Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

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Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is arguably considered to be one of the best musicals ever made. Featuring a popular title song, top-notch talents, and the most iconic, lighthearted dance in movie history, it is no surprise that this musical has steadily remained a beloved MGM classic for over 50 years. Though the film was only a modest hit upon its release, it has gained legendary status as one of the top American films of all time.

This romantic comedy and musical tells the story of Hollywood in the late 1920s, with the film’s lead actors responding to the film industry’s transition to talkies. Directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanely Donen, the film stars Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. Jean Hagen is just as memorable, offering a hilarious performance of her own, perfectly opposing Reynolds’s character with ease. The screenplay and story were written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

Singin’ in the Rain (1952) follows the career of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), a popular silent film star with humble roots who barely tolerates his vain and shallow leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen). Because their studio links them romantically in publicity releases, Lina is convinced that she and Don are in love.

At the premiere of their newest film, The Royal Rascal, Don tells the crowd an exaggerated version of his life story which is fabulously contradicted by a series of flashbacks from his actual past and camaraderie with Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor). In order to escape his all too adoring fans, Don jumps into a passing car and meets Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Kathy does not recognize him as a film star until he reveals his true identity during the car ride but she remains unimpressed–a reaction Don never gets from his fans. Claiming to be a stage actress, she belittles his silent film career as “a lot of dumb show” and dismisses his work in film as undignified.

Later that evening, at a party, the head of the studio shows a demonstration of a talking picture but his guests are unimpressed. To Don’s surprise, Kathy pops out of a mock cake in front of him, revealing that she is a chorus girl. While Don begins to poke fun at her, she throws a real cake at him–and misses. The cake lands on Lina’s face, leading Kathy to run away. Don, however, is smitten and searches for her, unaware that Lina has had her fired. Don soon finds Kathy working in a Monumental Pictures production. When they are reunited, she confesses to having been a fan of his all along.

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The film industry is suddenly turned upside-down when a rival studio scores an enormous hit with their first talking picture, The Jazz Singer. R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell), studio head, decided that he has no choice but to convert the next Lockwood and Lamont film, The Duelling Cavalier, into a talkie. Everything seems to be in check until Don, Cosmo, and R.F. realize one major challenge–Lina’s voice. She has a grating New York accent that cannot be corrected by the finest diction coaches available.

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Unfortunately, the screening of the film is disastrous. The awkward placing of microphones leaves the actors inaudible, Don’s originally unheard lines are corny to audiences, and the sound even goes out of synchronization. Despite this setback, hope springs eternal when Don, Kathy, and Cosmo come up with the idea to turn the failed film into a spectacular musical. The Duelling Cavalier is dubbed The Dancing Cavalier–but that’s not the only thing that will be dubbed. Because Lina can’t act, can’t sing, and can’t dance–a triple threat–Cosmo suggests that Kathy dub all of her lines and songs. Kathy agrees, so long as this is a temporary arrangement, and everyone seems “happy again.” However, new complications arise as soon as Lina finds out that her position as a “shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament” is at stake.

Singin’ in the Rain was conceived by MGM producer Arthur Freed, who churned out may lavish musicals for the studio as a vehicle for his catalog of songs written with Nacio Herb Brown. Almost every song in the film was performed in prior MGM musicals from 1929-1939, save for two new songs written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Comden and Green wrote “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes.”

The full listing of songs and their earlier debuts, if available, are as follows:

  • “Fit as a Fiddle (And Ready for Love)” from College Coach (1933)
    • Music by Al Hoffman and Al Goodhart
    • Lyrics by Freed
  • “Temptation” (instrumental only) from Going Hollywood (1933)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • “All I Do Is Dream of You” from Sadie McKee (1934)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • “Singin’ in the Rain” from The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed
    • This was the seventh time the song “Singin’ in the Rain” was used on the big screen. It was introduced in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929) where it was sung twice, first by Cliff Edwards and The Brox Sisters, then by the MGM roster in front of a Noah’s Ark backdrop. A clip from Edwards’ footage was later used as part of the talkie montage in Babes in Arms (1939). Jimmy Durante sang it briefly in Speak Easily (1932). In The Old Dark House (1932), Melvyn Douglas enters singing this song, somewhat inebriated. Judy Garland put her spin on it in Little Nellie Kelly (1940). The song was also featured as an elaborate musical sequence performed by William Bendix and cast in The Babe Ruth Story (1948).

