Hello there Mr Pink Ink Readers,
It’s Meg here and I’m back with another essay on one of my favorite musicals. I talk about the film, and the parts that I love, and I also give you a little history lesson on the introduction of ‘sound’. I hope this makes you want to watch a musical, and teaches you just a little somethin’.
Until next time,
Yours in film love,
Singin in the Rain (1952)
Directed by: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Written by: Adolph Green and Betty Comden
I love musicals, and Singin in the Rain is one of my favorites. What I love about it is that not only does it showcase some of the best song and dance sequences in Hollywood musical history, but it also serves as a brilliant portrayal of a time in Hollywood history when the silent film and its players had to make way for the introduction of sound. Silent movie stars were suddenly put under pressure to speak, and not everyone was able to make that transition smoothly. This film serves as a parody of that time, and even though the plot is light-hearted and the characters happy-go-lucky there is a lot of unhappy history behind the smiles and the dancing. In essence I believe that this film is a love letter to the musical as it once was, to the ensuing golden age of musicals.
In the beginning film studios began to think that simply adding orchestral music to their films would be enough, and then sound effects added with the use of a piece of technology called the Vitaphone which was cumbersome at best. In 1926 the first film to make use of sound with the Vitaphone was Don Juan. Sound effects and music were used, but no dialogue until 1927 when The Jazz Singer was released. This film marked the beginning of sound as we know it, and would be the end of silent features, and the devastating demise of several actors and actresses’ careers. Several actors were able to make the transition from silent to sound, and in fact a lot of theater actors were embraced by the new sound era, and some were not so lucky. There are distinct examples in film history that point specifically to John Gilbert’s performance in 1929’s His Glorious Night as being the beginning of the end of his career. Sadly for the actor it was not his voice that disturbed the audience but the badly written script that had him professing his love to his co-star over and over again. This sort of thing worked perfectly well in silent features, in which realistic dialogue did not exist yet, but the audience were having none of it, and the film was a flop. The actor would fail to save his career and subsequently drank himself to death. On the other end of the spectrum actress Mabel Poulton was snubbed by the public because though she was beautiful, her Cockney accent was considered unacceptable, and could not be eradicated even through countless elocution lessons.
With this background information in mind I now present our feature film, Singin in the Rain:
The film’s opening scenes are of the famous Chinese Theater where the premier for The Royal Rascal will take place. Fans line the streets and a long red carpet leads its way up to the theater’s entrance. A woman at a microphone is announcing the arrivals of Hollywood’s brightest and shiniest as fancy cars continue to pull up and deposit their famous cargo onto the steps that are surrounded on both sides by screaming fans. The stars of the film are Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) who are worshiped by audiences and critics alike. As the darlings of the silent film era, Lockwood and Lamont seem to be an unstoppable team, as not only are they extraordinarily popular but they are also believed to be romantically involved. Through flashbacks Lockwood narrates his Hollywood story of fame, which includes an early career in vaudeville as a duo with childhood friend Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), and then later on as a stuntman in some westerns and then finally found himself in the silent pictures where Lina Lamont became a popular co-star for the dashing actor.
One night Lockwood is being chased by some rather amorous fans and ends up getting a lift from a complete stranger, the adorable Debbie Reynolds whose character, Kathy Seldon is an aspiring stage actress. Kathy refers to the stage as a “dignified profession… [Whereas] you’re only a shadow… on film”. After this brief meeting they won’t see each other again until Kathy jumps out of a giant cake at an industry party in which Lockwood and Lamont are both in attendance. Whilst Kathy is working as a ‘dancing girl’, the industry people are being introduced to sound in pictures. The presentation is met with both disbelief and disgust, and this is not a far cry from how sound was originally treated. In the late 1920’s sound was considered a mere phase. The technology was also expensive and extremely impractical, and not that many people in the industry were quite ready to embrace it. Soon though, they would have to… In 1927 when Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer audiences were blown away and the film was an immediate hit. The competing studios had no choice but to follow suit with their own sound productions. In Britain the first sound film or ‘talkie’ was Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) and during the marketing for the film the biggest selling point was the fact that cinema goers would finally be able to hear a British accent.
Back to the party and Lina Lamont’s awful screeching that is her natural voice. The starlet is pretty rude to Kathy and ends up with a literal pie thrown in her face. This little act of rebellion will get poor Kathy fired, but not before Lockwood confides in his friend Cosmo that he can’t stop thinking about ‘that girl’.
Lockwood and Lamont are scheduled to shoot a new picture called The Dueling Cavalier and this time it’s going to be a ‘talkie’. Backstage Cosmo’s (O’Connor) rendition of “Make Em’ Laugh” is pure physical comedy genius. He dances on the furniture, waltzes with a mannequin and walks up walls. His performance is mesmerizing. Its over-the-top, it’s pure joy and it’s probably one of the most famous solo musical acts in history in terms of physical adeptness. [Fun fact: Donald O’Connor smoked two packs of cigarettes a day so this scene is even more impressive for a whole other reason].
