Singin’ in the Rain (1952) Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donan. Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen (103 min) DCP
Matinee idol Don Lockwood, played by Kelly at the apex of his athletic grace, joins up with his best pal Cosmo (O’Connor) and the irrepressibly sunny Kathy (Reynolds) to propel silent films into the talkie era, while dodging the schemes of conniving diva Lina Lamont . 100% positive on Rotten Tomatoes. Giddy and tuneful, “There is no movie musical more fun than Singin' in the Rain… (it) is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” (Roger Ebert).
Welcome back to the new, improved auditorium at the NCMA! Tonight, we inaugurate our new DCP digital projector. But, we are keeping our 35mm projectors, because we love film! The calendar listings will have the screening format listed.
We restart our indoor movie series with Singin’ in the Rain perhaps the greatest musical ever made. In 1982, the film was #4 on the prestigious Sight and Sound best movies ever made poll, although in 2012, it fell to #20, at the same time Hitchcock’s Vertigo replaced next week’s film, Citizen Kane, as the perennial #1. Wildly popular when released, Singin’ in the Rain had a revival in the 1970s, since it was generously excerpted in the That’s Entertainment! compilations, and then the film was rereleased. In 1975, after I graduated from college without a job, I spent—literally--my last dollar to see Singin’ in the Rain in a theater to cheer myself up. It was totally worth it.
The Freed Unit at MGM crafted musicals to the highest standards. Arthur Freed had been a songwriter himself, collaborating in the 1920s with Nacio Herb Brown. Their most famous song, first heard in the Hollywood Review of 1929 was “Singin’ in the Rain.” After ten years at the studio, he wanted to celebrate himself, much as he had used the songs of George Gershwin in An American in Paris, in a musical inspired by his own back catalogue of songs. It's a jukebox musical, like Mamma Mia, or Jersey Boys (Thanks, Ken Bloom!) At one time Freed had written 5 of the 10 best-selling (by which I assume is meant sheet music and recorded) songs in America. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, a successful New York writing team who had created On the Town for Gene Kelly, were summoned, and listened to all of Freed’s songs played on the piano by orchestrator Roger Edens. They were looking for the inspiration to create an original show, rather than revamp a silent feature called Excess Baggage, a conventional backstage story, which is what they had been hired to do. Since many of the songs had been written in the 1920s, during the transition from silent films to talkies, they thought that the period could be used as inspiration. They loved the silent era, and had written a sketch about a silent film star flummoxed by the talkies for their comedy troupe, the Revuers (Leonard Bernstein often sat in on piano) on which they embroidered the screenplay.
Comden and Green were professional, not personal, partners, who were happily married to other people. They rented a house together while working on the script, which had been owned by Marie Provost, a former silent screen star who committed suicide when her career was destroyed by sound (among other reasons). “’The place screamed, in its tattered elegance, of high times in the twenties, with its glory suddenly extinguished.’ The pool behind the house was filled with leaves and shadowed by nearby trees, while ‘torn strips of faded awning flapped mournfully against the terrace windows.’ The interior was filled with ‘peeling gilt and needlepoint pieces’ and there was a massive concert grand pianto, its piano roll stuck from there to eternity somewhere in the middle of Fascinatin’ Rhythm’” (Hess and Dabholkar 18). Provost’s story is one of the more lurid episodes in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon.
MGM was a treasure trove of objects, as well as memories. Remember, it was only 24 years since the beginning of the end of the silent era—like looking back at 1991, the year of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, The Silence of the Lambs, and Thelma and Louise today (2015). Still photos from studio productions of the era were used as guides, and mikes, cameras and lighting were both reproduced, and sometimes just taken out of storage. The furniture in Don’s Hollywood mansion had been seen in Flesh and the Devil starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, the latter the most famous casualty of sound pictures. Almost every incident in the script was based on a real occurrence, as related by one old timer or another. Kathleen Freeman, who plays Lina Lamont’s vocal coach, remembered people from all over to the studio made their way to the set to share a memory of the transition to sound (Hess and Dabholkar 207) One of the sources was Buster Keaton, under contract to MGM as a gagman at the time. He and Kelly were friendly, since they were both avid baseball players on the studio team, the Metro Wolves. Keaton, in fact, had stood in the chorus singing, “Singin in the Rain” in his first talkie, Hollywood Review of 1929, although he stubbornly refused either to smile or move his lips like everyone else. The lovingly conveyed detail in Singin’ in the Rain was in some ways a history both of the studio and the movies, in general.
