Tag Archives: Singin’ in the Rain

José Arroyo in Conversation with Helen Hanson on Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft & Production in the Classical Era

helen3.jpgHelen Hanson is a Professor in Film History at the University of Exeter as well as Academic Director of the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum. I’m a great admirer of Hollywood Soundscapes: Film Sound Style, Craft & Production in the Classical Era,  her new book. Hollywood Soundscapes not only provides us with new knowledge on the craft and production of film sounds styles in the classic era but is also an inspiring example of how to produce methods through which to do so.

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Professor Hanson came to Warwick to talk on Lela Simone, the music supervisor of the great Freed Unit at MGM, and thus responsible for the sound of some of the greatest musicals of all time: An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953) and many others. I sought Professor Hanson out to talk at greater length about her superb book.

The discussion touches on how her initial research question, ‘who were the most significant people working in sound in the classic era?’ changed into an account of how style is framed around structures that develop from group work and the sharing of knowledges. We touch on how the structures surrounding the work and practices of a sound editor in the 1930s might be shaped not only by the technologies that he or she was using but also forms of knowledge, professional networks and the conventions and expectations of the work.

One of the wonderful aspects of Hollywood Soundscapes is how we get detailed accounts of stereophonic sound systems that did not quite succeed. We touch on the Vitasound system which added speakers and amplified sound and also on the Fantasound system Walt Disney developed for Fantasia, two examples on which there is a much more extended and detailed account in the book itself.

The discussion ranges from  what constituted ‘ear appeal’ at any point in time to what she would advise a beginner to look for if he or she wanted to analyse and better understand the ways in which sound is created and deployed in film.

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The conversation touches on generic expectations in relation to the crafting of soundscapes. Sound technicians had a sense of how to shape the sound for different genres. When mixing the sound for a drama, for example, they looked for high contrast sound. For comedy, there was a tendency to seek a louder sound mix. But different studios had different practice conventions. Warners, for example,  liked to record wild sounds.

Hanson notes that, ‘The networks of professional and personal relationships made me understand how multi-talented technicians were. They understood aesthetics, technologies and economics. They understood how to please management.’

I hope the podcast sparks an interest in reading Hollywood Soundscapes, a very considerable contribution to what we know about sound in the classic era and an equally great contribution to methods of how to go about finding out more. The podcast can be listened to below:

 

José Arroyo

A Thought on Singin’ in the Rain (Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen, USA, 1952)

Fit as a fiddle
Fit as a fiddle

I recently saw Singin’ in the Rain with friends for the umpteenth time and had a great discussion on how, great as it is, there are things not quite up to the heights of the very greatest musicals much less to the very greatest of films, claims for the film repeated in practically every Sight and Sound list of top films since the 60s. As Peter Wollen writes in his BFI classic on the film, ‘In the 1962 Sight and Sound poll, only one critic named Singin’ in the Rain on his ‘Top Ten’ list. In 1972, there were five. In 1982, seventeen listed Singin’ in the Rain and it now came fourth overall, running immediately ahead of Fellini’s 8 1/2., Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and Hitchcock’s Vertigo (p.52). It’s now a familiar resident of top ten lists, often the only musical to figure.

Someone once said comparing Singing in the Rain to Meet Me in St. Louis was like comparing Kurosawa to Ozu ,suggesting that it was like comparing apples and oranges and yet people do keep insisting on how Ozu is a superior type of…well, director. I do wonder, if the film wasn’t so obviously a loving mythologizing of cinema whether film fans would hold it in such high esteem. The film’s movie love is a driver for their own; one which they eagerly take to.

Singing’ in the Rain has its obvious delights; the opening sequence right up to the ‘dignity, always dignity’ montage is wonderful. Jean Hagen’s Lina Lamont is a treasure above rubies and endlessly quotable ( I am the most brilliant star in the fih-mah-mehnt; I ca-iiint stahhnd it’); Donald O’Connor in general but his ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ number in particular is a joy; the play on sound and image; the jokes about the mike; the dazzling ending camera movement in the ‘Broadway Ballet’ with Kelly riding the crane and the camera then moving in to his close-up; and of course, the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ number, now become an iconic metaphor for Hollywood Cinema itself; all are wonderful.

The film is undoubtedly great. But is it as great as all that? When I scare my friends by insisting on showing them the very greatest of musical numbers, I never include any from this film. Moreover, isn’t Kelly just a teensy weensy bit hammy; aren’t the songs a bit derivative and unexceptional?; should the theft of Cole Porter’s ‘Be A Clown’ for ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ be forgiven?; isn’t Debbie Reynolds a bit too bland to be the new ‘most brilliant star in the fih-mah-mehnt’? isn’t it a problem that the only bits one remembers of that endless ‘Broadway Ballet’ aside from its ending are the few minutes Cyd Charisse is in it? Doesn’t the film’s relentless kidding of  Lina Lamont finally turn into outright and unpleasant meanness in the final revelation? I think so.

José Arroyo