Hollywood is now being flooded by musicals, and they are everywhere! Cue the obligatory musical montage. This was the Golden Age of musicals and MGM studios were the leading makers of all things happy and jolly and great to sing along to. Kathy Seldon is working as a chorus girl on one of these said musicals and gets noticed by Lockwood. When she is offered a better role after Lockwood vouches for her, their love story is being written. Yes the fans think Lockwood is romantically linked with Lina Lamont, and yes even Kathy believes this to be the case. We know this is not true of course – in fact Lockwood can’t stand Lina, and Lina is a bit dim so even though she vies for his affections we as an audience are not meant to support dim and/or mean characters. From the beginning we are meant to love Kathy because she’s adorable and talented and out-spoken, and we get the feeling that she’d be okay even if Don Lockwood weren’t in the picture (so to speak).
There’s this beautiful scene in which Don takes Kathy to this empty stage and he sings to her and there are floodlights and smoke and a giant fan, and she stands atop a ladder and she is twirled around by the loved-up Don. It’s all very romantic and beautiful and yet as all musicals go, very matter-of-fact – as if it were the most normal thing in the world to do. Of course this particular dance sequence is meant to establish that Don Lockwood is in love with Kathy Seldon, and not, as the public seem to think, with Lina Lamont.
Back to the business of show and Lina and Don are receiving diction lessons from Phoebe Dinsmore, a very serious looking diction coach. With Lina’s lessons one is reminded of another musical My Fair Lady (1964) based on the play Pygmalion, in which Audrey Hepburn’s character Eliza Doolittle is the flower-selling daughter of a drunk, and a street wench who finds herself being taught to speak proper English by Professor Higgins (Rex Harrison) who eventually falls in love with his student. This doesn’t happen in Singin in the Rain, and in fact Lina’s failure to fit the studios requirements sadly makes her even less likely to win the affections of Lockwood. The first premiere of the film fails dismally leaving Lockwood despondent and unsure of his future in the film industry. Between Lina’s voice and an incredibly frustrating scene involving a microphone, a bush and Lina’s bosom the film is destined to sink.
After a bit of brainstorming with his good pals, Cosmo and Kathy, they come up with the perfect solution: turn The Dueling Cavalier into a musical! After the threesome dance joyfully around his kitchen with their rendition of “Good Mornin”, it is finally time to admit that not only can Miss Lina Lamont not speak, but she also can’t sing, dance or act for that matter. Hence, the old switcheroo is bound to keep everyone in the dark. All that needs to happen is that Kathy will be the voice and Lina the face and then it will all be dubbed in later. How could anything possibly go wrong?
One night after Don walks Kathy home and kisses her at her front door he starts walking home in the rain and the streets are full of puddles, and his tap shoes dance across the wet pavement and he performs the title song in this timeless piece of musical history. Honestly there is nothing better than watching Gene Kelly perform this masterpiece on shimmering city streets as he confesses his love for Kathy Seldon. Upon occasion I have been known to rewind this particular scene again and again as it’s really that good.
Of course now they have to convince the studio that they can save this dismal picture if they turn into a musical called The Dancing Cavalier, and with Kathy doing the recordings, Don decides to pitch an additional scene for the film. The film is set during the French Revolution and Don wants to add a modern scene entitled ‘Broadway Melody’ which is over-the-top, extremely ambitious and probably really expensive. The scene has Don playing the role of a young performer hoping to make it on Broadway, and involves vaudeville, burlesque, reference to The Ziegfeld Follies and there’s even a divine seduction scene with a mobster’s flapper girlfriend in a smoky nightclub which all ends in a ballet performance in a casino. Ambitious indeed, and beautiful in its extremities, this is pretty much a film within a film and seems to mirror both Lockwood and Kelly’s own show business beginnings.
It’s important to understand that Singin in the Rain is an ode to the musical, and a love letter to its very essence, and to the desire to both sing and dance with absolute abandon. Don’s love for Kathy is so strong that he is willing to lose the public’s support by ending his fake relationship with the lovely Lina. Lina of course is having none of it and after the success of The Dancing Cavalier Lina insists she, not Kathy, is the real talent and even threatens to sue the studio if they don’t remove Kathy’s credit. Ah but when have the Gene Kelly’s ever lost out to a no-talent meanie in a musical? Never, that’s when. The film will end with Lina being exposed as an imposter with Kathy singing backstage. Don Lockwood and his new co-star will dance off into the sunset and they will go on to star in a film called… Singin in the Rain. Obviously.