caught up with the cinema’s needs, and creative filmmakers were soon integrating sound into the very fabric of their films.

While it’s hard to believe now, Singin’ in the Rain was initially overshadowed by more “artistic” musicals of the era like An American in Paris, and only garnered two Oscar nominations—one for music scoring, the other a richly deserved Supporting Actress nod for Jean Hagen. However, the film was a box office success, and over the decades has steadily grown in both popularity and critical estimation as the Golden Age of the movie musical—much like the silent era—entered its own twilight with the arrival of the 1960s. Even critic and filmmaker François Truffaut once declared that Singin’ in the Rain was his favorite film.

REEL 13 INDIE | FRIENDS WITH MONEY

Tonight’s indie is Friends with Money, a 2006 comedy-drama directed by Nicole Holofcener.

Despite being usually blessed with picture-perfect weather, movie characters living in Los Angeles seem to have all the storms brewing in their heads. As we discover in Friends with Money, career achievement and socioeconomic status are of little help in fending off mid-life blues. Jennifer Aniston stars as Olivia, a thirty-something single woman who has quit her job as a private school teacher and is now making ends meet as a house cleaner, much to the dismay of her three older, married and more well-to-do friends. Joan Cusack plays Franny, an independently wealthy trust fund heiress; Catherine Keener plays Christine, a screenwriter who works with her husband and is in the process of expanding her house; and Frances McDormand plays Jane, a high-strung, high-end fashion designer.

When not dealing with the numerous contradictions and failings of their own lives, all three love to discuss their private theories on Olivia’s lack of a career and a partner, and her seeming lack of ambition to acquire either. Olivia’s “friends with money” have their own issues to contend with too. Franny, although especially privileged, feels adrift, without a real purpose in life. Years of fighting has made Christine’s blow-ups with her husband seem almost normal, and not a sign that indeed the marriage is fast going sour. Finally, what’s the reason behind Jane’s nearly constant irritability? Despite all the concern about Olivia, she just might not be the most at-risk member of this devoted but discontented quartet of friends. Rounding at the cast as the respective husbands are Gregg Germann, Jason Isaacs, and Simon McBurney, with Scott Caan as Olivia’s latest casual fling, the personal trainer Mike.

It’s refreshing to encounter a contemporary work such as Friends with Money that delights in creating an intricate, intelligent plot as well as intriguing if at times infuriating characters. The film occasionally brings to mind a sort of laidback, contemporary reboot of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s classic A Letter to Three Wives, except without that film’s central plot device of an unseen mistress threatening a trio of marriages. As already evidenced by her earlier films, director Nicole Holofcener is dedicated to creating roles that reflect the lives and concerns of completely contemporary women: her characters aren’t heroic, and even less are they role models for anyone or anything—just people dealing with the myriad problems of trying to find happiness in America today.

Holofcener hails from a showbiz family—her stepfather Charles H. Joffe was the longtime producer of Woody Allen’s films up until Joffe’s death in 2008. In fact, Holofcener’s movie career began as a PA on Allen’s 1982 film A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and she graduated to an editing apprenticeship on Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986. Catherine Keener has appeared in all of Holofcener’s films, including her most recent, 2013’s Enough Said, which sadly turned out to feature actor James Gandolfini’s final film appearance.

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