When Singin’ in the Rain was released in 1952, silent films had been a thing of the past for only 24 years or so. Probably more than half of those in the audience remembered them, and certainly many of those who made the film were there at that time when silents transitioned to sound. Cinematographer Harold Rosson started with Mary Pickford and producer Arthur Freed, along with composer Nacio Herb Brown, wrote the lyrics to music used in the film; music that was first written for those early days of movie musicals (Singin’s iconic title song was first heard in The Hollywood Revue of 1929). In fact, Freed was a songwriter before becoming a producer.
Our hero, Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), has the image of a devil-may-care cross between swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks and lover John Gilbert. It is an image larger than life and perfectly suited to the silent screen, where viewers could flesh out a character with their imagination. George Valentin, the leading character of the recent The Artist, bore a resemblance to Kelly as Fairbanks/Gilbert.
Don’s co-star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), complimented him perfectly as the elegant screen goddess. Together, they heated up the screen. The fact that they were lovers off screen only added to their appeal.
What their fans didn’t know was that Don hated Lina and that Lina was a delusional dodo bird with a voice like nails on a chalkboard. As we know, Don and his loyal friend Cosmo (Donald O’Connor
) make the transition to sound (along with ingenue Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds
) and Lina is, presumably, laughed off of the screen. What a cast!
Aside from the music, the dancing and the great performances by the perfect cast, what makes this movie so endearing is the feeling that the people who put this together had experience in that time and place. The depiction of panic that overtook Hollywood feels real: the bad sound, the bad voices, the outmoded characters, the diction coaches, and Lina’s cry that she can’t make love to a bush all have the ring of truth and, even while they are being kidded, there is a feeling of affection.
While too much credit cannot be given to Kelly and director Stanley Donen, as well as to O’Connor for his wonderful chance to shine and Cyd Charisse for her elegant channeling of Louise Brooks, my heart really belongs to Hagen’s wickedly funny and touching Lina (I am a charter member of the Lina Lamont fan club – for more, read here). Poor Lina: a silent screen goddess who made her studio tons of money deserved a better fate than ridicule–and that is my only complaint about this glorious film. Monumental Studio boss R.F. Simpson, along with Lockwood and Cosmo, are awful adolescent bullies. True, Lina was mean to Kathy, but public ridicule was pretty mean! However, I guess that’s the message – Hollywood ain’t for sissies! Hopefully, Lina licked her wounds with the help of a fat bank account.
Marsha Collock has been an avid fan – not scholar – of classic films since she saw the first flicker of black and white on the TV screen. Her muse is Norma Desmond, to whom she has dedicated her blog, A Person in the Dark, a site designed for all of the wonderful people out there in the dark who have an unabashed passion for silents, early talkies, all stars and all films. For more information, visit her Facebook page.