The news of the death of another essential American film artist got somewhat washed away by all the tears for Robert Altman: Betty Comden, who along with Adolph Green (who died in 2002), formed the dynamic duo that penned a series of Broadway shows and then MGM musicals (as well as such songs as “Make Someone Happy” and “Just in Time”), died on Thanksgiving, in New York City, at age 89. In addition to the exemplary wit and timing the duo displayed in their writing for such Freed Unit films as The Band Wagon and On the Town, Comden and Green contributed what might be the best comic screenplay of the Fifties to, of course, Singin’ in the Rain. When the list of those responsible for Singin’’s sheer genius unspools, often their contributions are named somewhere below Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, Donald O’ Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, and even Cyd Charisse. Yet where their other musicals of the era, such as Band Wagon and It’s Always Fair Weather, may have displayed similarly impressive acrobatics and devil-may-care, almost anti-authoritarian flouncing of strict cause-and-effect genre rules, Singin’ remains the most tightly focused, quickest, and slyest of all.
For each of the moments often, and legitimately, sighted as the film’s highlights (O’ Connor’s rubber-faced, spaghetti-limbed “Make ‘Em Laugh” routine, the showstopper of all time; Kelly and Charisse’s gravity-defying dream ballet; Jean Hagen’s nasally obnoxious brilliance in, well, every scene she’s in) there is another, equally dazzling passage, direct from the screenplay: the ingenious opening ten minutes at the red carpet premiere (“Dignity, always dignity”), a textbook example of brilliant narrational irony, in which all of pompous star Don Lockwood’s self-aggrandizements are countered onscreen by the more truthful flashbacks; Don and Cathy Selden’s first, fortuitous, drop-in meeting, a rapid-fire exchange of wits so full of hidden flirtation and ego deflation it puts to shame most of Hepburn and Tracy’s shtick; any of Hagen’s self-centered, idiotic rants (“Well, I can’t make love to a bush!”), as delightfully deluded as any of Jennifer Coolidge’s elaborate dum-dum routines in the Christopher Guest films. Yes, Singin’ in the Rain is unthinkable without its actors’ exuberance, its nonstop Technicolor eye candy, and its roster of standard tunes, but the film remains so much more than a gleeful toe-tapper to this day because of its bullet-paced, forthright plunge into the grandiose, egomaniacal zeal of Hollywood. I’ll take Comden and Green’s bedazzling cynicism over any concurrent Billy Wilder frolic any day of the week.