“Singin’ In The Rain” And The Silent Era–What It Got Right (And Wrong)

What’s my favorite movie, you ask? Not just my favorite silent movie, but my very favorite movie in the whole wide world? You could ask me that question today or go back in time to when I was 8 years old, and the answer would still be: Singin’ In The Rain! (Since you have a time machine, go ahead and zoom forward a few decades–my answer’s still the same, isn’t it?)

Irresistible!

Of all the classic old movies my family enjoyed while I was growing up (my mom loved them so our home movie library was practically all pre-1960s), we might’ve watched Singin’ In The Rain the most. Its pitch-perfect blend of music, dance, art, humor, vibrant color and sheer unadulterated joy never, ever got old. Film history would be much poorer without it, in my confident opinion.

And speaking of film history, I have a confession to make. It didn’t dawn on me until recently that, hey, Singin’ In The Rain is all about the transition from silents to talkies, and I know quite a bit more about silents than I used to–maybe write a post on my favorite film in the world? Why didn’t I think of that before?! (Okay, I think I know why–this film is just that familiar. It’s like Desi Arnaz’s singing voice. My dad once mentioned to me that he never cared for Desi’s singing, and–having grown up with I Love Lucy episodes too–I realized I literally could not judge Desi’s voice objectively. To this day I have no idea if it’s good or bad, it’s just Desi’s singing voice and that is that. Anyways.) Since this is the 70th anniversary of Singin’ In The Rain and The Classic Movie Muse is a hosting a blogathon in its honor, the time has finally come for Silent-ology analyze what this classic film got right about the silent era and where it was off the mark. A blow-by-blow post would be pretty long, so let’s do some general analysis and then focus on a couple of key scenes. Let’s get to it!

General Opinions: Costumes and Hairstyles

There’s a long tradition of period-specific movies featuring suspiciously modern-looking hairstyles and clothes (consider how many “19th century” movies today show gals with long, beachy waves–for cripes’ sake they aren’t even trying). Singin’ In The Rain is no exception, so while some of the costumes evoke the 1920s very well others have a distinctly ’50s spin. Everything looks wonderful and the colors are glorious, it’s just not always that authentic, if you’re into that sort of thing–and I certainly am.

For instance, take your familiar short fringed “flapper dress” that’s ubiquitous at Halloween and New Years’ parties. This was actually popular during ’50s and ’60s “Roaring Twenties” revivals, basically a riff on ’20s wear. So of course it makes several appearances in Singin’ In The Rain. (Fringe was popular, yes, but it tended to be used more sparingly because it was heavy.)

A number of dresses in Singin’ In The Rain are a leetle too short, although maybe that was practical for some of the dance numbers. In general there’s a good showing of drop waists and various styles, but the dresses are definitely cut with ’50s form-fitting in mind (flappers liked youthful straight lines and flat chests). The men’s costumes are decent, you get plenty of those light sweaters, spiffy shoes and a sprinkling of plus fours. But what gets me is how close they were to giving the actresses authentic bobbed hairstyles, and yet, how far. You’ve got the crops, you’ve got the little curls–but there’s too much forehead. Foreheads weren’t very fashionable in the ’20s, guys. Gals tended to cover it with curls, bangs or hair accessories–they wanted to frame their saucer eyes and maybe have something peaking from underneath their low, tight-fitting cloche hats. Lina Lamont’s hairstyles in particular have Monroe-esque waves on the top–not quite right, folks!

A sampling of what I mean.

The most authentic-looking costumes to me are probably the lilac-colored frocks in the “Beautiful Girl” number. They’re the perfect length, they’re loose, they have drop waists, the hemlines are a flowy “handkerchief” style (very popular back then), and I love the bits of fluttering chiffon and little headpieces. Lovely!

General Opinions: That Awkward Transition From Silence to Sound

There’s a great little moment just before the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number where Don Lockwood’s strolling through the silent film studio and he waves at an actor masked up in a full “island native” costume–“Hiya Maxie!” “Hi Don.” It’s a funny, one-second moment, but it also gives you a sense of the camaraderie of the silent era studios. And compared to the strict silence of the early talkie period, it feels comparatively free and easy. Don’s friend Cosmo picks out a few tunes on the piano during “Make ‘Em Laugh”–in a few years there wouldn’t even need to be a piano in the studio.

The film does a good job of showing/lampooning the awkward moves towards making “talking pictures,” such as the cameras being enclosed in soundproof booths, yells of “Quiet!” and “Roll ’em!” before each take, and the uncertain attempts to deliver the dialogue. I’m not positive but I think most microphones would’ve dangled overhead–but they certainly would’ve picked up on every little unwanted sound!

