Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Singin' in the Rain: True Hollywood Goodness

I can't believe it's November already!  Where has the time gone?  It really seems this year has flown by.  And looking back over the year, I noticed there are quite of few huge favorite films of mine that I have yet to write about.  So, since we've been getting a lot of rain lately here in LA (very odd for this time of year, or LA, period), what better time to finally talk about the musical of musicals - "Singin' in the Rain!"

This 1952 celebration of all things music, glamour and Hollywood history stars Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen.  I know you all know this story...it's a given, right?  Kelly plays Don Lockwood, a silent film star whose career is about to go belly up with the new film fad "talkies," and his lead costar (Hagen) and her shrill voice aren't making it any easier.  But thanks to his old Vaudeville days and the help of a young ingénue (Reynolds), he is able to save his career by turning his latest picture into a musical.  O'Connor plays Kelly's best friend in this delightful musical comedy, considered by many to be the best musical ever made.

"Singin' in the Rain" was probably one of the first musicals I ever saw.  (I'm not sure which actually was though because all those years tend to blend together now.)  However, it was one of those few films that when I first saw it as a little girl, I was very nonchalant about.  It didn't fit into my star obsessions at the time, like Ginger Rodgers, Cary Grant, or even Lucille Ball, to name a few (I've had quite a lot over the years).  I didn't reach my Debbie Reynolds or Gene Kelly obsessions until my teen years.  (That's me to the left with Debbie oh so many years ago.)  By that time, though, "Singin'" had turned into one of my favorites.  And I think it's because as I got older, as I learned more about Hollywood and its history, I could finally see its brilliance.  Movie critics over the years have been the same way.  "Singin'" was a big box office success, but it wasn't until much, much later that it reached the iconic status we know today.  #5 on AFI's 2007 "100 Years...100 Movies" list and #1 on AFI's "100 Years of Musicals" list, "Singin' in the Rain" earned only 2 Academy Award nominations (one for Jean Hagen and one for Best Original Score) and lost both.  Funny how things change happen.

The simple story for "Singin'" came about when Arthur Freed, the musical genius of MGM, decided he wanted to make a musical using his repertoire of songs from the 1920s and 30s, co-written by Nacio Herb Brown.  Freed hired the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green to come up with a screenplay based on these songs.  They used thirteen already-released songs and came up with the storyline about Hollywood in the days from silent to sound.  Only one song was written specifically for "Singin'" - "Moses Supposes."  (O'Connor's famous song "Make 'Em Laugh" is also considered an original song, but its melody so closely resembles Cole Porter's "Be A Clown," from Freed's "The Pirate" in 1948, that many consider it stolen.  Story has it that Porter actually visited the set during "Make 'Em Laugh" and asked about the melody, only to have Freed quickly change the subject and lead Porter out.)

When Comden and Green were first writing the script, they had Howard Keel in mind for the lead, as more of a Western star.  But as they progressed, the lead morphed into a Vaudevillian song-and-dance man instead, with Gene Kelly fitting the bill.  Kelly decided he wanted to direct the picture as well, so with Stanley Donen co-directing and co-choreographing (whom he had worked with before in "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and "On the Town" (both 1949)), they managed to bring out the best in everyone, and make a beautiful ensemble picture.  At least that's what we see on the screen.  The production was not easy for his costars.

Kelly was known for his perfectionism, and the making of this film was no different.  Debbie Reynolds, only 19 at the time, was hired with no real dance background.  (She wanted to be a gymnastics teacher.)  Even though other stars like Judy Garland, June Allyson, Jane Powell, and Leslie Caron were considered for her part, Kelly and Donen insisted on Reynolds.  Thanks to her athletic background, she worked hard at the dance routines.  After finishing the "Good Morning" number, she had to be carried to her dressing room because her feet were bleeding so much.  However, Kelly still yelled at her for her inexperience, to the point where Fred Astaire found her crying under a piano, and hearing her story, volunteered to help her with her routines on his own time.  Kelly did feel bad for his tyrant behavior though, stating later "I wasn't nice to Debbie.  It's a wonder she still speaks to me."  Reynolds later chuckled herself saying working with Kelly and surviving childbirth were the two hardest experiences she's ever had to endure.

Donald O'Connor didn't have any easier of a time.  His part, originally written for Kelly's "An American in Paris" costar Oscar Levant, was very physically demanding.  O'Connor, having grown up around the circus (both his parents were circus performers), had a strong athletic history, which is why Kelly favored him over Levant.  But at the time of filming, O'Connor was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day.  O'Connor filmed his "Make 'Em Laugh" wall somersaults and dance routine with professionalism and perfection, but after it was over, he went to bed for three days from exhaustion, bruises and rug burns.  Unfortunately, something happened with the film, and it all had to be re-shot only a few days later.  In the true professional spirit, like all involved, he did it without complaint.

As for the role of the diva silent actress with the horrible voice, Comden and Green modeled the part for friend Judy Holliday.  However, after Holliday made such a splash with "Born Yesterday" (1950), she herself suggested her understudy from the Broadway version as a suitable second choice.  Thus, Jean Hagen got the part.  Hagen actually had a beautiful, rich voice.  So, in a funny twist, during the scenes where Reynolds is supposed to be dubbing Hagen's voice, that is actually Hagen dubbing Reynolds...dubbing Hagen.  As for the singing, beautifully voiced Betty Noyes dubbed Reynolds dubbing Hagen.  The only songs Reynolds actually sang were "All I Do is Dream of You," "Good Morning", and the final "Singin' in the Rain."

So get out your dancing shoes, your umbrellas, and go play in the rain!  (Just be sure to dry off and drink something warm when you get back.  I don't want to be getting everyone sick.)  Or just stay in and watch "Singin' in the Rain."  I dare you not to smile.  Have a great week, everyone!  Til Friday.  :)

(Post-tidbit:  The most famous trivia tidbit about "Singin' in the Rain" is completely true.  Gene Kelly had a 103-degree fever while filming the famous title number sequence.  They wanted to send him home to recover, but he refused, stating the setup would take too much time to begin again.  So, while be rained on by a mixture of water and milk (so it would show up better on film), Kelly got the shot in one take, went home, and recovered.)


  1. I love this post! My favorite, favorite musical. You are a veritable font of knowledge. I tweeted the link.

  2. Great! I'm glad you liked it! Thanks for the tweet too! :)