Sure, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was an upbeat musical from 1952 that captivated viewers and created one of the most iconic film sequences in history. But it’s more than that. It’s also a history lesson about what Hollywood was like in the late 1920s when silent films were making way to “talkies.” And on a more personal level, it can serve as a tutorial on how to be a great dancer. In short: it’s many things! And I think it’s high time to go down memory lane and look at what went on behind the scenes of ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’
The film’s impact on popular culture is huge, to say the least, and it made stars out of Debbie Reynolds and Cyd Charisse. It also influenced directors like Jacques Demy and Stanley Kubrick, believe it or not. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot about this musical classic that most people don’t even know.
It all began about twenty years before the movie was ever made. MGM producer Arthur Freed spent his time in the ’20s as a lyricist, making scores for talkies with Nacio Herb Brown. Their song ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was featured in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. In the ’40s, Freed wanted to create a musical from his own catalog.
Realizing the songs were a part of their era, they thought the songs would do better in a happy tone rather than sophisticated and gloomy. And with Gene Kelly’s interest in the role of Don Lockwood, the movie shifted from song-centered to a full-on dance musical. Kelly also came onboard as not just the star, but the co-director and choreographer. By June 1951, the movie was in production, which lasted five long and grueling months.
The on-screen chemistry between Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds became iconic in film history, but filming their scenes was anything but blissful for the pair. Both have passed away, but in the decades after Singin in the Rain came out, the two opened up about their working relationship that was tainted with blood, sweat, and tears… and the occasional (alleged) advances made towards Reynolds.
“I had just turned 19 when filming started. Gene was 37. He never wanted me in ‘Singin’ In The Rain.'” Reynolds then recalled how, when Gene heard that she was going to be the leading lady, he stared at her and said, “What have you done before?” But despite his apparent resistance, the studio had already made its decision.
Kelly, who directed the film, too, was something of a perfectionist. “My feet were bleeding from all that dancing, and when I pointed it out, Gene would say, ‘Clean it up,'” Reynolds said. But it wasn’t just the technical stuff that drew Kelly mad, she said. “If I wasn’t smiling, Gene would yell at me to smile more. During filming, I thought my cheeks were going to crack from all that smiling.”
In Debbie Reynold’s 2013 memoir, “Unsinkable,” she described the moment that she and Kelly filmed their first kiss – something she expected to be pure, as was typical in films of that time. “The camera closed in. Gene took me tightly in his arms and shoved his tongue down my throat,” she wrote. And her reaction can be seen as both innocent and offensive at the same time.
As soon as Kelly aggressively kissed her right there in front of the cameras, she shrieked: “Eeew! What was that?” She described how she then broke free of his grasp, spat, and ran around franticly, yelling for some Coca-Cola to rinse her mouth. “It was the early 1950s, and I was an innocent kid who had never been French-kissed.”
The way she saw it, it was an assault. She couldn’t believe that this man in his late 30s would do that to a young woman. Kelly passed away in 1996 before her memoir was ever written, so he didn’t live to see the day that she would expose what happened between them on set. But in the years before his death, Kelly reportedly said: “I wasn’t very nice to Debbie. I’m surprised she still speaks to me.”
Kelly’s widow, Patricia Kelly, disputed some of the things Reynolds claimed even before they were detailed in her memoir. A year before it was released, when Patricia was asked about her husband’s attitude toward Debbie Reynolds, she said that he was only hard on her because he was intent on creating a great movie.
“You want your partner to look the best he or she can possibly look,” Patricia explained of her husband’s motive. “And that was always his intent with Debbie, and she worked like a trouper and became a big star.” While Reynolds stood by her memories of what happened behind the scenes, she never held a grudge against Gene Kelly, saying, “He was a hard taskmaster, but he was also brilliant, and he taught me a lot.”
At the time that Debbie Reynolds was asked to be in the film, she was a 19-year-old gymnast. She was discovered at a beauty pageant and had no dance experience at all. She later pointed out Gene Kelly said he could teach her (just as he had done with Frank Sinatra for the film ‘Anchors Aweigh’). To Reynolds’ advantage, her experience as a gymnast meant that she wasn’t totally unfamiliar with physical movement with grace and stamina.
