A new print of the ultimate Hollywood musical, the one that proved you could make a ‘good film’ in an essentially frothy genre. Even Halliwell liked it:
‘Brilliant comic musical, the best picture by far of Hollywood in transition, with the catchiest tunes, the liveliest choreography, the most engaging performances, and the most hilarious jokes of any musical’
USA 1952, 102 minutes
It’s 1927, and Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are Hollywood’s darlings and its most celebrated sweethearts – on the screen, that is. When The Jazz Singer takes the world by storm, the studio decides the next Lockwood and Lamont production must be a talkie – no, why not a musical? What could be more perfect? But Lina has a voice like chalk on a blackboard; she’d defeat even Professor Higgins. Kathy, a young chorus girl and would-be actress, is drafted in to dub over the dreadful sound, to Lina’s disgust and Don’s delight. He falls for her: another blow for Lina, who believes what she reads in the fanzines and thinks she’s Don’s fiancée. It’s all getting very complicated!
Most Hollywood musicals are showcases for songs and dancing, and this is no exception: a story woven round a mish-mash of Arthur Freed’s favourites, some already quite elderly, of his own songs, plus Make ’em Laugh, virtually plagiarised from Cole Porter’s Be a Clown (see if you can sing one without drifting into the other!). But it’s one of the few instances where the showcase is better than the ‘gems’ it holds. The songs aren’t classics, but they’re catchy and well-performed. The choreography is imaginative, demanding, and beautifully executed. The film looks good; it’s well designed, carefully lit and skilfully photographed. It’s as good a musical as you’re likely to see.
As well as being a good musical it’s simply a good film, and perhaps one of the best films about film. The witty script captures the hard work and absurdities of Hollywood, with its mixture of professionalism, hokum and downright lies, and its struggle to come to terms with the new technology. The film gives all its stars a chance to shine, and they do; it made a star of Debbie Reynolds and got Oscar nominations for Jean Hagen and Lennie Hayton. Not everything works (personally I could lose the Moses Supposes number). Some things shouldn’t have worked: Gene Kelly performed the title song with a temperature of 103 and with his suit shrinking in the ‘rain’; Debbie Reynolds found the choreography almost too demanding and fainted on set. But on the whole it does work, and with a charm, zest and exuberance that lifts your spirits.
Well, most people’s spirits. The committee wasn’t unanimous about this film. Some dislike the genre, some felt that it had been shown too often, in the cinema and on television. There was some feeling that perhaps such easily available fare wasn’t what a Film Society is for. What do you think?
Don Lockwood: Gene Kelly
Cosmo Brown: Donald O’Connor
Lina Lamont: Jean Hagen
Kathy Selden: Debbie Reynolds
R F Simpson: Millard Mitchell
Producer, lyrics: Arthur Freed
Directors, choreographers: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Screenplay: Adolph Green, Betty Comden
Photography: Harold Rosson
Music: Nacio Herb Brown, Lennie Hayton