Kim Morgan on Singin’ in the Rain

“She’s so refined I think I’ll kill myself.”

Lina Lamont has something to say.

In Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain – Lamont, in fact, has a lot to say. At the premiere of her latest silent film – the swashbuckling romance The Royal Rascal, starring her famous, and frequent, on-screen movie star love interest (but not off-screen, as he keeps reminding her), Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), Lina (Jean Hagen) has remained quiet. A tall, peroxide blonde vision, she’s gloriously dressed to the nines – a seafoam green flapper style dress fringed in white, high collared white fur cape, glittery headwear and perfectly matched shoes – she moves with grace, but with just a little shimmy, and with simultaneous regality, delicacy and alpha assuredness. She’s unique. And she maintains a muted mystery. A silent screen star, she never speaks in her movies and -perhaps – she never speaks in public.

She is gorgeous and is meant to be gorgeous – a fantasy to all “those wonderful people out there in the dark” (to quote Norma Desmond), standing silently next to the spirited, smiling All-American-masculine-beautiful Lockwood, first outside the fan-crazed premiere in his white tie tuxedo, white wool coat, white hat, and those glimmering white teeth. Both movie stars radiate – they shimmer, they’re dreamlike and something like American royalty.

The film (Singin’ in the Rain) will quickly and affectionally send all of this esteemed stardom up, as Don fibs to gossip columnist Dora Bailey (Madge Blake) about his early beginnings with best friend and accompanist Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor – who will later give us the unforgettable “Make ‘Em Laugh”). Their motto? “Dignity. Always dignity.” Well, as we’ll see in dizzying flashback – not really.

But who needs dignity when we can see Don and Cosmo sing and dance, in one of those flashbacks, to the fabulous “Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)”? We’re knocked out watching this vaudeville musical number (much harder than it looks) – so even as Don is lying and a bit full of himself (watch how he smiles and glamorously moves his way through a crowd with the wave of his arm – Kelly does this beautifully) – we’re now almost as starstruck as the lunatic who yells “Zelda! Oh! Zelda!” to Rita Moreno’s Zelda Zanders, a take on Clara Bow. The fantastic Bow had “It” – Gene Kelly had “It” – that same X factor – and he had the Y and the Z, and god knows how many more letters. A dancer, singer, actor (both dramatic and comedic), choreographer and director, he was an extraordinary artist who, on screen, charmed you into thinking he was maybe somehow relatable – like maybe you could have a drink with him (but that’s a fantasy too). We wished we could have a drink with him. Or, of course, a spin on the dance floor. As Susan Stamberg said of him:

“I met him once. 1982. He’d just been honored by the Kennedy Center and was about to speak at the Press Club. He was busy charming admirers, before going out to speak. I was beside myself – which may explain why I asked if he wanted to dance down the hall with me. ‘Oh, sure,’ he said, with a twinkle in his eye – and kept on walking.”

But back to Hagen’s Lina Lamont – she wants to talk – but Don keeps cutting her off the moment she opens her mouth. No words, no sound, Lina. On stage at the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre (the marquee reads of The Royal Rascal: “Biggest Picture of 1927”), and acknowledging audience members for coming to see their newest, Don and Lina move forward with bows and appreciative thank yous. Don says before Lina can talk: “Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, thank you. We’re thrilled at your response to The Royal Rascal. We had fun making it, and we hope you had fun seeing it tonight.” And they smile. To continue to keep Lina from talking – she is on the verge of it – Don announces: “We screen actors aren’t much good at speaking in public. So, we’ll just act out our thanks.”

Lina grins and blows kisses to the audience but continues to shoot perfectly timed, highly annoyed glances at Don with a barely concealed scowl while managing to smile towards the audience. When you see this for the first time, whether you were part of the audience in 1952 when the movie opened, or, whether you’re new to the movie with no knowledge of what’s going to happen (like when I was a kid – and fell under its spell), you are wondering – what’s up with Lina? There is something more going on with this woman. You’ll soon find out.

Using brilliant structuring and misdirection (at first, it looks like Don Lockwood is merely self-absorbed and overbearing for not letting Lina talk), directors Kelly and Donen (and screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green) have Jean Hagen on screen for approximately twelve minutes before she talks… and when she does … we never forget.

