Friday, 27 March 2015

Film Friday: «Singin' in the Rain» (1952)

This week on «Film Friday» I bring you a picture that had its New York City premiere exactly 63 years ago today. Incidentally, this is the film that introduced me to the wonders of classic cinema and made me fall madly in love with Gene Kelly.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin' in the Rain (1952) opens at the 1927 premiere of The Royal Rascal, a swashbuckling epic starring popular silent film couple Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whom their studio, Monumental Pictures, has publicized as lovers both on-screen and off. To escape from his fans after the premiere, Don jumps into a passing convertible driven by Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds), a nightclub performer and aspiring actress. They meet again later at a party held by studio head R. F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), where Kathy performs with a group of chorus girls. A romantic relationship soon blossoms between Don and Kathy, which makes Lina jealous.

When Warner Bros. has an enormous hit with its first sound picture, The Jazz Singer (1927), R. F. decides to turn the next Lockwood and Lamont film, The Dueling Cavalier, into a talkie. Immediately, they ran into major difficulties, the worst being Lina's grating voice and strong New York accent, which does not translate well onto sound films. After a disastrous test screening, Don's best friend, studio pianist Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor), comes up with the idea to convert The Dueling Cavalier into a musical called The Dancing Cavalier. To resolve the problem of Lina's voice, Cosmo suggests that they secretly dub her voice with Kathy's, a plan R. F. approves. When Lina finds out, she threatens to sue the studio and demands that Kathy never star in a film. Moreover, she insists that Kathy's only role be as Lina's voice stand-in. At the premiere of The Dancing Cavalier, the audience clamors for a song from Lina, after which Don tells her to lip synch into the michrophone while Kathy, hidden behind the curtain, sings into a second one. While Lina is «singing,» Don, Cosmo and R. F. raise the curtain and the audience laughs histerically when they realize that Kathy is the one singing. Lina runs off screaming and an embarrassed Kathy starts to leave the theatre, until Don proudly announces to audience that she is the real star of the film. Finally, Don and Kathy kiss in front of a billboard for their new picture, Singin' in the Rain.

Don Lockwood: Now look Lina, you shouldn't believe all that banana oil Dora Bailey and the columnists dish out. Now try to get this straight: there is nothing between us. There has never been anything between us. Just air.

In the early 1950s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Arthur Freed was the head of what had come to be known as the «Freed Unit,» which had been responsible for delivering such successful musicals as Babes in Arms (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and An American in Paris (1951). In 1949, he and his songwriting partner, Nacio Herb Brown, had sold MGM their entire catalogue of songs that they had turned out over a period of twenty years for the studio, beginning with the Best Picture winner The Broadway Melody (1929). Shortly after the sale, Freed announced his intention to make a film constructed around this extensive oeuvre of musical tunes. To develop a plot, he hired the playwriting and songwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who had just penned the smashing hit On the Town (1949), also produced by Freed. Upon listening to numerous songs from the Freed-Brown catalogue, the duo decided that Hollywood during the «Roaring Twenties» would be the perfect setting for the story.

Comden and Green's first thought of remaking Victor Fleming's Bombshell (1933), a satire about Hollywood starring Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy. They envisioned baritone Howard Keel, who had made his screen debut in the Freed Unit musical Annie Get Your Gun (1950), playing a second-rate western actor who becomes a singing cowboy. However, this idea was abandoned when Gene Kelly, whom Comden and Green had known since they worked together in summer stock theatre in 1939, expressed interest in the project. A trained dancer since childhood, Kelly was at the top of his career, having previously starred in On the Town and An American in Paris, which he also coreographed. To better suit Kelly's talents, the scriptwriters turned the lead character of Don Lockwood into a vaudeville actor who breaks into the motion picture industry by performing stunts in films. Kelly not only signed as the star of Singin' in the Rain, but also as co-director and coreographer along with his friend and frequent collaborator, Stanley Donen.

