An audio version of this essay is available for download here.
‘There are no auteurs in musical pictures,’ said actor/director Gene Kelly. ‘It’s impossible. You have to have music and arrangements, a choreographer, a director and so forth.’[i]
It would seem that good musicals require good partnerships to succeed, and if that is true then the best partnership of all time is arguably that of Gene Kelly, co-director Stanley Donen, and producer Arthur Freed. In one combination or another these filmmakers collaborated at Metro-Goldwyn Mayer on some of the most extraordinary feature films ever made. Of their films, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is the most popular and almost certainly the best. I don’t really ascribe to the idea that there can be a singular best anything in the world but when pressed to name ‘the best movie ever made’, in the absence of a more definitive choice, I generally pick Singin’ in the Rain.
It is one of the key works of the “Freed Unit”, a production team based within MGM that was dedicated to the making of movie musicals. Its name was derived from its head producer, Arthur Freed, and it was in Freed’s own long musical career that Singin’ in the Rain had its origins.
Freed started his career not as a producer but as a songwriter. Together with his partner Nacio Herb Brown, Freed co-wrote five of America’s 10 best-selling songs in 1929. In the same year MGM hired Freed and Brown to compose the songs for The Broadway Melody, the studio’s first all-sound musical picture.
When Brown and Freed parted ways in 1939, Freed shifted to producing musical films himself. His first film was Babes in Arms, a ‘barnyard’ musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. A barnyard musical is pretty much what its name inspires: a group of youths putting together a musical show in a local barn or hall. While he continued to produce numerous musical films it was his 1944 production Meet Me in St Louis that kicked his production unit into high gear. Subsequent musical hits included The Harvey Girls (1946), Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Easter Parade (1948) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949).
Freed produced films starring Angela Lansbury, Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Esther Williams, Leslie Caron and Margaret O’Brien. His directors included George Sidney, Vincente Minnelli and Busby Berkeley. His films included songs and music by Irving Berlin, Roger Edens, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and André Previn. While it’s difficult to point to any individual producer and claim they were one of the centres of 1940s and 1950s Hollywood, it is easy to point to Arthur Freed as one of the industry’s most significant and creatively engaging figures.
‘He knew talent and how to use it,’ said Gene Kelly of Freed, ‘what projects were best to do and which people were best to work on them. He was a nonpareil, and when I think back about all the people I had the good fortune to work with under his gentle command, I’m amazed.’[ii]
In 1948 Freed hit upon the idea of producing a film musical that used hit songs he had composed with Brown back in the 1920s. The idea was maybe inspired, perhaps egomaniacal and possibly a combination of both. At a very early stage he hit upon using one of the songs – 1929’s Singin’ in the Rain – as the film’s title.
Freed had writer Ben Feiner Jr. (Words and Music) develop a rough outline for the screenplay. It was based on the 1928 silent film Excess Baggage in which a vaudeville star and a dancer shared a fleeting romance. In January 1949 Feiner handed in his outline, and Freed commenced developing the project. Ann Miller (Easter Parade, On the Town) was announced to the press as the film’s star. By early June, however, Freed had second thoughts about the project. Feiner’s treatment was abandoned, and Freed set about finding new writers to develop the concept from scratch.
In May 1950 Freed hired the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. The writers received their first professional break in 1944 when their musical On the Town – written in collaboration with composer Leonard Bernstein – became a smash Broadway hit. The play’s success led them to Hollywood, where they wrote the screenplays to Good News (1947), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and On the Town’s own big-screen adaptation (1949).
When hiring them, Freed gave Comden and Green a title and a list of songs; the writers had carte blanche to develop them into any story they felt fit. ‘All we were told,’ recalled Comden, ‘was to write a movie, and to get twenty or as many as you could of these wonderful songs into the story.’[iii]
Comden and Green rapidly zeroed in on the idea of exploring Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talking pictures. The idea had the benefit of setting the film in the exact same period in which Freed and Brown’s songs were first written.
While Comden and Green worked on the script, Arthur Freed set about appointing a director. He settled on Stanley Donen, a young director whose fortunes were inextricably linked to one of Freed’s key stars: Gene Kelly.
