R.F: Every studio's doing it. All the theaters are putting in sound equipment. Don: But we know nothing about it—! R.F. What's to know? You do what you always did! Just add talking to it!
A classic 1952 film from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, considered by many to be the greatest Hollywood musical ever made — certainly, containing one of the most iconic production numbers in live-action cinema history. In a nutshell, what happened when legendary screenwriters Comden & Green were given the keys to the MGM music vaults and told to pound out a script based on what they found inside.note The only totally original song in the film is the novelty number "Moses Supposes". "Make 'em Laugh" is generally considered a rip-off of Cole Porter's "Be a Clown", though he never complained.The result is a light but sledgehammer-accurate comedy set during the transition from silent film to talkies in the twenties — a period of major upheaval in the movie industry, as stars learned to cope with the novel concept of 'talking' and all its attendant requirements. Chief among them being, of course, that now they had to act.Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is the undisputed king of silent Hollywood, one-half of the A-list team "Lockwood & Lamont." His partner is Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a bottle-blonde, bubble-brained diva whose ego has long since turned Don off any idea of carrying the romance offscreen, despite studio pressure. Lina, however, is undaunted.On the whole, though, Don's got not much to complain about. He's the George Clooney of his day: rich, debonair, enjoying the perks of celebrity life to the hilt. Among them is his loyal lifelong friend, wisecracking studio musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), who is just tactful enough to keep quiet about the duo's past as a failed vaudeville dance team.Then, fleeing a mob of fans one night, Don's rescued by self-described "serious actress" Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). She not only proves immune to his advances but accuses him of having no artistic substance whatsoever. Don is incensed, but her words prove prophetic with the unexpected rise of The Jazz Singer. Don's studio abruptly (as in mid-take) decides to make the current Lockwood & Lamont picture a "talkie" too. Cue frantic — and cringe-worthy — attempts on everyone's part to come to grips with the new technical requirements. Unfortunately, no tech in the world can fix Lina's voice, a shrill Brooklyn screechcompletely at odds with her silent image as a refined leading lady.Faced with utter ruin when the now-wildly anachronistic The Dueling Cavalier is hooted down at a test screening, Don, Cosmo and Kathy cook up a plan so wild it just might work: convert the whole mess into a fantasy musical. Of course, Don's erstwhile co-star can't sing any better than she can speak. Thus, inspired by a synchronization accident during the screening, Cosmo also invents dubbing, and arranges for Kathy to secretly record all of Lina's songs and dialogue. Inevitably, Lina discovers the ruse and cites breach of contact, using it as leverage to threaten to ruin everyone's careers and potentially seize the studio. Maybe she's not as dumb as she looks...Will Kathy be forced to give up her dreams? Or will the power of True Love win out over studio greed? And will Cosmo ever get to "start suffering and write that symphony"?The scene in which Don sings and dances in the rain after his relationship with Kathy finally takes off is well known even to people who have never seen the movie, and much parodied.
Almighty Janitor & Been There, Shaped History: Cosmo is clearly the greatest technical genius in cinema history. Starting as a lowly pianist for sappy love scenes, Cosmo single-handedly rescues an unreleasable picture in post-production by splicing it into a different movie (paving the way for Cut-and-Paste Translation); comes up with the idea of using playback to dub new lines into existing scenes; invents lip-synching on the fly; invents the movie musical; and just generally saves the entire studio from going bankrupt. "Gimme a raise", indeed.
Bad Bad Acting: Cosmo and Don (Don even admits it to Kathy), both humorously and charmingly; Lina, not so much on either count. Don takes it a little too far in the original version of The Dueling Cavalier, to the point where he actually manages to give an even less convincing performance than Lina. Woof.
The Beautiful Elite: Given this is Hollywood, of course the cast is of good looking people. The "Beautiful Girls" number is all about this.
Lina: [after a take] Oh, Donnie...you couldn't kiss me like that and not mean it! Don: Behold the world's greatest actor! I'd rather kiss a tarantula! Lina: Oh, you don't mean that. Don: I don't...? Hey, Joe, get me a tarantula!
Big Applesauce / The Big Rotten Apple: In "Broadway Melody", a rube with aspirations of being a Broadway star (Don) arrives in Manhattan and quickly gains fame, at the expense of his innocence. The sequence ends on a hopeful note, with an identical nerd in glasses greeting a tuxedo-clad Don, continuing the cycle.
Broken Aesop: In-universe. Cosmo has a cute moment of this early on, when he tries explaining to Don that the psedo-romance with Lina is the price of fame:
Cosmo: Now, you've got the glory. You gotta take the little heartaches that go with it. (Beams) Now look at me.... I got no glory. I got no fame—I got no big mansions! I got no money! But I got—! (Beat) What have I got?
Butt Monkey: The diction coach during the number "Moses Supposes" gets basically shoved around by Don and Cosmo.
Captain Obvious: The man in the "talking picture" demonstration. Justified somewhat as he is trying his best to sell a totally new and unknown concept, and even then the party-goers don't quite get the idea at first.