After a lot of angst, Comden and Green finally settled on a plot, and few revisions in structure were made afterwards. One major change was that Don Lockwood’s best friend was originally going to be played by pianist Oscar Levant, who had just co-starred with Kelly in An American in Paris. But, it was decided that if Don’s best friend was also a dancer, it would give Kelly a great partner for some duets.
Walter Plunkett’s costumes, for once in that decade of the 1950s, actually look like 1920s fashions. He said that he reproduced as parody ensembles he had once made in earnest for glamour puss Lilyan Tashman, considered the height of chic in that era. The gown Jean Hagen wears in The Dueling Cavalier was worn by Norma Shearer in Marie Antoinette. When you see Reynolds in her slicker and galoshes in the title song, the buckles on her boots are open and flapping, in fact this is the origin of the term “flapper.”
Plunkett said, “I didn’t have to get any stills, it was all in my memory from when I started at RKO. The plus fours Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor wore were like outfits I had made up for myself at the time. For the chorus girls, I got myself in the same mental attitude I had for the girls in Flying Down to Rio. Total absurdity. Arthur Freed and Stanley Donen began to have such a good time with it that they decided to put in a fashion show. I would design something outrageous and they would write the verse to sing about it, “Black is best when you’re in court, the judge will be impressed, but white is right when you’re a bride and want to look your best. Fashion shows always end with a bride” (Chierichetti 42)
He remembered using special fabrics for the costumes, since a rustling taffeta would be picked up by the sound equipment, in fact sometimes taffeta was used to recreate the sound of fire and earthquake on soundtracks. “Plunkett found that it was best to sew the microphones into tight-fitting costumes to make sure they remained in one place. ‘ It was really just like Singin in the Rain’ he laughed” (Hess and Dabholkar 80). The marketing department did not have kind words for the unusually accurate 1920s costumes, calling them, “by modern standards…outlandish, freakish and shapeless” (Hess and Dabholkar 176). Plunkett’s costumes, while subtly acknowledging mid-century styles, the cloche hats are not worn low on the forehead, and there is 1950s shapewear, they are accurate enough. The costumes don't date distractingly, a technique he used in designing his most famous costumes, those for Gone With the Wind.
Many of these costumes were unceremoniously dumped in the shameful 1970 MGM sell-off of their back lot. Kelly’s grey wool suit worn during "Singin' in the Rain" was bought by a postal worker for $10, priced low because of water stains on the jacket. It was recently auctioned to Planet Hollywood for over $106,000. Debbie Reynolds bought many of the costumes herself, hoping to put them in her unrealized Hollywood history museum. She recently sold some of them at auction, although I don’t know who purchased them…hopefully some museum or archive. Charisse’s white "Broadway Ballet" dress sold for $7,000, Kathy Selden’s green leaf print dress for $15,000, and her “Good Morning” outfit for $27,500. Lina Lamont’s camel coat with the monkey fur collar was $6,000 and her “Dueling Cavalier” gown sold for $5,000, and Kelly’s silver satin suit for $9,000.
Gene Kelly grew up in a tough neighborhood. His father sold phonographs, but his business crashed with the stock market in 1929. The Kelly clan opened a popular dance school in Johnstown, a Pennsylvania steel town, and Kelly was a dance instructor there by the time he was a senior in high school. His original dance partner was his brother, Fred, and in films he never had a regular female dance partner, unlike Fred Astaire who began his career dancing with his sister, Adele. The Kelly brothers worked their way up from Moose Lodges to dance halls. But, one summer Gene took a summer ballet workshop with Kotchetovsky, the partner and husband of Nijinska, formerly of the Ballet Russes, and this transformed his technique and presentation. The brothers broke up, and Gene ended up on Broadway, eventually originating the title role in Pal Joey. He came to Hollywood in 1942. The scar you see on his face was a result of taking a header off his trike when he was 6 years old. He never allowed make-up artists to cover it up for the screen.
