Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Musicals (With a Twist)

It’s time for the fifth installment of Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure!  As a reminder, here’s what the series is all about: The first film I discuss is one of arguably obvious cinematic merit–the sort of thing taught in Introduction to Film courses, featured on “Top 100 Yadda Yadda” lists, or winning awards at fancy events that include speeches and extensive song-and-dance numbers.  The second film I discuss is one that doesn’t have the cinematic gravitas of, say, Citizen Kane, but that remains a personal favorite for other reasons: cult films, films from my youth, or films simply so bad they’re good.

This week’s theme: Musicals (With a Twist)!

I’ve loved movie musicals since I was a little girl.  My maternal grandmother had a VHS collection of classic dramas and musicals that I pillaged on sick days and weekend visits.  More often than not I found myself returning to my regular rotation of musicals: Mary Poppins, Gigi, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Singin’ in the Rain.  (Side note: Gigi loses some of its charm once you’re old enough to really understand what Gaston is asking of naive little Gigi).  Over the years I’ve watched all kinds of musicals, from the classic, graceful productions directed by Mark Sandrich (Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee, etc.), to the more frenetic contemporary movie musicals by Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballrom, Moulin Rouge). 

As a child I watched My Fair Lady countless times, only to realize years later that Audrey Hepburn was dubbed by Marni Nixon (Hepburn’s only contribution to the soundtrack was her performance of “Just You Wait,” the most abrasive and aggressive number in the film). Indeed, Marni Nixon is the voice behind some of my favorite musical performances, including the voice of Maria in West Side Story and Anna in The King and I.  As you might suspect, this month’s Cinema Treasure/Guilty Pleasure examines two movie musicals that feature dubbing.

Cinema Treasure: Singin’ in the Rain (1952), directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen.  Starring: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.

Long before The Artist examined the trauma of the silent-to-talkie transition, Singin’ in the Rain did–and with beautiful songs, complicated dance numbers, and a witty script.  Gene Kelly’s turn as Don Lockwood is probably his most well-known and, indeed, iconic performance.  This energetic, joyful production also features strong performances from the supporting cast, including the charming Debbie Reynolds (as Don’s love interest, Kathy Selden), and Donald O’Connor (as Don’s hysterical best friend, Cosmo Brown).  Jean Hagen is squeaky perfection as Lina Lamont, Don’s costar with a voice that won’t survive the talkie revolution. As Lamont schemes to save her career, Selden finds herself serving as a vocal stand-in for the greedy starlet.

The great irony of Singin’ in the Rain is that it actually uses dubbing quite a bit!  The plot of the film centers around Reynolds/Selden dubbing Hagen/Lamont’s speaking and singing, but in reality Hagen had a lovely speaking voice.  When it appears that Reynolds is dubbing Hagen’s speaking voice, it’s actually Hagen dubbing Reynolds dubbing Hagen!  Meanwhile Reynolds was dubbed by Betty Noyes for the song “Would You?”  Reynolds’ biography also indicates that Noyes contributed the vocals to “You Are My Lucky Star,” as well.  Makes your head spin, doesn’t it?

Things I love: Gene Kelly’s effortless charm in every scene; Donald O’Connor’s nonstop, full-throttle dance number “Make ‘Em Laugh”; the endlessly quotable script.

Guilty Pleasure:  Cry-Baby (1990), directed by John Waters.  Starring: Johnny Depp, Ricki Lake, Amy Locane.

Like all of John Waters’ works, Cry-Baby is a fantastically campy movie that revels in debauchery and glorifies society’s misfits.  Johnny Depp plays Cry-Baby Walker, the leader of a Greaser gang, who falls for a square named Allison (Amy Locane). Cry-Baby woos Allison with song and dance, and she must choose to either be good (a Square) or bad (a Greaser).  The film takes all the tropes of 1950s juvenile delinquent films and pushes them to their acme, filling the frame with car chases, necking teenagers, and rockabilly music.  Cry-Baby also boasts an amazing cast of real-life misfits, from rocker Iggy Pop to adult film star Traci Lords (and even an appearance by Patty Hearst).

Fans of Depp’s turn as the Demon Barber in Sweeney Todd might be surprised to learn that his vocals were dubbed for Cry-Baby.  Though John Waters thought Depp had a nice voice, he wanted consistency throughout the film (and, presumably, through the demanding number of original songs), so the vocals were dubbed by rockabilly singer James Intveld.  Amy Locane’s vocals were also dubbed, so both she and Depp received lip-synch training. Depp agreed to dance in the film, though viewers will notice that most dance sequences cut away from him or move to medium shots that focus on his upper body (this is particularly noticeable in the “Doin’ Time for Being Young” number).

Things I love: The sexy, ridiculous amazingness that is the “Please, Mr. Jailer” sequence; Johnny Depp’s wardrobe of white shirts and leather jackets; the mix of classic ’50s songs like “Mister Sandman” and original songs like “King Cry Baby.”

7 thoughts on “Cinema Treasure Guilty Pleasure: Musicals (With a Twist)

  1. Got here from Alex (@filmforager). Nice writing. I think that Jean Hagen gave such an underappreciated performance in SITR. It’s only because the stars above the marquee did such a phenomenal job. Love her.

    Hatchet Face, right up there with Patti Smith, is one of most conventionally unattractive women I’ve ever had a crush on. Also, Don’t Blink. Don’t turn your back or look away or you’ll miss Willem Dafoe!

    • Thanks for dropping by! I agree that Jean Hagen is completely underrated in SITR. She delivers ridiculous lines with such conviction; she’s the perfect dumb starlet. (“than Calvin Coolidge, put TOGETHER!”). So fantastic.

      If you like Hatchet Face you should watch the special features on the DVD release of Cry-Baby–there’s some interesting interviews with her and a LOT of the other cast members and crew!

  2. Nice combo, I never thought to link these by their use of dubbing! I always thought that Reynolds’ dubbing in SitR was one of the craziest ironies, especially since I didn’t find out about it until after I’d seen the film several times. And actually I didn’t know Hagen dubbed that bit at the end (“Our love will last until the stars turn cold”, I assume?), and here I thought I knew all the main trivia about the movie! Most importantly though, thanks for commenting on O’Connor’s greatness. He will forever be my future husband, and I don’t even believe in marriage OR necrophilia.

    I find CRY-BABY incredibly re-watchable, especially with its catchy soundtrack. I still think it’s weird that the Broadway version (which I dragged several family members to out of my Waters Musical Appreciation duty) didn’t use any of the same songs, the soundtrack was completely re-done. Seemed too like a strange choice to me.

    • Donald O’Connor never got the full attention he deserved, especially with Singin’ in the Rain. I was pleased as punch when Joseph Gordon-Levitt performed the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number on SNL–he even did the big laugh and the wall jumps! It’s good to know O’Connor is still appreciated by some in the industry.

      Re: Cry-Baby the stage production: I never saw it, sadly, and I had no idea they changed the songs. Perhaps they felt the songs didn’t lend themselves to group productions? It seems an odd choice to me as well.

  3. I never realized that all those voices were all the same person! Thank you for putting Singing in the Rain first and giving great historical/cinematic context

  4. I love “Singin’ In the Rain.” I’ve always thought Cosmo got the best lines. “Cry-Baby” is a great tribute to the 1950s is a far better than the film version of “Grease.” The opening curtain at the start of the movie was brilliant. I also love that they set up who the characters are in the first few minutes of the movie without a line of dialogue.

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