Among the more lauded Hollywood films that takes filmmaking as its subject is this classic musical, which casts a wry look back at the transition from silent to sound film. It’s not exactly the most accurate about how a film is made, but it includes some nice period detail nonetheless.
I’m sitting here in front of a blank computer screen wondering what there is, usefully, that I can write about this film, which as far as musicals from (and indeed, about) the Golden Age of Hollywood go is surely as classic as they come. If you haven’t already seen it then you’re missing out, and moreover you probably know perfectly well that you’re missing out and intend to rectify that at some point. Which is just as well, because even after all this time it remains a delightful motion picture, thanks in no small part to Gene Kelly’s athletic hoofing (a quaint term for dancing which appropriately puts the focus on footwork), the spry Comden & Green songs, and its self-referential story set in Hollywood’s own (at this point, relatively recent) history.
As a film about Hollywood’s mythmaking practices, one of the things the film does best is to dance on the line between make-believe and genuine feeling. Debbie Reynolds as Kathy enters the film as a high-minded young woman apparently resistant to the play-acting of (silent) film, rehearsing the actor’s dumb-show masks by contorting her face into clownish expressions of ecstasy, terror and surprise, as she drives Gene Kelly’s big star Don away from his overly adoring fans. Of course it’s clear even at this point that she’s baiting Don’s overinflated ego, but for much of the early part of the film, Kelly is seen almost permanently wearing one such mask — the widest of rictus grins, baring his startlingly white teeth — in a gratingly disingenuous way. Then again, as a big star he is always on show, and in this movie every new location is a film set on which he can perform, so it’s no wonder that it takes Kathy so long to figure out how he really feels.
As a film about performance, it’s suitable that it’s filled with excellent ones, particularly a number of duos between Kelly and Donald O’Connor as Don’s piano-playing accompanist friend Cosmo. Even though “Make Em Laugh” is conspicuous by the lack of laughter it engenders with its outrageous slapstick pranking (maybe I’m just hard-hearted), it nevertheless beautifully showcases O’Connor’s acrobatic agility, while “Moses Supposes” quickly returns a voice coach’s office into the dance studio set it clearly originally was. We also get to see some actual filmmaking taking place, for this is above all a story about Hollywood’s transition to sound films in the late-1920s (hence the voice coach). Being a musical, it’s naturally somewhat biased against the silent era, though its comedic points about the melodramatically affected acting style has some basis in truth. We also get an archetypally domineering yet ineffectual director and some hilariously inept early sound technology.
If the film has a misstep for me, it’s the treatment of Don’s acting partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), who is constantly ridiculed and humiliated for the temerity she shows in presuming to speak, for she is the very definition of the dumb blonde stereotype. She is a manipulative figure of negligible talent and a shrilly grating Brooklyn accent, and she seems created to emphasise the homely charms of Kathy. And yet Jean Hagen sort of steals the film with her, and in many ways (perhaps in spite of the filmmakers’ mean-spirited intentions) she is a rather transgressive character, outspoken and perfectly aware of the patriarchal way things work in Hollywood. It’s at the hands of this chummy band of old boys pulling on almost-literal strings that she gets her comeuppance at the end. I’m still not sure if we were meant to cheer, but it manages to feel quite nasty.
On the whole though, the film has much to recommend it, not least the extended “Broadway Melody” ballet sequence with the delightful Cyd Charisse, its own little silent film-within-a-film (at least, as far as I can recall, the only words are “Gotta dance!”) which seems to be more of a showreel for the transformative power of glorious, saturated Technicolor than sound, while Charisse’s vamping would not have been out of place on the silent screen. It all takes place on the same soundstage where earlier we’d seen Kathy and Don, not to mention the wind machine, and in its baroque wonder it’s an advert for the craft of the set designers and costume department, not to mention being the best showcase for the talents of both dancers. A Hollywood classic that continues to deserve that status.
Directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; Writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Cinematographer Harold Rosson; Starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 8 February 2014 (and years before in Wellington).