As the two leads waft (well, Lina kind of storms) backstage to rapturous applause, studio head R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell – somewhat fashioned on producer Arthur Freed himself) and Cosmo (as well as the uncredited King Donovan) congratulate Don and Lina and their picture: “It’s a smash!” Lina is agitated and finally breaks her silence in one of the great introductory line deliveries of cinema. One of the greatest I’ve seen anyway. With a loud, shrill, unrefined accent, tough-rough, yet girlish, funny, and street, and with these ending curlicues that are delightful – she bellows: “What’s the big idea? Can’t a girl get a word in edgewise? They’re my public TEW!”

The moment is hilarious and even a bit shocking upon first discovery, and it finally explains Don’s muzzling behavior. They then say to Lina: “You’re a beautiful woman. Audiences think you have a voice to match. We gotta keep our stars from looking bad at any cost.”

At any cost!

We’re supposed to find Lina Lamont’s voice nails on a chalkboard grating. She’s supposed to sound bad – coarse. And no, she doesn’t sound smooth or mellifluous or trained, but… I love her distinct voice. (Don’t we all, really?) She continues, “What’s wrong with the way I talk?” My answer, NOTHING! And then she asks, “Am I dumb or something?” My answer again, No, Lina! You are most definitely not dumb, as the movie will show (I love it when she pulls out her contract to R.F. near the end of the picture – damn right she should pull out her contract). She is most definitely a star, with charisma and panache, on and off the screen. OK, her voice is quite something. And, damn, it is memorable.

Right now, however, Lina Lamont is a silent star, so her voice is not of terrible concern – yet. The studio just wants her quiet at movie premieres and with the press.

But as Singin’ in the Rain light-heartedly chronicles the transition from silent films to “talkies” (the real stories – notably the great John Gilbert, whom Don is somewhat patterned after – are darker and more tragic, especially if you consider that Gilbert was possibly sabotaged by Louis B. Mayer, and did not, to my ears, have a terrible voice) – this was an exciting but tough time. Stars and filmmakers struggled to adapt or die, and Lina’s voice is going to become a big problem (Don needs some help too). We see Lina with her vocal coach. “Ta, Tae, Tee, Tow, Tew,” Lina recites. She continues with one of her lines, “And I can’t stand him,” the vocal coach grandly states. Lina struggles back with: “An’ I cayn’t stand ‘im.” We also see Don working with a vocal coach – Don does just fine, of course, and then he and Cosmo muck around with the teacher and perform the rousing “Moses Supposes” – an anarchic but complicated number (everything is made to look so much easier than it is) that’s ingeniously choreographed. It’s forever exciting when the two clap their hands on the teacher’s desk and holler/sing: “MOSES! MOSES!” and then with another holler/sing, “MOSES!” they jump on the desk and tap together on that small space. Incredible.

So, talkies. They’re coming. Earlier, during the night of The Royal Rascal post-premiere party, an elite group of stars and industry insiders will witness test footage of a synch sound film. One fabulous Pola Negri-like star, Olga Mara (Judy Landon), proclaims: “It’s vulgar.” Others deem it a novelty that will pass quickly. Of course, it doesn’t, and soon the next Lamont Lockwood picture – The Dueling Cavalier – must be reshot with sound. When that proves disastrous – from Lina’s voice, to technical flaws (“No, no, no!”/ “Yes, yes, yes!”), to Don’s antiquated acting style (though, of course, this is a humorous, major oversimplification of the art of silent screen acting), all seems lost. But not so – thanks to the help of Cosmo and aspiring actress Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), Don’s new girlfriend. Kathy gets two wonderful introductions – first in a car driving herself (I love that she’s driving her own damn self to the Coconut Grove) – the car that (in a lovely stunt) Don jumps into while escaping fans. She, at first, finds Don an insufferable movie star as he makes passes (she talks about theater, and the great plays, and words and how movie actors are all exaggerated pantomime and overly showy). Her second introduction has her popping out of a cake and singing with a group of pink-clad Coconut Grove dancers, leading the infectious “All I Do Is Dream of You.” It’s high-energy adorable, and Don is charmed, smitten even. Eventually (not right away – she tries to throw a pie in his face – it hits Lina instead – poor Lina – though Lina makes sure Kathy is fired for this) she’s smitten too.

