You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet • Singin' In the Rain

Greenscreening Series #07

The movies learn to talk. And we look at the greatest Hollywood musical of all time.

September 23, 2022

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We’re covering the birth of sound and looking at a classic Hollywood musical that covers the transition from silent to sound, Singin’ in the Rain (1952), directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.

Synopsis: A silent film star falls for a chorus girl just as he and his delusionally jealous screen partner are trying to make the difficult transition to talking pictures in 1920s Hollywood.

Find it via Reelgood

Gene Kelly in *Singin' in the Rain*

A modest hit in its day, Singin’ in the Rain has grown in reputation and is widely considered the quintessential Hollywood musical. The American Film Institute ranks Singin’ in the Rain fifth on their top 100 list. Critics in Sight and Sound ranked it 10th in 2002.

There are two main reasons we’re watching this film. The most obvious reason is the story it tells about Hollywood’s transition from the silent era to talking pictures. It’s not a true story, but the story is true. The transition was bumpy and many stars’ careers were upended. It’s one thing to look believable, it’s another to look and sound it.

The other main reason is this is a wonderful film, probably Hollywood’s greatest musical.

One thing that makes the film so successful is the songs were period-appropriate. The studio was in a rush to get another Gene Kelly musical out the door on the heels of the Oscar-winner An American in Paris (1951), and the producer decided to jumble together some songs from his back catalog into a musical. In a stroke of creative genius, the writers decided that since the songs were written around the time of the transition from silent to sound pictures, they would set the story around that transition. This gives the film an authenticity to balance the nostalgia and mythologizing that comes with Hollywood making a film about its own history.

So how did the film make a comeback?

In the late 1950s, moviegoing was in a lull. Television ate a significant share of the film audience, and studios tried many things to bring people back to theaters. Remember, this was before streaming, and before DVDs, and even before VHS.

One tactic was re-playing the hits. MGM re-released some of its classic films in theaters, including Singin' in the Rain in the first round. These re-released films played in theaters across the country for a few years, which boosted Singin's reputation. MGM also ran Singin' in the Rain on primetime TV during the 1960s. So a lot of people became familiar with Singin' in the Rain.

Additionally, in the 1950s, college film programs were on the rise. Serious film criticism emerged, and writing about film moved from merely reviewing movies to studying and analyzing films, directors, and genres, and expanding on the Soviet's montage theories. The new generation of scholars were interested not only in art films, but in appreciating the artistry of the films they were raised on. In fact, one of the most influential critics of the 20th century, Pauline Kael, was famously an early champion of Singin' in the Rain and helped lead its critical appreciation.

The film offers many of the joys of classic moviegoing. It’s very funny, there’s great music throughout, the setting is in an interesting time period, there’s a really ambitious medley with ballet, and maybe most of all, it offers the joys of watching incredible performers. Donald O’Connor’s number “Make ‘Em Laugh” is legendary. “Good Mornin” is another standout. The medley is fantastic. And then the iconic title song, which is a contender for the Mount Rushmore of great scenes in movie history (it was in Disney's Great Movie Ride, after all).

There is also an interesting behind-the-scenes story in this film. I’m not spoiling anything here, but in the film, one of the strategies used to preserve a star’s career is to use a voice actor to dub her lines. Singin’ in the Rain was a star-making film for Debbie Reynolds, who didn’t have a terrific singing voice, so the voice you hear during her songs is actually that of another actress. A great example of life imitating art.

More about Singin' in the Rain to come. First, let's talk about how movies learned to talk.

Talking Pictures Were Always the Dream

Way back in the 1880s, Edison wanted to use Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope technology to project images alongside audio from his phonograph, largely to be able to charge more for entertainment in his phonograph salons. Recall that instead of partnering with Muybridge, Edison set off to build his own motion picture system, and the American film industry was born. But the vision was always to make a perfect union of sound and image, but this wasn’t fully realized for nearly 50 years.

Sound film starts with a French director named Alice Guy, and her studio backer Léon Gaumont back in the early 1900s. We didn’t cover Gaumont and Guy earlier in the series, but their contributions to early cinema are huge. Gaumont led a camera manufacturing company (coincidentally co-founded with an architect named Eiffel) that quickly pivoted to motion picture production after seeing the Lumiere’s famous first public motion picture screenings.

Guy worked her way up from secretary to director, making her the first prominent female director in the world.

I haven’t been able to locate any of Alice Guy’s films with their original sound. As with other early filmmakers like Melies, the majority of Guy’s films were lost to time. And unfortunately, fewer efforts were made to preserve her films than her male counterparts. However, some of Guy’s films have been uploaded to YouTube, though with varying degrees of quality. If you’re interested, you can browse some of Alice Guy’s filmography.

Guy pushed French filmmaking in a more narrative direction, experimented with sound, color, special effects, and more. Early in her career, she had a terrific technical partner in Gaumont, a gifted engineer and inventor.Gaumont secured hundreds of patents for motion picture equipment during his career. The most impactful of these came in 1903: the chronophone system, which used sound-on-disc to synchronize audio alongside projected films.