The trouper she was, she bit the bullet and rehearsed day and night until she felt comfortable enough to share a dance floor with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor and wasn’t too worried about embarrassing herself (despite still being a teenager). She later said: “The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain.”
Cyd Charisse was on-screen for only a few minutes in the “Broadway Melody” dream ballet sequence. But the role would technically have gone to Reynolds, but as we now know, she just didn’t have the dancing chops to pull it off. And actress Leslie Caron, who danced with Gene Kelly in ‘An American in Paris,’ wasn’t available.
So the gig went to Cyd Charisse, an acclaimed dancer that Kelly admired since seeing her work with Fred Astaire in ‘Ziegfield Follies.’ In an additional twist, Charisse was actually supposed to get Caron’s role in ‘An American in Paris,’ but she had to drop out when she got pregnant. Charisse gave birth only a few months before taking part in Singin’ in the Rain job.
Unlike many of the musical films of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s that were typically based on stage shows, Singin’ in the Rain wasn’t adapted from a Broadway musical. It was a completely new script, written specifically for the movie, but featured old songs written for previous movies. It was only later made into a musical, having the reverse effect.
Thirty years after the film became a beloved classic, it was then reverse-engineered and turned into a stage musical, premiering in London’s West End in 1983. And following that musical, there were more revisions and more songs added to make it a popular Broadway staple.
Here’s a little more on how Singin’ in the Rain came to be…
O’Connor, who was born into a vaudeville family in 1925, had been on the stage since his early childhood and in movies since he was 12. By the time he got the part of Cosmo in Singin’ in the Rain, he already had 36 film credits, mostly musicals, under his belt. Kelly was 13 years older than him and came to Hollywood a bit later.
But still, Kelly had an impressive background of his own. He racked up 18 films between 1942 and 1951, all before his path crossed with O’Connor’s. And it turns out that they almost didn’t meet. Freed, the producer, initially wanted Kelly’s ‘An American in Paris’ co-star, Oscar Levant, for Cosmo, but everyone else — like screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen — wanted someone who could really dance.
Remember the part where the three of them somersault over a couch and then tip another couch over backward before finally collapsing on it and laughing? Yeah, as you can imagine, it was a tricky scene to shoot. Kelly was known for being a demanding choreographer and director, and he wasn’t one to leave the magic to the editing.
The resulting scene has minimal cuts and editing because Kelly made sure it was perfect. So when three dancers are supposed to be moving in unison, and one person moves his body slightly just a little bit the wrong way, you’ve got to do it again. And that’s why this shoot was really difficult to make happen. Debbie Reynolds said that by the end of a 14-hour day shooting that scene, her feet were bleeding.
Since Gene Kelly took his acting, directing, and choreography to near obsession, he prioritized the dance numbers over its singing. So for a novice like Reynolds, the long hours and painful routines led to bleeding feet – to the point where she had to be carried to her dressing room. Her unlikely savior through all of it? Fred Astaire.
Astaire found her one day, crying under a piano in the studio’s lot. He even let her watch him rehearse, which apparently was something he literally kept under lock and key. “He let me sit there by the door and watch him… creating steps,” Reynolds recalled. “He was just sweating, turning red in the face, and after about an hour, he looked over, and he said, that’s enough. You see how hard it is? It never gets easier.”
Contrary to urban legend, the Singin’ in the Rain main dance number wasn’t shot all in one take. It wasn’t even shot in one day. In fact, it took seven days to film and was filmed on the MGM backlot – a street set that spanned two blocks long. The production included six hours of fake rain each day, and the water was mixed with milk to make sure it showed up on the camera.
But the milk/water mixture made Kelly’s wool suit shrink. Since he was perpetually drenched, Kelly had a bad cold the whole time and struck a really bad fever. He ran a temperature of 101 to 103 degrees (depending on who’s telling the story).
Although Donald O’Connor was on a stage ever since he was three days old (yes, days), he suffered from major physical exertion. The “Make ‘Em Laugh” sequence had actually been created because Kelly wanted O’Connor to have a solo number, and it was brainstormed by both. They based it on his old vaudeville work, and from skits that he would perform to amuse the film crew, which included the off-the-wall somersault.
