There is nothing I like better on a lazy weekend that pulling a film out of my collection of classics and losing myself to it for a couple of hours. As a form of escapism – and education on vintage style – there really is no better resource. Although my collection of films is growing – and with streaming services the choices are now pretty unlimited anyway – I always find myself returning to a favourite handful. And, of all of those favourites, there is none so comforting, joyous, and all-around amazing as the 1952 classic Singin’ in the Rain.
I love Singin’ in the Rain. It has everything I’m looking for from a classic movie – beautiful costumes, the most incredible dancing, a wonderful plot, and a truly knockout cast. It’s a film that’s been on virtual repeat throughout my life. It has been the background witness to many watershed moments and milestones – my constant companion through years of schooling, work, travel, and relationships. And, as time has passed, I’ve learnt increasing amounts about the stories behind the film’s production and release. As a homage to this incredible classic, I thought I would share with you today some of those gems of information that have added a layer of depth to my Singin’ in the Rain experience.
So join me for this week’s My Vintage Life and the story behind one of the world’s favourite classic movies.
Singin’ in the Rain was a production that emerged from within a stream of musical endeavours by MGM. It was the work of co-directors Gene Kelly (also one of the film’s main stars) and Stanley Donen, as well as the producer Arthur Freed. Freed came to the film from a long legacy of assisting in the production of film musicals. Originally working as a songwriter with his writing partner Nacio Herb Brown, Freed wrote a number of bestselling hits throughout the 1920s and, in 1929, was taken on by MGM to assist in the production of the studio’s very first musical The Broadway Melody (ring any bells for Singin’ in the Rain fans?!). Throughout his history with MGM, Freed assisted in the production of a number of stand-out musical hits, including Judy Garland’s Babes in Arms and Meet Me in St. Louis. It was Freed who, in 1948, conceptualised a musical film that could utilise songs that he had written with Brown in the 1920s. For this new film, Freed decided to use the title of one of these songs – Singin’ in the Rain.
The film was novel in that it was not an adaptation of a Broadway musical. However, it was initially supposed to be worked as an adaptation of the plot from the romantic silent film Excess Baggage (1928). It was down to Ben Feiner, one of MGMs writers, to develop an outline for Singin’ in the Rain from this starting point. Unsatisfied with Feiner’s work, however, Freed turned to an alternate team of MGM writers – Betty Comden and Adolph Green. As guidance, Freed provided simply the title for the film and the songs that he wished to include. From here, Comden and Green had total creative freedom to develop a story that would work. It was Comden and Green who decided that the focus of the film should be on Hollywood’s response to the development of Talkies in the 1920s.
To direct the resulting film, Freed settled on Stanley Donen. Donen had formed a firm friendship with one of MGMs favourite stars, Gene Kelly, when Donen was just a 16 year-old working as a Broadway dancer. Although Kelly was substantially older that Donen (he was 28 at the time that they met), a firm friendship began that enabled Donen to make his way into the world of film-making. Donen credits Kelly with equipping him with the contacts and knowledge of Hollywood that would see him directing major stars – Kelly and Fred Astaire included – while still in his 20s. Before working as a director, however, Donen served as a choreographer, working on one of my favourite musicals – Anchors Aweigh. Following Kelly’s break from Hollywood to serve during World War II, Donen and Kelly decided that they wished to direct a film themselves. In 1947, they worked with Freed to produce Take Me Out to the Ball Game – a film that Donen and Kelly choreographed. It was Freed who provided Donen and Kelly with their much desired opportunity to direct by charging them with the film On the Town in 1949.
