When you get right down to it, everything that happens up to Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) accidentally missing Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and giving Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) the pie in the face, serves as exposition for the remainder of Singin' in the Rain. (If the credits had been delayed until this point, it would have put Raising Arizona's opening to shame 35 years in advance.) That could be a huge detriment to a film, but here it grows a mighty oak from which the biggest laughs, the greatest songs and the most memorable dance numbers spread forth. As Al Jolson said in The Jazz Singer, "You ain't heard nothin' yet" only in Singin' in the Rain, you ain't seen nothin' yet either. In many musicals — either those produced exclusively for the movies back in their heyday right up to new ones premiering on stages today — the musical numbers usually exceed the books in quality (a quite common problem throughout the career of Stephen Sondheim, whose many scores rank among the greatest in musical theater history but often come shackled to lackluster or problematic scripts). Singin' in the Rain doesn't suffer that kind of problem because Betty Comden & Adolph Green's screenplay never slows down long enough to take a breath, let alone allow writing weaknesses to interfere with the glory of what Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen cook up with the Freed/Brown songbook. The next scene we see following R.F.'s party shows Guy arriving on the Monumental Pictures lot three weeks later, ready to commence shooting on the next Lockwood & Lamont silent spectacular The Duelling Cavalier (and yes, they spell Duelling with two l's in the film), another romantic, swashbuckling epic set during the French Revolution.
Don spots Cosmo (Donald O'Connor) reading Variety and chatting with an actor in full costume for a jungle feature being filmed. Cosmo fills them in about The Jazz Singer being "an all-time smash in its first week." The other actor continues to be a sound movie naysayer, predicting, "And an all-time flop in the second." Lockwood's mind obviously rests elsewhere, so the news doesn't capture his attention. He only mentions that he's back reporting for duty and walks off with Cosmo, ducking to avoid ruining a shot in a Western filming next to the jungle picture. Don tells Cosmo that he now can refer to him as Count Pierre de Bataille, alias the Duelling Cavalier. "Why don't you release the last one under the new title? You know — if you've seen one, you've seen them all," Cosmo jokes, but Don gets serious and asks him why he said that. When Cosmo inquires what riled him, Lockwood explains that Kathy said that to him. Cosmo expresses surprise that the girl remains on Don's mind and assures him that he didn't get her fired from her job at the Cocoanut Grove. Cosmo suggests that Don's preoccupation stems from the fact that she was the “first dame that hasn’t fallen for your line since you were four.” Cosmo, intent on cheering his buddy up, gives him his version of "the show must go on" speech, leading to O'Connor's solo number. During the preparations of Singin' in the Rain, Donen noted that there wasn't really a suitable solo number for O'Connor to perform and asked Arthur Freed if perhaps he and Nacio Herb Brown could write a new song for him. Freed agreed and inquired what kind of tune they needed. Donen suggested something along the lines of Cole Porter's "Be a Clown" which Kelly and Judy Garland performed in 1948's The Pirate, which Garland's husband at the time, Vincente Minnelli, directed and Freed produced. When Freed returned with "Make 'Em Laugh," everyone's jaws dropped. Musically, the song nearly matched "Be a Clown" note for note. Here are the two clips. First, O'Connor's energetic and delightful rendition of "Make 'Em Laugh" (The four-pack-a-day smoker sang, danced and performed acrobatically so enthusiastically, it sent him to bed for three days of rest, or perhaps hospitalization, afterward. To make matters worse, the footage got destroyed and he had to re-create the routine once back at work.) and then Kelly and Garland's number from The Pirate.
"None of us had the nerve to say, 'Arthur, this song is too close. You can't do that.' So we used it. Arthur brought Irving Berlin down on the stage when we were shooting 'Make 'Em Laugh,'" Donen said in a documentary on the fabled Freed Unit on MGM included on the 50th anniversary DVD. "Obviously, Berlin knew 'Be a Clown'…and as the song went on his head got lower and lower and lower and after about eight bars, he said to Freed, accusingly, 'Who wrote that song?' Arthur said, 'That's enough, Irving. We don't need to hear anymore. The guys and I, we all got together and we wrote the song. Come on, Irving.' And that was the easing out without admitting he had somewhat borrowed some of it." You would think that with music that so obviously mirrored Porter's earlier song, Porter would have filed a lawsuit, but he didn't. The prevailing conventional wisdom, such as written by Cecil Adams, theorizes that Porter "was still grateful to Freed for giving him the assignment for The Pirate at a time when Porter's career was suffering from two consecutive Broadway flops." Partially plagiarized or not, "Make 'Em Laugh" was one of only two songs in Singin' in the Rain written specifically for the film. The other, "Moses Supposes," stands out as the sole tune in the movie not written by Freed & Brown, instead composed of lyrics by Comden & Green and music by Roger Edens, the associate producer of the film and, according to Comden in the same documentary, "the backbone of the Freed Unit in every department." Green added that "(Edens) was the original trainer and overseer of Judy Garland." Edens also added a little something special to the film's most famous song. More on that later.