The 27-year-old O’Connor, who was also smoking four packets of cigarettes per day, was so utterly exhausted from this one sequence that he had to go to bed for a week after filming it. And here’s the kicker: there was a mistake with the camera equipment, which meant that the film was unusable. And that meant that the poor thing had to shoot the entire sequence all over again.
Debbie Reynolds wasn’t the only one who had to bear Gene’s aggressive methods, albeit she definitely got the brunt of it. After the tough “Good Morning” routine, she suffered burst blood vessels in her feet and had to be carried away to recover. And to add insult to injury, Gene Kelly decided that her work wasn’t good enough and dubbed the sound of his own tapping over hers.
Others on the set were also scared of the big bad wolf; even O’Connor admitted that Gene’s intense focus on perfection (I’ll call it an obsession) led to a tense time on set for almost everyone. O’Connor said that he was terrified of making even the smallest mistake in at least the first few weeks of filming, fearing the wrath of Kelly and getting yelled at in front of everyone.
Watch closely, and you’ll see that Kelly and Charisse are always bending toward each other instead of standing straight. And it was all part of his plan. Kelly choreographed his dance scenes with Cyd Charisse in a way that would hide the fact that she was taller than him. Well, she was taller than him when she wore heels, at least.
To keep the height difference a secret, Kelly arranged the routine so that they never stood upright when they were next to one another, always bending toward or away from each other instead. Another epic number with Charisse was the “Broadway Melody Ballet,” which ran for about 17 minutes. The then-unknown Cyd Charisse was the leggy femme fatale who stole the show. That sequence cost more than $600,000 to film, which was more than $85,000 over budget.
As the film was about to start shooting, directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly realized that Donald O’Connor didn’t have even one solo number. And nothing in the Freed/Brown collection seemed to fit, so the directors asked the composers to whip up something new – something similar to “Be a Clown,” from the musical, The Pirate.
Freed and Brown did just that, creating “Make ’em Laugh,” a song Donen later referred to as “100 percent plagiarism” of “Be a Clown.” The songs’ similarities are undeniable. But the song stayed in the movie. Apparently, Cole Porter (of The Pirate) didn’t mind – at least didn’t sue – because he was grateful to Freed for everything he had done for him.
The movie cost $2.5 million, which turned out to be more than $600,000 over budget. By the end of production, the budget ballooned from $1.8 million to $2.5 million ($150,000 was spent on costumes alone). Its release in April of 1952 grossed $7.6 million, which meant the studio won in the end. Audiences flocked to see the new musical film.
For some reason, it was largely ignored by the Academy Awards. The movie was nominated to two Oscars but won none. I wonder if the filmmakers ever imagined that 60 years later, in an era of HD and GCI, and most of the cast long gone, that generation after generation would still watch their film and fall in love with it.
If you’re watching the movie again – or plan to – watch as Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse dance at the 1:22:03 mark, and you’ll see a sudden jump cut. The camera doesn’t move, but you can tell that something’s clearly been cut out. The unconfirmed (but probably true) explanation for this is that censors felt that a portion of the dance was too suggestive.
Apparently, they had warned Kelly beforehand not to have Charisse wrap her legs around his waist, even though real ballet dancers do that all the time. Either way, the footage was removed, the music was re-scored to match the cut, and all is well in the world. But whatever was taken out is lost forever, as the complete Singin’ in the Rain negative was destroyed in a fire.
That’s right, the film’s original negatives were lost due to a fire. Decades after the film’s debut in theaters, all of the original footage was unfortunately lost due to a fire that happened at some point in the late ’70s. It sucks because now we’ll never know if there were any bloopers or extended scenes that could have entertained us. And forget about any special features on our home copies today.
Several numbers were cut out from the movie, by the way, including Reynolds solo on “You Are My Lucky Star” and Kelly’s solo on “All I Do Is Dream of You.” Also cut out was most of Rita Moreno’s performance. Moreno became an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) winner who was seen only briefly at the beginning of the film as the silent star Zelda Zanders.