Debbie Reynolds, Gene Kelly, Jean Hagen and
Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain
The role of Lina Lamont, Don's shrill-voiced screen partner, was originally written for Judy Holliday, who has been a close friend of Comden and Green for many years. However, when Holliday won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in George Cukor's Born Yesterday (1950), the writers assumed that she would not be interested in playing a supporting role. Instead, the part was given to Jean Hagen, who had been Holliday's understudy on Broadway. Hagen apparently won the role on the strenght of her accurate impression of Holliday's Billie Dawn character in Born Yesterday during her audition with Freed. Reportedly, Lina Lamont was based on Norma Talmadge, a popular silent film star whose career declined with the introduction of sound in motion pictures.

The character of Cosmo Brown was originally created for pianist and songwriter Oscar Levant, who had also appeared as Kelly's sidekick in An American in Paris. However, when Kelly became involved with the project, effectively turning Singin' in the Rain from a stricly song-centered film to one that emphasized dancing, it was agreed that Donald O'Connor would be a much better choice for the role. The son of two vaudeville entertainers, O'Connor made his screen debut at the age of 12 in Sing You Sinners (1937), a musical comedy starring Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray. In 1941, he signed with Universal Pictures, where he rose to stardom in a string of low-budget musicals, usually appearing opposite Peggy Ryan and Gloria Jean. After serving in World War II, he returned to Universal to achieve popular success in a series of B-pictures with Francis the Talking Mule.

Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden
To play ingenue Kathy Selden, MGM considered a number of established actresses, including Kelly's former co-stars Judy Garland and Kathryn Grayson, as well as Jane Powell and June Allyson. However, the studio ultimately decided that they wanted a fresh face for the role and hired instead 19-year-old newcomer Debbie Reynolds. After winning a beauty contest in 1948, Reynolds signed a contract with Warner Bros., making her film debut in an uncredited role in June Bride (1948), starring Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery. She then appeared in the MGM musicals Three Little Words (1950) and Two Weeks With Love (1950), in which she and Carleton Carpenter performed the song «Aba Daba Honeymoon,» a top-five hit on the Billboard pop chart in 1951. Reynolds always stated that Kelly and Donen did not want her in the film, feeling that they were «stuck» with her. However, Donen maintained that he and Kelly wanted her from the very beginning, despite her relative inexperience in musicals. 

Singin' in the Rain was filmed between mid-June and late November 1951 at the MGM studios in Culver City. Right away, Reynolds — who was a trained gymnast rather than a dancer — had difficulty adapting to Kelly's demands and perfectionism. The «Good Morning» number, originally sang by Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms, proved especially challenging for the young star. After fourteen hours of filming the routine, she had to be carried to her dressing room because she had burst some blood vessels in her feet. Reynolds later said that she «learned a lot from [Kelly]. He is a perfectionist and a disciplinarian — the most exciting director I've ever worked for. And he has a good temper. Every so often he would yell at me and make me cry. But it took a lot of patience for him to work with someone who had never danced before. It's amazing that I could keep up with him and Donald O'Connor.» For his part, Kelly commented that Reynolds «was strong as an ox [...] also she was a great copyist, and she could pick up the most complicated routine without too much difficulty.» Despite her hard work on the «Good Morning» sequence, Kelly ultimately decided to dub her tap sounds.

Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly
in «Moses Supposes»
When Kelly decided that O'Connor needed a solo number, Comden and Green wrote the song «Make 'Em Laugh» specifically for him. As O'Connor later said in an interview, «Gene didn't have a clue as to the kind of number it was meant to be.» The two of them brainstormed ideas in the rehearsal room until they came up with a compendium of gags that O'Connor had done for years, some of which — including a trick that required him to run up a wall and complete a somersault — he had performed in vaudeville during his youth. He recalled, «Every time I got a new idea or remembered something that had worked well for me in the past, Gene wrote it down and, bit by bit, the entire number was constructed.» The routine was so physically exhausting for O'Connor, who was smoking up to four packs of cigarettes a day at the time, that he reportedly went to bed for three days after the scene was filmed. «Moses Supposes,» performed by Kelly and O'Connor, is also an original song; Comden and Green wrote the lyrics, while Roger Edens composed the music.

