Singin' in the Rain (1952) & the Perfectionist Gene Kelly

August 16, 2019     Updated January 27, 2022

Rita Moreno Steals the Show, Debbie Reynolds Keeps Up with Gene Kelly, and Lina Lamont COULD Talk. From 1952, it's Singin' in the Rain.

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Whether you’re a fan of musicals or not, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is a spectacular film.  Though only moderately successful at the time of its release, Singin’ in the Rain has since been hailed as the greatest movie musical ever made.

My Summer Star of the Week: Rita Moreno

TCM featured Singing in the Rain last week to celebrate the beautiful, talented, and inspirational Rita Moreno. Born in Puerto Rico, Moreno and her mother moved to New York City in 1936, when Rita was five years.  

Rita Moreno is a multi-talented performer.  She’s a fabulous dancer—she trained with Rita Hayworth’s uncle—but she’s also a gifted actress.  Rita is probably best known for her iconic performance as Maria in West Side Story (1961), for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. 

In fact, Rita holds the unique distinction of being one of two performers in history to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony, in addition to achieving the Triple Crown of Acting.  She’s a trailblazer in her field.  

Though Rita’s role in Singin’ in the Rain is small, she delivers a stellar performance, and quite literally steals every scene she’s in. 

Let’s get to the plot of the film.

Rita as Zelda Zanders, "The Zip Girl" in Singin' in the Rain (1952) with Donald O'Connor as Cosmo Brown.

The Plot. And the Costumes.

Singin’ in the Rain is set in 1927. 

Which means every costume–designed by the great Walter Plunkett–is beyond beautiful. 

Plunkett that said the costumes in Singin’ in the Rain were the most difficult, intricate costumes he designed throughout his entire career.  He certainly had his work cut out for him: audiences of the 1950s could still remember what people dressed like in the 1920s, so Plunkett’s designs had to be both nostalgic and accurate.  In each requirement, Plunkett more than succeeds.

Rita Moreno
Zelda arrives at the film premiere amidst cries from her adoring fans.

Anyway…

We meet Rita Moreno’s character right away, arriving at a silent film premiere amidst the cries of adoring fans.  She’s Zelda Zanders, “The Zip Girl,” clearly a spoof of “The It Girl” of the 1920s, Clara Bow. 

A few more celebrities arrive at the premiere before we meet Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), filmdom’s most romantic and popular screen team. 

It’s a Lockwood and Lamont film the fans are queued up to see.

singin' in the rain
Don and Lina arrive at the premiere.

Don’s Talents and Lina’s Lack Thereof

We learn from a highly entertaining music and dance montage that before becoming a heartthrob, Don Lockwood was a Vaudevillian hoofer, tapping and singing his way through rinky-dink theaters across America with his best friend, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), before becoming a stuntman in Hollywood, and then–by a miraculous twist of fate–a leading man.

We also learn that Lina Lamont is dumb as rocks.

And that, despite her great beauty and incredible popularity, she’s not very talented.  As Cosmo, who works alongside Don and Lina in the music department at Monumental Pictures, so aptly describes Lina:

“She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance—a triple threat.”

singin' in the rain
"Lina you’re a beautiful woman, audiences think you’ve got a voice to match. The studio’s got to keep their stars from looking ridiculous at any cost."

A Quadruple Threat?

Worse still, Lina can’t talk. 

Well, she can, it just hurts your ears. 

Like her voice is physically painful to listen to. 

And she’s so shallow and vain, Lina doesn’t understand that the publicity department and Don are only trying to save her career whenever they attempt to stop her from talking in public.

Lina also believes all the fan magazine articles she reads about herself and Don, which harp on how in love the two stars are off screen.  As a result, Lina is constantly throwing herself at Don, even though he basically can’t stand her.

singin' in the rain
Kathy dances at a big after party for Don's and Lina's film. Don falls for her basically right away.

Don Loves Kathy, Lina Loves Kathy’s Voice

So it doesn’t sit well with Lina when she discovers from her good friend Zelda that Don has fallen for Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), a dancer who accidentally hits Lina in the face with a pie at a Beverly Hills party. 

A perfectly aimed pie, I must add.

Gene Kelly told Debbie Reynolds she only had four pies, and four chances, to hit Jean Hagen right in the face.  Debbie insisted she only needed one take, and she was right.

Well done Debbie.

singin' in the rain
One-take Reynolds.

Lina’s life gets even worse when Monumental Pictures decides to make the next Lockwood and Lamont movie into a “talking picture,” the new film sensation with audiences.  Silent films seem a thing of the past.

singin' in the rain
Debbie rehearsed the "Good Mornin'" dance number so hard, her feet bled.