Gaumont’s other main contribution was in projection. Predictably, initial audio recordings were very quiet, with poor sound quality. Gaumont owned several movie theaters and experimented with ways to project audio to large crowds of spectators. By 1910, his innovations allowed crowds of nearly 4,000 people in his movie palace to hear audio.

But sound was slow to take off. Of course, in these days, sound was expensive to produce, and incredibly difficult. Microphone technology didn’t exist in the earliest days, so sound was recorded using a cornucopia-like horn. And Gaumont’s successes with amplification were an outlier; most theaters weren’t going to invest in sound, as the equipment was expensive (wiring a single theater for sound cost the equivalent of more than $250,000 in today’s money), and it wasn’t clear that sound-on-film would go mainstream.

By 1928 there were only 100 or so sound-equipped theaters in the US, compared with over 22,000 silent theaters. And most theaters with sound were in metropolitan areas.As a result, during the 1910s and 1920s, while a lot of work went into developing sound-on-film technology, most use was limited to short films that ran before silent features.

D.W. Griffith was one of the first directors to release a feature film with sound. In 1921, his film Dream Street began with Griffith addressing the crowd from the screen, and later included the sound of a streetscape and some recorded singing. However, the sound version only played in a couple theaters, as special arrangements had to be made. Dream Street was a terrible flop, so it didn’t get a wide sound release.

Don Juan (1926) was the first official sound feature ever produced, in that it was the first feature made intentionally to incorporate sound. But it had no spoken dialogue, merely sound effects and synchronized music. The film was a massive hit. The studios took note: audiences were ready for sound.

Al Jolson in *The Jazz Singer*

The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer (1927) was the feature film that finally broke the sound barrier.

The film tells the story of the son of a Jewish cantor who, instead of following in his father’s footsteps, follows his dreams of singing jazz.

For the lead, Warner Bros. landed Al Jolson, the biggest Broadway star of the day, maybe of all time. When The Jazz Singer was released, Jolson already had a theater named after him. He was a vaudeville singer first and foremost, a very adept singer of, well, jazz. In fact, The Jazz Singer is loosely based on his life, and the film’s writer later criticized Jolson for basically playing himself rather than the character.

You might be wondering, why aren’t we watching The Jazz SingerThe Jazz Singer isn’t a good film. In fact, with its depiction of a protagonist who achieves fame performing in blackface, it’s an unfortunate film. It is an important film for the milestones it achieved, but not worth revisiting other than for an iconic scene or two.

The film didn’t have constant talking or sound. Instead, there was a musical score, sound effects, and several scenes of synchronized singing, with some natural audio and dialogue bookending a few of the songs.

It was this bookend dialogue that broke through. For the first time ever, audiences had the full illusion of watching someone sing (and talk) on film.

Here is the most famous clip, with Jolson delivering one of the most iconic lines in cinema history: “you ain’t heard nothing yet!”

All in, the film contains less than two minutes of dialogue, along with the handful of songs Jolson performs. Nevertheless, the future was here.

Anny Ondra in Alfred Hitchcock's *Blackmail* (1929)

After The Jazz Singer

After The Jazz Singer, studio heads were largely convinced that the future was in sound. Critics and filmmakers weren’t convinced. Many argued that sound would corrupt the medium. You can see their point, as the earliest sound pictures were mostly gimmicks. Singin’ in the Rain gets a lot of mileage out of these foibles.

If you read last week's edition, you won't be surprised to learn that Eisenstein and the Soviets opposed the use of sound for simple synchronization. Instead, they advocated radical experimentation to develop a montage that utilized sound to its fullest expressive means. This meant using sound as accent or counterpoint, to deepen the intellectual point or heighten audience sensibility. But the Soviet sound montage methods never really took off.

However, several directors quickly figured out innovative ways to use sound for dramatic effect. Alfred Hitchcock made one of the first iconic sound scenes in his film Blackmail (1929). In the film, a young woman survives an attempted assault during a date, and kills the man in self defense with a knife. The next morning, the woman has breakfast with her housemates and learns that the killing is the subject of a police investigation and plenty of gossip. She is pretty traumatized by the previous night, and scared that she’ll be implicated in a crime. In this scene, Hitchcock uses subjective sound to put the viewers into the woman’s mind and create a tremendous amount of tension.

Sound was hands-down the biggest change to the industry since the move from one-reelers to feature films. Everything about the development, production, and release of films had to evolve. And this is down to the basics: the industry even needed to rethink frame rate, moving from 16 frames per second to 24 frames per second to give a more realistic simulation of movement as people spoke on screen.

By late 1929, all major feature releases were sound pictures. Distribution still had a ways to go, and it would be years before sound completely replaced silent. To put it in perspective: in 1929, the number of theaters equipped for sound increased from 100 to 800; that same year, there were over 22,000 silent theaters.