Another memorable musical number in Singin' in the Rain is the «Broadway Melody Ballet» dream sequence, which took a month to rehearse, two weeks to shoot and cost $600,000, almost a fifth of the overall budget. The scene — which features the songs «The Broadway Melody» from The Broadway Melody and «Broadway Rhythm» from Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) — was originally conceived for Kelly and O'Connor, but the latter was unable to film it due to a previous television commitment. To replace O'Connor as Kelly's dance partner, the studio hired Cyd Charisse, a classically trained ballerina who had made her screen debut in Columbia's Something to Shout About (1943), before Freed brought her to MGM on coreographer Robert Alton's recommendation. Since then, she had appeared only as a «dance specialty» or playing small roles in such films as The Harvey Girls (1946) and On an Island with You (1948). Freed was so impressed by her performance in Singin' in the Rain that he cast her as Fred Astaire's leading lady in The Band Wagon (1953). Charisse later co-starred with Kelly in Brigadoon (1954) and It's Always Fair Weather (1955).

Gene Kelly in «Singin' in the Rain»
The standout musical moment in the Singin' in the Rain, however, is Kelly's splash dance to the title song, which he apparently filmed while sick with a 39º C (103º F) fever. Originally, «Singin' in the Rain» was supposed to have been a showcase for the three leads, but Kelly decided to perform it all by himself as a way to demonstrate Don Lockwood's joie de vivre. Regarding his trademark routine, Kelly later commented, rather modestly, on what made the scene work so well: «The concept was so simple I shied away from explaining it to the brass at the studio in case I couldn't make it sound worth doing. The real work for this one was done by the technicians who had to pipe two city blocks on the backlot with overhead sprays, and the poor cameraman who had to shoot through all that water. All I had to do was dance.» The technicians' efforts were all the more remarkable since there was a severe water shortage in Culver City the day the sequence was shot. At one point, the rain caused Kelly's wool suit to shrink.

«Singin' in the Rain» was written by Freed and Brown for MGM's second feature-length musical, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929), which featured an all-star cast including Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, Buster Keaton, John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, Marion Davies and comedy duo Laurel and Hardy. The song was first introduced by Cliff Edwards with The Brox Sisters, before the entire cast performed it at the end of the film in a two-strip Technicolor sequence. Since then, «Singin' in the Rain» has had a long and distinguished career in cinema. For instance, it appeared as background music at the beginning of The Divorcee (1930); Jimmy Durante sang it in Speak Easily (1932); Judy Garland sang it in Little Nellie Kelly (1940); and after Kelly made it famous, Cary Grant whistled it in North by Northwest (1959). Director Stanley Kubrik also made iconic use of the song in his dystopian crime film A Clockwork Orange (1971). While shooting the scene where Malcolm McDowell rapes a woman, Kubrik asked the actor to sing. Apparently, the only song McDowell knew was «Singin' in the Rain» (Kelly's version is played over the closing credits).

Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly in «Fit as a Fiddle»
The soundtrack of Singin' in the Rain also includes «Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)» from College Coach (1933); an instrumental version of «Temptation» from Going Hollywood (1933); «All I Do Is Dream of You» from Sadie McKee (1934); a montage comprising «I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin'» from Broadway Melody of 1936, «The Wedding of the Painted Doll» from The Broadway Melody and «Should I?» from Lord Byron of Broadway (1930); «Beautiful Girl» from Going Hollywood or Stage Mother (1933); «You Were Meant For Me» from The Broadway Melody; «You Are My Lucky Star» from Broadway Melody of 1936; and «Would You?» from San Francisco (1936).

