Last month Turner Movie Classics arranged for MGM’s classic musical “Singin’ in the Rain” to be shown on big screens in selected theaters around the country. At the theater where I saw the film again with my wife and some friends, the place was packed with a multi-generational crowd including many children seeing Gene Kelly-Donald O’Connor-Debbie Reynolds (and Jean Hagan…mustn’t leave out “Lina Lamont”!) romp for the first time. Of course, they loved it; I’m worried about anyone who can see the film and not love it.
The timing of TCM’s limited revival was felicitous in two ways. One was that it occurred just after the death of Debbie Reynolds, and provided a lovely way to salute her memory. Another was that “La La Land” was surging in buzz and box office around the country, culminating in last week’s 14 Oscar nominations. There are several visual references to “Singin’ in the Rain” in the film; ironically, enjoying “LaLa Land” may rely on unfamiliarity with its 65-year-old predecessor, because calling what the stars in “La La Land” do “dancing” seems unduly generous compared to the performances of Gene, Donald and Debbie.
Seeing the film reminded me, however, of the strange ethics breach behind one of the movie’s most famous numbers. Donald O’Connor’s solo “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the high point of the movie for me, and I am not alone. It finished at #49 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema, but that doesn’t do it justice: this is not just a great musical number, it is one of the greatest four minutes of physical comedy ever put on screen, featuring dozens of jumps, pratfalls, and as its grand finale, O’Connor running up two walls and flipping backwards to the ground. (He checked into a hospital for several days as soon as filming the routine was over). The problem is that “Make ‘Em Laugh” was plagiarized, and everyone knew it. Continue reading
Marni Nixon died last month at 86, and I have been intending to write about her ever since. An accomplished soprano with perfect pitch and a rare gift for mimicry, Nixon secretly dubbed in the songs for Deborah Kerr as Anna in “The King and I,” Natalie Wood as Maria in “West Side Story” and Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady,” three of the most successful and honored Hollywood adaptations of Broadway musicals. In doing so she was assisting in the perpetration of a fraud on critics and audiences, but one that had, and indeed has, some legitimate ethical arguments, and rationalizations too, to justify it. Why is using a stunt singer any more dishonest than using a stunt man? Isn’t film about making the audience accept illusions in pursuit of art? If an audience member will be more likely to enjoy a film thinking that a major star can really sing, why is it wrong to make it possible for them to believe that, at least for a while?
The reasoning would have more power if long before Marnie did her secret singing Hollywood hadn’t already made a classic musical, “Singin’ in the Rain,” that pronounced the practice fraudulent. Marni Nixon was a real life Cathy Seldon, the Debbie Reynolds contract player forced to supply the singing and speaking voice for a talentless silent film superstar, Lina Lamont, whose real voice would make dogs run for refuge and men claw off their ears, and whose continued status as a money-making asset for the studio depended on making her successful in talkies.
Ironically, even “Singin’ in the Rain” engaged in the same fraud it was ridiculing. Debbie Reynolds was a competent singer, but a richer, more mature voice was needed to match the image of Jean Hagen, the terrific comic actress playing Lina. So when Debbie was shown secretly replacing Lina’s nightmarish singing voice with her own, another singer was secretly used, uncredited, to dub Debbie. Her voice fit Lina perfectly, because the voice put in Debbie’s mouth while she was supposedly putting her voice into Lina’s was the real voice of… Jean Hagen. Continue reading