Trying to make talking pictures wasn’t a completely brand-new endeavor. Filmmakers had been trying to include sound almost the second moving pictures were introduced, but the available technology made it difficult to sync dialogue with the images–and then you had to figure out how to project that sound nice and clear. Plus, audiences seemed to prefer the quicker, more buoyant images of silent films, and regard early sound films as cheaper imitations of real life. And thus the industry stuck with silence until the industry started changing for good in 1927. You can imagine how many directors felt just like Douglas Fowley’s character begging Lina to talk “into the mike!

A Closer Look: The Premiere Scene and Don Lockwood’s Interview

And now let’s scrutinize some key scenes, starting with the big movie premiere in the beginning of the movie–as the neon signs on Grauman’s Chinese Theater advertise, it’s for the fictional The Royal Rascal, the “Biggest Picture of 1927”! (Definitely a Douglas Fairbanks sort of title, or something for John Barrymore or John Gilbert!) The Hollywoodland spoofing starts right away as stars walk the red carpet. There’s a bubbly flapper type named Zelda Zanders, played like an overly-caffeinated Clara Bow–her outfit is cute but awfully short, and her hair is a little too ’50s. Love how Zelda totes along her much older new husband as the reporter opines, “let’s hope this time it’s really love!” And we see a “vamp” star named Olga Mara, although vamps were more of a 1910s trend.

Then there’s the wonderful “flashback” sequence where Don Lockwood (great silent star name, by the way) tells a highly romanticized version of his life story while we see what actually happened. It’s certainly true that a lot of stars romanticized their life stories, although I wouldn’t say it was always to this extent. Audiences appreciated a good rags-to-riches story too, so it was equally likely that some stars simply glossed over certain unpleasantries while recounting a poor upbringing. Theda Bara famously had a ridiculously exoticized, fake backstory, but it was also presented with a wink and meant to keep people guessing.

Lockwood’s real backstory was definitely shared by countless actors, including the ones that didn’t attain major stardom but had decent Hollywood careers nonetheless: performing in little rinky dink theaters or gambling halls, slowly working their way up to something better. What also rings true is Lockwood’s getting into stuntwork in westerns. We’ve forgotten just how popular and pervasive westerns were back in the early silent days, and filmmakers were indeed forever looking for stunt people (especially if they could ride a horse). I can definitely see a big star getting his start in Hollywood that way!

A Closer Look: The Dueling Cavalier

Much of Singin’ In The Rain revolves around the pending success or failure of Lockwood and Lamont’s first talkie, The Dueling Cavalier–a French Revolution-themed film that was already being made as a silent before being clumsily switched to sound. Early on we get a funny sequence of the stars filming one of their love scenes. A piano tinkers in the background and the director shouts out instructions–that’s certainly authentic. But the film itself? A serious, straightforward powdered wigs romance with ridiculously flowery dialogue? No audience in 1927 would’ve had any patience with that. Heck, few people in 1917 would’ve had patience with that. When you did see powdered wigs films they tended to be epic stories like Orphans of the Storm (1922) or tongue-in-cheek like Monsieur Beaucaire (1924) (a Valentino film that was probably the main inspiration for The Dueling Cavalier). Likewise, Lockwood and Lamont’s stilted “silent film” acting would’ve been long out of date by the late ’20s, and is still pretty exaggerated in any case.

Having them arguing while ostensibly spouting romantic dialogue is funny, but it would’ve been a big no-no in 1927. Studios found out pretty early on that audiences were good at lipreading–and as the silent era wore on they just got better. Some people even made a game out of spotting any swear words that actors thought they could get away with. So the dialogue did have to match the scene and title cards.

In general the finished The Dueling Cavalier is obviously a ’50s production, from the way shots are framed to the camera pans. There’s definitely some truth in the sequence of the disastrous film premiere where the dialogue went out of sync–this did apparently happen on occasion in some early talkie screenings, although not always with such spectacularly funny results!

In Closing…

There’s so many good things about the bubbly, jazzy masterpiece that is Singin’ In The Rain that it almost seems a shame to nitpick these scenes. And perhaps the criticism is a bit unfair at times–how many ’50s musicals set in different era were 100% period accurate, after all? Just know that all the exposed flapper foreheads in the world can’t keep this silent film fan from thoroughly enjoying this classic musical, time and time and time again.

This post was written especially for:

There’s a whole crop of wonderful posts up already, head over and check them out! Many thanks to the Classic Movie Muse for hosting this great event!

Sources:

Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By. New York: Knopf, 1990.