Donen was a 16 year-old dancer in a Broadway show when he first met its star, 28 year-old Gene Kelly. Their friendship guaranteed Donen’s career, with the elder Kelly introducing him to the right people at the right time and enabling him to rapidly climb the ladder to Hollywood success. ‘Gene made it possible for me to become a director when I was in my 20s,’ said Donen, ‘and I went on to direct him and Fred Astaire too. Well, that’s a gift nobody else got. You have to have the luck, and you can’t do without it.’[iv]
Donen moved from New York to Hollywood in 1943, first working as a chorus dancer and then as a choreographer. After working with Kelly on Columbia Pictures’ hit musical Cover Girl he was fired from his next job after a personality clash with his producer. This left him available right at the time Gene Kelly was looking for a choreographer again. ‘I told MGM to hire him,’ explained Kelly, ‘because I couldn’t do without him. I said, “He must get co-credit with me because I’m helpless without him.’[v]
Reunited with Kelly, Donen choreographed the dances for MGM’s Anchors Aweigh. It was Donen who proposed a fantasy sequence in that film in which Kelly would dance with a cartoon character. Original plans to license Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck fell through (Walt Disney was preparing The Three Caballeros at the time and didn’t wish for his characters to appear in a competing film). In the end the scene was produced using MGM’s own Jerry the mouse, animated by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. The scene took two months to shoot and almost a year to complete.
Shortly after completing his work on Anchors Aweigh Gene Kelly joined the United States Naval Air Service. He served as a war photographer and documentary maker until the war’s end the following year. The experience led Kelly to become as interested in directing films as he was in performing in them.
Reunited after the war Donen and Kelly hoped to direct an entire feature themselves, and proposed a baseball-themed musical to Arthur Freed in 1947. Freed developed the film, which became Take Me Out to the Ball Game, but then gave directorial duties to Busby Berkeley instead. Donen and Kelly were once again left to choreograph and direct the dance numbers.
Donen and Kelly’s chance to direct finally came in 1949 when Freed appointed them to helm On the Town, based on Comden and Green’s Broadway musical. The directors desperately wanted to take their film off the soundstage and shoot on location. Freed refused the request, but did eventually grant them a week’s location shoot in New York. The opening sequence that was filmed on location was one of the most ground-breaking achievements in filmmaking, utilising jump cuts, 360-degree pans, and guerrilla-style photography using real-life passers-by as unknowing extras. At the time Donen was only 25, making him one of Hollywood’s youngest directors.
Based on the success of On the Town Donen was signed to MGM on a seven-year contract. His second film was Royal Wedding (1951), starring childhood hero Fred Astaire and Jane Powell.
Once appointed to Singin’ in the Rain, Donen went about assisting Comden and Green in nailing down a storyline. ‘One idea,’ said Donen, ‘was to adapt the Jean Harlow picture Bombshell, or else some early talkie. We screened a lot of pictures from that time, literally dozens, but Betty and Adolph said no, they have this other idea.’[vi]
Their idea, to set the film in the late 1920s and base it around Hollywood’s transition from silent films to talking pictures, was one that was already popular in Hollywood. 20th Century Fox released You’re My Everything in 1949, which starred Dan Dailey and Anne Baxter as two actors during the advent of talkies. The following year Paramount released Billy Wilder’s Oscar-winning Sunset Boulevard, starring Gloria Swanson as a fading movie star whose career dies when she doesn’t adapt to talking films.
After several false starts, Comden and Green hit upon a premise that everybody seemed to like: a romance would kick off between a famous silent movie star and a young ingénue right at the point when his career enters a crisis when sound is added to his latest film. Comden and Green wrote the resulting screenplay in a small office inside the MGM studios, just up the hall from Freed himself. To better understand the atmosphere of the time, they interviewed every MGM staffer who had worked for the company back in the silent era.
At this early development stage there was still some uncertainty over who was going to star in Singin’ in the Rain. While Gene Kelly seemed the most popular and indeed obvious choice, Comden and Green recalled there was also consideration given to using Howard Keel. At that stage Keel had just made his film debut in George Sidney’s Annie Get Your Gun., opposite Betty Hutton. Some work was undertaken to adapt the Singin’ in the Rain storyline to Keel’s perceived image, making the lead character a star of silent westerns. This idea rapidly fell by the wayside, and by all accounts it seems Kelly was the only serious choice to star.