Stolen music or not, if O'Connor's bit weren't enough to tickle your funny bone, what comes next may well be my personal favorite nonmusical scene of the movie. Director Roscoe Dexter (Douglas Fowley) calls for his stars to come to the set to begin shooting The Duelling Cavalier. Lina exits her trailer in full 19th-century regalia, complaining about the period garb she wears. “This wig weighs a ton. Who would ever wear something like this?” she asks. Everyone used to wear them, Roscoe assures her. “Then everyone was a dope,” Lina declares. Don arrives, continuing to be crestfallen about Kathy — and even dim Lina detects what's bugging him. Lockwood expresses guilt about her firing when Lina admits that they weren't going to can her until she called and insisted. Before Don can throttle his co-star, Roscoe steps in to explain that in the scene about to film he needs to remember that he's madly in love with her. The moviemaking scenes in general but this one in particular pays off with some of the film's comedic highlights and makes me wonder if in the days of silent filmmaking, something similar ever occurred since no microphones picked up their words. It echoes the film's opening, when Don told the fans and radio listeners one thing while moviegoers saw the truth. This dialogue, delivered calmly, goes on while the two go through the motions of Don as Count Pierre de Bataille trying to seduce the maiden of the French aristocracy.
DON: Why you rattlesnake you, you got that poor kid fired.
LINA: That’s not all I’m gonna do if I ever get my hands on her.
DON: I’ve never heard of anything so low. What did you do it for?
LINA: Because you liked her. I could tell.
DON: So that’s it. Believe me — I don’t like her half as much as I hate you, you reptile.
LINA: Sticks and stones may break my bones.
DON: I’d like to break every bone in your body.
LINA: You and who else, you big lummox?
After Roscoe calls cut, Lina tries to insist that Don couldn't kiss her like that and "not mean it just a teensy bit!" Don glares at her. "Meet the greatest actor in the world! I'd rather kiss a tarantula." She thinks he's lying. He requests a tarantula. Before the quarreling can continue, R.F. (Millard Mitchell) storms onto the set. It seems that he reads Variety also. He announces the closing of the studio for a few weeks — to reconfigure it for sound filmmaking. The sensation of The Jazz Singer has changed everything. "I told you these talking pictures would be a menace," R.F. shouts, conveniently forgetting his own history. He tells Roscoe and Don that movie theaters already have started adding sound equipment and they can't risk being left behind. The Duelling Cavalier now will be a talking picture. "Talking pictures, that means I'm out of a job. At last I can start suffering and write that symphony," Cosmo sighs. "You're not out of job, we're putting you in as head of our new music department," R.F. informs the pianist. "Oh, thanks, R.F.! At last I can stop suffering and write that symphony," Cosmo gladly accepts. Don expresses worry, saying that they don't know anything about this talking picture business. It doesn't bother R.F. It's the same thing — just add talking. "Don, it'll be a sensation! Lamont and Lockwood: they talk!" Simpson proclaims. Then, from across the set, a voice adds, "Well of course we talk. Don't everybody?" Uh-oh. You think the P.R. flaks at Monumental Pictures feared Lina speaking in public or on the radio — now what would they do when a collision between that voice and the masses couldn't be avoided. Diction coaches sounded like the best short-term solution. In the meantime, the studio dived into the lavish musical business — so lavish that Singin' in the Rain was considered one of the more expensive films made in that era at $2,540,800 (with $157,250 spent on Walter Plunkett's costumes alone). Compare that to The Godfather's budget of $6.5 million 20 years later. Using the Labor Department's Inflation Calculator, the Singin' in the Rain budget would be worth $22,416,892.06 today, but only $3,957,784.62 when The Godfather filmed. One look at the complete production number for "Beautiful Girl" (with Jimmy Thompson singing the song) and you see where much of that costume budget went. Sondheim cites Brown & Freed as one of the songwriting teams whose style he mimicked in his pastiche numbers in Follies. Follies even contains a song called "Beautiful Girls," but it sounds nothing like the Freed & Brown song. The "Beautiful Girl" sequence does contain an important plot point though since Cosmo spots Kathy in the chorus and rushes off to tell Don and R.F. likes her as well and decides to hire her to play the younger sister of Zelda Zanders (Rita Moreno) in her movie (slightly humorous since only four months separated her and Debbie Reynolds in real life).