Koszarski, Richard. The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

Watson, Coy, Jr. The Keystone Kid: Tales of Early Hollywood. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Press, 2001.

32 thoughts on ““Singin’ In The Rain” And The Silent Era–What It Got Right (And Wrong)

    • Yup, there was a big variety of hairstyles of course but the dominant trend was definitely to keep things low on the forehead. Another thing I could’ve added is that those curly, Clara Bow bobs tended to be frizzier, not that sleek and carefully arranged.

    • He definitely could’ve done some of the same stunts! Donald had the comic timing and agility, for sure… but didn’t look like Buster at all, which got distracting IMO.

    • Gene would have been great, but he’d still have that dog of a screenplay!

      Actually, Gene would have made an interesting Douglas Fairbanks had they done a biopic back then. He often referenced Fairbanks in his movies (I’m especially thinking of the nods to The Black Pirate in The Pirate).

  1. Pingback: Welcome to The Singinโ€™ in the Rain Blogathon: 70 Years of That Glorious Feeling!! | The Classic Movie Muse

  2. Spectacular job, Lea! I so enjoyed looking at the film from this angle. Such an interesting observation with the hairstyles and foreheads. Now I’m trying to picture Debbie Reynolds and Jean Hagen with period appropriate hair ๐Ÿ˜‰ Thank you so much for this wonderful contribution to my blogathon!

    • Why of course, I couldn’t pass up a blogathon about my favorite movie! And during the a significant anniversary, too. Thank you for hosting!

  3. One inaccuracy that always makes me laugh: acting like The Jazz Singer was a total talkie. It was a silent film with sound interludes, yet everyone seems to act like it was the first 100% sound feature. Still, this is such a wonderful movie. I loved your post, which was so wonderful as always!

    • Yes that is a big inaccuracy, and survives to this day! And it’s probably with us forever… ๐Ÿ˜€ Thanks for visiting, I always appreciate it!

  4. “Thereโ€™s so many good things about the bubbly, jazzy masterpiece” of this post!! Thank you!!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. When I was teaching Film Appreciation I would show “Singin in the Rain” as an example of 1950’s movies and musicals. The story lends itself well to a Film class and the technicolor, songs, dancing and comedy made a “musical” tolerable to today’s jaded college students. I would often get comments like “I never thought I would like a musical”. After watching this movie in class twice a year for many, many years I noticed little things. One was, outside the theater of the disastrous preview, in the background is a movie poster with William Haines. I found this curious since he was a big silent movie star but he was openly gay. When Louis B. Mayer demanded he send his boyfriend away and get married, he told Mayer where he could go and walked out of the studio and never made a movie again. I wondered if that poster was put there as a jab at Louis B. Mayer? He had just been fired from MGM in 1951 and this film premiered in April 1952.

    • Ooo, that’s a really interesting observation. Figuring out the date of his firing and comparing it to when Singin’ was being filmed might help make a case?

  6. It always bugs me when period films are sloppy with remaining true to the era they are depicting, but the few oopsies in Singin’ in the Rain are forgiven due to its epic greatness, lol. One of my fav films as well: perfect casting, music, choreography, dialogue, story, etc. Thanks for pointing out the accuracies as well as the missteps.

  7. Great post! Singing in the Rain is a film I can watch over and over. It never gets stale. One inaccuracy that I forgive because feature films are not history, just entertainment, is when the Jazz Singer causes the film industry to change from silents to talkies overnight. It took three years! There were successful silents being made through 1929. Yet TCM repeats this misinformation as if it were fact, leading many fans to believe that once the talking problem was licked, silents were no longer relevant and just disappeared.

  8. I enjoyed this blog post so much! Thank you. I wondered if you had ever noticed the similarity of one set of costumes that chorus girls are in during the montage before Beautiful Girl (they have short skirts and musical note symbols on them) With the costumes worn by some chorus girls in The Thin Man, which has made me wonder how often (and how long) costumes were reused in studios or from a costume company. Not a big deal, but it made me smile to see it (or think I did).

  9. I loved your post. Not just “nitpicking”, it was informative and fun to read! I had never paid attention to the flappers’ foreheads, but you have a point – and here’s something else I have in common with flappers, LOL
    Cheers!
    Le

  10. I have seen an interview with Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. When they shot “Singin in the Rain” there were some of the old people still at the studio who were there when the transition to sound happened. They did talk to them about it and what they remembered. So they did have that advantage of information. But it was to be an entertainment musical not a docudrama of that time.

  11. Loved this post and love this movie — I saw it for the first time on the big screen a few months ago. I especially enjoyed learning more about the silent era, including that adlibs were frowned upon because audiences could read lips!

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