For the role of Lina Lamont, producers Comden and Green thought of Judy Holliday, who was their old sketch comedy partner. But after Holliday won an Oscar for the 1950’s ‘Born Yesterday,’ they decided they would need someone else. So they turned to Jean Hagen, who was Holliday’s understudy in the Broadway version of ‘Born Yesterday.’
And for her audition for the Singin’ in the Rain role, Hagen did a drop-dead impression of Holliday, landing her the part. As for female lead Kathy Selden, Judy Garland and June Allyson were considered. But Kelly was told that Reynolds was gonna be the girl. Reynolds, however, wasn’t so sure. As we know now, she was lacking experience and worked tirelessly to make it work.
The first time we see Cyd Charisse on the screen in the movie, she’s smoking a cigarette. That cigarette just happened to be the only cigarette she ever smoked in her entire life. Kelly and Donen felt that the character of the seductive girlfriend of a gangster should definitely be a smoker – it was only fitting.
Charisse had never smoked before, which really made her a rarity of the times (pretty much everyone in the ’50s smoked cigarettes – especially in Hollywood). But she told the directors that she didn’t know-how. So what did they do? They stopped shooting long enough to actually teach her. But she failed to see the pleasure in smoking, and thus never smoked again.
The film was a bit of a letdown after the movie ‘An American in Paris’ premiered in November of 1951. It also starred Gene Kelly, was also built around a songwriter’s work, and also featured a huge dream ballet sequence. ‘An American in Paris’ was a hit, winning six Oscars, including Best Picture. Only three weeks after the Oscars ceremony, Singin’ in the Rain came out in theaters.
I think we can say that it was a little too soon because while it did well enough with audiences and critics, it got very little awards attention. It also wasn’t seen as being nearly as successful as ‘An American in Paris.’ With time, though, public opinion changed. ‘An American in Paris’ is still appreciated today, but Singin’ in the Rain is the movie that shows up on the “best” and “favorite” lists.
Despite her Academy Award nomination for Singin’ in the Rain, Jean Hagen never really made it big after the film. She never managed to capitalize on her performance and get other major roles in other movies. But unlike Hagen, Cyd Charisse rolled on with her silent part into the lead in ‘The Band Wagon’ (opposite the great Fred Astaire.
Charisse also went on to do other musicals throughout the ’50s and afterward. Reynolds, as many of us know, remained a beloved and busy movie as well as a cabaret star. She even attributed her career longevity to the boot-camp experience that making “Singin’ in the Rain” was for her. Reynolds passed away in 2016 at the age of 84.
Freed was a successful lyricist in the ’20s and ’30s. In 1939, after serving as an uncredited producer on ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ Freed was then given his own unit at MGM to oversee the production of 45 big-screen musicals that would be made over the next 23 years. The term “jukebox musical” didn’t even exist yet, but there were a few movies in that era that really fit the description.
Films used old sets of songs with nothing in common except for their authors and the new stories. In 1951, when Freed was guiding ‘An American in Paris’ into existence, he thought of doing the same with the songs he’d written earlier. Many of those songs were big hits, and Freed certainly earned the power at MGM to advance what might be seen as a vanity project.
Since she was only 19 years old when they made the movie, Debbie was still living with her parents. Being in the film meant that she had to commute from her home, leaving at 4:00 in the morning and taking three different buses to get to the studio in Hollywood. Occasionally, she would cut out the commute by simply sleeping on the set overnight.
Another thing about Debbie was that her voice was dubbed, too. Although Debbie’s character was supposed to be recording the vocals to be dubbed over Jean Hagan’s character in the “Would You” sequence, it’s really Betty Noyes dubbing over Debbie, as she had a much deeper singing tone.
Singin’ in the Rain’s title tune became the soundtrack to a scene in 1971’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and not just any scene. It was one of the most infamous (and awful, if you ask me) moments in the film when Malcolm McDowell sang the song while his character raped a woman. The song was actually McDowell’s suggestion.