Comden and Green delivered their first formal draft of Singin’ in the Rain to Arthur Freed on 19 August 1950. The script, even at this early stage, closely resembled the final shooting script. Some of the names were different – female lead Kathy Seldon was named Kathy Summers, for example – but in broad strokes the storyline as drafted was what was filmed.
The protagonist was Don Lockwood, a big-time silent film star for Monumental Pictures (Imperial Pictures in the first draft, until MGM’s legal department had it changed to avoid confusion with an actual Imperial Pictures). When talking pictures become popular in Hollywood, the studio orders that his current film be transformed into a musical. There is only one problem: his co-star Lina Lamont, whom Don despises, has the most grating and unmusical voice imaginable. The solution is to hire an anonymous voice double to dub over Lina’s voice – only Don falls in love with the double, and Lina sees that romance as a threat to her and Don’s popular on-screen image.
The character of Don Lockwood was broadly based on silent film actor John Gilbert, who had established himself as a sensual romantic lead opposite Greta Garbo in The Flesh and the Devil (1927). When he tried to make the transition to talking pictures, however, Gilbert was widely ridiculed for his over-the-top acting and dialogue delivery. His disastrous performance in Lionel Barrymore’s His Glorious Night (1929) pretty much ended his career, and the flowery dialogue he was forced to recite in that film (‘Oh beauteous maiden, my arms are waiting to enfold you,’ and so on) formed the basis for the Dueling Cavalier scene. In recent years there has been some debate over whether Gilbert’s voice ended his career or not, but certainly the popular legend of what happened is what inspired Singin’ in the Rain.
Gene Kelly was cast as Don, and he and Stanley Donen re-teamed as co-directors: generally speaking Kelly handled the performances and the dancing, while Donen concentrated on directing the crew and the ultimate ‘look’ of the picture. To develop the film’s aesthetic, Donen borrowed all of the 1927 issues of Vanity Fair from the studio library. Arthur Freed was keen to eschew period costuming in favour of something more contemporary, but both Donen and Kelly resisted his demands.
For the supporting role of Cosmo Brown, Don’s best friend and studio pianist, Arthur Freed wanted to cast Oscar Levant. Levant had already co-starred for Freed in The Barkleys of Broadway and An American in Paris, and was also a close personal friend of the producer. The film’s original draft even included a comedy musical number, “The Piano-playing Pioneer”, specifically tailored to Levant’s strengths.
Kelly and Donen were convinced that Levant was a poor fit for the film that was being developed. Levant was a pianist, and they needed a dancer. His comedy was generally quite dark and neurotic (he was a notorious hypochondriac) whereas Singin’ in the Rain was becoming a much brighter and more optimistic picture. They begged Freed to recast, but the producer refused to budge. Donen said: ‘Betty and Adolph had written the part with Oscar in mind. That’s why he’s called Cosmo. It’s a name that would have fit Oscar. But Gene and I thought the picture would be destroyed if we used Oscar, even if he was Arthur’s closest friend in the world and Adolph asked him to.’[vii]
A misunderstanding unexpectedly ended Donen and Kelly’s problem. Adolph Green, under the impression that Levant had already been replaced, offered his sympathies to the actor. The furious Levant went straight to Freed, who – recognising that the problem wasn’t going to be easily overcome – told Donen to recast.
Kelly and Donen immediately gravitated towards comic actor and dancer Donald O’Connor, best known for his starring role in Universal Pictures’ Francis the Mule films. At the time O’Connor was still under contract to Universal, requiring MGM to pay the studio $50,000 to temporarily release him from his contract. O’Connor, knowing that under his Universal contract he would see little or no money from the transaction, refused to accept the role of Cosmo – until MGM and Universal paid him an additional $40,000.
While Donen and Kelly got their own way with casting Cosmo, they did not find it so easy with casting the female lead, Kathy Seldon. Eighteen year-old Debbie Reynolds had recently played Jane Powell’s little sister in the musical Two Weeks with Love, and had caught MGM head Louis B. Mayer’s eye in that film’s musical number “Aba Daba Honeymoon”. Mayer signed her onto Singin’ in the Rain before informing his producer or directors of his choice.
