Today we’re taking a lighter turn. After some of the more serious movies I’ve looked at, I decided to do a couple of musicals, one of which I consider one of the most joyful films of all time. Today I’m looking at:
Ernst Lubitsch – The Love Parade (1929)
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen – Singin’ In The Rain (1952)
Singin’ in the Rain is widely considered the best movie musical of all time, and I happen to agree. I chose The Love Parade not because it compares to Singin’ In the Rain as a musical, but rather, many film scholars agree that The Love Parade is the first movie musical that used songs as part of the narrative. Let’s talk about what that means in today’s double feature.
The Love Parade (1929)
Film sound was pioneered in the late 20’s. The Jazz Singer(1927) was the first feature length movie with audible dialog played in the theater, and film would never be the same. Of course, sound was always part of the film experience, as theaters would often hire pianists or organists to play either prepared scores, or improvised scores during the film. The history of silent film scoring is fascinating, and if you ever have the chance to see a talented musician accompany a silent film, I highly recommend you take it. I’ve had a dozen or so experiences like this, and attended a silent comedy festival once and it was an amazing amount of fun.
But once film was introduced, silent films started bombing. Studios rushed to get their films converted over to sound, and in some cases, reshot films to include sound before releasing them. Hitchcock’s Blackmail is one good example of a film that was shot silent, but then re-worked for sound.
Lubitsch had a long career in silent film, but like other directors, his success in silent films faded once sound was introduced. When he made the move to ‘talkies’, he took on a big challenge, choosing to develop a movie musical. Now of course, songs had been filmed before. But initially, they were filmed as revues, or essentially music videos of existing songs tied together loosely, sung directly into camera.
But Lubitsch had a background in the theater, and was able to take things further. In his film, the story comes first, and the songs the characters sing are directly related to the emotions they’re feeling. Like modern musicals, the songs further develop the story and give us information about the characters inner thoughts.
So this film is Lubitsch’s first sound film, and the first movie musical. But is it any good?
The film centers on a military attache, Count Renard, from the fictional country of Sylvania, stationed in Paris. He is called back after having numerous damaging affairs, and called before Queen Louise for a punishment. Queen Louise is single, and looking for a husband. She falls for Renard, and they eventually are married, but Renard discovers that the life of royalty is harder than he expected.
One interesting thing happens right away. Renard speaks directly to the camera, as if sharing a private joke with the audience. In the early days of sound cinema, the norms around what characters could and couldn’t do naturally hadn’t really been fully established. Characters talking to the camera isn’t necessarily verboten, but filmmakers generally use it sparingly, and even then, are careful to set up the rules of the world to ensure the audience understands what characters can and cannot do.
When the first song starts, it is Renard singing a goodbye to Paris, thanking all the women he’s met. His butler who is returning to Sylvania with him also sings a verse, and then in one of the most brilliant moments I’ve ever seen, Renard’s dog also barks a verse.
The staging of most of the songs are pretty simple. The character stands in the center of the frame and sings directly to camera. A couple of songs later include dance numbers, but most of the songs are staged in exactly the way described. This probably has something to do with developing a new genre, but it also probably has a lot to do with the technology.
They wouldn’t have had mics small enough to carry around on someone’s body(at least not comfortably), and the ability to sync sound after the fact would have been difficult if not impossible in this early era. The actors would have had to sing the entire song on camera, which is a practice that was mostly abandoned for efficiencies sake. The modern musical records the songs ahead of time, and has the actors lip sync their lines on set. This allows them to perform more complex dance moves, and edit more easily without having to worry about the mic not picking up the sound, or the actor running out of breath while dancing.
In fact, At Long Last Love, which we looked at in an earlier post brought back the technique of having the actors perform the entire song during the take, and recording live sound. It hadn’t been done since the 30’s before Bogdanovich tried it.
