In Singin' in the Rain we have a scene which tells all the difficulties of the new sound technology when poor Jean Hagen is wired with a microphone in her costume bodice, which picks up her heartbeat. Her inability to remember to speak directly into the mic later has hysterical consequences for the movie she and Gene Kelly are desperately trying shoot. Conversely, in Sunset Blvd., Gloria Swanson sits for a moment in Cecil B. DeMille’s director’s chair, waiting to speak with him, and a mic on a boom trails lightly over her head as she visits his busy movie set. She looks up at it, first with wary curiosity, like a woman trying to avoid a large bee at a picnic, then her eyes focus in on the vile reminder of the death knell of her silent screen career. She looks at it with revulsion, and lightly pushes it away.
Singin' in the Rain, called by many the best musical ever made, picks up on the camp of a campy era and splashes us not only with the rain falling on Gene Kelly’s dance number, but a collage of 1920s era styles in clothing, slang, and movie business. The dance numbers are colorful and poke gentle fun at the speech coaches, the stunts, a montage of flappers, college boys, gossip columnists, and Hollywood parties. In one such party, a movie screen in the living room of a film mogul shows the astounded partygoers a demonstration of sound recorded on film. In Sunset Blvd., Gloria Swanson’s own ornate, decaying Hollywood mansion also has a movie screen in her living room where she views only her own silent pictures.
Sunset Blvd. is creepy where Singin' in the Rain is cute, and this is due is great part to Swanson’s riveting performance (receiving an Academy Award nomination), and mainly because it was herself she was boldly mocking. It gives us a feeling of discomfort that she is not merely parodying a long-ago era as Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds are doing, poking fun at experiences lived by other people. Swanson shows us her own youth, her own career down the tubes, the dark side of the bubbly era, and the fallout after the destruction. What is remarkable, too, is that 1950, when the film was made, was only twenty years after the end of the silent film era. Barely time for one new generation to take the reins in the entertainment industry and change it, only to look back with disdain and condescension on what came before. William Holden tells her it is no shame to be 50, unless she pretends to be 25. That is not quite true. As we see through repeated remarks of underlings at the studio, she is regarded as a dinosaur. Her crime really is just being 50 in an industry which will always prefer youth.
Singin' in the Rain is as giddy as a senior class play, and Sunset Blvd. is an obituary. Both these films are useful in examining the post-1920s view of the silent film era.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.