And so, the three think to reshape the movie as a musical, which clearly could happen after we watch them sing and dance the splendiferous “Good Morning.” But …oh, no. The problem: Lina. “Lina,” they answer to themselves. Cosmo has an idea – Kathy will serve for Lina’s voice (without telling Lina), and Kathy agrees. But you think Lina’s not going to find out? As I said, Lina is not dumb. However, Kathy vows to do this vocal dubbing just this once – she has her own career to think of. We shall see how that goes…

Since the movie has already gently poked fun of Don via his white-washing of humble beginnings (and will continue to when he attempts to make a talking picture – it’s not all Lina’s issue), we like Don. We’re charmed by him (he’s Gene Kelly). And, again, he’ll also find himself in a spot when talking pictures become a thing – he’ll be laughed at too (the increased volume of: “I love you, I love you, I love you!”). But if the picture sets up an antagonist in Lina, she is, to me, never a villain. In fact, I find myself rooting for Lina in moments, and I suspect I’m not the only person who feels this way. Jean Hagen (a terrific actress, so adept at comedy and drama -superb in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle – she really should have had a more prominent career) plays her so winningly, with so much brash glamour, and so much comedic charm, that even when she’s obnoxious, we can’t take our eyes off of her. Nor, our ears.

Now, obviously, this is a movie led by Gene Kelly – and along with, among other brilliant soul-soaring numbers, “Moses Supposes,” “Good Morning,” “The Broadway Melody” ballet, his legendary solo number “Singin’ in the Rain” is legendary for a reason – as, with everything in Singin’ in the Rain, this is brilliantly crafted cinema. A perfect choreography between dancer and camera (worked out so minutely by Kelly and Donen) – so full of life that it is forever joyful no matter how many times you watch. It’s so transcendent that, in many ways, it doesn’t even matter why he’s singing (because he’s in love and full of hope). Kelly is making magic out of a rainy night on a city street and elevating everyday things like an umbrella, storefronts and a lamppost, and making his dance both dreamlike and primal – like something we could almost do or maybe one day actually feel. And we are grateful that Kelly – and cinema – allows us to catch such infectious joy through him – even if we might never reach such heights. He is dancing and singing out our happiest moments or the bliss we hope to achieve from anything – be it love or just feeling good one day. Happy to be alive. As critic Philip French wrote of first seeing the movie:

“I doubt if I could love anyone who didn’t wish to see ‘Singin ‘ in the Rain’ again and again and again. I first saw it in 1952 when at a very low ebb. They say you can’t remember pain. But you can remember misery well enough and on the last day of my first six weeks of army basic training at Warrington’s smog-shrouded, grime-encrusted Peninsula Barracks, I felt terrible… I emerged from the cinema that evening elated, thinking of life outside and beyond the Army.” 

To discuss the impact, artistry, innovation and backstory of Singin’ in the Rain require an entire book – and indeed there is one – Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar’s informative and page-turning Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece – which helped me significantly researching aspects of the picture. But re-watching the movie for the… how many times? (I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve seen this movie) – countless times – I felt all the rapture again, thanks to Kelly and company. Donen and Kelly crafted such a masterpiece, such a visual wonder, with incredible use of color, costuming, montage and of course song and dance – both funny and down to earth – and yet dreamlike, not of this world (particularly in Kelly’s bravura “Broadway Melody” sequence and ballet – “The Broadway Ballet”). Singin’ in the Rain – we’ve seen it so many times on the small screen – is an absolute marvel on the big screen. You’re left swooning and singing all the way home, your heart bursting, sometimes near tears just for the spectacle and joy of it all.

This time watching, I was furthered fascinated with the women – Hagen’s Lina Lamont, Debbie Reynolds’ sweet, supremely helpful to Don but, really, take no B.S. Kathy (and assertive when she needs to be) and Cyd Charisse’s sexy, commanding, if unnamed, mobster moll/fantasy woman in white. They are all very different women. Yet, they, all together, exhibit distinct facets of womanhood, and, even, at times, fold into each other in my mind (the movie really does cast a spell like that). Whether one is working as a voice for another (Kathy to Lina), or serving as the fantasy for Don who loves Kathy, but dances erotically in a movie/dream pitch with Charisse’s dancer in green and in white (mobster moll/fantasy woman-in-white) – they are important, and could be seen as incarnations of Don’s more complex desires. Even Lina.

