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FILM / Just swingin' and dancin' in the rain: One of the great feel-good movies turns 40 this month. Seeing it afresh, Anthony Lane is ha-ha-happy again

WHEN people say they love old films, how old is old? It can simply mean silent, or shot in black-and-white. Or you can apply a melancholy test: are the stars all dead? If so, it's an old movie. It should be steeped in conventions we find ridiculous, and easily rumbled, yet far more consoling than anything currently on offer. The actual age of the films doesn't really matter, or so one always thought. But recently there's been a rash of birthdays: half-centuries for The Wizard of Oz in 1989 and Casablanca this year. And now, Singin' in the Rain, which turns 40 next week. Things have changed. Old movies suddenly seem so . . . so old.

Singin' in the Rain is a difficult case, being an old movie about old movies. Gene Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent star of the late Twenties, given a strong jolt by what looks like a fleeting fad, but turns out to be a new art form: talking pictures. He has to reshape his career and learn new skills overnight, as do his friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) and co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Lina, the blonde bombshell with extra shrapnel, has a big problem with the new regime: up to now she has mouthed mute nothings, and loyal fans are about to discover she sounds like Tweetie-Pie being plucked alive. Enter the dubber, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), who is also the new contender for Don's heart.

What plot there is quickens towards the end, as Lina is laughed out of court, and Kathy is crowned as the new all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing screen queen. Half-singing, actually, but don't tell anyone: Debbie Reynolds was herself dubbed by Betty Noyes. In the final shot, she and Don pose in front of a billboard for their new movie, Singin' in the Rain. They will make what we've just seen - a trick pilfered recently by Robert Altman for The Player. It's a neat wrap, but also a genial admission of defeat. Both movies start off with mockery in mind, and both fall much too deeply in love with their subject to bother with bile.

Singin' in the Rain enjoys itself immensely with the lumbering techniques of early talkies. Microphones the size of a Danish pastry get stuffed down Lina's cleavage, turning her heartbeat into a bass drum and the rattle of pearls into gunfire. Variety headlines tell us that diction coaches are all the rage, which is also a good way of saying that a song is on the way. Anything to do with pronunciation makes lyricists drool, as Alan Jay Lerner showed with all that rain in Spain. Here, Don and Cosmo strut around to 'Moses Supposes', and the tom-tom rhymes inspire one of the most frenetic sequences in the film. Tap-dancing has never looked so unstoppable, nor so liquid: most tappers clench up and hammer away like road-drills, but these two sway their hips and laugh off the effort. The diction coach sits there like a dummy, so they treat him like one, piling him high with drapes and chairs.

That way madness lies, and there are moments when Singin' in the Rain veers closer to the Marx Brothers than to Fred Astaire. Donald O'Connor is the best thing in the movie, a puny livewire who rolls up at random, halfway through a scene, with the light of mayhem in his eyes. His big routine is 'Make 'em Laugh', and at the time it apparently did: but 40 years on, the brilliance looks more epileptic than comical, as he climbs up the walls and flips backwards, then ends up turning circles on the floor, with the camera craning overhead to watch this funny little human clock.

How would Arthur Freed explain this? Singin' in the Rain was directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen but produced by Freed, already the presiding genius of Meet Me in St Louis and An American in Paris. He wanted songs stitched into the fabric of a movie, not just hanging by a thread; the action shouldn't stop to accommodate them, but be driven on its way. Yet looking at them now, we are most moved by his productions when they take time out for the casual, the pointless, the heck of it. Songs such as 'Make 'em Laugh' and 'Good Morning' don't rupture the integrity of the film, but they do make it looser and more dreamy; more assured, if you like, of the happiness that swells as you start to move your feet.

All this comes to a splashy peak with the title number, written by Freed himself, and already used in a movie called Hollywood Melody of 1928. Singin' in the Rain was, the credits tell us, 'suggested by the song', but goodness knows how. It happens one night, as Don bids Kathy goodnight and sends his driver home; what occurs next, over four minutes, seems to drift free of the movie, its plot and people. Yet in some way it's playing their tune, and telling them not to worry - fear no more the heat o' the sun; come on with the rain. There are eight cuts during the sequence, and a handful of clunking key-changes, but you barely notice; like Kelly himself, you swing from mood to mood. One moment he's stomping into the road, while the camera pulls up and back to watch and the orchestra turns into a big band; the next he's picking his delicate way along the kerb, or explaining himself to the cop: 'I'm dancin' . . . and singin' in the rain.' What else?

Kelly was a clodhopper next to Astaire, but still a great dancer, and certainly a better kicker of puddles. In Top Hat, when Fred begins to sing 'Isn't it a lovely day / to be caught in the rain', you can't tell where his walk ends and the dance begins, nor is that a distinction he would understand. With Kelly, you know his rain-dance is coming because he's already girding himself up and doodling the tune. He's a show-off, but always eager and robust, and he hauls the film along. No wonder the remote, ethereal passages have worn less well: Debbie Reynolds being wooed on a stepladder with the wind-machine in her hair, or Cyd Charisse pursued across a vacant dreamland, trailing white gauze like an Andrex puppy.

That comes from the climactic ballet, which may be staged with finesse but is still just that - a ballet, a big kitschy balloon in which the movie takes surreal flight. Some people swoon over it; to me it looks camp yet earnest, trying to keep a straight face and managing all too well. It's no good arguing that Kelly keeps smiling, because he never did anything else - that's his idea of a straight face, with the grin pasted on. Singin' in the Rain is a musical comedy that sometimes forgets half its contract.

So how does it shape up, on its 40th birthday? Old and creaky, or fresh as new paint? Certainly, the Fifties style now looks as daft to us as the Twenties style did to the Fifties, possibly even more so. Those sugar pinks and mint greens that flash through the movie have turned it into a collector's item, like a Cadillac or a coat. That is what the South Bank is hoping for, presumably, when it honours the film this coming Bank Holiday Monday. You can go along, and sing along, and learn to dance beforehand, and parade your two-tone shoes. Singin' in the Rain can take all this, no question, but will also resist it. Just as we can listen to the B Minor Mass played on original instruments, and never quite get there because never knowing what it's like to be the original congregation, so our age forbids us entry to those gaudy stage-sets and that drenched street. We can hardly imagine it, let alone reproduce it - the America of 1952, still in tune with the America of 1928, still believing you could say the words 'Good Morning', then turn them into a song.

Details of the charity evening: 071-928 8800.