Oscar's big miss: 'Singin' in the Rain'

Posted by · 8:58 am · February 25th, 2012

It seemed an easy task when I told Guy and Gerard to follow Roth’s lead and help me turn the idea of “Oscar’s big miss” into a quick mini-series at the end of the season. Roth’s pick was undeniable. Gerard’s was inspired. Guy’s was well-spotted. What would I spring for?

Look, the truth is there are a lot of movies the Academy hasn’t properly recognized over the last 84 years, and they go all the way to near the beginning. “Metropolis,” “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” “City Lights,” “King Kong,” “Modern Times,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” “Paths of Glory,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Fountain,” “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” “Another Year” and if not genre filmmaking in general, the entirety of the western genre surely all made for compelling picks. But what equates to a “big miss” anyway? What does it mean?

Does it mean the Academy looks foolish in hindsight? Does it translate to just an unfortunate opportunity lost? The definition I settled on was merely the concept of not recognizing greatness in its own time, and indeed, I think the test of time is necessary to really gauge.

The sights and sounds of Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” endure to this day, not just as registered film memories, but as tattoos on the collective soul of the medium. A showering woman shrieking in terror at the sight of a murderer’s blade, a spaceship lodged in the eye of the moon, a boulder chasing an adventurous archaeologist through a jungle corridor, a flight of attack helicopters charging to the sounds of Wagner, a cut from a tossed Simian femur to an orbital satellite and Gene Kelly atop a street lamp base, arm outstretched, crooning to the heavens. They are are undeniable portraits in the classic wing of film history.

The film grabbed two nods, so it wasn’t completely unrecognized. But a nice notice for supporting actress Jean Hagen and an obvious tip of the hat to the film’s original music was hardly what such an eventual staple of that level deserved. The Best Picture nominees that year were “High Noon” (one of few westerns that ever seemed to garner the approval of the Academy), “Ivanhoe,” “Moulin Rouge” (of the John Huston variety), “The Quiet Man” (featuring “High Noon” detractor John Wayne) and eventual winner, “The Greatest Show on Earth.”

It’s funny, the latter film, Cecil B. DeMille’s Ringling Brothers-inspired tale of a circus company and its leading honcho, has become one of the most infamous Best Picture victors of all time. It inspires a lot of vitriol. I never really feel that toward it, though, probably because it was a favorite of my Dad’s growing up and was always harmless enough. Funny how that works, but I digress.

When the American Film Institute issued its first “100 Years…100 Movies” list in 1997, “Singin’ in the Rain” was the highest ranking film that didn’t receive a Best Picture nomination (#10). No, the AFI isn’t a dictator of objective quality, but it’s significant because if nothing else, that list was a barometer of American cinema’s classic beats. And “Singin’ in the Rain” is just one of those films that somehow wasn’t recognized as great in its time.

The film was one of the first batch selected for preservation by the National Film Registry in 1989. It was tapped right along such films as “Casablanca,” “Citizen Kane,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “The General,” “Gone with the Wind,” “On the Waterfront,” “The Searchers,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Some Like it Hot,” “Star Wars,” “Sunset Boulevard,” “Vertigo” and “The Wizard of Oz” that year, as well as fellow class of 1953 alum “High Noon.” Not bad company, and indeed, a couple of those films could be spotlighted for a piece such as this.

You watch “Singin’ in the Rain” today and maybe you think it’s hokey. Maybe it has a high key atmosphere that feels safe and warm and not all that challenging, but it tells a wonderful story in inventive ways, a story remarkably similar to the one we’re about to see awarded a Best Picture Oscar this year, in fact. And all I can really think about is all the nominations Donen and Kelly’s film didn’t even receive, while also wondering whether there is a single moment in this year’s eventual victor (or, indeed, any in recent memory) that will ever seem worthy next to that image of Kelly, well, singin’ in the rain.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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