Hollywood: Breaking the Sound Barrier

Mark Juddery looks at the historical backdrop to the much-loved 1950s Hollywood musical, Singin’ in the Rain in which Hollywood tells its own story of the arrival of sound to the big screen.

Singin’ in the Rain frequently appears high on lists of the ‘greatest’ films ever made, whether voted by movie buffs, critics, or both (it was voted best on-screen musical by a 2006 American Film Institute poll and came eighth in Empire magazine’s 2008 best film poll). The reason seems quite simple: it is perhaps the finest and most enjoyable example of its genre. Halliwell’s Film Guide suggests that it has ‘the catchiest tunes, the liveliest choreography, the most engaging performances and the most hilarious jokes of any musical’. But its status as the greatest film musical was slow to take root.

When it was released in 1952, despite good reviews and box-office success, there were no such claims. At the time, musicals were in decline due to the burgeoning popularity of television. By the end of the decade the age of the ‘classic’ movie musical – the modern-day, romantic fairytale with a score of popular songs to break up the (often wafer-thin) plot – was over. Since then, acclaimed musicals like West Side Story (1961), The Sound of Music (1965) and even nostalgic films like Chicago (2002) have seemed to belong to a different genre. Based on successful Broadway shows, despite their humorous moments, these had a darker edge.

Singin’ in the Rain has an inventive plot, far more sophisticated than others of its era, but typical for its time it is ultimately a love story between Don Lockwood, an established screen actor attempting to adjust to the talkies, and the rising star Kathy Selden, played by the 18-year-old Debbie Reynolds. A Hollywood backstage comedy about an industry in transition, the film responded to a fashionable craze for 1920s’ nostalgia.

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