The preview screening of Don’s and Lina’s first talkie goes so poorly, Don thinks his career is over.  But some late night singing and dancing with Cathy and Cosmo leads the three of them to a brilliant idea: make the film into a musical to capitalize on Don’s singing and dancing talents, and have Kathy dub all of Lina’s talking and singing.

The studio heads love the idea too, and it’s a go.

singin' in the rain
According to Donald O'Connor, it was Gene Kelly who recommended O'Connor learn how to do a flip off a wall for "Make 'em Laugh," a trick Gene himself used to do.

It’s a Hit!

The Lockwood/Lamont musical ends up being such a hit, Lina demands that Kathy dub all her talking and singing for all future pictures, and do nothing else with her burgeoning career. 

Lina thinks she’s gotten away with her scheme.  That is, until Don and Cosmo play a trick on her: in front of a live audience after the film premiere, Lina lip syncs “Singin’ in the Rain” for the crowd, while Kathy does the real singing behind a curtain. 

But then Don and Cosmo raise the curtain and the truth is exposed!

The audience sees that Lina is just mouthing the words, and that the beautiful voice they loved in the film belongs to Kathy.

Now Kathy becomes a star.

Singin’ in the Rain ends with Don and Kathy kissing in front of a movie poster of the two of them, suggesting that Don and Kathy are now the most popular romantic team in movies. 

And this time, the romance is real off screen, too. 

And that’s the end of the film.

singin' in the rain

Singin' in the Rain Casting Controversy

By the early 1950s, Gene Kelly was an established film and dance legend. 

Gene did it all—he could sing, dance, act, and choreograph.  He even proved himself a capable director with 1951’s An American in Paris, which Gene co-directed, choreographed, and starred in.  Thanks to the talents of Gene Kelly, An American in Paris elevated the movie musical to new heights.  Gene received an Honorary Academy Award for his work on the film at the 1952 Oscars.

singin' in the rain
Kelly and O'Connor do a high jump in the "Moses" number.

But not even all of Gene Kelly’s clout could stop Debbie Reynolds from being cast as his leading lady in Singin’ in the Rain.

And according to Debbie Reynolds, Kelly did not want her in the film. 

Gene was most likely against Debbie’s casting because, at this early stage of her career—and a mere 19 years old—Debbie Reynolds was not a dancer.  Debbie had zero dance training.  This was understandably a set back to the perfectionist Gene Kelly, who expected the dancers and dancing in his musicals to be as top notch as he was.  Gene must have known that teaching anyone to keep up with him on the dance floor, especially a novice like Debbie, would be difficult if not impossible.

singin' in the rain
Donald O'Connor carries his weight next to Gene, but he lacks Kelly's effortless style and ease on the dance floor.

The Taskmaster on Singin' in the Rain

Luckily for Gene, Debbie was a natural.

It’s true she (and Donald O’Connor, for that matter) lack Kelly’s effortless style and ease on the dance floor, but Debbie more than carries her weight in the film.  She’s spectacular.  You’d never guess that Debbie Reynolds was learning how to dance while filming Singin’ in the Rain.

But Debbie’s amazing results came at a cost.  As Debbie writes in her autobiography [aff. link],

“He [Gene] came to rehearsals and criticized everything I did and never gave me a word of encouragement.  He was a severe taskmaster.  I’ve never worked so hard.  I was dancing for eight hours a day.  Making Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I’ve ever done.”

singin' in the rain
Though Gene worked Debbie to her to breaking point on Singin' in the Rain, the two remained friendly. Gene had nothing but positive things to say about Debbie's work in the film, and Debbie credited Gene with making her a pro.

Fred Astaire Steps In

It was actually the encouragement of Fred Astaire, arguably Gene’s only peer in the dance world, that helped lift Debbie’s spirits during filming.  Astaire found Debbie crying one day under a piano on set.  He consoled her, and took Debbie to his own dance rehearsal, where, according to Debbie, she:

“…watched in awe as Fred worked on his routines to the point of frustration and anger.  I realized that if it was hard for Fred Astaire, dancing was hard to everyone.  No one ever made it look easier.  His kind gesture helped me a great deal.”

What a gentleman, that Fred.

But before you start thinking Gene Kelly was a big jerk, it’s important to note that Debbie Reynolds credits Gene and all of his pushing on Singin’ in the Rain for shaping her into the performer she became.  And, though the two never worked together again, they did stay on friendly terms.  After filming, Gene frequently complimented Debbie on her fantastic work in Singin’ in the Rain.

singin' in the rain
No one but the talented Jean Hagen could have brought Lina Lamont to life.

Jean Hagen: the Underappreciated Powerhouse of Singin' in the Rain

Jean Hagen was a starlet who, for some bizarre, inexplicable reason, never became a mega star. 