Musically, the songs are pretty simple as well. Simple rhyming pairs set to a tune. None of the songs from this musical became or will become all-time classics like many movie musical songs have, but they’re all pleasant. The actors in general are decent singers, with Jeanette MacDonald, who plays Queen Louise being the most impressive. However, the technology becomes a problem here as well as MacDonald’s strong operatic voice isn’t picked up very well by the mics. I had to turn on the subtitles once these scenes started. Group chorus verses were problematic as well. Without the subtitles, I wouldn’t have been able to understand any of the lyrics in these songs.
The butler Jacques, and Lulu, a maid provide the dance numbers in the film. Jacques is played by Lupino Lane, and Lulu, played by Lillian Roth, clearly have done some vaudeville in their past. Their numbers are played slapstick and goofy, with shades of a big number in our other movie today: “Make ‘Em Laugh” from Singin’ in the Rain.
The film is hilarious as expected. One of the main plot points early in the film centers on the queen’s ministers bugging her to find a husband. After lamenting that her husband won’t be king, only Prince Consort, which isn’t considered a good title, the Queen objects, admonishing them for not being able to imagine that someone would want to marry her for her many good qualities. She begins listing them off and ends with her perfect legs, lifting her dress to reveal them. The ministers (all men) look intently. Then another minister pushes to the front, says sheepishly “I didn’t see, your majesty.” And glances down, smiling.
In another wonderful moment, Count Renard is brought in front of the Queen for punishment, and she begins reading the report on his affairs. She says nothing, but smiles and appears shocked as she reads. Finally when she finishes, she stands up and leaves the room, as if angry. But while in the other room, she checks herself in the mirror and applies additional makeup, before returning to ‘punish’ him. This leads to a dinner date between the Queen and Count Renard.
Finally, my favorite joke in the film occurs during the dinner date, while all the servants and ministers watch from the door or window. Renard’s butler Jacques, and Queen Louise’s maid Lulu talk, and Jacques asks her suggestively if she’s heard the story of the ‘Frenchman and the Farmer’s Daughter.’ It’s so perfectly constructed, I’m just going to transcribe the exchange.
Jacques: “Do you know the story of the Frenchman and the Farmer’s Daughter?”
Lulu: “I know it.”
Jacques: “I am the Frenchman.”
Lulu: “You are not.”
Jacques: “How do you know?”
Lulu: “Because I am the farmer’s daughter.” (nods)
The dinner scene is another bit of Lubitsch genius. Instead of showing the dinner scene, he shows all of the side characters watching them intently discussing each moment of the date and what it means in detail. There are Jacques and Lulu as mentioned before, a big group of servants watching at the door, and all of the ministers as well. The story moves quickly, as they go from the dinner date past one conversation directly to the marriage.
After the marriage though, things get harder for Renard. While the Queen attends to her daily duties, Renard has literally nothing to do, and chafes against his loss of freedom. He isn’t allowed to eat breakfast until the Queen arrives, he must follow her orders. He sings a song about feeling useless. He and the Queen fight. He tries to find a place for himself, by drawing up a budget, but the ministers reject his help. This all comes to a head on a night when the Queen and Renard are expected at the opening night of the opera. The Queen must project an air of stability so that the country can get a loan it needs to avoid bankruptcy. Renard realizes that he has all the power and refuses to go. The Queen resolves herself to go alone, but once she is seated, he arrives in full dress uniform, telling her that he decided not to ruin her, but that as soon as the play is over, he will be leaving the country, and when the country receives the loan, he will file for divorce.
There’s a lot to love about this film, but this is where it starts to lose me. Sure, Renard has a point, being ordered around by his wife and expected to follow her every command is definitely not a good marriage, but his reaction is way worse than what she put him through. Instead of sitting down with his wife and discussing how he feels and possible solutions, he tortures her. At the opera, he reminds her that she can’t make a scene, as she must keep up appearances, then makes a show of staring down one of the female performers, even borrowing a better pair of binoculars.
When going back to the palace as he packs and the queen sobs. She tries to get his attention, even apologizing, but he treats her especially cruelly. He refuses to acknowledge her until she tells him that she will go with him to Paris. Then she tells him that he will be in charge of matters of state, and in charge at home. The movie just goes completely off the rails here. Even if the queen is willing to abdicate her throne, I doubt that she can just hand off power to whoever she chooses. Also, how are the people of her nation going to feel when told “That dude I married is now the king. No idea what experience he has, but he’s dreamy, so whatevs.”
