100 Years 100 Movies: Tinseltown Talkies

I have a confession to make. I recently started one of those pesky tags on Facebook. After having only read 16 books from a list of 100 literary classics that Kristen passed on to me, I created a "100 Movies" variation of my own using AFI's 100 Years 100 Movies list. I was surprised to discover that I had only seen 36, and determined I needed to get on the ball if I still wanted to consider myself a movie buff (yet I'm not all that concerned about the low number of books I have read—go figure). Based on my own wish list, and some recommendations from some of my fellow Facebookers, I started putting several movies on hold at the library.

My ongoing familiarization with classic American cinema seems like a logical subject for a periodical series on our blog, so here we are. For my inaugural post, the first pair of movies we watched are actually about making movies, or more specifically, Hollywood's transition from silent films to "talking pictures." They even came out around the same time (the early '50s), but that is where the similarities end, as their approach to the topic couldn't be more different.

5. Singin' In The Rain (1952)

Even though Kristen does her best to turn our lives into a musical with frequent, improvised song and dance routines, we don't really consider ourselves fans of the musical genre. Singin' In the Rain is arguably the granddaddy of all musicals, but my only prior knowledge of the film involved a certain someone swinging on a lamp post. The premise of the film revolves around Hollywood's humorous initial attempts to encorporate sound in movies. Many silent stars are finding this transition to be a difficult one, particularly Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and his squeaky voiced co-star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). But let me assure you, any conflict is merely perfunctory as this is about as light-hearted and optimistic as a movie can get. Admittedly, the incessantly cheerful tone isn't really my cup of tea, but the sheer skill and dexterity on display during the musical numbers is something to behold. Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" is a body contorting, show stopping highlight. And like me, whether or not you have ever seen Singin' In the Rain, everyone is familiar with Kelly's iconic performance of the title song on a deserted street in a rain storm. Kristen and I have been mimicking Kelly's broad, toothy smile ever since.
Rod: Lina, you're a beautiful woman. Audiences think you've got a voice to match. The studio's gotta keep their stars from looking ridiculous at any cost.
Cosmo: Nobody's got that much money.

16. Sunset Boulevard (1950)

By contrast, Sunset Boulevard is a much more cynical, biting look at the dark side of Hollywood, so naturally I preferred it to Singin' In The Rain. The story is told from the perspective of Joe Gillis (William Holden), a young, down on his luck writer who has a chance encounter Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), an aging, forgotten star of the silent film era. In a town without pity, these two desperate individuals find solace in each other's arms. But as Gillis begins to look for a way out of this trap that is closing in around him, the wheels of the inevitable, tragic conclusion are set in motion. The black & white film noir stylings, along with Holden's hard boiled, posthumous narration perfectly captures the plight of the Hollywood screenwriter, and gives the film its conflicted soul. As for the other lead, at first glance, Swanson's performance is overly theatrical to the point of distraction, but that is who the character is, so it works. Her creepy glare has also become a fun face for Kristen and I to make at each other, followed of course by a Gene Kelly smile—or better yet, a combination of both.
Joe Gillis: You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.
Norma Desmond: I am big. It's the pictures that got small.


Krissy said...

Just thinking about Gene Kelly's goofy smile irritates me. I realize that if I were singing and tap-dancing in the streets, I'd probably look crazy, too. But they wouldn't make movies about that.

Jess said...

Glad to see Prof. Johnson's Introduction to Film course has enhanced your persona.