A bunch of years ago, when the new Star Wars “prequels” were released, a bunch of TV “conservatives” grabbed the mic and defended Darth Vader and the whole Empire enterprise. (It’s pretty difficult to find something nice to say about the guy who blew up Alderaan, but then again, Henry Kissinger.)
One thing that Richard Brody (New Yorker film critic) and I have in common is that we prefer the prequels to Episodes 4 through 6, and we also, I learn today, have an unapologetically contrarian affection for Modern Times, which Brody lists first on his list of What to Stream: Twelve Classic Movies to Watch with Your Kids. Another thing we have in common: Darezhan Omirbaev. (More on him in a later column.)
But with Singin’ in the Rain, which is fourth on Brody’s list, we part company, though not with respect to the film’s greatness, which is inarguable. As a great fan of silent films, especially those from that golden year of 1927, when Singin’ takes place, I am happy for any kind of accessible reminder of those lost glories. “[D]eft comedy and catchy songs and heroic dancing,” Brody writes, and all of that is true, it is undoubtedly one of the greatest things ever put on film, Donald O’Connor’s performance of Make ‘Em Laugh has never been equaled, blah blah blah.
But then he marvels at the “arrogant yet hapless silent star Lina Lamont, whose ego-mad aggression—and helium-balloon voice—our daughters imitated with glee.”
This is where Darth Vader comes in, because, like those FoxNewsHeads defending the Master of Evil, I feel I must speak up for poor Lina, and to ask the children of today’s film critics not to imitate her with glee.
Many years ago, for my daughter’s birthday party, I rented a projector and let the kids vote on what movie to watch. Number 2 was Pippi Longstocking, and Number 1 was Singin’ in the Rain.
I had not seen the movie in many years, other than clips, and I was startled to discover that my sympathy, this time around, rested not with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor’s bullying bros, or with Debbie Reynolds’ model of coy femininity, but with the supposedly monstrous Lina Lamont.
I was really ashamed that I had shown the kids such a regressive film and frustrated that I once considered it perfection itself.
First, the case against Lina:
- She is untalented. A silent screen star with an awful voice and no singing chops, her transition to sound seems doomed from the start.
- She is greedy and litigious. Rather than show trust and demure gratitude to the studio bosses who made her a star, she relies on deft contractual machinations to advance her career.
- She is a sexual aggressor. In love with her onscreen paramour, she expresses her feelings openly and pursues his affection, rather than waiting for him to make the first move, behavior that the filmmakers consider unladylike and despicable.
The third bullet is pretty easy to dispose of.
Fred Astaire movies are always hate-at-first-sight: the charming but homely Mr. Astaire chases the disgusted Ginger Rogers till she exhaustedly relents. Even in Singin’, 40-year-old Gene Kelly pursues 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds until she finally throws in the towel and accepts the fate that the screenwriters have decreed for her.
But Lina’s love for her co-star is depicted as practically evil (and at best worthy of ridicule) because she has the gall to express it openly rather than coyly. I am not defending sexual aggressors of any gender, just pointing out a double standard in vivid display.
The second point is quite interesting, because it’s probably rooted in some real-life animosity.
During the silent years, and especially at the outset, women had a far larger role in Hollywood than they did by the time the MGM musicals rolled around.
In the 1920s, stars like Mary Pickford shrewdly negotiated deals that gave them control over their own work and destiny. (Pickford eventually made history as one of the co-founders of United Artists.)
That kind of equality was over with by the 1930s. By the 1950s, gender equality was just a distasteful memory to the men who ran the studios. Martin Roth wrote, in 1990, that Lina’s climactic speech, clearly intended as ridiculous, today “sounds like a feminist declaration of independence.”
“I’m not so sure!” Lina shouts. “You’re the big Mr. Producer — always running things. Running me. Well, from now on, as far as I’m concerned, I’m running things.”
Men who worked in Hollywood in the 1920s had heard this speech many times. By the 1950s, they had prevailed, and Singin’ in the Rain is their revenge, history written by the victors.
Finally, is Lina untalented? Here the film expresses its most perplexing perspective. Sure, silent film stars did not need to have beautiful voices. But the greatest of them were indeed great actors.
Clara Bow and John Gilbert’s careers were said to have been destroyed by sound, and, specifically, by the sound of their voices. (In most cases, the real story was more complicated.)
Clara Bow, in Wings (the first best-picture Oscar winner) and especially in It, gives charming, voiceless performances. John Gilbert, in The Big Parade, A Woman of Affairs and Bardelys the Magnificent, proved himself one of our greatest screen actors.
Many many many huge movie stars, from Douglas Fairbanks and Theda Bara to Harold Lloyd and Pola Negri, did not make the leap to sound films. But they were talented, and they remain iconic and deserving of celebration even today.
Perhaps the filmmakers and stars of the MGM era looked back on the silent era as dusty and joyless. If so, they were wrong.
Singin’ in the Rain is a great movie, whose splendors shine as brightly and colorfully as ever. But it is a mean-spirited movie that hates women, and it is a movie that hates movies.
Steven S. Drachman is the author of The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.