When he first encounters Lina Lamont (she’s already a star), he, a stunt man then, not yet an actor, expresses politeness and excitement to work with her. She blows him off until R.F. rather absurdly walks into the scene and announces he’s going to give him his own movie. Now Lina is interested. But Don immediately pulls a power move to show her up for being rude to him earlier: “Are you doing anything tonight, Miss Lamont?” She shakes her head, no. He says, “That’s funny. I’m busy.” He starts to walk away, and she kicks him in the butt. On screen they are lovers, off screen they’re a sort of comedy team. That is their relationship. They have something.

All of these women are intriguing – they’re powerful – both visually and in spirit – they’re smart, they have style, and they pop from the screen. And, so, in every viewing, time and again, I find myself not taking sides in a Kathy vs. Lina set up and am awestruck by Cyd Charisse’s mesmerizing long-legged fantasy (her dance with Kelly, clad in green dress and Louise Brooks-style bob is one of the sexiest things I’ve ever seen – and the censors probably thought so too – reportedly a cut you may notice in this dance removed something too sexy for censors in 1952). The good girl is more interesting than all that, and the bratty girl has some reasons for being angry, and the bad girl’s not bad, but rather captivating, completely owning her sexuality. Even when she is (Charisse) the romantic dream figure in white, she’s not without sexuality; she’s balletic, erotic.

Through song, dance and beautifully timed humor, the complexity of these women comes through. When Charisse’s dream woman (this time dressed in white) breaks Don’s fantasy by becoming the gangster moll again – she flips a coin just like her George Raft-inspired gangster boyfriend we saw earlier – and playfully tosses it to Don. She’s drawn to the jewels and the money, but this is done with such power and grace, and she is so self-possessed that we simply admire her as we watch her slink away. You feel a little bit like Don does too – even if it leaves him downcast. The movie clearly admires her. She’s too talented, she’s too fabulous.

Charisse says nothing in the picture as the “Broadway Melody”/” Broadway Ballet” movie pitch/dream figure (she doesn’t need to – her dancing does the talking), but, once again, of course Lina Lamont has something to say. And Since Comden and Green reportedly based Lamont partly on work they did with their friend Judy Holliday, from back when they all performed together in the group Comden and Green created – the Revuers – where they showcased their talent at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village (and originally wanted Holliday to play Lina), there had to be some affection for Lina on their part. I am just going to assume so. Lina has too many fantastic zingers. Here’s one small exchange (among many) that I love:

Director Rosco Dexter (Douglas Fowley): Well, Well! Here comes our lovely leading lady now. 

Lina: This wig weighs a ton. What dope would wear a thing like this? 

Dexter (through clenched teeth): Everybody used to wear them, Lina. 

Lina: Well then everybody was a dope.

It’s almost a throwaway zinger, but Hagen nails it. She nails every aspect of this performance.

According to Cynthia and Sara Brideson’s, He’s Got Rhythm: The Life and Career of Gene Kelly, Kelly had a role model for Lina too – with his past co-star in Gregory La Cava’s Living in a Big Way – Marie McDonald. From the book: “He later called her a triple threat – she could not dance, sing or act.”

There is an almost maze of mirrors with the female characters in Singin’ in the Rain – Kathy voices Lina, but in two of the film’s songs, she was, herself, voiced by a singer Betty Noyes (who was uncredited), and the voice Lina uses when “dubbed” by Kathy is, in fact, Jean Hagen’s natural voice (Hagen says: “Our love will last, till the stars turn cold” – a beautiful voice). Curiously, Jean Hagen was Holliday’s understudy in the stage version of Born Yesterday, and made her stunning, brassy, funny debut in George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib opposite Holliday – the mistress to Holliday’s louse husband played by Tom Ewell. Also, reportedly, Charisse wasn’t the first choice to play the mobster moll/woman in white, according to Hess and Dabholkar’s book, Kelly wanted his dance assistant, Carol Haney, for that part. Arthur Freed didn’t think Haney “photographed well,” and that did not look the part of the dream woman. Charisse recounted that she never knew Haney was Kelly’s first choice and that she had lost her chance while Haney rehearsed with her – she helped Charisse with the role. From Hess and Dabholkar’s book:

Haney never mentioned her lost opportunity, and faithfully worked with her replacement. ‘She was a wonderful girl,’ Charisse later said. Haney’s loyalty to Kelly was overpowering. ‘I’ll always remember Carol Hanley fondly for the way she helped me, when her heart must have been breaking.’” 