I praised Design for Living, the last Lubitsch film I looked at for it’s progressive gender roles, but this ending is backwards even for 1929. Queen Louise goes from being a monarch, commanding legions, to failing the Bechdel Test over the course of a single bad date. I can forgive a lot of bad taste if they make a good joke, but this is just a series of bizarre choices, with very little humor. There are lots of ways to end this story without reducing the female character into a puddle of tears, willing to do literally anything to keep her husband.
There is a lot to like about this film, but it’s really let down at the end. It’s unfortunate. But at the same time, this is an important film, and it’s still possible to enjoy it and recognize it’s flaws.
As the first movie musical, the genre still has a long way to go. The film doesn’t quite know what the actors can or should do during the songs, and the musical arrangements are about as simple as they can be. But every journey has a first step, and this is an important one. Some other filmmaker would have eventually figured out how to do this, but it’s interesting to look back on a milestone like this. Fred Astaire would show up a few years later and help the format evolve even further. And on and on. Until we get to…
Singin’ In the Rain (1952)
Singin’ In the Rain is the tongue-in-cheek story of Hollywood’s transition from the silent era to the sound era. (Sound familiar?) In the film, Don Lockwood(Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont(Jean Hagen) are the darlings of the screen. Their silent films are constant box office gold. But when the Jazz Singer is a huge hit, the head of the studio decides he needs his biggest stars making ‘talkies’. One problem: Lina Lamont has one of the worst voices ever. When an early preview of their first sound film ends in disaster, Don and his friend Cosmo come up with a plan to dub over Lina’s voice with that of newcomer Kathy Selden, and turn the film into a musical.
I give the entire plot here, because the plot is not what makes this film work. It’s simply a frame to hang big musical numbers and gags onto. And boy does it ever deliver. The film starts with a big red carpet premiere of the latest Lockwood/Lamont film. Don is interviewed and tells his origin story. While he tells the story of a classy and wealthy upbringing, we see his real story of performing in pool halls and doing vaudeville routines, before graduating to dangerous (and hilarious) stunt work. The fake story is a nod to Hollywood publicity departments, who were well known for fixing details to make their stars sound more appealing.
We’re also introduced to his best friend Cosmo in this sequence, played by Donald O’Connor. He appears in all of these early sequences, and establishes himself as a competent sidekick for Gene Kelly. While no one can compare to Gene Kelly as a dancer, O’Connor brings a better comic attitude to the dance scenes, particularly his facial expressions.
The film introduces Kathy Selden, the love interest played by Debbie Reynolds, shortly after, as Don Lockwood jumps in her car to escape some overzealous fans. After claiming she doesn’t watch movies, and is a serious actress, Don arrives at the after party to discover that Kathy is one of the dancing girls. After fighting, she throws a pie meant for Don, but hits Lina, who it turns out doesn’t have a sense of humor.
Unlike The Love Parade, which used original songs, Singin’ In The Rain uses mostly existing songs. I’m sure most of them would have been recognizable to audiences at the time, but now, many of them are famous because of this film.
My favorite number in the musical is one of the original songs “Make ‘Em Laugh”(although the song steals the melody of “Be a Clown”, written by Cole Porter). The song is the only solo number that Donald O’Connor gets in the film, and he makes the most of it. The performance is a tour de force of visual gags and physical comedy.
O’Connor finishes the performance by doing a series of backflips off of walls, then crashing through a wall. All for the sake of a laugh.
The story goes that O’Connor was smoking 4 packs of cigarettes a day at the time, and was in bed for 3 days afterwards. When he returned, Gene Kelly told him that the film had been ruined and he had to do the entire thing again.