‘Mayer said she was to by my leading lady in Singin’ in the Rain,’ said Kelly. ‘That statement hit me like a ton of bricks. He was forcing her on me. What the hell was I going to do with her? She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t dance, she couldn’t act. She was a triple threat.’[viii]
Donen’s recollection of Reynolds’ casting directly contradicts Kelly’s. ‘We couldn’t wait to get her,’ he said. ‘She had done this musical scene in this movie, “Aba Daba Honeymoon”, and I thought she was adorable. There was no one else any of us thought of for that part.’[ix]
‘We weren’t worried,’ said Comden. ‘We’d seen Debbie perform one evening. She got up and sang and danced, and she was very cute and talented. She wasn’t really a dancer, but she worked very hard at it, and it paid off.’[x]
In her 1988 autobiography Reynolds recalled Kelly treating her very harshly during the Singin’ shoot, often losing his temper and regularly belittling her dancing skills. His tirades once became so harsh that she fled a rehearsal in tears, hiding and sobbing under a piano in the next room. She was found minutes later by fellow actor and dancer Fred Astaire, who reassured her to keep working and gave her an impromptu dance lesson for free.
By 1993 Reynolds’ recollection of the Singin’ shoot had softened somewhat: ‘I had no experience. I had never danced before that movie. Gene took me under his wing. He was an exacting teacher. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Gene’s way of working was to push me, and he got, I thought, a performance out of a young, little girl.’[xi]
If anything, Donen’s opinion of Reynolds gradually hardened. ‘Debbie was adorable in the picture,’ he said, ‘but she was also a royal pain in the ass. She thought she knew more than Gene and I combined – she knew everything and we knew nothing.’[xii]
Jean Hagen was cast as Lina Lamont, the bitchy, self-obsessed silent movie star with a voice able to strip paint. Hagen beat Nina Foch to the part, largely based on her performance in the studio’s earlier hit Adam’s Rib (1949). While created as a comedic part for the film Lina’s experience was also similar to several real-life silent film stars, whose voices did not endear them to audiences once they were heard.
Ironically Hagen’s real voice was considered extremely beautiful; in all of the scenes where Kathy would dub over Lina’s dialogue, it was actually Hagen performing Kathy’s voice. Hagen also wore a platinum blonde wig – her own hair was brown – to emphasise Lina’s vanity and cruelty.
Unlike Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds, Hagen did not participate creatively in the film beyond performing the role she was given and did not join in the pre-production meetings.
Singin’ in the Rain commenced production in May 1951 with the recording of the film’s various musical numbers. From there the production went through principal photography: the film’s lavish ballet sequence was shot last.
The film begins at the Hollywood premiere of the romantic epic The Royal Rascal, starring on-screen lovers Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Hagen). Throughout a rapid series of flashbacks we’re introduced to Lockwood’s journey to Hollywood stardom and his close friendship with studio pianist Cosmo Brown (O’Connor). The film also rapidly establishes one of its key character conflicts: Lockwood despises the vain and idiotic Lamont, but she in turn is obsessed with keeping him close and guaranteeing her continued stardom.
Most viewers and critics will rave about Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor or Debbie Reynolds’ skills, and screen presence, in this film. Its secret weapon is, in fact, Jean Hagen. She is hysterically funny as Lina. Her timing is impeccable. She gets most of the film’s best lines (‘What do they think I am? Dumb or something? Why, I make more money than Calvin Coolidge put together!’). She willingly ridicules herself on screen.
Today Singin’ in the Rain is far and away Hagen’s most famous role, and so we lose a little perspective on just how different she is here to any of her other performances. Members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognised this at the time, nominating her for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She ultimately didn’t win the award – it went to Gloria Grahame for The Bad and the Beautiful – but it’s still a remarkably funny, clever and bold performance.
Don attempts to escape from Lina and get to a premiere party, but when Cosmo’s car breaks down and he’s mobbed by fans he jumps into a passing vehicle. Its driver, aspiring singer/actress Kathy Seldon (Reynolds), does not initially fall for his charms, but a series of chance meetings sees them warm to one another.
Debbie Reynolds’ performance in the film is a qualified success. It must be said that, at 18 years old, she was visibly too young a romantic partner for Kelly. She was less than half his age. It may have been commonplace in Hollywood at the time, and indeed relatively commonplace in Hollywood now, but it still jumps out at you above either actor’s performance. Beyond that, she excels in the role. While not as accomplished a dancer as Kelly or O’Connor, she gamely keeps up with both and while she may lack a modicum of technique she compensates with sheer athleticism and bright, enthused acting. Any criticism of her performance feels rather like nit-picking.