Besides recycling a large repertoire of songs from earlier MGM musicals, Singin' in the Rain also makes use of old props, sets and vehicles. The car Reynolds drives at the beginning of the film had been previously driven by Mickey Rooney in the popular Andy Hardy series. The mansion in which Kelly lives was decorated with tables, chairs, carpets and other items from Flesh and the Devil (1926), the first screen pairing of John Gilbert and Greta Garbo. Art directors Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell and Harry McAfee actually unearthed filmmaking equipment from the past, including and «icebox» to house the sound camera from old specifications and designs. A neglected soundstage used during the silent era was also located and brought back into active service for Singin' in the Rain. Even the costumes were based on old Hollywood styles. Costume designer Walter Plunkett devises Lina Lamont's wardrobe by duplicating his own gown creations for silent film star Lilyan Tashman, who was, by his own account, «the epitome of chic at that time.» In addition, costumes and wigs in The Dueling Cavalier were from Marie Antoinette (1938).

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen on the set
Other references to old Hollywood include Charisse's hairstyle, which resembles Louise Brooks' famous bob, and her gangster boyfriend, who flips a coin like George Raft did in Scarface (1932). Don Lockwood's laughable dialogue in the disastrous previous of The Dueling Cavalier is actually based on fact: Gilbert's career decline with the advent of sound was hastened by a similar situation in one of his early «talkies,» Redemption (1930), which features the same kind of old-fashioned script. Gilbert is mentioned again when Don depreciates Kathy's «acting» at R.F.'s house party by asking if she is going to do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, which Gilbert had performed with Norma Shearer in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. Also, the footage shown for The Royal Rascal is actually from Kelly's The Three Musketeers (1948), which was shot in Technicolor and has sound. For Singin' in the Rain, the sound and color were removed and title cards were added, along with shots of Hagen in place of The Three Musketeers leading lady, Lana Turner.

Singin' in the Rain opened at Radio City Musical Hall in New York on March 27, 1952 to positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, «Compounded generously of music, dance, color, spectacle and a riotous abundance of Gene Kelly, Jean Hagen and Donald O'Connor on the screen, all elements in this rainbow program are carefuly contrived and guaranteed to lift the dolors of winter and put you in a buttercup mood.» For their part, Variety described the film as «a fancy package of musical entertainment with wide appeal and bright grossing prospects. Concocted by Arthur Freed with showmanship know-how, it glitters with color, talent and tunes, and an infectious air that will click with ticket buyers in all types of situations.» Singin' in the Rain was also popular at the box-office, becoming the tenth highest grossing picture of year, with $3,263,000 in domestic rentals. At the 25th Academy Awards held in March 1953, Jean Hagen received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress, but lost Gloria Grahame for her performance in Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and Beautiful (1952), a melodrama also focused on the film industry. Lennie Hayton earned a nomination for Best Musical Score, but the award was given instead to Alfred Newman for With a Song in My Heart (1952).

Although Singin' in the Rain was not the first classic film I saw — I had to see a few for my English Literature class at university and a few more for an American History and Culture class I had as an exchange student in England — it was the film that sparked my interest and passion for the Old Hollywood era and for that, it will always hold a very special place in my heart. I have only seen it twice from beginning to end, but I always go back to it to watch my favorite scenes. I must have seen the «Moses Supposes» bit a thousand times by now and it never ceases to amaze me. I love absolutely everything about the film — the script is genius, the cinematography and the settings are gorgeous and the dance numbers are of course outstanding. The thing I love the most about Singin' in the Rain, however, is Gene Kelly. While he has always considered On the Town to be his best work, I do not think it comes close to his stellar performance in Singin' in the Rain. He is absolutely mesmerizing as Don Lockwood. The way his eyes sparkle and the way he smiles during the rain scene is incredibly inspiring and never fails to make me smile. Oh Eugene, how I love you! I am going to stop writing now before this turns into a Gene Kelly love letter. I will leave the details of my steaming love affair with Gene Kelly for another day.

Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999)
Reeling with Laughter: American Film Comedies From Anarchy to Mockumentary by Michael Tueth ()
Sentimental Journey: Intimate Portraits of America's Great Popular Songs 1920-1945 by Marvin E. Paymer (1999) 
TCMDb (Articles) 
TCMDb (Notes)


  1. Oh, darn, I want the details of your steamy love affair with Gene Kelly! I never get tired of watching that man.