First, Director Stanley Kubrick needed to get permission to even use the song. So he called for a break and got within an hour he got permission from his studio, Warner Brothers, to acquire the rights to the song. Donen happened to be in London at the time, and near the set, so Kubrick met him and told him of his idea. Donen raised no objections at the time. But who knows what Kubrick told him.
Almost all of the songs had already been used in other films and were compiled before a single line of dialogue had even been written. Instead, the writers worked around the songs to create a plot that could match each of them accordingly. The 10-minute “Broadway Melody” number near the end of the movie was a late addition.
Freed was inspired by how well a similar number in ‘An American in Paris’ turned out, so he suggested that Kelly and Donen make one for Singin’ in the Rain, too, which was after most of the film had been shot already. That’s the reason Donald O’Connor isn’t in that part as he was under contract with Universal Studios and had to shoot ‘Francis the Talking Mule.’
The film’s homage to the silent era can be appreciated in its “mise-en-scene.” Donen and Kelly searched high and wide through the MGM warehouses for contemporary props and dressing sets with stuff from 1926 drama ‘Flesh and the Devil.’ Older crew members were asked about the problems of early sound recording.
Then they erected a silent-era soundstage that was brought back into service just for the production. Cyd Charisse, in the fantasy Broadway sequence, was made up to echo the ’20s actress Louise Brooks. Singin’ in the Rain’s costume designer, Walter Plunkett, duplicated outfits that he once made for silent film star Lilyan Tashman.
Speaking of costumes…
Costume designer Walter Plunkett said later on that this film was the most work he had ever done in his whole career for a film. And that’s coming from the man who worked on ‘Gone with the Wind’! Both films were period pieces, but it was Singin’ in the Rain that required much more elaborate and ornately detailed costumes than Gone With the Wind ever did.
These costumes had to be a lot more accurate since the 1952 audiences remembered Hollywood of the late ’20s a lot better than 1939 audiences ever remembered the Civil War. It needed to be realistic. All in all, Plunkett designed about 500 costumes for this film. No wonder he said it’s the most work he’d ever done.
Stanley Donen, who co-directed the movie, said how the initial story idea was actually developed for a movie that was going to be called ‘Excess Baggage’ and was going to star Ann Miller. Then there’s the character of Don Lockwood. Originally, the character was imagined as a cowboy, not a swashbuckler. So producers imagined Howard Keel for the role, not Gene Kelly.
The ending was also supposed to be different from the ending we all know. The original idea for the ending would be to include a premiere for Lina’s film, ‘Jungle Princess,’ where her dialogue would consist solely of grunts. Oh, and Lina and Cosmo were also supposed to have been married.
Debbie Reynolds may have had a difficult time shooting this film, but it was a turning point in her career, and like many people, she liked to have keepsakes. Most of the costumes from the movie were eventually acquired by Debbie Reynolds, who then put them in her massive collection of film costumes, sets, and props.
In 2011, many of these items were sold at an auction in Hollywood. While most of the stuff was sold to private collectors, there was Donald O’Connor’s “Fit as a Fiddle” green checkered suit and shoes that were purchased by Costume World, Inc. The suit and shoes are now on permanent display at the Costume World Broadway Collection Museum in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Even though Donald O’Connor was there to play Gene Kelly’s friend on screen, the first thing Kelly asked him when they were on set for “Moses Supposes” was if his fouettes (a quick whipping movement of the raised leg in ballet usually accompanying a pirouette) were left. He replied yes, and Kelly grinned, saying, “That’s great.” In the late ’80s, O’Connor said in an interview, say how that moment made his day. After the duet, they became close friends.
And since he was comfortable with O’Connor, and because he knew that her crying would stall filming, Kelly used O’Connor as his ‘whipping boy’ when he was frustrated with Reynolds. Kelly knew that O’Connor could handle what he wanted to say to Reynolds, who was so young and vulnerable. This fact was only ever revealed to Reynolds by O’Connor years later.
Ironically, a movie with a plot that centers on a performer working in an uncredited and unrecognized way has many of the film’s on-camera performers and significant behind-the-scenes crew members without any on-screen credits. Take Kathleen Freeman, for example, who has several dialogue scenes with Jean Hagen and was left was uncredited.