As you no doubt noticed by now, movies that mean a lot to me such as Singin' in the Rain do start me prattling on like the grade school student I described in the first half of this piece. When you combine that with the accumulated knowledge I've gathered over the several decades since and new goodies I've picked up from commentaries, my impulses push me to regurgitate it all and ignore the writer inside me who yells, "Enough already! People stopped reading this before you even created the second page. You wonder why so few leave comments?" (I also must ask why I'm getting wordier the older I get. I love films such as Goodfellas and The Rules of the Game even more, but I kept their tributes to a page.) Prompting and provoking my worst traits in this regard happens to be the colossal collection of embeddable clips from Singin' in the Rain that YouTube contains. Admittedly, not every musical number exists in a pristine presentation — and the 17-minute "Broadway Melody" ballet sequence only gets represented by two clips of the Cyd Charisse portions of the epic dance piece — but YouTube even has examples of some of the hysterical dialogue scenes. The movie contains so much that I want to share it all. Granted, ruining twists in it wouldn't be the same as it would be in other films where the plot turns contain some significance, but in other ways, it would be worse here. I've seen films such as Fight Club where I've gone in knowing the twist and loved them anyway. You can't untell a joke. As much as I might want you to hear Gene Kelly sing "You Are My Lucky Star," I can't show you that clip because if you haven't seen the movie — well, dammit, you should and you should see him sing it in context. As far as all those backstage, insider details that I could toss your way, I'm going to let some slide. Otherwise, I'd never finish this tribute.
I feel I must share one particular number because it doesn't earn the kudos that the more widely seen musical sequences such as "Make 'Em Laugh," "Good Mornin'," "Moses Supposes" and, of course, the title song, do. When Don learns that Cosmo has found Kathy — and on the Monumental lot, of all places — Lockwood doesn't waste any time clearing the air between them and making his true feelings known. However, there is a hitch. Just as Don the actor lacks experience with dialogue, Don the man also stumbles when it comes to putting his thoughts into words. In this sequence, you see a very subtle theme that lurks beneath the film's surface. It isn't just the transition from silent films to sound ones but about the love of language in general and using the proper words. To feel more comfortable, Don takes Kathy on to an empty soundstage to sing his feelings to her. Originally, film historian Rudy Behlmer said on the DVD commentary, they planned for Kelly to sing the song while taking Reynolds on a tour of changing backdrops such as London, Paris and a jungle. Instead, they settled on the empty soundstage and it may be one of the best decisions since not going with Howard Keel as a silent Western star for the lead. Harold Rosson's use of Technicolor on the sparse set makes for one of the loveliest scenes in the film.