Hello. This is a demonstration of a talking picture. Notice: it is a picture of me, and I am talking. Note how my lips and the sound issuing from them are synchronized together in perfect unison."
Career Killer / Creator Killer: Both tropes are In-Universe, as the preview of The Dueling Cavelier is disastrous, and has the potential to wreck the studio and the careers of everyone involved.
Chandelier Swing: Don's character does one during his climactic fight scene in The Royal Rascal (which is actually, like much of the footage shown of Royal Rascal, from the real-life 1948 version of The Three Musketeers).
Costume Porn: A movie premiere in the film's opening, gleefully skewering the red carpet fashions of the time; Don himself is dressed like Humphrey Bogart by way of P. Diddy. The "Beautiful Girls" sequence is another tongue-in-cheek example.
Don: A movie? Didn't we just see one? Cosmo: You have to show a movie at a party. It's a Hollywood law.
Kathy has her moments, especially when she's driving Don to his home (at the corner of Camden Drive and Sunset Boulevard):
Kathy: Oh, no offense. Movies are entertaining enough for the masses but the personalities on the screen just don't impress me. I mean they don't talk, they don't act, they just make a lot of dumb show. Well, you know (she does some major leaguesilent acting ) — like that.
Disney Acid Sequence: The "Broadway Melody" and "Beautiful Girls" numbers, both of which come from waaaaaaay out in left field stylistically. Though setpieces like those were pretty common in movie musicals of that era.
Dream Ballet: Once Don's character strikes it rich in the "Broadway Melody" sequence, he bumps into Cyd Charisse a second time. In Don's imaginings, the dancer turns into a long-haired ingenue who flies into his arms; a far cry from the reality, which is a floozy.
In "Good Morning", Don, Kathy, and Cosmo dance with their raincoats and hats.
In "Make 'Em Laugh", Cosmo dances with a wall and a dummy.
The Family for the Whole Family: Cyd Charisse plays the flirtatious moll of a mute, coin-flipping mobster with a scarred face, a la Al Capone. His goons flip coins, too. Ooh, scary. Later, when Don tries his luck with the dancer again, she answers him with a coin flip. Drat.
Fangirl: A crowd of them rip apart Don's clothing at the beginning of the movie. The fans at the red carpet are also hilariously overenthusiastic.
The movie starts off at the premiere of Don's and Lina's fictional The Royal Rascal. The footage shown is actually from a real film called The Three Musketeers (1948) starring Gene Kelly - which is in color and has sound.
The movie depicts the troubles in making the fictional movie The Duelling Cavalier, later changed to The Dancing Cavalier.invoked
Two real-life movies are being referenced. The Jazz Singer (the first talkie) is mentioned. And in the final shot we see a billboard advertising Don Lockwood and Kathy Seldon, in a picture called...wait for it...Singin' in the Rain.
Honest Corporate Executive: R.F. is actually very supportive of Don and Cosmo's plan for The Dueling Cavalier and helps however he can, plans to push Kathy into the spotlight once The Dueling Cavalier is released, and helps Don and Cosmo reveal Lina as a fraud with visible glee.
Iron Butt Monkey: Don started off his Hollywood Career by being a stuntman. Stunts included driving off a cliff on a motorcycle and entering an exploding shed. invoked
Cosmo risks life and limb in the name of "Make 'Em Laugh". The sequence exhausted O'Connor to the point of becoming deliriously ill.
Jukebox Musical: As was the style for original movie musicals at the time, the songs were all written before the movie was made. There are, if you listen to the score, absolutely no proper nouns in any of the songs (except for "Moses Supposes," a nonsense song and, as previously mentioned, the only one original to the film).
Let Me Get This Straight: Lina, summing up the plan to get her singing dubbed on stage: "You mean, she'll be back of the curtain singing, and I'll be out in front doing .. .. like in the picture?"
Love Makes You Crazy: In this case, it makes formerly cynical Hollywood stars (currently wearing expensive suits) toss their umbrellas aside to go dancing and swinging and splashing ecstatically through torrential downpours, all the while singing about how they don't care! because they're just that happy to be in love.
Narm: An in-universe example: The Dueling Cavalier is supposed to be a serious romantic drama, but the introduction of sound and the technical limitations that it imposes, with no knowledge of how to adapt, unintentionally turn it into a hilarious disaster. This was a lot of Truth in Television too, as many films did suffer both commercially and artistically when sound was first introduced.
Nerd Glasses: Don's character in the "Broadway Melody" sequence.
No Celebrities Were Harmed: R.F. is an affectionate parody of producer Alan Freed, right down to his catchphrase "I can't quite visualize it..."
In the montage for the new talkies, one of the singers is a Rudy Vallee impersonator.
Olga Mara is an amalgam of Pola Negri and Theda Bara; Zelda Zanders is a cross between Clara Bow and early career Joan Crawford.
No Song for the Wicked: Lina has no singing number, just a brief sound test. Justified in that much of the plot of the film revolves around the fact that her singing voice is godawful.