Freeman went on to have a decade-long career as a character actress in movies like The Blues Brothers and TV shows like The Donna Reed Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Married… with Children. Accomplished Broadway dancers Carol Haney and Gwen Verdon were also uncredited choreography assistants to Gene Kelly. Even Kelly’s job as the film’s main choreographer went uncredited.
This film was Gene Kelly’s “get out of jail” card to get out of his MGM contract. He would later talk about roles like Guys and Dolls (1955) that he had to turn down due to the conflicts of his contract with the studio. He had a bad attitude throughout filming, but apparently, a lot of it was an act to get the studio frustrated with him. Kelly was then released from his contract.
A little unrelated, but cinematographer John Alton was initially hired after he impressed Gene Kelly with his filming of the ballet sequence in ‘An American in Paris.’ But Alton was then fired over the objections of Kelly and Donen. Why? Because of what Donen later described as “political reasons.”
Like with Lina Lamont, when sound films, or “talkies,” arrived, many silent film actors lost their careers because their voices just didn’t match their on-screen personas. The most famous example is the silent star, John Gilbert. But, it wasn’t the sound of his voice that ended up killing his career; it was the rumors of his behind-the-scenes backstabbing.
Apparently, they would speed up his voice by sound technicians (on direct orders from someone with an agenda). There were also the ridiculously flamboyant lines he had to say. Gene Kelly’s lines in ‘The Dueling Cavalier’ are based on the kinds of lines that killed John Gilbert’s career. Gilbert’s lines as the Romeo character in the “William Shakespeare Scene” in ‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is an example of this.
Gene Kelly set the scene for a new kind of choreography. He wanted to make the camera movements serve the dancing – to create something you couldn’t really see on a theatrical stage. As a result, Kelly adopted the term “cine-dance,” which he defined as “any dancing choreographed specifically and particularly to be filmed or televised.”
For every number involving dance, Kelly had to devise not only the choreography, the staging, and the dancers’ physical movements, but he also had to arrange the film choreography and the camera movements in relation to the musical number. In Singin’ in the Rain, when Kelly closes his umbrella, the camera closes in on him. And when he sings, “Come on with the rain /I’ve a smile on my face,” he opens his arms wide, inviting the rain and the camera to move in toward him.
Gene Kelly also made cinema history when he danced with Jerry the Mouse in ‘Anchors Aweigh’ in 1945. In the film musical, Kelly sits in front of a room of school children and reads them a story. But the audience in the theater experienced the tale through a mix of live-action and animation.
This memorable segment only lasted four minutes, but it took months to complete because 10,000 painted frames had to be synchronized with Kelly’s movements. Kelly was filmed first, and Jerry was then animated frame by frame to meet on screen. The technique was repeated in Kelly’s experimental dance film called ‘Invitation to the Dance’ in 1956.
Kelly had an apparent need to advance cinema and musicals specifically. So the star wanted to shoot one of his films, 1949’s ‘On the Town,’ outside the studio, and even outside of Hollywood. This was pretty much unheard of in the ’40s, especially for an MGM musical, which were all only filmed on soundstages or backlots.
To get his wish to travel to and shoot in Manhattan to come to fruition, Kelly had to fight with MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. Mayer just couldn’t visualize the effect that Kelly (and his co-director Stanley Donen) were going after. Ultimately, Mayer gave them five days in NYC, two of which were spoiled by bad weather. “We had to ‘steal’ and ‘cheat’ every shot, and somehow keep our cameras hidden from the passers-by who would only delay us further and crowd around if they knew a picture was being made,” Kelly said.
Even though Kelly has been dead for 24 years now and his admired films are more than six decades old, his presence is still alive and well. In the past decade, the deceased song-and-dance man has made appearances in Family Guy’s a Funny or Die sketch, and at least four TV commercials, two of them for Volkswagen.
The Simpsons, Glee, Saturday Night Live, Britain’s Got Talent, Usher, Jaime Cullum, and Mint Royale have all paid homage to Gene Kelly and his Singin’ in the Rain. I think it’s safe to say that he and the movie itself are evergreen classics that people just can’t get enough of. I guess it was worth the blood, sweat, and tears.