Singin’ in the Rain isn’t just an upbeat musical from 1952. It’s also a history lesson about Hollywood in the late 1920s, when silent pictures were giving way to talkies. And, of course, it’s also a valuable tutorial on how to be an awesome dancer (i.e. be Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor). It is many things! Here are some facts about Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s classic musical to enhance your next viewing.
1. It wasn’t adapted from a Broadway musical.
Many movie musicals of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s were based on stage shows, but this wasn’t one of them. Rather, it was a new script, written just for the movie, featuring old songs written for previous movies. Some 30 years later, after the film had become a beloved classic, it was reverse-engineered into a stage musical, premiering in London’s West End in 1983 and subsequently appearing (with revisions and more songs) on Broadway.
2. It was conceived by producer Arthur Freed as a means of showcasing songs he had written, but it wasn’t (just) an ego trip.
Freed was a successful lyricist in the 1920s and ’30s, collaborating with composer Nacio Herb Brown on dozens of songs for MGM musicals. In 1939, after essentially serving as an uncredited producer on The Wizard of Oz, Freed was given his own unit at MGM, where he oversaw the production of about 45 big-screen musicals (some originals, some Broadway adaptations) over the next 23 years, making MGM synonymous with the genre. The term “jukebox musical” didn’t exist yet, but there were a few films in that era that fit the description, using old sets of songs with nothing in common but their authors as the framework for new stories. Warner Bros.’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and MGM’s own Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) had done it with the songs of George M. Cohan and Jerome Kern, respectively.
In 1951, as Freed was shepherding the George and Ira Gershwin-based An American in Paris into existence, he thought of doing the same thing for the songs he’d written with Brown. Many of those ditties were big hits, and Freed had certainly earned the clout at MGM to advance what might have otherwise been seen as a vanity project. The studio head in the movie, R.F. Simpson, is based on him.
3. The one “original” song written specifically for the movie is actually a rip-off.
As the film was about to commence shooting, directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly realized Donald O’Connor didn’t have a solo number. Nothing in the Freed/Brown collection seemed to fit, so they asked the pair to whip up something new, something along the lines of “Be a Clown,” from Cole Porter’s 1947 MGM musical The Pirate. Freed and Brown did exactly that, delivering “Make ‘em Laugh,” a song that Donen later called “100 percent plagiarism” of “Be a Clown.”
The similarities were overwhelming and undeniable. (Compare for yourself: here’s “Be a Clown”; here’s “Make ‘em Laugh.”) But Freed, you’ll recall, was the producer of Singin’ in the Rain. One doesn’t really tell one’s boss, “Uh, sir, I think you might have stolen this,” so the song stayed. The story goes that Cole Porter didn’t mind (or didn’t sue, anyway) because he was grateful to Freed for all the career support he’d given him. “Moses Supposes” was newly written for the film too, with music by Roger Edens and lyrics by the screenwriters. But it’s not a complete song, lyrically speaking, so usually isn’t counted.
4. Debbie Reynolds had no dance experience before she made the movie.
She pointed this out when she was asked to be in Singin’ in the Rain, but Kelly said he could teach her, just as he’d done with Frank Sinatra for Anchors Aweigh. 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. She was quite young, too, turning 19 during the shoot. (Kelly, her love interest, was 39.) She later said, “The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain.”
5. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor had never worked together before.
O’Connor, born into a vaudeville family in 1925, had been onstage since infancy and in movies since he was 12. He had 36 film credits, mostly musicals and Francis the Talking Mule pictures, under his belt when he got the Singin’ in the Rain gig. Kelly was 13 years older and came to Hollywood a bit later than O’Connor, yet still racked up 18 films between 1942 and 1951, when at last their paths crossed. And they almost didn’t: Freed, the producer, wanted Kelly’s An American in Paris co-star Oscar Levant for the Cosmo role, but everyone else—screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen—wanted someone who could dance.
6. Gene Kelly choreographed his dance scenes with Cyd Charisse in a way that hid the fact that she was taller than him.
Or she was when she wore heels, anyway, as she does in the film. To keep the height difference from being obvious, Kelly arranged the routine so that they were never both standing upright when they were next to each other, always bending toward (or away from) one another instead.
