Singin’ in the Rain (1952) / Babylon (2022)

Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

written by Adolph Green and Betty Comdem

directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

Babylon (2022)

written and directed by Damien Chazelle

To many, Singin’ in the Rain is forever ensconced in cinema history as one of the best musicals of all time. You probably know the story: In the late 1920s, celebrated silent film actor Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) falls in love with perky chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who has stardom dreams of her own. At the same time, Hollywood begins its transition to talkies, throwing Don and his annoying co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) for a loop, since they can’t really, well… act. Comedic situations ensue, romance blossoms, and Kelly gets soaked singing his worries away in the iconic sequence everyone remembers, if only in passing.

Singin’ in the Rain is lighthearted fun, and sure, there are plenty of memorable moments, such as the title number and an artsy ballet featuring Cyd Charisse. But is it truly as good as everyone thinks? I personally think it’s a bit overrated. I’m much more impressed by Busby Berkeley’s earlier extravaganzas and by the widescreen musicals of the 60s and 70s. What truly makes Singin’ in the Rain stand out to me is Donald O’Connor as Don’s best friend, Cosmo Brown. His talent for physical comedy is undeniable as he tumbles, twirls, and backflips on Make ‘Em Laugh (it landed him in the hospital), and you can feel his palpable chemistry with Kelly as they tap-dance their way through Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love) and the tongue-twisting Moses Supposes. And once Reynolds joins in for a rousing rendition of Good Morning (my favorite moment in the whole movie), well… it’s hard to resist. In the end, Singin’ in the Rain comes across as a bit forced, but essential entertainment nonetheless.

Now, if you’ve seen La La Land (2016), you know that writer/director Damien Chazelle loves musicals, and has paid special attention to the breezy delights of Singin’ in the Rain. And indeed, it is such a big influence that he’s pretty much remade it – or at least reimagined it – in his polarizing big-budget extravaganza Babylon. Set also in the late 1920s, Chazelle’s main two characters are clearly based on the 1952 classic: Brad Pitt plays the famous silent film star Jack Conrad, who just like Don can’t cope with his diminishing status once the switch to sound takes over; Margot Robbie plays the fiery starlet Nellie LaRoy, who just like Lina needs vocal training to mask her unrefined ways.

More references to Singin’ in the Rain pop up halfway through, with a sequence directly lifted from it in which Nellie and a production crew try to shoot a dialogue scene for the very first time. It’s arguably Babylon‘s finest moment, an anxious tour de force that swaps the original’s broad comedy for something darker: The unstoppable power of a new industry that will destroy everything in its path (indeed, the cameraman literally dies). Elsewhere, Jack struggles with his lines, and same as Don in Singin’ in the Rain, reverts to his silent roots by emoting, “I love you, I love you, I love you!” over and over again, with disastrous results.

There’s no romantic comedy to be found here. Instead of giving us a counterpart to Kathy, Chazelle introduces us to Manny Torres (Diego Calva), a Mexican immigrant who is secretly in love with Nellie and who eventually rises up the studio ranks to become an executive. Not even their doomed relationship seems to interest Chazelle, though. His focus is on the hedonistic excesses of the era, which he shoots in a heightened, stylized manner reminiscent of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, all fast editing, extravagant production design, and bombastic score pummeling you into submission. But unlike Luhrmann, he never makes us sympathize with these lost souls, instead fixating on the immorality of the period in such an overblown manner as to render it laughable. And not in a good way – in addition to the orgies, substance abuse, and all-out inebriation, tons of bodily fluids are on display, from projectile vomiting to golden showers and even an elephant shitting right on the camera lens. Subtle it ain’t.

You have to admire all this chaotic energy, but for all its craft Babylon feels as superficial as the moviemaking machine it’s meant to satirize. And whereas the melancholy ending of La La Land worked in the context of that film’s narrative, the bizarre climax of Babylon – part tragic “be careful what you wish for” sermon, part “Hollywood is the land of dreams” nonsense – feels truly unearned. Flashing forward to 1952, we see Manny, now a shop owner in NY, return to California and attend a screening of – you guessed it – Singin’ in the Rain. The experience triggers memories of his time in Hollywood and the love he felt for Nellie, who died of an overdose after getting in debt with a gangster. Manny cries, but then realizes that all the hedonism he’s been a part of has actually created something… meaningful. Cinema and art have been born from it. Technological breakthroughs have been born from it. Hell, Singin’ in the Rain itself is a product of it. Yeah, I don’t buy it either.

But there you have it. In the end, both Singin’ in the Rain‘s love letter to Hollywood and Babylon‘s anarchic take on the same story are obviously unrealistic… but at least one of them doesn’t have elephant poo.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – Rating: ***

Babylon (2022) – Rating: **½

Carlos I. Cuevas

2 replies »

  1. Despite having 2 of the brightest stars in Hollywood and an Oscar winning director, Babylon is probably one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a long time. And it’s so fu$&ing long! Why is it that now movies are 3 hrs long? Where are the editors? 😂


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