Don Lockwood is one of the brightest stars in the silent film universe. He's dashing, he's smug, and he knows how to rock a pair of plaid knickers. He's also a self-admitted ham who's desperate to become a real actor and earn some gosh darn dignity.
Dignity, Always Dignity; Or, You Know, Whatever
Let's be real: Don's a bit of a con man. He establishes this from the jump. At the premiere of The Royal Rascal, he enchants the crowd by recounting his sophisticated upbringing. He's always had one motto, he tells the mob of movie fans. In fact, he repeats it three times: "Dignity. Always dignity."
The problem is, Don's upbringing, as revealed through flashbacks, doesn't jibe with the tale he's telling. At all. Not even a little bit. He talks about performing for his parents' fancy society friends, for example, while we see him and Cosmo hoofing for some dudes in a smoky pool hall. Don's so desperate for dignity that he's willing to counterfeit it. As far as personal mantras go, "Fake it 'til you make it" seems more apropos for Don.
It's Not Personal, It's (Show) Business
While he can fool the rabid readership of Screen Digest, Don can't fool himself. That's why, when he meets Kathy, it's so easy for her to take him down a peg or two (or ten). His façade is cracking. When she claims that movie stars are less dignified than stage actors and that "they don't talk, they don't act, they just make a lot of dumb show," it really gets to Don. She wasn't even talking about Don's talent (or lack thereof) in particular, yet he still takes it personally.
Before he met Kathy, Don bought into his own Hollywood hype. Not all of it, of course. Unlike Lina, he didn't believe that he and Lina were in love simply because the fan rags said so. But he was totally cool with perpetuating the myth of his backstory and essentially making the same movie over and over for Monumental Pictures. Check out this exchange that goes down when Don tells Cosmo about his follow-up to The Royal Rascal, another silent period piece called The Dueling Cavalier:
COSMO: Why bother to shoot this film? Why not release the old one under a new title? You've seen one, you've seen them all
DON: Hey, what'd you say that for?
COSMO: What's the matter?
DON: That's what that Kathy Selden said to me that night.
COSMO: That's three weeks ago. You still thinking about that?
DON: Well, I can't get her out of my mind.
COSMO: How could you? She's the first dame who hasn't fallen for your line since you were four.
In short, Kathy shakes Don up something fierce. He starts to question who he is and what he wants. Suddenly, faking it until he makes it isn't good enough anymore. Don wants to make it for real and he wants some self-respect. He also wants to make Kathy his lady. His main squeeze. His boo. His—okay, you get the point.
Behind Every Good Don There's a Kathy
Don digs Kathy because she's authentic and ambitious, two things he used to be. It doesn't hurt that she's the total opposite of Lina, either. After Don and Kathy apologize to each other for their disastrous first meeting, they start falling in love immediately. (Because movies.) Don wants to confess his feelings to Kathy, but he can't.
DON: I'm trying to say something to you, but I'm such a ham, I guess I'm not able to do it without the proper setting.
Then he corrals her onto an empty soundstage, shoves her up a ladder, calls it a balcony, and fires up a humongous wind machine.
If that seems messed up, it's because it is. Don's been in Tinsel Town so long that he has a hard time delineating what's real from what's pretend. He can't operate in the outside world; his game only works in a contrived, "perfect" setting. Here's the thing, though: Don's soundstage seduction of Kathy is also a promising step in the right direction. No, really.
Think about it: What did Don do before he got sucked into the Hollywood machine? He was a song and dance man. And how does he express his innermost feelings and desires to Kathy on that soundstage, after he cranks up "5000 KW of stardust"? He sings and dances. He shows some genuine Don. And it works. It cements their relationship.
Later, when Cosmo has the bright idea to the turn The Dueling Cavalier into a musical, Don jumps on board. He's eager to return to his roots as a dancer, and he's excited to finally break out of his powdered-wigs-and-pantaloons period piece rut. These are high risk, high reward choices that P.K. (Pre-Kathy) Don likely would not have made.
Don Lockwood 2.0
As Don falls further in love with Kathy, he salvages more and more pieces of his true self. Before he can do that, he has to fall a little. Here he is after the disastrous run-through with Lina for the talkie:
DON: No, I'm no actor. I never was. Just a lot of dumb show, a shadow, a big balloon… blown up with my own importance. Well, lightning struck; the big balloon has burst. Now I know for the first time what I really am—nothing.
In demonstrating humility and respect for Kathy—like at the end of the film, when he wins her back by showing her that he thinks her career is just as important as his—he also demonstrates respect for himself again. In other words, the changes Kathy sparks in Don make it possible for him to evolve and actually behave with dignity. You know, for real this time.