Film musicals are not my thing. When the action stops and people start singing (and dancing) in a film, I turn the channel.
But there are a few exceptions. There are always exceptions.
The two Beatles films are exceptions. The Wizard of Oz. Some Like it Hot. The Court Jester. Mary Poppins! My Fair Lady. Beach Blanket Bingo (it’s campy, okay?). Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (again, campy). Fiddler on the Roof. Nashville. UHF (it’s Weird Al, and it’s very funny). The Lion King. Toy Story. The Jungle Book. All exceptions.
And, Singin’ in the Rain. This is a film I never thought about until in my freshman year of college (1975), a friend raved about the film, particularly the funny film within a film premise. This was the 1970’s and nostalgia was in. That’s Entertainment (1974) celebrated the MGM song and dance classics. The Sting was a huge box office success. Happy Days was a top rated television show. Older American culture was kitsch. Film historians were re-discovering older films, those usually relegated to late night television and bad prints.
Everyone is familiar with at least a few scenes from Singin’ in the Rain; but I had never sat through the film from start to finish. Most of the old Hollywood musicals didn’t interest me at all. Singing and dancing? Forget it. Give me action, adventure or satire.
My friend’s respect for this film made an impression. I was fortunate that the college I attended had a very robust film series, including foreign films, documentaries and pre-1960 classics. Every night of the week something was playing at the theater in the student union. Within a year, Singin’ in the Rain played one night, so I went to see it.
I thought the film was enjoyable but I filed it away for future reference. At that time, or age, or interest, the film did not strike a chord. Singing and dancing, again.
To be fair, if you scroll up and look at my list of approved musicals, there is dancing in some, but not all of those films. What would Mary Poppins! be without Dick Van Dyke and the penguins or the chimney sweeps? A dull movie.
Now for some revisionist thinking. I have seen Singin’ in the Rain a few times since then, including twice recently.
Singin’ in the Rain is a very clever film. And it’s downright funny. The premise of the film is an interesting idea, particularly for a big studio film to be satirizing itself. In the early 1950’s, musicals were still doing good business but the peak of the big production musical was over. Those that followed were either hipper (youth oriented) or successful Broadway productions. Musicals were expensive to produce and the studio systems that could cover the overhead, were collapsing. Television had a lot of do with the fate of the big studios.
Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly were two of the biggest musical stars, and they were the anchors of Singin’ in the Rain. Their characters brought something mischievous to the film. They were not only in on the joke, they were driving it forward. Debbie Reynolds was a young star who held her own next to huge talents and personalities of O’Connor and Kelly. According to Reynolds, Kelly wasn’t very happy with Reynold’s selection for the film, mainly her lack of any dance experience, and he didn’t hide his displeasure. Kelly’s account differed, including how he insisted on Reynolds for the role. While she wasn’t a trained dancer like her co-stars, her singing voice and personality made up for her youth and inexperience.
The supporting cast included Cyd Charisse who has an incredible dance sequence with Kelly. It is a striking visualization. More on that later. Jean Hagen, a very find comedic actress, turns in a brilliant performance, with a high-pitched voice and gigantic ego, the antagonist to Kelly. The role was designed around Judy Holliday but the filmmakers never thought they’d be able to get her. Hagen had starred in an off-Broadway version of Born Yesterday, Holliday’s breakthrough role, and had the street-smarts they were looking for. Hagen was nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for her performance in Singin’ in the Rain.
The backstory of the film is rather interesting. The ideas was the brainchild of producer Arthur Freed, head of the so-called “Freed Group”, the unit that made the best of the MGM musicals. So much of the creative talent involved in Singin’ in the Rain, had worked on other famous MGM musicals. Freed wanted to make a musical featuring songs from his own song catalogue, songs he has written for other films. He intended for scriptwriters to fashion together a film that featured these songs, which had no thematic center. The challenge for the scriptwriters would be to create a narrative where the songs related in mood, rather than by subject matter.
The screenwriters Freed selected, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, refused the project. Celebrated in their own right as songwriters and writers behind some of Broadway’s most successful musicals, they wanted to write the songs as well. Comden and Green did write the film, but they didn’t use much of Freed’s original story outline.
Sidenote: For me, a musical must have a strong story that stands independent of the musical elements. Musical sequences should support the story, but they need to be entertaining by themselves. If dancing is involved, which for me is not required, the dance routines must be uniquely original and highly artistic. Singin’ in the Rain had a compelling story, memorable songs, and all of the dancing sequences were artistic and athletic. A homerun.
Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen choreographed and directed the film, as they had done together on other films like On the Town. Kelly and Donen worked with the writers on the script, wiring these ideas into dance movements, and then planned out the camera placements and movements.
Some, but not all of the highlights:
“Make ‘Em Laugh” – Donald O’Connor takes center stage and makes the most of it. His dance consisted of a quick succession of jumps, spinning around in a circle on the floor (like Curly of the Three Stooges) and several backflips including the last one where he crashes through the wall. O’Connor said it was the most demanding routine he had ever done, especially since he was a four-pack a day smoker at the time.
“Singin’ in the Rain” – Gene Kelly is celebrating his love for Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) and success turning his film disaster into what could be a hit. Kelly happily splashed around on the street during a rainstorm, abandoning his umbrella and jumping into puddles. The song was not written for this film, in fact, it had appeared in five previous films! The sequence was filmed on the backlot and workers planned to build in the seven puddle locations that Kelly intended to incorporate into his dance. Once the rain was turned on, it became unnecessary to build six additional puddles as Kelly found natural low areas in the pavement that became filled with water, including the large one at end of the sequence.
“Good Morning” – Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds star in probably the second more famous song and dance routine. They move from the kitchen to the dining room to the living room and jump over couches, up and down the stairs, and use raincoats as props. It is a dazzlingly choreographed dance routine. Reynolds was confined to bed after finishing the strenuous routine.
“Broadway Ballet” – Within the 13-minute this sequence, which has numerous dance and costume vignettes, is the “crazy veil dance.” These 13 minutes of film cost the production more than $600,000. It is quite spectacular, and has become an integral part of the film, but honestly, the entire 13 minutes does not move the story forward. The best to minutes of the 13 minutes is the part devoted to Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and the 50-foot scarf. This fantasy sequence, that takes place on a minimalist set with Charisse’s long scarf is flowing above her, piloted by big wind machines. Great concept and the dancing is well executed. In contrast with other scenes, this one is decidedly modern in design technique.
“Moses Supposes” – Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor bust loose. From diction to dancing. Their tap dancing is quite spectacular.
The dance sequences Kelly and Donen created are creative, fun and athletic. Not only did they choreograph each one but they planned the camera work. Each sequence features long takes, with minimal editing, but the cameras move to put you into the dancing.
When Singin’ in the Rain was released in 1952, it more than earned its budget back and turned a nice profit, but it wasn’t the breakout hit the studio hoped.
I consider the film very squeaky clean, but even MGM in the 1950’s could scare the moral censors. The film had several dance sequences and female costumes provided some issues with the Breen Office (the producer’s own censors) and some church groups. Suggestive, they called it. Spain even had a problem with one of Kelly’s kisses, which had to be cut from the film. Apparently Gene Kelly had an X-rated kiss.
It would be twenty years before the film found it’s place in history. Since then, the film is solidly on many all-time best film lists, including the top film on American Film Institute’s best musicals. It deserves the ranking. Great films stand the test of time, and continue to find new audiences. After all, even I, Gotta Dance! Just kidding.
Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of An American Masterpiece, by Earl J. Hess and Pratihba A. Dabholkar, is a great read about the film and the early days of Hollywood. Their material was helpful in writing this blog.