  • “Make ‘Em Laugh”
    • Music by Comden and Green
    • Lyrics by Freed
    • It’s generally agreed that Freed and Brown lifted a great deal of the song’s melody from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown.” Irving Berlin was visiting the set one day when he heard a playback of “Make ’em Laugh.” When Berlin commented on its uncanny similarity to “Be a Clown,” Freed quickly changed the subject.
  • Beautiful Girl Montage: “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin'” from Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • Beautiful Girl Montage: “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” from The Broadway Melody (1929)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  •  Beautiful Girl Montage: “Should I?” from Lord Byron of Broadway (1930)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • Beautiful Girl Montage: “Beautiful Girl” from Stage Mother (1933)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • “You Were Meant for Me” from The Broadway Melody (1929)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • “You Are My Lucky Star” from Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • “Moses Supposes”
    • Music by Roger Edens
    • Lyrics by Comden and Green
  • “Good Morning” from Babes In Arms (1939)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • “Would You?” from San Francisco (1936)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • Broadway Melody: “The Broadway Melody” from The Broadway Melody (1929)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

  • Broadway Melody: “Broadway Rhythm” from Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935)
    • Music by Brown
    • Lyrics by Freed

The key characters in this film are portrayed by the following individuals:

  • Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood
  • Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden
  • Donald O’Connor as Cosmo Brown
  • Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont
  • Millard Mitchell as R.F. Simpson
  • Cyd Charisse as the Vamp
  • Douglas Fowley as Roscoe Dexter
  • Rita Moreno as Zelda Zanders

Most of the characters are based on actual people. R.F. Simpson, the studio head, is obviously a parody on Louis B. Mayer, with touches of Arthur Freed. Dora Bailey is an obvious caricature of Louella Parsons. Zelda Zanders, the “Zip Girl” is based on Clara Bow, the “It Girl.” Roscoe Dexter, the director, is based on eccentric director Erich von Stroheim. Finally, Olga, the vamp at the premiere, is based on Pola Negri and Gloria Swanson, both of whom landed royalty as husbands.

The making of this film was no easy feat and there are many stories regarding the filming of the musical’s crucial song and dance numbers and the casting of the roles.

Howard Keel was the original choice to play Don Lockwood; however, he was replaced by Kelly as the screenwriters evolved the character from a “Western actor” background to a “song-and-dance vaudeville” background. This movie was Kelly’s trump card to get out of his contract with MGM. Kelly would later talk about roles he had to turn down due to conflicts with his contract with the studio. This movie was not only a hit but a mockery of MGM itself. Kelly was later released from his contract. He had a poor attitude throughout the filming, but most of it was an act just to get the studio frustrated with him.

The title number was originally supposed to be a showcase for the three leads but Gene Kelly figured it would work well to illustrate his character’s joie de vivre. The first time they tried to film the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence, they shot it in the late afternoon. Unfortunately, the homeowners in the area had just come home from work and had turned on their lawn sprinklers so there was not enough water pressure for the “rain” to work. They finally filmed the sequence the next day, early enough so that everyone was at work and the water pressure was adequate for the shot. Milk was added to the water for the title number to make the rain appear more visible.

The “Singing in the Rain” number took all day to set up. Studio technicians had to cover two outdoor city blocks on the backlot with a tarp to make them dark for a night scene and then equipped them with overhead sprays for Kelly to perform the title number. Their efforts are all the more remarkable since there was a severe water shortage in Culver City the day the sequence was shot. On top of that, some say that Kelly was very ill with a fever over 101. When it was all set up, Kelly insisted on doing a take–even though the blocking was only rudimentary (starting and ending positions only), and co-director Stanley Donen was ready to send him home. He ad-libbed most of it and it only took one take, which is what you see on film.

Although uncredited, Kelly had two incredibly talented choreography assistants. These ladies were none other than Carol Haney and Gwen Verdon. In fact, Kelly’s taps during the “Singin’ in the Rain” number were post-dubbed by Verdon and Haney. The ladies had to stand ankle-deep in a drum full of water to match the soggy on-screen action.  Kelly had also recommended Haney for the role of Kathy Selden.

