Six Damn Fine Degrees #50 – The “True” Story of Lina Lamont

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

They can’t make a fool out of Lina Lamont. They can’t make a laughing stock out of Lina Lamont.

There’s one important lesson that needs to be learnt by any student of Hollywood history: don’t believe the hype. Don’t buy into the spin. And certainly don’t be fooled by popular tales that demonise and blame those that dared to challenge the system.

So I think its high time we asked ourselves what the real story is behind Singin’ In The Rain‘s propaganda. Isn’t it high time we stopped blindly accepting the clearly biased account we’ve been told by the key characters who have a vested interest in making themselves look good?

Stripping away their lies, we very quickly can pinpoint the hard truths. Lina Lamont was one of the preeminent stars of the silent era. Historical romance, westerns, aviation adventure: she was able to turn her hand to anything the studio put her to. And so great were her acting talents that few of the audience that swooned over her perfectly refined performances had an inkling of the rough, working-class background of the star. Only her accent remained, testament to a hard early life in poverty and the chorus line that she’d successfully fought her way out of. There is little in the records to suggest that she was assisted in this by a family or similar support structure. Lina Lamont’s success was all her own.

The greatest beneficiary of her talents was Monumental Pictures, a lesser studio with delusions of being a major player. Lina Lamont was key to this as one of their most lucrative female leads. The studio boss at Monumental was R. F. Simpson, known by his associates simply as “R.F.” Although R.F. liked to style himself as an avuncular figure around the studio, those who worked with him would often remark of his devious, deceitful nature – constantly rewriting history to make himself look good and unashamed to go back on any promise if he thought there was money in it. As rival boss Harry Cohn once said, “What does the ‘R.F.’ stand for? I’ll tell you what for: right ****er”.

It was R.F.’s ruthlessness that helped precipitate Lina Lamont’s downfall. Despite everything she had done for him, and his studio, she was ruthlessly humiliated by a stunt on the opening night of her debut musical film The Duelling Cavalier. But he did not act alone in this tasteless moment of infamy.

Reginald Fortesque Simpson, “a cold-hearted bastard, and that’s me talking.” – Jack Warner

Lina Lamont was to endure an even greater betrayal that night from her co-star and fiancé Don Lockwood. Having helped lift the one-time stuntman from obscurity and into the big leagues as her regular co-star, she was to discover that the slick leading man’s roving eye had landed on a much younger actress and she had become disposable.

Don Lockwood: what did he really say to Lina that made her so convinced their engagement was real?

Some film historians assert that the romance between the two stars was merely a concoction of the film magazines, studio friendly gossip fed to the press. But this seems unlikely, their on-screen chemistry in their silent pictures together is undeniable and Lina Lamont clearly believed the engagement was genuine. Given her no-nonsense working-class upbringing and her years of experience building a career in tinsel town, it seems to stretch credibility that she would be so naive. Whatever Don Lockwood had promised her about their relationship, she clearly felt she’d found an ally and a partner in this harsh world.

Lina and Don, in happier times

Years later in her scandalous tell-all memoir, Monumental Babylon gossip columnist and radio broadcaster Dora Bailey was to pour scorn on the idea that they were ‘just good friends’: “Don’t believe a word that Don Lockwood says about it. I know for a fact that he was obsessed with Lina Lamont. Even as an extra, he kept trying to insinuate himself into her company. A good-looking man like that, with the moves he had? She probably saw the punishment the guy could take daily on the set, and figured she’d found a man who could keep up with her. But once Lockwood’s personal fame matched hers, his roving eye was quick to find a younger, more impressionable actress.”

“The Duelling Cavalier (1928) – an early musical mixed with silent swashbuckling action. But beware the overblown opening!”

Lockwood had another reason to take down his strong-willed co-star. The Duelling Cavalier is a solid, if unspectacular, early musical. It has some nice songs, including the sweet ballad “Would you?”, and the two leads excel in their traditional roles as period romantic lovers. But alongside this, it has one of the weirdest opening sequences from the early sound era: a bizarre, overblown scene set in the ‘modern’ world which establishes Lockwood as a present-day Broadway hoofer, struggling to make it. At least that’s probably what’s going on here. This expensive and nonsensical opening really doesn’t make much sense, and barely fits with the rest of the film. Only when Lockwood’s modern-day character receives a blow on the head, that somehow transports him back in time (yes, really!) does the thing become a recognisable period romance. Quite how Lockwood managed to convince his bosses to plough so much money on this egotistical folly remains a mystery but it seems inconceivable that Lina Lamont would have had any time for it – and it’s telling she doesn’t appear. For Don Lockwood, the risk of his fiancé and co-star having the chutzpah to stand up to his weird flights of fancy wasn’t one he was willing to take.

Both R.F. and Don Lockwood had their motives when it came to now wanting to destroy Lina Lamont’s career. A younger (and cheaper) leading lady to star alongside Lockwood had been found – and a strong, independently-minded silent star now in her thirties – was deemed expendable. They were to cast Lamont in a musical – one of the few genres outside her many talents – and then dub her voice with her replacement. Although initially uncomfortable with the idea, Lina Lamont was one of the first to see the potential in the new technology to allow stars to take on an even greater range of roles, to be an even greater asset to the studio. A success that all parties could profit from. But an independent woman with her own ideas could not be tolerated by the studio.

So, in front of a packed press audience on the first night of the musical’s broadcast, one of early Hollywood’s greatest actresses was betrayed. The preview had been a smash, and the audience was braying for more of what they’d just seen. Ever the professional, Lina Lamont bravely took the stage, to lip-sync a song sung by the person who’d dubbed her voice in the film. Only for the dub to be revealed at the worst possible moment: R.F., Don Lockwood and some piano player deliberately pulling back the curtain behind her to reveal the trickery that the studio had previously forced her to be a part of.

A night of infamy and studio skullduggery

What happened after that humiliation is lost to history and hard to know for certain. The stunt on the night of the Duelling Cavalier fatally damaged her reputation as a serious star and her co-stars and studio boss were quick to spread the rumour that she was “difficult”. With hard gangster pictures just around the corner, she never got the chance to shine alongside the likes of James Cagney as a hard as nails New York broad – the type of role her voice suggests she was born to play. Or even a few years later – the perfect femme fatale, with a sophisticated look belying a hard and ruthless interior born from poverty.

There have been all sorts of rumours, though. One is that she bought a giant ranch in Northern California and spent her days wrestling bulls and taming farmhands. Another that she was involved in the mysterious circumstances surrounding the apparent “suicide” of R.F., leaping from the Monumental Studios sign on the eve of its bankruptcy. When a film magazine in the sixties asked one of her few friends in the industry, Zelda Sanders, the aging one-time darling of the flapper set retorted “Ha! I don’t know where she is, but if I did know I wouldn’t tell you. But what I can tell you that wherever she did end up, with her looks, brains and strength of character, you can bet your lucky stars she’ll be doing well for herself. You can have that for your happy ****ing ending.”

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