Starring the legendary Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain is one of the most famous films of all time – Kelly also directed and choreographed the film. The 1952 blockbuster charts the transition of Hollywood from the era of silent movies through to “talkies” via the experiences of its film stars.
Described as a “masterpiece of the classic Hollywood musical”, the film has been referred to as the best musical of all time and has won Golden Globe and Writers’ Guild of America awards. It was ranked number one in the American Film Institute’s greatest movie musicals and was selected by the United States Library of Congress to be preserved for all time in the National Film Registry.
Set in 1920s Hollywood, it features arguably the most iconic dance scene of all time, when Gene Kelly dances through the rain to the title track after falling in love.
Played by Kelly, Don Lockwood is a massive film star of the silent era, having worked his way up from being a stuntman, dancer and singer at Monumental Pictures. The leading lady in all of his films is Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who is an undeniably glamorous yet shallow and self-centred individual.
The studio links them romantically in its publicity, realising this is what the public wants to hear and that it will boost their films’ popularity. Lamont believes the hype and thinks Lockwood really loves her, despite the fact he has told her, again and again, this isn’t the case.
He dislikes her intensely and socialises with her at celebrity parties only because he’s told that he must by the studio. He prefers hanging out with his old vaudeville partner and lifelong friend, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), who’s the head of the music department at Monumental Pictures.
Lockwood meets chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds in her first leading role), who pretends to have no idea who he is, but eventually she confesses to having been a lifelong fan. As they spend more time together, they start to fall in love.
Birth of the talkies
The plot is set against a backdrop of a changing era at Hollywood – it’s 1927, and the demise of silent films has begun. A rival studio has just released the first “talkie”, Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, with a soundtrack synchronised to the action.
Prior to this, when silent films played in the cinema, a live pianist or even a whole orchestra in bigger city theatres would accompany the action. The words appeared on title cards on-screen between the action.
It was a difficult time for the studios and the actors, as the talkies required a totally different acting style. While silent film actors were often more like mime artists, using exaggerated movements and facial expressions to convey emotions, the talkies required a more subtle form of acting.
Some of the biggest silent film stars in real life didn’t like the talkies, including the great Charlie Chaplin, who made silent films throughout the 1930s.
However, the public loved talkies and wanted more. While superstars such as Chaplin could get away with making silent films for the next decade, on the whole, the studios had to bow down to public pressure and begin producing talkies.
For the Lockwood and Lamont partnership, the transition doesn’t go well. Their silent film, The Royal Rascal, is a huge hit with the fans and soon, they start filming their next swashbuckling romance, The Dueling Cavalier. However, thanks to the release of The Jazz Singer, the studio decrees it must be a talkie.
There’s only one problem – Lamont’s voice. She has a high-pitched, whiny voice, with a strong New York accent. Despite the services of an elocution coach, her voice still grates. Filming is beset with problems, mainly as a result of Lamont’s lack of talent.
She forgets she’s wearing a microphone and begins playing with her pearls as she speaks, leading to a massive clunking sound being recorded. She also keeps moving her head and looking around, forgetting that she must speak towards the microphone, so her voice is intermittent.
At the test screening of the film, the audience is reduced to hysterical laughter after many mishaps. The actors can’t be heard properly because of background noise – not least of which is the sound of Lockwood’s shoes stomping across the wooden floor.
Then, as he repeats the words, “I love you,” many times to Lamont, the sound suddenly goes out of synch with the picture, leading to the villain apparently having a squeaky soprano voice and saying, “No, no, no,” while nodding his head. Lamont booms back in a deep baritone voice, “Yes, yes, yes,” – leaving the audience crying with laughter at the unintentional comedy!
The studio realises the film is a total disaster, so Lockwood stays up all night, helped by Brown and Selden, trying to think of a way to save it, so the studio doesn’t lose money. Eventually, they come up with the idea of turning it into a musical. Studio bosses love the idea and it’s renamed The Dancing Cavalier, complete with modern Broadway music.
There’s only one problem – Lamont can’t sing. The studio bosses dub her voice with Selden’s, as she’s an accomplished singer. Lamont is infuriated, and even more so when she learns the studio is going to credit Selden as the vocalist, exposing Lamont as merely lip-synching. She threatens to sue the studio if they do so and they have to agree to her demands, as a result of her watertight contract.
The premiere of The Dancing Cavalier is a huge success, but then the audience clamours for Lamont to sing live. She is determined to do so by lip-synching Singin’ in the Rain live, with Selden hidden behind the curtain, singing.
Studio head RF Simpson (Millard Mitchell) teams up with Lockwood and Brown with a cunning plan to expose Lamont, so while Selden sings beautifully into the microphone behind the scenes, they slowly open the curtains, leaving Lamont obviously miming on the stage.
The audience bursts into laughter, Lockwood rushes off realising her sneaky ploy has been exposed and Selden is recognised as the real star, leading to the happy ending audiences had hoped for.
Donald O’Connor won a Golden Globe best actor award for his portrayal of Cosmo Brown and the scriptwriters, Adolph Green and Betty Comden, received the Writers’ Guild of America Award for Best Written American Musical. It was only many years after its release that the true brilliance of Singin’ in the Rain was recognised by the critics, when it was hailed by many as the best musical ever made.
Although it was hilarious watching The Dueling Cavalier with background noise louder than the actors’ voices, in reality it would be disastrous for a film, not to mention irritating for the viewers!
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