I praised her extensively in the first half of this tribute, but I can't allow Jean Hagen's brilliance as Lina Lamont to receive mention in part one alone, especially when a fun bit of Singin' in the Rain trivia makes the actress's work all the more impressive. First though, let us backtrack to more of the funniest moments of the movie (which all inevitably involve Lina) as we see a brief snippet of her session with diction coach Phoebe Dinsmore, played by the wonderful character actress Kathleen Freeman, who died just two weeks after lending her voice to the commentary track. At the time, Freeman appeared in her Tony-nominated role in the Broadway musical version of The Full Monty but her credits were so extensive, you had to have seen her in something. Perhaps as Fred Ward's gun-toting mom in The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult. Second, as Roscoe films Lina and she drives the director insane because she can't grasp the concept of speaking where they've placed the microphone. That leads to one of Lina's best one-liners in the entire film. As you might expect if you haven't seen the film (again, what the hell are you waiting for?), the premiere of the sound version of The Duelling Cavalier turns into a big bust. Actually — and fortunately for Monumental Pictures — the showing merely was a preview, not the opening to the public. Cosmo, during an all-night session of bemoaning the death of Don's career with Don and Kathy, comes up with the idea of turning The Duelling Cavalier into a musical — until they recall a problem known as Lina Lamont. "Lina. She can't act, she can't sing, she can't dance. A triple threat," Cosmo comments. They then get the bright idea — which Kathy agrees to do and R.F. backs as long as Lina doesn't know Kathy provides the voice — to have Kathy dub all of Lina's singing and dialogue. One of the songs in the re-titled Dancing Cavalier is a short number called "Would You?" They construct the sequence quite nicely, beginning with Kathy recording the song then cutting to squeaky-voiced Lina doing the same. We switch to seeing Lina in color lip-synching to Kathy as they film the scene until it slowly turns to black-and-white and R.F. gives his approval in the screening room. The scene from the movie:
Later, Don and Kathy have a scene where Kathy dubs Lina's dialogue in her love scenes with Don and the two confess their true feelings for one another. Now, why does any of this involve a bit behind-the-scenes True Hollywood-style craziness? Because, for whatever reason, Donen and Kelly didn't think that Reynolds' voice resonated strongly enough in "Would You?" During the other songs in the movie that she performs (admittedly none were solos), the singing voice does indeed belong to Reynolds, but they didn't think she worked here so in the scene where Debbie Reynolds portrays Kathy Selden dubbing Jean Hagen's Lina Lamont's singing, Reynolds herself had her voice dubbed by Betty Noyes, somewhat of a mystery dubber whose few other verified credits include singing the Oscar-nominated "Baby Mine" in Dumbo, though since Dumbo was born when Walt ran the show, no voices received credit. It gets stranger. The powers-that-be also ruled that Reynolds speaking voice didn't sound right to replace Lina's dialogue. Instead, Jean Hagen used her natural voice to dub herself doing the Lina voice for the scene. Follow all that? By the way, if you are curious, the take of "Would You?" using Reynolds' singing exists here.
Seventeen minutes of a "Broadway Melody Ballet" never had been planned for inclusion in Singin' in the Rain and, truth be told, as much as I love the film and admire the sequence itself, it sticks out like a sore thumb. For all of the sequence's extolling of that "Broadway Rhythm," this segment is the only part of Singin' in the Rain where its rhythm breaks down and the fault lies entirely with the success of An American in Paris, which Oscar or no Oscar for best picture, I've never liked the film that much (except for Oscar Levant). For best picture, it defeated A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. Those eligible but not nominated for the top prize included An Ace in the Hole, The African Queen, Alice in Wonderland, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Detective Story, The River, The Steel Helmet and my personal choice, Strangers on a Train. However, An American in Paris had a ballet in it so Freed, Donen and Kelly figured that they better put one in Singin' in the Rain no matter how incongruous it would be. The original idea of a Broadway-type number that would have included O'Connor and other cast members got tossed as production shut down on the film for four months. The delay put the kibosh on any chance of O'Connor taking part in the finale anyway since, though Rain was an MGM production, Universal had loaned him to them. "They preempted me at Universal. We finished the picture. It took us about nine months, if I recall correctly, then Gene was gone about four months…and (Universal) had other plans for me. They wanted me to work with the jackass again," O'Connor said, referring to his film series with Francis the Talking Mule. "So I went back and worked for them. That's the reason I'm not in the finale." Behlmer said in the commentary that an early draft ended with everyone showing up to the premiere of the movie Broadway Rhythm and Don and Kathy were married as were Cosmo and Lina, if you can believe that.