But audiences were hooked.

Consider this stat: The Jazz Singer premiered in 1927. In the previous year, 1926, theaters in the US sold 50 million admissions every week. By 1930, this number increased to 90 million.

Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor in Kelly and Stanley Donen's *Singin' in the Rain*

The Musical and Singin’ in the Rain

We don’t have time to delve into a deep history of musicals, or the development of the genre (future course?). But let’s look briefly at a few of the classic tropes and characteristics of Hollywood musicals, and how Singin’ incorporates them or doesn't.

One of the earliest subjects of movies was dancing. This goes back to Edison and even Alice Guy; they all made actualities of dancers. It makes sense - vaudeville was incredibly popular around the birth of film, and Broadway was emerging as a global force in stage musicals. Both in the US and in France, it was natural to plop a camera in front of a stage to watch people dance. Give the audience what they want.

Once you added sound to the mix, you could deliver all the goods - singing and dancing. You could bring Broadway to people everywhere, with everyone enjoying the best seat in the house.

What’s going on thematically in a musical? Often, the plots are wish-fulfillment; songs and dances are used to express the characters’ deepest emotions, ones that they otherwise can’t communicate, but are boiling over into expression. This is why shortly after walking his new girlfriend home and getting a good night kiss, Gene Kelly joyfully dances in the rain. It’s one of the giddiest scenes in film history, and we’re giddy watching it.

Singin’ in the Rain follows one of the quintessential musical plots - the backstage musical, where most of the action takes place behind the scenes of a musical production. There’s a reason this plot is used frequently - one of the few ways you can plausibly include a dozen song-and-dance numbers in a film is if the film is about the singers and dancers. A related trope of the musical is here as well, in the “a star is born” plot.

Musicals combine several of the base joys of moviegoing: watching good-looking singers and dancers sing and dance. At the core, the musical is physical, a celebration of the human body and athleticism. Professional singers, particularly those who reach Broadway or Hollywood musicals, are among the world’s best at manipulating their breath, mouths, and vocal chords to produce pleasing sounds. Dancers are incredible athletes, and Gene Kelly is among the finest. We use phrases like “they make it look natural” as we marvel at what the human body can do in a tap dance like “Moses Supposes.”

Screen musicals invite us to take this admiration of the physical form a bit further. Dance, after all, can be sensual. It's often a stand-in for lovemaking. This happens in stage musicals as well, but not like the movies, where camera position is typically optimized for the best angle, and captures intimate details. The camera is an anonymous, invisible observer; it sees everything, and thus we do. There are film theories about this - that the camera objectifies and sexualizes women by taking a male gaze. You see examples of this objectification in Busby Berkeley’s 1930s musicals, where he made elaborate geometric art out of anonymous chorus girls’, especially their legs.

Legs for days in Busby Berkeley's *42nd Street* (1933)

So, too, in Singin’ in the Rain, when Cyd Charisse enters the film, legs first, literally stopping the show.

Cyd Charisse's legs stop the show in *Singin' in the Rain*

Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly with an unforgettable dance in *Singin' in the Rain*

In fact, the Breen Office felt that this scene got a little too risque, and pushed Kelly and Donen to cut one bit. We'll revisit Breen and the Production Code soon, but it's worth noting even a film that today feels as tame and family-friendly as Singin' in the Rain could run afoul of Hollywood's censors.

What strikes me about Singin in the Rain is none of the singers are particularly good. Where musicals tend to pair great vocalists and great dancers (think Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn, the musical where “White Christmas” was launched), Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor are fine vocalists, and incredible dancers. Same with Debbie Reynolds - her vocals were frequently dubbed, and she wasn’t even a dancer! So Singin’ in the Rain works in spite of this. Or maybe because of it?

Ultimately, Singin’ in the Rain delivers the best of what musicals can offer. It’s funny, it’s thrilling, it’s exuberant. And what does it say about our central question, "what is a movie?" It feels like, for Kelly and Donen, a movie is a celebration. Of what? Of Hollywood and the world of possibilities opened up by the invention of sound on film. Of the joys of falling in love and of dreams coming true. Of the joys of singing and dancing, and the joys of watching people sing and dance.

Or as the film says, "Gotta dance!"

Further Reading / Viewing

If you've already seen Singin' in the Rain, or you'd like to learn more about the transition from silent to sound, check out the following:

Blackmail (1929), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock's innovative use of sound powers this thriller. You can also see key elements of his visual and storytelling style in development.

The Blue Angel (1930) directed by Josef von Sternberg. Marlene Dietrich became one of the biggest stars in the world on this performance as a nightclub singer who catches the eye of a professor and causes his downfall.

Further Reading about Singin' in the Rain * Criterion essay about Singin' in the Rain * Washington Post article on the 70th anniversary re-release of the film * Roger Ebert's Great Movies essay on the film

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