Not so Above It All: Shocked at Don just leaping into her car, Kathy claims not to have heard of him. Then she later fesses up that she's seen most of his films.
Oh Crap: Everyone's excited about moving into the talking picture business... until they're reminded about Lina's voice.
Old Shame: In-universe example. Don would much prefer to forget his days hoofing it as a vaudevillian with Cosmo, as well as his big break as a stuntman.
Pie in the Face: Kathy tries to whack Don with one... and gets Lina instead, unfortunately for her (as Lina gets her fired for it). This is lampshaded in Kathy's comment as she does it: "Here's one thing I've learned from the movies!"
Pimped-Out Dress: Quite a few, this being the era in which this trend reached full flower. One of the dresses in the opening red carpet scene is covered in ermine tails as though it was fringe. Later, we see a montage of the very latest Jazz Age fashions as part of the "Beautiful Girls" production number. Lina's last dress has a skirt covered in feathers (and the rest of it is completely covered in silver sequins).
Lina's dress in The Dueling Cavalier fits the mold of 18th century dresses, being covered with frills and flowers (which isn't that far off from the real dresses of that time, except they were even more decorated).
Plucky Comic Relief: At Don's side is his lifelong sidekick, wisecracking studio musician Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), whose tact fortunately extends at least as far as keeping quiet about their days as a failed vaudeville dance team.
Pretty in Mink: Several fur wraps and capes are worn, especially in the opening scene where we see an ermine cape paired with a dress trimmed with ermine tales, a full length chinchilla cape, and Lina's cape trimmed with white fox. The collar on the last one is pretty big, to frame her glamorous (but silent) face for the crowd.
Recycled Script: In-universe, The Royal Rascal and The Dueling Cavalier are pretty much the same film before the latter's turned into a musical. Several comments from various characters imply that this is in no way unusual for Lockwood and Lamont's films: "If you've seen one, you've seen them all."
Re Tool: The Dueling Cavalier becomes a musical after terrible previews.
Romantic Rain: The titular song comes when a lovestruck Don goes skipping through a heavy rain after parting from Kathy, and the two lovebirds started a new life with their First Kiss at the doorstep while it was raining.
Gets confusing (and funnier) when you find out that Jean Hagen (who played Lina) actually does some dubbing for Debbie Reynolds (who played Kathy). So Jean Hagen dubs Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen.
Not only that, but in the song "You Are My Lucky Star" Reynolds is actually dubbed by Betty Noyes (although not because Reynolds' voice was no good), which is ironic, considering the premise of the movie.
Sanity Ball: The one time Lina is on track about something is during the Dueling Cavalier filming scenes, when she finally gets fed up and exclaims "WELL I CAN'T MAKE LOVE TO A BUSH!" when she's trying to do her lines since she has to turn to Don when she speaks to him.
Second Face Smoke: In the "Broadway Ballet" sequence, done to Don's character by Cyd Charisse's vamp.
She's Got Legs: In the "Broadway Ballet" extravaganza, Cyd Charisse's entrance is marked by her slowly handing Gene Kelly his hat back after he drops it... using one of her very long, very beautiful legs to do it.
Shout-Out: Don's first musical film, The Dancing Cavalier, is about a modern guy who gets knocked out and dreams of being an aristocrat in old-time France. In real life, this was the premise of the 1943 musical film DuBarry Was A Lady, which was Gene Kelly's first musical film for MGM.
Cosmo's "Ridi, Pagliacci, ridi!" before "Make 'Em Laugh". (Translation: "Laugh, clown, laugh!") Pagliaccinote Pronounced "Pal-Yat-Chee" was an Opera fairly well-known at the time.
Stylistic Suck: The preview for The Dueling Cavalier was this to a degree. It was still largely based on how silent films fell flat when sound was slapped on them, including adapting real incidents. It's just that all those incidents happened over several films, while the preview scene put them all in one movie.
The Voiceless: Implemented (briefly) at the beginning of the film: the viewer doesn't hear Lina speak for the first time until the funniest possible moment.
Waiting for a Break: Don and Cosmo in the opening narration, later mirrored in the "Broadway Melody" number. In both versions, Don ekes out a living in pool halls and Vaudeville before graduating to the big leagues.
What Could Possibly Go Wrong?: The studio boss doesn't see the problem with just adding sound to silent movies, and just asked that it be slapped on a film already in production. The preview of that film is a big wake-up call to the folly of that idea.
Who Writes This Crap?!: During the disastrous screening for "The Dueling Cavalier", someone in the audience asked if someone was paid to write the dialog, when ironically no one was. Don found the scripted line too difficult to say and asked permission to ad-lib. Whoops.
Woman in White: Cyd Charrise's dancer swaps her green cocktail dress for a white gown in the casino "Broadway Melody" number. Don's character enters a dream sequence where he imagines her a virginal, ballet-dancing beauty. But she hasn't really changed.
World of Ham: From the opening reel to the end credits. The Dueling Cavalier director, Roscoe Dexter, probably takes the cake.