When The Jazz Singer becomes an unexpected smash hit, all of Hollywood turns its collective head towards talking pictures – something that could spell big trouble for silent film stars like Don Lockwood. In the back of a studio soundstage, Cosmo tries to cheer Don up – leading into one of the highlights of the entire film: “Make ‘Em Laugh”. This comedic musical number showcased Donald O’Connor’s comic talents in vivid style. O’Connor recalled: ‘Gene Kelly had injured himself, as I recall, and we had a couple of free days to make up something. We started with the set and the song.’[xiii]
‘It was all improvisation,’ said Kelly, ‘it was unbelievable. We had twenty minutes of it that we threw out. The difficulty of doing choreography for it was that Donald was a spontaneous artist and comedian, and he never could do anything the same way twice.’[xiv]
‘MGM had ten buildings full of props,’ said Donen, ‘it was bigger than Macy’s, and they brought down all this stuff, and one of the props was a dummy. Donald did a double take and started to work with it.’[xv]
It has since become commonly agreed that the song “Make ‘Em Laugh” was unintentionally plagiarised from a near-identical song by Cole Porter, “Be a Clown”. Porter tactfully never commented on the two songs’ similarities, and certainly never filed suit or complained.
With the introduction of talking pictures, all of the actors – Don included – are sent for diction lessons. Don and Cosmo meet with a vocal coach and rapidly begin to make a mockery of his lesson in the song “Moses Supposes”.
“Moses” was the only song in the film not co-written by Freed or Brown. The song was composed by Roger Edens with lyrics by Comden and Green. The hapless coach was played by Bobby Watson, who formed a long career playing similarly epicene characters. ‘Donald and I rehearsed that dance for days,’ said Kelly, ‘but most critics dismissed it as a zany Marx Brothers romp. They remember the clowning around with the vocal coach that precedes the number, but not the dance itself.’[xvi]
Early attempts to shoot Don and Lina’s next picture, The Dueling Cavalier, with hidden microphones end in ignominious failure. It’s probably the film’s most broadly comedic scene, but it makes a welcome change in style from the musical numbers and is exceptionally well timed and performed. A subsequent test screening sees the audio track slip out of synch, so that Don and Lina’s dialogue is inadvertently exchanged. This second scene draws heavily on that popular legend of John Gilbert’s disastrous attempts to work in talkies.
It’s at this point that Don, Kathy and Cosmo hit upon the idea of turning the film into a musical, leading into their spirited rendition of the song “Good Morning”. This marked at least the third time the song had been incorporated into an MGM musical, having previously appeared in Babes in Arms (1939) and Mr & Mrs North (1942). Cosmo subsequently hits upon the idea of having Kathy dub over Lina’s voice to make the latter sound palatable to the movie-going audience.
It was during the shooting of “Good Morning” that Kelly was reportedly hardest on Reynolds, driving her to perform the scene again and again to the point of exhaustion. By the end of the night, and upon returning home from the set, Reynolds’ family were so concerned for her health that they called the family doctor. He prescribed three days’ bed rest – Reynolds returned to the set after only one.
At the end of the night Kathy and Don kiss, and Don – happy in love – sings as he walks alone in the rain. The “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence was originally perceived as a group number for Kelly, O’Connor and Reynolds to perform together, and indeed a fraction of that intended routine was retained as the film’s main titles. Kelly, however, saw the opportunity to place the song as a solo piece.
The scene was shot outside on the MGM back lot. Despite the night-time setting, the sequence was shot in the middle of the day with black tarpaulins used to block out the sunlight. The lot was carefully back-lit to allow the simulated raindrops to catch the light and appear on-screen. The existing street had potholes dug out in six specific points, to accommodate Kelly’s choreography. Finally, a complicated system of pipes and sprinklers was erected to ensure the right amount of water fell in the right way in the right locations.
Kelly was famously unwell with a fever during the shooting of the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence, which took three days to complete, but persevered through it. The heat of the open sun on the tarpaulins created an extremely humid atmosphere, and Kelly’s tweed suits actually started to shrink as they were progressively soaked with water.