O’Connor admitted that he did not enjoy working with Kelly, since Kelly was somewhat of a tyrant. O’Connor said that for the first several weeks he was terrified of making a mistake and being yelled at by Kelly.

For the “Make ’em Laugh” number, Kelly asked O’Connor to revive a trick he had done as a young dancer: running up a wall and completing a somersault. To give himself confidence for the “Make Em Laugh” sequence, O’Connor invited his brother over to help him rehearse the stunt with a rope. The number was so physically taxing that O’Connor, who smoked four packs of cigarettes a day at the time, ended up in a hospital bed for a week after its completion. He suffered from exhaustion and painful carpet burns. Unfortunately, an accident ruined all of the initial footage, so after a brief rest, O’Connor–ever the professional–agreed to do the difficult number all over again.

Very early on in the pre-production stage, Judy Garland, June Allyson, and Ann Miller were considered for the role of Kathy Selden, but all were considered “too old.” Jane Powell and Leslie Caron were also briefly considered before Reynolds (then a newcomer) was cast. Only 19 when cast to play the film, Reynolds lived with her parents and commuted to the set. She had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and ride three different buses to the studio; sometimes, to avoid the commute, she would just sleep on the set.

Kelly was a taskmaster with Reynolds, who had never danced to this degree before rehearsals started. Fred Astaire, who was in an adjacent dance studio, found her crying under a piano and reassured her that all of her hard work was worth the effort. Reynolds had been a gymnast, so she wasn’t completely unfamiliar with physical movement requiring grace and stamina. Ever the trouper, she buckled down and rehearsed day and night until she could share a dance floor with Kelly and  O’Connor without embarrassing herself.

Because he knew that her crying would hold up filming, Kelly would use O’Connor as his ‘whipping boy’ when he was frustrated with Reynolds. Kelly knew O’Connor could take the tongue-lashing he really wanted to lay on Reynolds. This fact was revealed to Reynolds by O’Connor years later. Reynolds and O’Connor would work together once again in I Love Melvin (1953), where O’Connor even grasps a lamppost as part of a dance number.

After they finished the “Good Morning” number, Reynolds had to be carried to her dressing room because she had burst some blood vessels in her feet. Despite her hard work on the “Good Morning” number, Kelly ultimately decided to dub the sound of her feet as well as his own, as was the practice at the time. The last shot of the “Good Morning” number, with Don, Kathy, and Cosmo falling over the couch, took forty takes to film. Reynolds remarked many years later that making this movie and surviving childbirth were the two hardest things she’s ever had to do.

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The role of the ditzy movie diva Lina Lamont was written with Judy Holliday in mind. Holliday was a close friend of Comden and Green, and they even modeled the character on routines they had worked up with Holliday back when they were part of a satirical group called The Revuers in New York. Timing was everything, however, and the idea of casting Holliday was vetoed after she hit it big in Born Yesterday (1950). Everyone thought that she would be uninterested in the supporting part but, as it turned out, Hagen, Holliday’s understudy on Broadway for Born Yesterday, got the part. Additionally, both Holliday and Hagen had worked together in Adam’s Rib (1949) both in key supporting roles, Hagen playing a woman involved with Judy’s husband. Hagen’s speech in that film was similar in “pitch” to what she later exhibited as Lina Lamont.

While the film makes a central point of the idea that Kathy’s voice is dubbed over Lina Lamont’s, what is not told is that, ironically, in “Would You?” and one portion of “You Are My Lucky Star,” Reynolds, the actress who plays Kathy, is actually dubbed by Betty Noyes. However, Reynolds’ own singing voice is used in the rest of the score. In the looping sequence, Kathy Selden is seen dubbing the dialogue for Lina Lamont. However, it’s not Reynolds who is speaking, it is Hagen herself, who actually had a beautiful deep, rich voice. As a result, Hagen is dubbing Reynolds, who is dubbing Hagen.

Originally, Reynolds was going to play Kelly’s partner in the “Broadway Melody” sequence, but her dancing wasn’t up to the task. Leslie Caron, who had danced with Kelly in An American in Paris (1951), was the second choice, but she was unavailable. Afterward, the sequence was to feature Kelly and O’Connor, but the latter was forced to leave because of a prior TV commitment, so Cyd Charisse was tapped to replace him. She was made up to look like Louise Brooks and had to diet off the extra pounds she had just gained during her recent pregnancy. Charisse, a ballet dancer who had never before worked in heels, had to adjust her dancing style considerably to mesh with Kelly’s jazz background.