After appointing Donen and Kelly to direct Singin’ in the Rain, it was down to the team to decide how to bring the film to fruition. This included making a decision about the eventual cast. Kelly’s involvement in the film’s development – and his proven record as a major musical star – made him a clear choice. However, casting Kelly’s sidekick – Cosmo Brown – proved a little more contentious. Initially, Freed hoped to cast Oscar Levant, a close friend and star of An American in Paris. But Kelly and Donen resisted the idea. Although undoubtedly a talented musician, the directors questioned Levant’s dancing abilities. Freed refused to consider anyone else. Fortunately for Kelly and Donen, the issue was resolved when one of the film’s writer’s, Adolph Green, mistakenly believed that the role had already been taken away from Levant. When Green approached Levant to offer his apologies, Levant was incensed and, recognising the conflict was unresolvable, Freed agreed to recast the role as per Kelly and Donen’s wishes.
Kelly and Donen had already settled on the actor Donald O’Connor as their perfect Cosmo. They did not, however, have such an easy time deciding who would play opposite Kelly as the film’s female romantic lead, Kathy Seldon. It was MGM’s head, Louis B. Mayer, who settled the dispute. Debbie Reynolds – just 18 years old and newly introduced to the film industry – had recently caught his eye. He signed her up to work on Singin’ in the Rain without discussing the decision with Freed, Kelly, or Donen. Kelly was not impressed. In his own words:
“Mayer said she was to be my leading lady in Singin’ in the Rain. That statement hit me like a ton of bricks. He was forcing her on me. What the hell was I going to do with her? She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t act. She was a triple threat.”
This opinion perhaps explains Kelly’s resulting treatment of Reynolds during the making of Singin’ in the Rain. Reynolds has often referred to Kelly acting harshly with her and being particularly critical of her dancing abilities. One particularly famous story relates how, following an especially harsh set of insults from Kelly, Reynolds hid underneath a piano. Fred Astaire found her crying, offered her reassurance and some assistance with her dancing. There was an obvious conflict of personalities and talents. Donen became increasingly critical of Reynolds’ attitude, calling her “…a royal pain in the ass. She thought she knew more than Gene and I combined – she knew everything and we knew nothing.”
Following the casting of Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, Singin’ in the Rain was able to begin production in 1951. From here, it became the film that so many of us know and love. Of particular note during filming was Donald O’Connor’s performance of Make ‘Em Laugh (one of my favourite parts of the film). Improvising the performance in its entirety, Kelly recalls of O’Connor:
“It was all improvisation, it was unbelievable. We had twenty minutes of it that we threw out. The difficulty of doing choreography for it was that Donald was a spontaneous artist and comedian, and he never could do anything the same way twice.”
On the song’s title number, Singin’ in the Rain was initially intended as a joint performance by the film’s three leads. But Kelly insisted that the piece would make for a better solo number. It is widely reported that, during the shooting of the sequence, Kelly was extremely unwell. The song was shot on the MGM back lot, using strategically placed back lighting in order to ensure that the rain would be visible on camera. Not only was Kelly suffering with a fever during the shoot, the simulated rain meant that Kelly’s soaking wet tweed suit shrank while performing.
The film’s final product was completed for $2.5 million, more than $0.5 million over the initial budget set. Surprisingly, the film was not met with any particular critical claim or reception. It did not garner a Best Picture nomination in 1953, instead having to be content with Donald O’Connor’s Golden Globe win for Best Actor in a Motion Picture Musical or Comedy and Jean Hagen’s Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. However, the film’s reputation grew after release and it is now well-deservedly reputed as one of the greatest American films of all time.
Singin’ in the Rain is such a stand-out film. It honours one of the most interesting periods in Hollywood history, while simultaneously demonstrating some of the best musical talents on offer. It showcases excellence on all sides and the history behind its production only makes it more interesting from the perspective of avid viewers. So I highly encourage you to take some time out this weekend, have a watch, and enjoy one of the greatest films of the 20th century (and probably ever). Have fun!
For anyone who wants to read more about the making of Singin’ in the Rain or delve a little deeper into the history of those associated with the film, I recommend taking a look at:
- Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his Movies by Stephen Silverman
- Debbie: My Life by Debbie Reynolds and David Patrick Columbia
- Unsinkable: A Memoir by Debbie Reynolds
- Singin’ in the Rain by Betty Comden and Adolph Green