O’Conner was born into a circus family. His father was a Ringling Brothers acrobat, and his mother a bareback rider and tightrope walker. Eventually, they moved their act to vaudeville. He made his stage debut at 3 days old, lying on a piano bench next to his mother. He had an unremarkable career up to that point, in fact he had been professionally stranded in a series of Francis the Talking Mule movies.
Kelly wanted a solo for him, and the two of them went into a rehearsal hall to improvise. O’Connor said they came up with “a compendium of gags and ‘shtick’ I’d done for years—in fact going right back to my vaudeville days. Every time I got a new idea, or remembered something that had worked for me in the past, Gene wrote it down and, bit by bit, the entire number was constructed” (Wollen 34). For one particular gag, he personally asked Curly Howard of the Three Stooges for permission. “Make ‘em Laugh” --just four shots!--was written by Freed and Brown, but “Moses Supposes” their duet, was written by Comden and Green. Kelly timed all his movements as precisely as a metronome, but O’Conner was much more erratic in his timing. One of my favorite things to watch for in the movie is to see O’Connor glance at Kelly during the number in order to keep their movements perfectly synchronized. Kelly never has to look at O’Connor.
19 year old Debbie Reynolds was tapped to play Kathy Selden. After winning the title of Miss Burbank 1948 she came to Hollywood, but had only played small parts. According to Reynolds’ memoirs, Kelly was furious that a non-dancer was being foisted on him by the head of the studio, Louis B. Mayer. Kelly remembered it differently, that he had asked for her after seeing her sing “Aba Daba Honeymoon” in Two Weeks with Love. And, she is adorable, as you can see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VJHJAkhacGU In later interviews, he strongly objected if anyone suggested she was foisted on him. For the next three months she spent 8 hours a day dancing with three teachers in shifts. She was so overwhelmed, she constantly dissolved in tears. Her commute was to take 3 buses to the studio, so sometimes, she just slept in her dressing room, exhausted. Of Kelly she wrote in 1988, “I was afraid of him. He was so strict, so unyielding, and so serious all the time” (Reynolds 88). One day Fred Astaire found her sobbing under a piano and invited her to watch him rehearse (a rare privilege) so she could see how hard every dancer worked. Once filming began, the pressure increased. Dancing while lip synching turned out to be much more difficult that she imagined, one slip and the whole take started over. And, she had to smile. They did the couch scene in "Good Morning" continually from 8 am to 11 pm one day until it was right (and then used the first take). “Singin in the Rain and childbirth were the hardest things I ever had to do in my life” she often said. Kelly was kind enough to remember her this way, “Fortunately Debbie was strong as an ox…also she was a great copyist, and could pick up the most difficult routines without too much difficulty” (Behlmer 260). When she saw the result on screen, she knew all the effort was worthwhile.
For the key role of shrill silent diva Lina Lamont, Comden and Green suggested their friend, Jean Hagen. If you think she sounds like Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, you would be right. Hagen understudied her in this role on Broadway, and took over when Holliday went to Hollywood. For the shot where she gets a cake in the face, she scolded Reynolds that she was only doing it once (in spite of an inventory of duplicate cakes) and they did film it in one take.
Kelly and Donen co-directed and co-choreographed the dances. Donen had been a chorus dancer in a couple of Kelly’s Broadway shows, and came to Hollywood to join the MGM chorus. He was fired, and Kelly hired him as his assistant on Cover Girl. They began a fruitful collaboration; Donen was indispensable behind the camera when Gene was in front of it. Although Kelly was the choreographer, Donen had a special sense of how to use the camera in a dynamic way. They were in complete synergy during this era, although they later had a falling out, with Donen feeling that he was unappreciated for his contributions to Kelly’s legacy.