Before this film, Charisse had appeared in films as a “dance specialty” or as a supporting player since her arrival at MGM in 1944. Her torrid performance as the vamp was so revelatory that Freed was moved to elevate her to star status. Her next film was The Band Wagon (1953), starring Astaire.

Kelly choreographed his dance scenes with Charisse to hide the fact that she was taller than he was. To keep the height difference from being obvious, Kelly staged the routine so that the two were rarely upright when standing next to each other, always bending toward or away from one another instead.

In the steamy “Vamp Dance” segment, reviewers from both the Production Code and the Catholic Church’s Legion of Decency objected to a brief, suggestive pose or movement between the dancers. Although there is no precise documentation of what or where it was, close examination of footage toward the end of the dance shows an abrupt cut when Charisse is wrapped around Kelly, indicating the probable location. Additionally, Charisse had to be taught how to smoke a cigarette for the sequence. She stated that she never smoked another cigarette after that.

Given that the plot of this movie centers around a worthy performer working in an uncredited and unrecognized capacity in a movie, it is ironic that many of the film’s on-camera performers (even ones with relatively major supporting speaking roles) and significant behind-the-scenes crew members did not receive onscreen credits. For example, Kathleen Freeman (Lina Lamont’s vocal coach Phoebe Dinsmore), who has several dialogue scenes with Hagen, was uncredited; Freeman had a decades-long career as a character actress in movies. In addition, my friend Lyn Wilde appeared as the tennis player in the “Beautiful Girl” sequence. She and many other chorus members went uncredited, despite appearing in many more MGM films.

Behind the scenes, costume designer Walter Plunkett said that this was the most work he ever did on a film, including Gone with the Wind (1939). Both films were period pieces, but Singin’ in the Rain required a greater number of elaborate, ornately detailed costumes than Gone With the Wind did. They had to be more accurate, too, since 1952 audiences remembered Hollywood of the late ’20s more clearly than 1939 audiences remembered the Civil War. All told, Plunkett designed about 500 costumes for the film. The film rang up a final price tag of $2,540,800, $157,000 of which went to Plunkett’s costumes alone. Interestingly, many of the costumes from the film were repurposed two years later for Deep in my Heart (1954).

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Most of the costumes from this film were eventually acquired by Reynolds and housed in her massive collection of original film costumes, sets, and props. Many of these items were sold at a 2011 auction in Hollywood. While most items were sold to private collectors, O’Connor’s green check “Fit As a Fiddle” suit and shoes were purchased by Costume World, Inc. and are now on permanent display at the Costume World Broadway Collection Museum in Pompano Beach, Florida.

Just as costumes were reused by the studio, so were the songs. Debbie happens to sing “All I Do is Dream of You” with Bobby Van one year later in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953).

As with any musical, many numbers end up on the cutting room floor and Singin’ in the Rain was no exception. Two songs, in particular, were filmed but did not make the cut. Kelly sang a reprise of “All I Do is Dream of You” after the party at R.F. Simpson’s house when Kelly chases after Reynolds. The song, ending in Kelly’s bedroom, was cut from the release version after two previews, and the footage has been lost. Reynolds’ solo rendition of “You Are My Lucky Star” (to a billboard showing an image of Lockwood) was cut after previews. This number has survived and is included on the original soundtrack and DVD version of the film. The original negative of the entire feature film was destroyed in a fire.

Half a century later, this film continues to enchant audiences the world over. The story is very accessible to audiences, brimming with fantastic characters, plenty of humor, and some of the best talents of the day. MGM spared no expense in producing this film and it shows. Furthermore, the hard work poured into this film by every cast member truly makes it one of the most iconic musical masterpieces in movie history.


This post is part of Hometowns to Hollywood’s blogathon, entitled “The MGM Musical Magic Blogathon.”

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About Annette Bochenek

Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is a Ph.D. student and scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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5 Responses to Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

  1. Vienna says:

    Wow! Great post and thanks for all the terrific links.

  2. This is what you call a super post — no detail left uncovered! Thanks for all the pictures and links of musical numbers.

  3. Pingback: Top 100 Movie Review: #10 – Singing in the Rain (1952) – The Top 100 Reviews

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