Let’s take a moment here to praise Donald O’Connor a bit more. While there is no performer like Gene Kelly, and he is clearly the star, this film wouldn’t work without Donald O’Connor. Without his enthusiasm, comic timing, and selflessness, we’d be talking about how great a dancer Gene Kelly is, not about how great the film is. Donald O’Connor not only has to do the same dance steps as Gene Kelly in several scenes, he is also the main driver of the plot, and in charge of delivering most of the jokes. He elevates the film to all-time classic status.
Debbie Reynolds is here in her first film role as well. While the behind the scenes stories are pretty brutal, she’s a really great actress, and while she might not be a professional dancer at this point, I’d much rather have a great actress who can get through the dance scenes than a great dancer who can’t act.
And of course, Jean Hagen is unforgettable as Lina Lamont. The dull, mean-spirited, squeaky voiced villain is so awful we can’t even feel bad when she gets insulted by the other characters. The main conflict of the film comes when Lina realizes that her voice will be dubbed, and uses her contract to force the studio to continue using Kathy as her voice, but leave her uncredited. Seeing her struggle to pronounce the simplest words never ceases to be funny.
A large dose of comedy comes from Lina, particularly the scenes when the film crew is trying to record sound for the first time. The director’s increasingly exasperated explanations of where she should look and talk, and her ability to get it wrong a different way every time is a classic comedy scene.
My only real complaint about the film is the Broadway Melody sequence. While it’s well choreographed, filmed and interesting, it goes on way too long, and it seems very out of place and self-indulgent in the film. But I can forgive it, because it does give us Cyd Charisse who is amazing to watch.
And of course, the signature number is Gene Kelly doing “Singin’ In the Rain”. It’s got everything that you want from a musical number. A memorable song with a purpose in the story, an interesting setting, and a great dance number. There’s a reason it’s a classic.
There have been a lot of great movie musicals made before and since Singin’ In the Rain. But none reach the heights that this film did. Some musicals have interesting stories, most have memorable songs, a lot have great dance numbers, and they all have some decent jokes. But Singin’ In the Rain does all of it, and does it all better than anyone else has ever done it. Everything managed to come together and make an exceptional film, that is completely unforgettable.
This isn’t a film where I uncover some new secret every time I watch it, but it fills me with joy. That’s worth a lot.
The Double Feature
This is a great pairing from a historical perspective, but The Love Parade can’t really compare to Singin’ In the Rain from a quality perspective. The Love Parade is fun, and has a lot of great jokes, but Singin’ In The Rain is the pinnacle of the form.
Singin’ In The Rain shows a serious evolution. While The Love Parade simply has their actors sing songs statically into camera, Singin’ In The Rain brings us a number like “Make ‘Em Laugh” that is so full of dancing and action that the performer has to take time off after.
Also, The Love Parade only has a handful of songs, using dialogue scenes mainly, with the songs as a highlight. Singin’ In the Rain, like many modern musicals, builds the entire story around the songs. This might be an inferior way to structure the story, and some other musicals bear that out, but Singin’ In the Rain managed to crack the code.
The musical is very much a niche genre right now, and that’s too bad. But the ones that do come out are generally memorable. We’ll never get back to the popularity of movie musicals that we used to have, but we’ve got plenty to look back on.
I’m really starting to get into the groove this summer. I could have published this post a day before, but I decided to let it go this morning, to give the readers a chance to catch up.
I was at the allergist today and learned that I have developed about 30 new allergies since my last allergy test. I’ve been totally miserable for the last few months, and seeing a quantifiable reason is actually really relieving. Hopefully this is a turning point for me, and things will start to look up. I’m starting to look forward to things like the class I’m teaching later this summer, and the research I’ll be doing in the fall. That’s always a good sign.
So for the next pair of films, I want to get a bit more serious. One of my closest friends suggested Satyajit Ray to me, a pioneer of Indian cinema. I thought that sounded like a great idea, but in finding something to pair with him, I decided to try to find another filmmaker who was also indelibly linked to his own culture. I felt like Ingmar Bergman was a perfect choice. So the next pair of films is:
Ingmar Bergman – Summer Interlude (1951)
Satyajit Ray – Pather Panchali (1955)
I think it will be an excellent pairing. Hope you’ll join me.