Gene Kelly’s widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, who presented “Gene Kelly: A Life in Music, with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra” (and in this piece, discussed some myths attributed to the picture), said this of Charisse:

“She had recently had a baby, which is remarkable. She had never danced jazz. She was a classically trained ballerina… he said it was very, very hard to get her off pointe and to dance jazz, but she’s magnificent. That costume, the censors would come in and they would measure the lengths of the skirts and the décolletage, and everything was monitored and then Gene would slit things! He called it cheating the censors… The scarf dance was cut out of the picture in several countries because they found it too risqué…they figured it out, it’s love-making. And in the most beautiful way. Isn’t that amazing?” 

It is.

And then – Debbie Reynolds – if you watch the movie and think simply goody-goody – just think of what she went through to perfect this part. She had some grit, that’s for sure. The 19-year-old had never danced before and spent week upon painful week, to learn. She’s not Gene Kelly – but her end result in the picture is damn impressive – one would never know she wasn’t a dancer. In some ways, her casting mirrors Kathy, in that she’s young and trying to figure things out. Reynolds also wrote in her memoir, If I Knew Then, that, while working so hard and messing up, she lost her temper and chucked her shoe up into the rafters (“I could feel everybody staring at me as if I had sprouted three heads to go along with my left feet.”) That was not something she did often, however. She had to learn – and fast – and remain extremely disciplined. She also wrote in her memoir, Unsinkable:

“I wasn’t a dancer, and had three months to learn what Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor had been doing for years. My lessons started immediately, right after my nineteenth birthday… (Gene’s favorite tap step was the maxi ford. When he asked if I knew it, I told him I didn’t know that car.) … [Gene] came to rehearsals and criticized everything I did and never gave me a word of encouragement. He was a severe taskmaster.

I’ve never worked so hard. I was dancing for eight hours a day. Making ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and childbirth were the two hardest things I’ve ever done. The movie was actually harder, because it hurt me everywhere, most of all my brain and my feet… One day I crumpled in a heap under the rehearsal piano, crying. Fred Astaire came to my rescue. He asked me why I was crying, and I told him the dancing was so hard, I thought I was going to die. ‘You’re not going to die,’ he said. ‘That’s what it’s like to learn to dance. If you’re not sweating, you’re not doing it right.’ He took me to the studio where he was rehearsing with Hermes Pan, another great MGM choreographer. I watched in awe as Fred worked on his routines to the point of frustration and anger. I realized that if it was hard for Fred Astaire, dancing was hard for everyone. No one ever made it look easier. His kind gesture helped me a great deal.”

Though she obviously respected Kelly and learned much from him and the movie, Reynolds wrote a softer version of Kelly in If I Knew Then:

Gene Kelly was another great teacher. He taught me how to work, and by that, I mean hard… If I wasn’t standing in a puddle of sweat, he would say, ‘You’re not working hard enough.’ He was right. Even though I felt on the brink of exhaustion, I could always summon enough energy to work harder… Working with Gene was a valuable lesson. Now I don’t feel that I’ve done an honest day’s work unless I come home from the studio exhausted.”

Reading her backstory – it makes you root for Kathy in the picture even more. You understand how hard-working Reynolds was – and you marvel at here quick learning abilities. But (and this ruins nothing of the movie for me – it’s too romantic and joyful and funny by the end – and I’m never not going to adore Don Lockwood), I’m not entirely happy with Lina’s comeuppance (OK, she’s awful to Kathy, she wants her to continue dubbing without credit – but she’s freaking out as the technology is changing – and she wants to talk! Lina’s standing up for herself, finally. Who is with me in feeling for Lina?). Anyway, I always think, if only the studio would’ve allowed audiences to get used to her voice or understand that people, like me, would like her voice, and that with the advent of sound, she could possibly be an excellent actress/comedian. But this is my fantasy – see how this movie sweeps you in?

By the end, we don’t know what will happen with Lina. Perhaps in a story where, in a way, via Don Lockwood, John Gilbert gets a second chance and becomes a huge talking picture star thanks to a devoted girlfriend and a best friend – Lina might become the next big thing. After all, as Lina says to R.F.: “People?! l ain’t people! I am … ‘A shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament.’”

She is to me. As is Jean Hagen. As is Debbie Reynolds and her Kathy Selden and Cyd Charisse and her mobster moll/fantasy woman in white. Lina points to a newspaper after proclaiming her shimmering, glowing star status and says, “It says so, right there.”

It says so, right here too.

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