Don pitches the musical, including a present-day sequence that is pretty much nothing but an excuse to showcase a lengthy and largely unrelated musical sequence.
At the time of Singin’ in the Rain’s production, such dialogue-free dance sequences were commonplace. These scenes, referred to in the industry as ‘ballets’, were often the technical highlight of their given films. The trend had kicked off in Broadway musicals before being adapted to movies with Vincente Minnelli’s 1945 musical Yolanda and the Thief, starring Fred Astaire. Subsequent ballets were included in films such as On the Town and An American in Paris.
It was Gene Kelly who formed the concept for the Singin’ in the Rain ballet: a young man heading into the big city, seeking fame and fortune, only to fall for a gangster’s moll. The songs “Broadway Melody” and “Broadway Rhythm” was combined to create the ballet’s score.
Kelly initially proposed featuring his own dance assistant, Carol Haney, in the ballet, however Freed insisted on using a more glamorous and traditionally attractive actress. Freed’s pick, Cyd Charisse, wound up being choreographed by the disappointed Haney – without realising she was being assisted by the person she beat for the role. ‘I’ll always remember Carol Haney fondly for the way she helped me,’ Charisse later wrote, ‘when her heart must have been breaking.’[xvii]
Charisse had originally been slated to co-star opposite Gene Kelly in An American in Paris, but had to pull out due to pregnancy. She re-teamed with Kelly a few years later in It’s Always Fair Weather.
Rehearsals for the ballet sequence ran from August to September, with Kelly already splitting his time between Singin’ in the Rain and preparations for a proposed musical version of Huckleberry Finn. Shooting on the sequence continued through to November.
The veil dance proved extremely difficult to shoot. The scene was supposed to feature Charisse dancing with an immensely long, billowing length of fabric attached to her dress, but the amount of wind required to generate the flowing veil also caused the fabric to rip. Charisse’s short dress also blew up in the wind, so much so that shooting was halted when it was realised the actress’ pubic hair was becoming visible on screen. Her dress was quickly re-designed and the relevant shots recorded again, however in editing the compromising hair was still visible. Stanley Donen ultimately painted out the offending portions of the shot, frame by frame, with white paint.
The completed ballet sequence ran to 13 minutes and cost $605,000 – a staggering amount compared to the $85,000 that was initially budgeted. Both Donen and Kelly felt the sequence ran too long, but neither was prepared to cut such an expensive scene after it had already been paid for.
After the ballet, the film moves swiftly towards its climax. The film is clearly going to be a huge success, but Lina uses her clout with the studio to keep Kathy anonymously employed as her sound double. Quick thinking by Cosmo reveals Kathy’s true identity to the film premiere’s audience, and everybody lives happily ever after. Well, everybody except for Lina.
Singin’ in the Rain was completed on a final budget of roughly $2.5 million dollars, almost $600,000 above what had been initially approved. The overruns were almost entirely due to runaway costs on the ballet sequence.
Gene Kelly did not hang around after the conclusion of shooting. He packed his bags and moved to Europe for almost two years. His ostensible reason was to take advantage of a taxation loophole that would see him avoid paying tax on his Singin’ earnings. A more likely reason was his fear of being named in one of the USA’s anti-communist hearings, which were cutting swathes through Hollywood at the time.
It is not surprising that Kelly would have been a target for the McCarthy hearings. He was a well-known left-leaning individual, having grown up in a working class family in the steel-making city of Pittsburgh. He was the first vice-president of the Hollywood Actor’s Union, and had been prominently involved with the Progressive Citizens of America and the Hollywood Democratic Committee. While by no means a communist, Kelly’s open political stance made him a visible and lucrative target for the so-called House Committee on UnAmerican Activities.
While in the United Kingdom Kelly directed and starred in Invitation to the Dance, a pet project that Kelly had been campaigning to make for some time. It was a portmanteau film, performing three short stories entirely through dance. While handsomely made the film worried MGM executives, whose indecision over how and when to release the picture saw it delayed until 1956.