As Singin’ in the Rain clearly demonstrates, Jean had it all: beauty, charisma, and talent.  For her literally flawless performance as Lina Lamont, Jean received a Best Supporting Actress nomination. 

And that squeaky voice she perfects in the film was based off of none other than Judy Holiday.

singin' in the rain
Kathy sings for Lina, hidden behind a curtain. But Debbie's voice was actually not used for Lina's speaking voice in the film.

The Real Voice in Singin' in the Rain

Jean Hagen studied drama at Northwestern University before coming to Hollywood.  And in real life, she had a beautiful voice.

There’s a scene in the film where Kathy and Don are at a recording studio.  Kathy is recording lines for the film she’s to dub Lina’s voice in.

But the voice we hear coming out of Debbie’s mouth in this scene is not her own. 

Lina gets a voice lesson, which she FAILS. But in reality, Jean Hagen had a notably lovely voice.

It’s Jean Hagen’s.

Jean Hagen’s actual voice was used for Lina Lamont’s speaking voice in the talking picture sequences in Singin’ in the Rain

So…that means that Jean was dubbing for Debbie, who, as Kathy Seldon, was dubbing for Lina Lamont, the character played by Jean. 

Confusing? 

Stanley Donen, who co-directed the film with Gene Kelly, put it best:

jean hagen

“We used Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie dubbing Jean.  Jean’s voice is quite remarkable and it was supposed to be cultured speech—and Debbie had that terrible western noise.”

Singin' in the Rain: the Iconic Scene

Gene Kelly’s singing and dancing in the rain number is legendary.

But apparently, the day the dance began filming was a particularly rough one for Gene, who was running a temperature of over 100 degrees.

Perfectionist workaholic that he was, Gene decided to work through the pain, and “mark” the number—dancer’s lingo for not really doing every step in the dance full out, just kind of going through the motions—for co-director Stanley Donen. 

But one thing led to another and…oops…they ended up filming the number that day because, even when sick and only marking the steps, Gene Kelly is awesome

Some sources say that Gene got the entire dance sequence shot in one take that day.  Others insist that it took a few more days of filming to get the number just right.  Regardless, Gene Kelly made movie magic with this scene, despite his fever and wool suit that kept shrinking the longer he danced in that rain.

singin' in the rain

Singin' in the...Milk?

Another point of debate with this dance is just what liquid Gene was singing and dancing in. 

As fans of the film are doubtless aware, legend has it that plain water wasn’t showing up on camera, so milk was mixed into the water to make it more visible.

But it’s also possible that it was merely clever backlighting that finally got that plain rain water to show up.

I don’t know which version is the truth.  And ultimately, it doesn’t matter: milk or water rain, Gene Kelly and his team created one of the most iconic dance sequences ever put on film.

That's it for Singin' in the Rain

That’s it for Singin’ in the Rain.

Join me next week for all about Audrey Hepburn and Sabrina (1954).

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Sally

    Never liked Gene Kelly. He could dance, but NOT sing! Heard he was a bully and so full of himself. Donald O’conner surpasses Gene Kelly in my book. Has a lot more energy than Gene. Debbie danced like a pro. Sorry, just my opinion.

    1. Shannon

      Hi Sally, thank you so much for commenting! I too have heard Gene Kelly was…difficult to say the least! Esther Williams in particular comes to mind. She has anecdotes in her autobiography that truly paint Gene in a terrible light! But on the flip side, actresses like Lana Turner found Gene to be a complete joy and professional to work with. He was a strong personality to say the least, and I 100 percent agree with you that he was full of himself! I also agree that Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds dance fabulously in Singin’ in the Rain, and that they are both extremely talented. You are so so right, Debbie dances like a pro, and you’d never guess she was learning to dance on the film. Talk about true talent! But in my book, Gene Kelly has no peers in the dance world. His grace, masculinity, control, energy, technique, and ease just can’t be rivaled. No matter who is dancing beside Gene, he’s the one I watch. Thanks again for commenting Sally, always so so fun to connect with another Classic Hollywood fan who knows their stuff! ❤️

  2. Tracie

    I just recently watched Singing in the Rain. It’s now my favorite of all time. Imagine if Gene Kelly wasn’t a “taskmaster”, would the dancing in the film have been as great as it was? How do you put your name on something if you don’t give 100%?

    1. Shannon

      Isn’t Singin’ in the Rain amazing??! Definitely a favorite of mine as well! I completely agree Tracie, without Gene Kelly’s tough work ethic, I doubt Singin’ in the Rain would be the classic it is today. His high standards ensured that, even now, almost seventy years later, the dancing is still impressive and timeless. Pretty remarkable!

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