"What originally was going to be a relatively simple number budgeted at $80,000 came in at more than $600,000 because of the extension of it and elaborateness and the fact they had Cyd Charisse who had just had a baby and had to get back in shape," Behlmer said as he talked of how Kelly and Donen kept expanding the size, scale and time of the "Broadway Melody" sequence. While I do enjoy this sequence, it plays as if someone spliced it into the film from another picture by accident. On top of that, the early part, where Don plays an eager would-be hoofer going door to door in New York trying to find an agent bears a slight resemblance to the movie's beginning depicting the early struggles that he and Cosmo had. His character in the "Broadway Rhythm" fantasy even eventually ends up in vaudeville. The notion that he tries to sell to R.F. about why The Dancing Cavalier needs this sequence doesn't quite hold water either, but they try to explain that away in two parts, giving half the idea to Cosmo who suggests to get modern numbers in make the movie be about a hoofer who reads A Tale of Two Cities while backstage waiting for his call when he gets hit in the head with a sandbag and imagines all the French Revolution stuff. That doesn't quite mesh with the 17-minute sequence that Don describes to R.F., so it's understandable that he says, "He can't quite visualize it. He'll have to see it on film." (Reportedly, that phrase often came out of Arthur Freed's mouth but he didn't catch the joke they made at his expense. Cyd Charisse puts on some damn sexy dance moves though as a gangster's moll with a Louise Brooks hairdo (a gangster who does a George Raft coin flip). I also enjoy the finish of the sequence when Kelly rises above all the lit Broadway theater signs and it practically looks three-dimensional. Here's the first encounter with Charisse for you to enjoy. What a great place to hang your hat, eh?
When they first planned what arguably became the most famous musical number in film history, "Singin' in the Rain" was going to be a trio. After the disastrous preview of The Duelling Cavalier, Don, Kathy and Cosmo together, in that "at some point things just got so off-the-charts bad, it just got funny" spirit, would splash out the title tune. One night, an idea struck Gene Kelly and he phoned Arthur Freed and told him that he wanted to do it as a solo. Freed inquired as to what Kelly had in mind, but he didn't really have an answer except that he'd be singing and dancing in the rain. Sounds easy enough, but a lot of work went into that memorable little scene. First, as most film buffs know and I'm sure I've mentioned in relation to other movies, it's damn hard to get rain to show up on film. In the case of Singin' in the Rain, the mixed milk in with the water so the downpour showed up better. As always in these situations, the lighting had to be adjusted correctly so that not only did the rain show up, but so did your principal figure and backgrounds. The milk-water mixture had an unintended side effect as well: It shrank Kelly's wool suit the wetter it got and this scene took days of filming. That's right, days, which required covering the street sets of MGM's back lot with black tarp to make it appear as if it were night outside. To make matters worse, Kelly wasn't at his best. Illness had caught up with the workaholic who filmed parts of the scene with a temperature of 103 degrees.
The streets on the MGM back lot didn't come ready made with puddles. Those had to be built — or I guess broken would be the more proper term. "The puddles in the street were all faults we built because that is where he was going to be at that particular moment. We chipped out the pavement and the sidewalk and made puddles for him to splash in," Donen said in the Freed Unit documentary. While the crew may have deconstructed puddles for Kelly to splash in, they couldn't control the water pressure when the clock hit the right time of the day. "As people got home around 5 o'clock, they would start watering their yards because the hot sun had been beating down and the water pressure would suddenly drop enormously. We used a lot of water raining that whole street and when we tried to turn on our water, we'd just get a drip around 5 or 5:15 in the afternoon," Donen said. One matter that did stay in their control were transitions, something that film historian Rudy Behlmer said mattered a lot to both Donen and Kelly. Immediately preceding the "Singin' in the Rain" number was when he dropped Kathy off at her place after the all-night session that came up with the musical idea and she gives him a chaste kiss goodnight (or good morning, to be accurate) which prompts his elation. Donen and Kelly still sought some way to get from the doorway to the song and that's the other Roger Edens contribution I alluded to earlier. Edens added the little vocal vamp at the beginning that wasn't in the original version of the Freed & Brown song. "Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo/Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo/Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo/Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo…I'm singin' in the rain" They added the dancin' as well. You wouldn't think a string of sounds or nonsense words could make that big a difference, but can you imagine that number without them? They might as well be a magic spell.
How can anyone watch that and not have their spirits lifted immensely? That song has survived being placed in a horror context in A Clockwork Orange, yet it still makes me smile. Even though Singin' in the Rain regularly tops lists of superlatives now, few awards came its way in 1952. Donald O'Connor won a Golden Globe for best actor in a musical or comedy and Betty Comden & Adolph Green won the Writers Guild of America award for Best Written American Musical. (How about that for a very specific category?) Green said on the commentary track that he thinks he knows why the film didn't get the kudos then that it received in the years since. "It never won any big awards because, maybe for the simple reason, I think maybe, that it was funny. It didn't seek significance because people were laughing and doing odd things." Let's hear it for people laughing and doing odd things, especially when they did it as well as they did in Singin' in the Rain.