Kelly wanted the title song to reflect “my moment of greatest exhilaration” and to have a child-like playfulness. “I thought of the fun children have slashing about in rain puddles and decided to become a kid myself during the number” (Hess and Dabholkar 125-6). He had taught so many kids to dance, he had an idea of their lack of self-consciousness and joy. The title song was rehearsed for six days and took a day and a half to film. Gene Kelly’s was recovering from a sinus infection and flu, and there was some fear that being soaked would cause pneumonia. He likely still had a fever, although it’s unlikely it was 103 degrees, as has sometimes been claimed. His inspiration was just to add “and dancin’” to the song’s lyrics. A street on the studio’s back lot was rigged with complicated plumbing to control the amount of rain, and holes dug for puddles. The rain had to be lit from behind so it could be photographed, and the number was filmed in the daytime, with the light blacked out by tarpaulins to create the illusion of night (filming at night would cost the studio double time for all the technicians) making it a steam bath. Donen said that nobody expected it to be such a classic number, but he said, “It works because of its utter simplicity, and there’s no better idea for a movie than to dance for joy” (Hess and Dabholkar 136)
The ballet was shot last. Such stand-alone dances had become popular after The Red Shoes, and Kelly had just done one for An American in Paris. This was a level of dancing that Reynolds could not do, and Cyd Charisse was cast as his partner in the dance. Charisse had also studied with Nijinska, and danced with the Ballets Russes until the company was disbanded during WW II. She was contract dancer at the studio, this was her first major role. The dance within the “Broadway Melody” dance used a 25 or 50 foot (or both) scarf (described as China silk, or silk voile, or China silk voile, but to this dressmaker it looks like silk chiffon; at the auction it was clearly marked "chiffon") to evoke the memories of Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller. Choreographed with the use of powerful airplane motors wielded by Kelly’s assistants Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne, which nearly knocked Charisse off her feet, the sequence was intentionally designed to evoke a painting by Salvador Dali, creating an ethereal surrealist dream.
After the picture was edited, Kelly and O’Connor went into the sound booth to record their taps, and those for Reynolds, as well. Ironically Jean Hagen’s singing voice was dubbed by Hagen herself, who had a lovely voice nothing like Lina Lamont’s. “The production company of Singin’ in the Rain focused on a deception, a widely known ‘secret’ in the industry, while coolly practicing the deception themselves in the very sequence that makes fun of it” (Hess and Dabholkar 147). Meta is so right now.
After the film was released, Kelly left the US for an extended 18 month trip to Europe. It was the heyday of the HUAC hearings, and while the studio could protect their major stars from harassment for a while, things had gotten too hot for Kelly, who had been active in union, anti-Fascist and other alleged “Communist front” organizations. His wife, Betsy Blair, had already been blacklisted. Singin’ in the Rain was the apex of Kelly’s career, and those of his collaborators. They did not get the opportunity to capitalize on it because of the chilling effect of the political pressure in Hollywood.
Inadvertently, his stay in London did result in a remarkable experience. He was invited to watch the procession of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth from a balcony window of one of his friends. It was crowded and raining.
I share the experience of Vincent Canby, once the lead film critic for the New York Times. When the film was reissued in 1975, the year I spent my last dollar on a screening, he said, “I’ve seen it in fancy first-run theaters, in dumpy last run theaters, on a 16 mm projector in the apartment of friends, in a shoebox shaped theater in Paris with French subtitles. Most recently I watched it as I sat hunched up and freezing in a peculiarly air-conditioned New York screening room” to which I can add, on VHS, on DVD and on Turner Classic Movies. “Enjoying Singin’ in the Rain has nothing to do with nostalgia, or with sentimentality, it is simply stated, a Hollywood masterpiece” ((Hess and Dabholkar 219).
Singin’ in the Rain: A BFI Film Classic by Peter Wollen, American’s Favorite Movies by Rudy Behlmer, Unsinkable: A Memoir by Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway, Debbie: My Life by Debbie Reynolds and David Patrick Columbia, Gene Kelly by Clive Hirschhorn, Gene Kelly: A Celebration by Sheridan Morley and Ruth Leon, Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams by Alvin Yudkoff, Hollywood Musicals the 101 Greatest Song and Dance Movies of All Time by Ken Bloom, Les Plus Belles Robes du Cinema Cinematheque Francaise Catalogue, Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti. But, the only book you probably need to read is: Singin in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar.