Singin in the Rain (1952) Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

I’m singin in the rain

just singin in the rain

What a glorious feeling

I’m happy again

I’m laughing at clouds

So dark up above

The sun’s in my heart

And I’m ready for love

Is there anything more exuberant than watching Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain? Generally considered one of, if not, the grandest of all musicals, and whom am I to argue, “Singin’ in the Rain” is a joyous delight, celebrating movies, music, dance and the talent of a cast and creators who rarely were better. Critics over the years have been in agreement, from Pauline Kael who called it “the most enjoyable of musicals” to David Kehr, who said it is “one of the shining glories of the American musical’ to Roger Ebert who wrote, “There is no movie musical more fun as ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ and few that remain as fresh over the years.” Even New York Times curmudgeon Bosley Crowthers wrote at the time of the film’s release, “Guaranteed to put you in a buttercup mood.” And let’s face it, if a film can put old sourpuss Crowthers in a “buttercup mood” that my friends, is one hell of a movie! (1)

Surprisingly the film, while it met with good reviews, was not considered the instant classic, top of the heap, musical it would be judged in later years. Sure, it was a hit financially but overshadowed in accolades by Kelly’s previous film, Vincent Minnelli’s “An American in Paris,” released only five months earlier and destined to win Best Picture of the Year for 1951.(2) The Kelly/Donen film’s only Academy Award nominations were for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Jean Hagen and Best Musical Score for a Musical Picture (Lennie Hayton). This was the year of DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth,” generally considered the worst film to ever win Best Picture. Other nominees that year included Fred Zinnemann’s “High Noon,” thought to be the early favorite, John Huston’s “Moulin Rouge,” John Ford’s “The Quiet Man” and the mediocre “Ivanhoe.” Hard to believe no one thought the joyous MGM musical was worthy of a spot on the Best Picture nominee list that year.

The film is set in Hollywood. It’s 1927 and the arrival of a feared new technology…talkies! Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are two of the biggest silent screen stars in the world, beloved by all. But the silent’s are dead, the public has heard the future and it has a voice. Unfortunately, Lina Lamont does not. Their first sound film together is a flop, both stars are laughed off the screen, Don Lockwood for his overly dramatic reading and Lina for a high pitched screechy mouse of a voice. The studio wants to savage the picture but millions are stake, so hey, why not turn it into a musical.

And what music it is! Arthur Freed, then head of his own unit at MGM and his former songwriting partner Nacio Herb Brown were popular songwriters back in their earlier days with many of their songs populating early musicals of the 1930′s. Freed, now a big time producer at MGM, wanted to incorporate some of his and his partners old songs into a new movie, and collect some royalties in the process. The title he decided would be “Singin’ in the Rain,” a song that appeared on the screen for the first time in the early musical, “Hollywood Review of 1929,” whose cast included Jack Benny, Joan Crawford, Laurel and Hardy among many others. Over the years it became the most popular song in their catalog. When Freed hired Betty Condom and Adolph Green to write the screenplay, he told them, “here’s the title and some songs, you guys come up with a story.”

That’s just what they did, but not before some missteps did they settle on the idea of setting the film at the dawn of the sound era. Realizing the songs evoked the mood and sound of the jazz period of the 1920′s they wisely selected to set the film in that period. The two lead characters would be Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, movie stars, admired around the world with the naive public, who devoured fan magazine stories, assuming that the screen’s most romantic couple were just that way not only on screen but in real life too, as did Lina who read those same magazines!

Gene Kelly, who was at the top of his career at this point, along with his directing partner, Stanley Donen were brought in. They began researching the period the film was set in by watching films like “Platinum Blonde.” The Kelly/Donen team was responsible for the pioneering 1949 classic musical, “On the Town.” Kelly himself had just finished filming “An American in Paris.” Added to the cast as Kelly’s right hand man, Cosmo Brown, was fellow hoofer Donald O’Conner, temporarily rescued from his “Francis the Talking Mule” pictures. The third part of the starring trio was a young nineteen year talent by the name of Debbie Reynolds who was fit as a fiddle and ready to become a star. Reynolds was not a natural dancer but she was a hard worker, and Kelly worked her harder than she ever been worked before, up to ten hours a day of practice with Kelly’s assistants, Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne. And the results show on the screen. Just take a look at the “All I Do Is Dream of You” number, she may not be up to the level of Kelly and O’Connor but she is a sparkling delight from the moment she jumps out of that cake.

The movie’s most memorable scene, and while there are plenty to choose from, has to be the title song number with Kelly and his umbrella singin’ and sloshin’ in the rain. It’s a sing-a-long moment if there ever was one, one of cinema’s finest examples of art and entertainment merging together in perfect synchrony. To quote the title song, “it a glorious feeling” and from beginning to end it is one of the most memorable sequences ever put on celluloid.

The song “Singin’ in the Rain” has been used many times over the years in other films including “Speak Easily” (1932) performed by Jimmy Durante, “Little Nellie Kelly” (1940) sung by Judy Garland and Stanley Kubrick’s violent futuristic classic, “A Clockwork Orange” as well as the previously mentioned “Hollywood Review of 1929″ where it was performed multiple times in the film by various cast members including The Brox Sisters and Cliff Edwards.

Other numbers shine too. Donald O’Connor’s solo highlight, “Make em’ Laugh” is an energetic ride filled with funny moments, and one of two new numbers written for the movie (“Moses Supposes” was the other). Freed and Brown pretty much plagiarized the tune from Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” written for the 1948 MGM musical, “The Pirate” which happened to also star Gene Kelly. (3) Add to this, great numbers such as “All I Do Is Dream OF You,” “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Good Morning, Good Morning,” “Fit as a Fiddle” and of course the title song and you have one of the grandest most magnificent soundtracks of all time.

The film is also a gentle satire of the early days of Hollywood and movie making. We have Lina Lamont, not remembering to speak directly into a microphone hidden in a flower. She is constantly turning her head away from the mike, her voice fading in and out of its limited range. This type of situation is well documented with many such incidents during the early days of the talkies. Don Lockwood was a character loosely based on silent film star John Gilbert whose career collapsed with the advent of sound. In the film within a film, “The Dueling Cavalier,” the Lockwood character uses lines Gilbert spoke in “His Glorious Night” (1929) where his exaggerated reading of dialogue to his co-star, Catherine Dale Owen included the lines, “I love you, I love you, I love you” which was followed by howls of laughter from the audience for both Gilbert’s performance and for the fictional Lockwood. June Allyson, always the young naive sweet kid was the basis for Debbie Reynolds innocent Kathy Selden. Gene Kelly stated that Reynolds was such an innocent herself at this point in her career; she was perfect for the role. Other gentle stabs include the character of Dora Bailey (Madge Blake) who was modeled on a young Louella Parsons.

It’s needless to point out but the three leads are all at the top of their game. Gene Kelly was at the pinnacle of his career, O’Connor never had a better role to show off his talent, and Debbie Reynolds became a star in her own right. Jean Hagen had her greatest role and is a real treat as the scratchy high pitched witch Lina, richly deserving her Oscar nomination. Her character, or at least her character’s voice, is reminiscent of Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday.” One major difference is Billie wanted to improve herself while Lina is too vain and selfish, just wanting to use people for her own benefit. Screen writers Condom and Green based Lina Lamont on a combination of 1920′s screen star Mae Murray, whose career was silenced by the talkies, and Holiday’s Billie Dawn. Hagen was perfect for the role, she had even played Billie Dawn in a road production of the Broadway play. Also in the cast are Millard Fillmore, Cyd Charrise and a very young Rita Moreno.

If the film has a flaw, it is the “Broadway Ballet” that stops the lively vigorous energy of the rest of the film. After recently watching “On the Town” and “An American in Paris” it became evident that either choreographer Gene Kelly or MGM’s musical unit had a thing for inserting these ballet sequences into their films with varying degrees of success. Here, it stops the film cold. It is not that the sequence is bad, it is very good however, it does seem to muddle the pacing compared to the rest of the film.

“Singin’ in the Rain” was the Easter presentation at Radio City Music Hall in New York in 1952 where it had its world premiere on March 27th of that year. The Hollywood premiere was a couple of weeks later, April 9th, at the Egyptian Theater. A few weeks after, the film opened in general release. In a poll taken at the time that followed audience reaction, more than 85 percent of the audience considered the film very good or excellent. Donald O’Connor edged out Gene Kelly as giving the most enjoyable performance. Debbie Reynolds finished a distance third.

“Singin’ in the Rain” is one of my three favorite musicals, the others being “West Side Story,” and “Gold Diggers of 1933″ The film sparkles with energy, radiates with marvelous songs and shines with superb dance turning those dark clouds up above into a shiny glorious sensation.

Footnotes:

1) Crowther’s review was not a full rave. He seemed to misunderstand, and complained about the title song not having anything to do with the rest of the movie. He states “Singin’ in the Rain,” has no more to do with its story than it has to do with performing dogs. Of all things, this song-and-dance contrivance is an impudent, offhand comedy about the outlandish making of movies back in the sheik-and-flapper days when they were bridging- the perilous chasm from silent to talking films. And its plot, if that’s what you’d call it, concerns a silent film star who is linked with a slut-voiced leading lady while wooing a thrushy new young thing.” (I assume Crowther’s use of the word “thrushy” to describe Debbie Reynolds character was meant to be as a small songbird and not as a fungal infection as labeled in the dictionary.) Crowther misses the entire mood of the Freed/Brown songs which invoke the flapper era and the beginning of the sound in film. There is a musical mood or tone to all the songs, a 1920′s Jazz age feel that is in synch with the storyline and smoothly makes the connection.

(2) “An American in Paris” received much critical acclaim when released and won the Best Picture Oscar of the year in 1951 over Elia Kazan’s screen version of Tennessee William’ s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and George Steven’s “A Place in the Sun.” That same year Gene Kelly won an honorary Academy Award for his achievement in Choreography .

(3) Cole Porter never sued though he had a very good case to do so. From what I have read he felt beholden to Arthur Freed who helped him during a low point in his career.

This review originally appeared at Wonders in the Dark as part of their Musical Countdown. It appears here for the first time as part of the Gene Kelly Blogathon. For more fantastic reviews on Gene Kelly and his films click here.

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28 comments on “Singin in the Rain (1952) Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly

  1. I greatly enjoyed your write-up, John, and loved all the behind-the-scenes info. I wasn’t able to see Singin’ in the movie theater this week, but I did recently buy the VHS version at a yard sale a couple of weeks back, and I think I’ll treat myself to a re-watch tonight!

  2. DorianTB says:

    John, isn’t it amazing how over time, a movie can grow from simply a fun night at the movies to an enduring classic? I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this recently, but we of Team Bartilucci went to the encore presentation of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN this past Wednesday, on a big screen as the movie gods intended, and all of us absolutely adored it! We were especially thrilled that our 15-year-old daughter Siobhan loved it, too! That was especially meaningful to Vinnie and me because Siobhan has ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome (though she’s very high-functioning), so seeing her enjoying it so much and getting the gags meant a lot to us! We loved your review for so many reasons — thanks for doing such a wonderful job with your review!

    • John Greco says:

      I would love to have seen this on the big screen. It’s always special to watch a classic film as you say, “the way the movie gods intended.” I am so happy that Siobhan loved the film too and glad to here she is doing well. Thanks for sharing that and thanks for the kind words!.

  3. Judy says:

    Great review, John – I definitely agree that ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ seems suspiciously similar to ‘Be a Clown!’ I prefer a couple of Kelly’s other films to be honest (An American in Paris and On the Town), but there’s no getting away from the fact that this is a great classic and I certainly can’t see why ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ took the honours in the face of such great competition! I tend to feel a bit sorry for Lina Lamont, I must say, especially after seeing ‘The Artist’ – but as her character is made so unsympathetic there is no need to worry about her too much.

  4. John Greco says:

    Both AN AMERICAN IN PARIS AND ON THE TOWN are great musicals, the kind as the now old saying goes, “they just don’t make anymore.” Yes, it’s hard to believe that SINGIN IN THE RAIN could not even get a best picture nomination that year. Jean Hagen was so good as Lina Lamont, I think that is why you can sympathize with her and hate her at the same time.

  5. FlickChick says:

    Awesome review! Being in Lina Lamont’s corner, I felt the story gave too much time to that little gold digger, Kathy,…. but, I digress. If I had to pick the top 10 joyous films ever made, this would be in the top 2!

    • John Greco says:

      FlickChick – I have to agree, definitely one of themost joyous films ever made.You cannot but leave this film with a smile on your face. Thanks!

  6. Sam Juliano says:

    John I well remember your fabulous review of the film from the WitD musical countdown last year, and always great to re-visit it, especially with the blu-ray just released over the past weeks! You exhibit extraordinarily good taste by grouping the film with WEST SIDE STORY and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 on the top pantheon. Yes the three leads are indeed at the top of their game, and the iconic title sequences s poerhaps the most celebrated in film history. This is the textbook definition of what a great musical is all about. Poor Crowther. He never seems to get it.

    • John Greco says:

      Sam – It’s amazing Crowthers lasted so long at the Times and was considered one of the most powerful critics of the period. Yet, in review after review he seems to have missed the boat. Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

  7. The Lady Eve says:

    John, Nice work on the AFI’s #1 greatest musical of all time. I haven’t seen it for a while, but will always love it for two things, the “Singin’ in the Rain” number and Donald O’Connor who should have had a longer career at the top.

  8. Great review of this wonderful film. I love Bosley Crowther, so often so obtuse. I think my favorite in this movie is Jean Hagen. She doesn’t have to work nearly as hard as the lead trio, but her effect is just as powerful and marvelously effortless. I saw this film adapted for the stage a couple of years ago — complete with real rain on stage — and was amazed how dazzling it was, and pleased by how well the audience responded. Again, the Jean Hagen character was a standout.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Jacqueline, i had not realized there was a stage version of the film, then again, why not they have done just about every other films. Hagen is terrific and as you mention her lack of dialogue and how she handles it is powerful.

  9. dawn says:

    Awesome review to one of my favorite musicals, Singin’ in the Rain. Which, I too.. saw on the “big screen”. It is an amazing experience. I hope all of you get the opportunity to experience it at least once.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Dawn, I would love to see this on the big screen. Hopefully out local classic theater will get around to showing it one of these days.

  10. What can I say? You said it all :) I agree that this tops my list of favorites alongside “West Side Story” (we really need to meet someday). Outside of the title tune, my favorite is “Good Morning.” All three stars shine in this one, and it is so much fun … how can you ever be in a bad mood after watching this one? A friend and I saw this film together in college 25 years ago on a big screen, and to this day we still occasionally will break out into a nasally “I can’t stand him” or a “yes yes yes … no no no” bit. A fantastic review of a true classic.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks CFB – I can’t imagine anyone not being in a good mood after seeing this film. An almost perfect, if not perfect, musical. I alway think it would be great to meet some online friends. Who knows it could happen. Thanks again.!

  11. R. D. Finch says:

    John, this is a good contender for the most enjoyable movie of all time of any kind, musical or otherwise. I made the mistake of turning it on about a half hour into the film when TCM showed it the other night, and stayed to watch it through to the end, even though I’ve seen it twice in the last year and a half! No matter how many times I’ve seen it, it still thrills me every time I watch it again. In addition to the enigma of why the film’s quality wasn’t more recognized–and more honored–in its time, there’s the enigma of why Donald O’Connor didn’t become a bigger star and get better parts after his amazing turn here. When I saw him do “Make ‘Em Laugh” the other night, I was floored, and he easily kept up with Gene Kelly in all their numbers together. To a lesser extent, the same goes for Debbie Reynolds, who did become a star but I don’t think ever made another movie that used her talents as well as this one.

    You made many fine points, but I have to say that I like the “Broadway Rhythm Ballet.” I think it functions well if you think of it as a spoof of the kind of inserted musical number not uncommon in early musical films. After reading another post on “Du Barry Was a Lady,” I wonder if the excuse dreamed up for using it in “The Dancing Cavalier” was a send-up of that film’s premise.

    I have read that Lina Lamont was first conceived by Comden and Green for their pal Judy Holliday but that by the time the film was ready for production, she was too big a star for a supporting role. I have to agree, though, that Jean Hagen is a standout in the part. In a way everybody else plays straight man to her hilarious comic turn.

  12. John Greco says:

    R.D – O’Connor did not seem to be able to ride the coat tails of his success with this film, i remember seeing him on the old TV variety shows quite often in the 60′s but his film career never got going. I agree with you on Reynolds, an actress I run hot and cold on.

    SINGIN is one of those films that just captures you attention and you can’t stop watching it until it over.

  13. Page says:

    Hi John! Sorry it took so long to get to the reviews.

    I’ll admit right out of the gate that I’m not crazy about SITR. I know the whole musical thing I have is getting old but I just don’t care for Debbie Reynolds. If it had been a different actress I think I would have enjoyed it.

    All the same. you’ve provided some really interesting background info here. Sometimes how a film gets made is just as interesting as what we see on the screen. I love that Freed gave a title and the songs then had the meat of the film handed off. They managed to put together a great script and it the most recognized musical under Gene’s hefty body of work.

    I can only imagine how many directors would have loved the opportunity to work with him given his professionalism and work ethic. Freed is very talented but I liked Kelly’s collaboration with Vincent M.

    I’ve promised myself that I will give more musicals a try. unfortunately I just sat through Hello Dolly for my photo review so I’m a bit salty today. Ha Ha I really think it’s the style of music during this period. I love the early musicals with the Busby Berkeley numbers. You mention Gold Diggers which I’m pleased about as I really like it and all musicals during that period.

    Thanks for another detailed and honest review. John.
    I hope you’re having a great weekend.
    Page

    • John Greco says:

      Page,

      I myself am not a great fan of musicals. A few like this one, WEST SIDE STORY, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and ON THE TOWN I enjoy but some of these over bloated musicals, from the 1960′s especially, I can do without. I recently watch FUNNY GIRL for the first time and found it wanting, way too much Barbra, HELLO DOLLY I refuse to watch unless I was being paid. Anyway thanks for the kind words and as always for stopping by.

      As for Debbie Reynolds, as I mentioned to R.D. Irun hot and cold with her. She can be too overly cute at times.

  14. KimWilson says:

    John, this is in my top 5 best musicals of all-time list. I think it’s the best film Kelly was ever in. You’ve done a wonderful job here of giving backstory and interesting details. A treat to read. BTW, I agree, “Broadway Ballet” is the one minor flaw of this overall glorious movie.

    • John Greco says:

      Thanks Kim, I think you are the first person to agree with me on the BROADWAY BALLET. As you mention it is a ‘minor’ flaw, It’s a great film, the cast were all at the top of their game.

  15. Great post John on this one-of-a-kind Hollywood classic. It is so much fun to watch even if you know nothing about silent-era Hollywood, but all the insider stuff just doubles the enjoyment. I like the Broadway Ballet on its own but I agree with you that its not of a piece with the rest of the movie. I would make a different case for the ballet sequence in An American in Paris, but that’s for another occasion. Thanks for your insight on this wonderful musical.

    • John Greco says:

      Christian, thanks for the kind words. SINGIN’ is one of the great American films. It’s a masterpiece of its genre.

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