Yesterday I saw a 65th anniversary showing of Singin’ in the Rain sponsored by Turner Classic Movies at an AMC theater here in New York. It was great seeing it on a large theater screen in pristine digital condition. Singin’ in the Rain is widely considered to be one of the top two or three Hollywood musicals ever made. Audiences love it. Like Buster Keaton’s The General (1926), it transcends genre and is a simply great film, period. It’s a movie about movies; a satire set in 1927 Hollywood about the coming of sound and how filmmakers and actors struggled to make the transition. The comedy is fairly broad, but the story serves mainly to justify the musical numbers, which are amazing. All of the songs had been used in previous MGM musicals, with the exception of two new songs, “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes,” written by Singin’ the Rain‘s screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green.
I have no memory of when and where I first saw Singin’ in the Rain, but I know the number that blew me away immediately was “Fit as a Fiddle.” It was jaw-dropping; I was transfixed by the energy, by the matching suits worn by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor that had a neon brightness, and by the dancing. I was like, how did they do all that? Here it is:
Singin’ in the Rain opened on March 27, 1952 at Radio Music Hall here in New York. Here’s a newspaper ad announcing it:
It reportedly was not a smash when it opened, but has become one over the years, regularly appearing on best-films-of-all-time lists. I think what people respond to is the exuberance and joy of the musical numbers. Donald O’Connor is off the charts in “Make ‘Em Laugh.” He’s like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon. O’Connor, a four pack a day smoker, had to stay in bed for several days following shooting this (which he had to do twice due to a camera malfunction that ruined the first day’s shooting). Here we go:
Debbie Reynolds, 19 years old at the time, had a background as a gymnast, but no dancing experience. Gene Kelly is said to have insulted her because of this. Fred Astaire, who found Reynolds crying under a piano, offered to help her with her dancing. I’ve seen numerous reports that Kelly was not a fun guy to work for. He was co-directing Singin’ in the Rain with Stanley Donen, and demanded things be exactly as he wanted them. There’s no suggestion of this on the screen. They seem like a happy family. I’ve always liked Gene Kelly, he’s my favorite screen dancer. But you can see another side of him in Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1944). He’s cast against type as a sociopath and murderer. It’s especially bleak, even for film noir. Kelly is quite chilling, but that’s not how audiences remember him.
After that digression, back to Debbie Reynolds. The “Good Morning” number features Reynolds with Kelly and O’Connor. It took from 8:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. to shoot. Her feet were bleeding at the end of the day, but you’d never suspect she’d had problems with dancing by watching it.
Here’s what François Truffaut wrote in his journals about this number, specifically an almost documentary moment with Reynolds at the end.
“In the three thousand films I’ve seen, the most beautiful shot is in Singin’ in the Rain. In the middle of the film, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, after a moment of discouragement, regain their taste for life and start singing and dancing in the apartment. Their dance leads them to leap over a sofa on which all three of them have to land seated side by side. During this dancing stunt over the sofa, Debbie Reynolds makes a determined and rapid gesture, pulling her short pink skirt down over her knees with a deft hand, so that her panties can’t be seen when she lands seated. That gesture, quick as lightning, is beautiful because in the same image we have the height of cinematographic convention (people who sing and dance instead of walking and talking) and the height of truth, a little lady taking care not to show her thighs. This all happened just once, fifteen years ago, it lasted less than a second, but it was imprinted on film as definitively as the arrival of the train at La Ciotat station. These sixteen frames of Singin’ in the Rain, this beautiful gesture by Debbie Reynolds, which is almost invisible, well illustrates this second action of films, this second life, which is legible on the editing table.”
Watch the clip again to catch this detail.
In the midst of Singin’ in the Rain is a musical mini-epic called “Broadway Melody.” It’s a huge production and is included in the film by the flimsiest of justifications. It’s a knock-out, though I don’t have the feeling for it that I do for the rest of the film. Still, Cyd Charisse as Kelly’s dance partner in this is a powerful presence, and she’s a good match for Kelly (even though she was taller, which Kelly made sure wasn’t seen). Charisse has impossibly long legs, which the movie makes sure we’re aware of. See Exhibits A and B below.
Of all the musical numbers in Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s joyous dance in the rain is what people remember if they don’t remember anything else. It’s the signature flourish of the film.
A publisher called Movie Lore published a comic book version of Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 to coincide with the release of the film. The complete comic can be accessed here.
A musical stage production was first produced in 1984 and has been revived over the years. It’s slated to be on Broadway again in 2017.
Film scholar Peter Wollen has written a monograph on Singin’ in the Rain for the excellent BFI Film Classics series. I haven’t read it yet, though a copy I ordered is scheduled to arrive tomorrow. This guy goes deep, so it should be pretty interesting.
Stanley Kubrick used the song “Singing in the Rain” in A Clockwork Orange. Malcolm McDowell sings it during a home invasion where he and his gang beat the husband and he beats and rapes the wife (Gene Kelly sings it over the end credits). I love Kubrick, but the clip I have is just too ugly to include here.
Here’s a video of Debbie Reynolds talking about Singin’ in the Rain. I don’t know the source of this or what year it was, but it’s interesting to hear what she has to say.
I’m sure you’ve all seen Singin’ in the Rain at least once, but if you haven’t, you really should. It’s bursting with the joy of movie-making. We may be in for more musicals now that La La Land is such a success, but it will be hard to match this. – Ted Hicks