We’re always hearing about the impact of media upon our world.
As anyone who has seen Singin’ in the Rain can tell you, new media –such as talking pictures in the late 1920s—can cause a complete upheaval not just within an industry, but also in the broader culture as well.
This may seem like an unlikely preamble to The King’s Speech. Before I saw the film I read speculation that Colin Firth might be the Helen Mirren of 2010, winning an Oscar for a royal portrayal.
But nevermind Oscar & the Academy. Nevermind the art of cinema. I have to think that Marshall McLuhan would have loved this film, a virtual gloss on his ideas about media & culture.
…And King George VI is the collateral damage of the media revolution, a man who in a previous century could have safely kept his stammer away from the public simply by posing on his horse or on the balcony of Buckingham Palace.
But that’s no longer enough, as Doctor Emmett Brown told us in the first Back to the Future film. Looking at Marty McFly’s camcorder he said “no wonder your president has to be an actor; he’s gotta look good on television.”
Reagan ascended the American throne a half-century after George VI. Actually television is much easier now than what poor Bertie had to endure in the golden age of wireless broadcasting. There were no teleprompters. Radio was so new that no one really had any notion they were witnessing the birth of a new discipline with new rules. The best professionals adapted the skillsets they’d identified for actors and orators. No one had yet had Doc Brown’s epiphany, in recognizing that the skills of film actors would be required for world leaders in the public eye through the media.
We observe that with the paradigm shift of talkies, the silent stars Lockwood & Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain must learn the craft of speech for their new talking picture. First, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) is being instructed to little effect by coach Phoebe Dinsmore (Kathleen Freeman).
Then it’s the turn of Don Lockwood. After a series of absurd tongue-twisters (such as “arr-ound the rr-ocks the rrugged rrascal rran”) Don (Gene Kelly) and his pal Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) finally erupt in a fit of absurdity against the absurdities imposed upon them by their diction teacher.
“Moses supposes his toeses are roses,
but Moses supposes erroneously.
Moses he knowses his toeses aren’t roses
as Moses supposes his toeses to be.”
I never appreciated this silly song until recently. The song in some respects resembles a jazzy vocalise, an eruption of anarchy in response to the vocal discipline. The voice is such a fascinating instrument –not unlike the dancer’s body—in the way the artist inhabits their instrument. We become aware that the distinction we’ve habitually made between sense and nonsense –as in the silly song—breaks down when we deliberately work our instrument minus any content.
The King’s Speech has an additional subtext concerning ability and disability, depending on your personal history, a subtext that will be much more powerful if you see the film in a big theatre rather than at home on DVD. If you’ve ever had an injury or helped rehabilitate a loved-one through some disability to their speech, their vision, their ability to walk, then you understand the communication barrier that sometimes separates the care-giver from the patient.
When we learn most things, our teacher can explain what we need to do, as for example when our mathematics teacher illustrates what we must do in a particular operation. But what if we were being taught by someone whose competence places them on the other side of a virtual wall? If the teacher asks us to take some steps without the ability to describe how we could possibly resume walking, our failure may magnify that wall in our minds. The unrealistic expectations of doctors, practioners & caregivers of the past could be very damaging.
The King’s Speech sits on the boundary between that unfortunate past and the modern era of more compassionate caregivers. To me this is the most significant drama in the film, even if it is resolved more or less in passing as if it were merely a sub-plot. I think most people would say that the main action of the film concerns George VI’s role in Britain’s fight against Fascism.
And now, while we’re considering The King’s Speech, you might find it interesting to hear The King’s Speech.