With Kelly out of the country, Freed’s proposed musical of Huckleberry Finn was quietly cancelled. When Kelly returned to the USA it was to shoot Brigadoon for Freed and director Vincente Minnelli. After cameoing in Deep in my Heart, Kelly embarked on his final collaboration with Stanley Donen: a new Comden/Green musical titled It’s Always Fair Weather. It was a much darker and more cynical piece than Singin’ in the Rain, and failed to engage audiences of the time. Kelly said: ‘On the last picture we made, It’s Always Fair Weather, we were so together, we were so used to each other, that we didn’t need each other. It was almost dull doing it together.’[xviii]
Kelly continued to star in films including Les Girls (1957), Marjorie Morningstar (1958) and What a Way to Go! (1964), but his career had peaked with Singin’ in the Rain and he would never fully recapture that success again. His final film role was in the 1980 roller-staking musical Xanadu. He died in 1996, aged 83, due to complications from a stroke.
Stanley Donen went on to direct Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Funny Face (1957), The Pyjama Game (1957), Charade (1963), Two for the Road (1967), Bedazzled (1967), The Little Prince (1974) and even the ill-fated science fiction film Saturn 3 (1980). His final work was the 1999 made-for-television film Love Letters. At the time of writing Donen is retired and lives in California with his wife, writer/director Elaine May.
Debbie Reynolds continued to perform, eventually earning an Academy Award nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). She divided her career between musical recordings and film and television acting, and still engages in both today – including an Emmy-nominated performance in the situation comedy Will and Grace.
Donald O’Connor largely shifted away from film and into variety television, where he hosted NBC’s Colgate Comedy Hour as well as his own The Donald O’Connor Show. He continued to guest star in film and television for the rest of his life. His final appearance was as a dance host in the 2003 comedy film Out to Sea, opposite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. He died the same year, aged 78.
Jean Hagen also jumped to television, earning an Emmy nomination for playing Margaret Williams in the sitcom Make Room for Daddy. She also appeared in a number of smaller films, notably Disney’s hit family comedy The Shaggy Dog in 1959. She died in 1977 from esophogeal cancer.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green continued to write musicals, primarily for Broadway. By the time of their retirement they had received 12 separate Tony Awards for their extensive body of work, including Wonderful Town, Bells are Ringing, Do Re Mi, Hallelujah Baby!, Applause, A Doll’s Life and The Will Rogers Follies. Green died in 2002; Comden in 2006.
If these creative artists are remembered for anything, it is above all for Singin’ in the Rain. It is a rare phenomenon in filmmaking, where the right people are assembled at the right moment in their respective careers to make the perfect motion picture.
The film’s popularity took a while to develop. Singin’ in the Rain was not even nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1953, although Donald O’Connor picked up a Golden Globe and Comden and Green scored a WGA Award. At the time the film simply came and went, widely appreciated but hardly legendary.
Its reputation slowly grew, however, decade by decade. In 1982 the British film studies magazine Sight and Sound conducted a survey of international film critics: they ranked it the fourth-best film ever made. It re-appeared on their list 20 years later, ranked 10th. In 1998 the American Film Institute heralded it as the 10th best-ever American movie, and subsequently ranked it the best-ever movie musical. In 2008 the AFI re-ranked it as the 5th best-ever American movie.
Today it is overwhelmingly recognised as one of the finest motion pictures ever made. It has a vibrant lustre that has not diminished with time. If anything, its lustre only grows.
[i] George Stevens Jr., Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006.
[ii] Tony Thomas, The Films of Gene Kelly, Citadel Press, Sacaucus, 1974.
[iii] Tina Daniell and Pat McGilligan, Backstory 2: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991.
[iv] John Heilpern, “Out to lunch with Stanley Donen”, Vanity Fair, March 2013.
[v] George Stevens Jr., Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006.
[vi] Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
[vii] Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
[viii] Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
[ix] Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
[x] William Baer, “Singin’ in the Rain: a conversation with Betty Comden and Adolph Green”, Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2002.
[xi] Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
[xii] Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
[xiii] Roger Ebert, “Donald O’Connor, Singin’ in the Rain star, dead at 78”, Chicago Sun-Times, 28 September 2003.
[xiv] George Stevens Jr., Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006.
[xv] Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.
[xvi] David Fantle and Tom Johnson, Reel to Real, Badger Books, New York, 2009.
[xvii] Tony Martin and Cyd Charisse, The Two of Us, Mason-Charter, New York, 1976.
[xviii] George Stevens Jr., Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006.