7. Yes, Kelly had a fever when he filmed the “Singin’ in the Rain” number.
Contrary to legend, it wasn’t shot all in one take—or even all in one day. It lasted a couple of days, and on at least one of them, Kelly was sick with a fever of anywhere from 101 to 103 degrees, depending on who’s telling the story.
8. Costume designer Walter Plunkett said this was the most work he had ever done for a film—and he had worked on Gone With the Wind!
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.
9. The last shot of the “Good Morning” number took 40 takes.
It’s the part where the three of them somersault over one couch and then tip another one over backwards before collapsing on it and laughing. Kelly was a demanding choreographer and director, and you’ll notice that most of the dancing in the film is presented without a lot of editing. The camera moves around, but it doesn’t cut to other angles very often, and the dancers’s bodies are usually wholly visible. So when there are, say, three dancers who are supposed to be in unison, and one part of one person’s body does the wrong thing, you’ve got to do it again. The whole shoot was difficult for that reason, and this number was particularly challenging. Reynolds said that at the end of a 14-hour day shooting the scene, her feet were bleeding.
10. The 10-minute “Broadway Melody” dance number near the end of the film was a late addition.
Freed was encouraged by how well a similar sequence in An American in Paris had turned out, so he suggested that Kelly and Donen conceive one for Singin’ in the Rain, too—after most of the rest of the film had been shot. That’s why Donald O’Connor isn’t in this part: he was under contract with Universal and had to go make another Francis the Talking Mule movie.
11. Cyd Charisse owed her role in the film to Debbie Reynolds’s lack of experience.
Charisse is only onscreen for a few minutes, in the aforementioned “Broadway Melody” dream ballet sequence. The role would logically have gone to Reynolds, but she simply didn’t have the dancing chops to pull it off. Leslie Caron, who’d danced with Kelly in An American in Paris, wasn’t available. So the job went to Cyd Charisse, an acclaimed dancer whom Kelly had admired since seeing her work with Fred Astaire in Ziegfield Follies. (Charisse was actually supposed to have had Caron’s role in An American in Paris, but had to drop out when she got pregnant. She’d given birth only a few months earlier when she took the Singin’ in the Rain job.)
12. There may have been some censorship in the ballet number.
Watch as Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are dancing at the 1:22:03 mark in the film, and you’ll see a jump cut. The camera doesn’t move, but something’s clearly been snipped. The unconfirmed but probably true explanation is that censors deemed a portion of the dance too suggestive. (They’d warned Kelly beforehand not to choreograph Charisse wrapping her legs around his waist, even though real ballet dancers do that all the time.) The footage was removed, and the music was re-scored to match the new cut. Whatever was taken out is presumably lost forever, as the entire Singin’ in the Rain negative was destroyed in a fire.
13. Donald O’Connor really should have died filming “Make ’em Laugh.”
And not just because you could legitimately break your neck doing those run-up-the-wall flips (although that, too). The physical exertion required for the scene would have been demanding for anyone … and O’Connor, by his own admission, was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. And after the entire sequence had been shot? He had to do it all over again, because a technical error made the footage unusable.
14. The first time we see Cyd Charisse, she’s smoking a cigarette. It’s the only cigarette she ever smoked in her life.
Kelly and Donen thought the character, the seductive girlfriend of a gangster, ought to be smoking. Charisse, who had never smoked before (making her a rare bird in 1951 Hollywood), told them she didn’t know how—so they stopped shooting long enough to teach her. Evidently failing to see the pleasure in it, she never smoked again.
15. The film was a bit of a letdown after An American in Paris.
An American in Paris—also starring Gene Kelly; also built around a particular songwriter’s work; also featuring a large-scale dream ballet sequence—was released in November of 1951. It was a hit, eventually winning six Oscars, including Best Picture. Three weeks after the Oscar ceremony, Singin’ in the Rain came out. It did well enough with audiences and critics, but it got very little awards attention, and it wasn’t perceived as being nearly as successful as its predecessor. Over time, public sentiment changed. An American in Paris is still highly regarded today, but it’s Singin’ in the Rain that shows up on the “best” and “favorite” lists.
Additional sources: Featurettes and commentary track on the 60th anniversary Blu-ray.
This article originally ran in 2015.