Looking though one of those lists of the 100 greatest films or something, this was the first one I hadn’t seen. I say I hadn’t seen it; what I mean is I hadn’t seen it since I was a small child, when I was too stupid to work out what was going on.
For those of you who don’t know, it’s a film about the transition from silent to talking cinema in the late 1920s. The most successful screen couple in America (Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen) realise the future of their medium may be under threat following the success of the first “talkie”, The Jazz Singer. They then attempt to retro-fit their musketeer-based silent film with hokey dialogue at the last minute to tap into the same market, sort of like how Clash of the Titans was retro-fitted with hokey 3D effects at the last minute to tap into the same market as Avatar. Problematically, silent star Lina Lamont (Hagen) has an awful-sounding voice that doesn’t match her glamorous persona, resulting in laughter at a disastrous preview screening. To salvage the film, they decide to turn it into a musical, something which might have improved Clash of the Titans too.
While I had largely forgotten what happened in the film, the scene I always remembered most was the one where ditsy Lina has to be trained to talk into the microphone and they try hiding it in various places to make things easier. I remember this partly because it’s very funny, but also because for years afterwards in every film I watched I thought a large 1920s-style microphone had to be hidden in every scene. I’m not sure I realised the film was set a long time ago.
Much of the brilliance of this film comes, unsurprisingly, from its song and dance numbers. When watching it I contemplated whether modern actors put this much effort into learning dance routines. Reading up on it afterwards, I discovered the answer is “no”. Donald O’Connor danced so hard during “Make ’em Laugh” (including two backflips off a wall) he reportedly slept for several days after filming, Debbie Reynolds burst blood vessels in her foot while performing one dance number, and Kelly was so ill during the filming of the titular song he had to do the whole thing in one take.
Most notable is the now dead form of dance in which the dancers perform incredibly complex dance routines while keeping their head level, facing forwards and with a plastic Hollywood grin plastered across it.
This film takes a very romantic view of Hollywood – in spite of its mildly satirical take on film production and celebrity – which ultimately takes a view that movie folk are pretty darn special. This is evidenced by the brutal process of making it, in contrast with the jovial characters onscreen. Similarly, a Hollywood executive (Millard Mitchell) is aghast at the idea of allowing one person to get rich and famous off another’s talent by using their singing voice in a film, but this was not only commonplace at the time, but used in the production of Singin’ in the Rain itself.
The way the film-within-a-film is saved by some last minute alterations to make it into a heart-warming musical also suggests that great films come about through ticking the boxes of what is marketable, rather than a creative idea being allowed to flourish. Again this is similar to the film itself, which was built around its popular musical numbers, rather than having the musical grow organically from the script. But in a way it’s these contradictions that make this film so iconic. It literally pulls back the curtain on the world behind the screen, openly presenting itself as the product of these illusions, asking us to accept that what we are watching might be fake or cynically conceived, but that as long as we’re having a good time, it doesn’t really matter.