Rita Moreno Steals the Show, Debbie Reynolds Keeps Up with Gene Kelly, Lina Lamont COULD Talk, and Donald O' Connor Makes Us Laugh. From 1952, it's Singin' in the Rain!
Singin' in the Rain (1952)
This may sound corny, but Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is such a special film! On a personal level, I think being exposed to this film at such a young age really influenced my desire to dance: how could you watch Gene Kelly and his athletic yet graceful dancing and not think “hey, that guy is cool and I want to do that too!” On a more macro level, Singin’ in the Rain is pretty darn special because, though only moderately successful at the time of its release (can you believe it?!), it has since been hailed as the best movie musical EVER made. Now that’s some high praise!
My Summer Star of the Week: Rita Moreno
TCM played 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 when Rita was five years old in 1936. Rita is a fabulous dancer—she trained with Rita Hayworth’s uncle—and actress. She’s 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, Moreno 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. Rita is one talented and accomplished lady! She’s a trailblazer in her field, opening doors and opportunities for Latina actresses, something she continues to do today. Though Moreno’s role in Singin’ in the Rain is small, she is fantastic in it, and steals the show in every scene she’s in. Let’s get to the plot!
The Plot. (And the Costumes!)
Singin’ in the Rain is set in 1927. So yes, that means every costume is incredibly beautiful and fun! Remember Walter Plunkett? The guy who designed the costumes for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Gone with the Wind (1939)? Yeah he designed all the costumes for Singin’ in the Rain too. Plunkett said they were the most difficult, intricate costumes he ever created! Audiences of the 1950s could still remember what people dressed like in the 1920s, so Plunkett’s designs had to be spot on!
Anyway, we meet our girl Rita 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 film 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!
Don’s Talents and Lina’s Lack Thereof
We learn from a super cool musical and dancing montage that before becoming a heartthrob, Don 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 is dumb as rocks, and, despite her beauty and incredible popularity, she’s not very talented:
“She can’t act, she can’t sing, she can’t dance—a triple threat,”
as Cosmo, who works at Monumental Pictures with Don and Lina, so aptly describes her.
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, about how in love the two stars are off screen. So Lina is always throwing herself at Don, even though he basically can’t stand her.
Don Loves Kathy, Lina Loves Kathy’s Voice
You can imagine that 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. (Which Debbie Reynolds managed to aim perfectly on her first shot, much to the surprise of Gene Kelly! The scene only needed to be filmed once as a result. So lucky Jean Hagen got pied in the face only once for the film. Well done Debbie!)
Lina’s life gets even worse when Monumental Pictures decides to make her and Don’s next movie into a “talking picture,” the new film sensation with audiences. Silent films seem like a thing of the past!
The preview screening of Don and Lina’s first talkie goes so poorly that 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.
It’s a Hit!
The Lockwood/Lamont musical ends up being such a hit that 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 her way with this scheme, but then 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. 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 us seeing 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 off screen is real, too. THE END!!!
By the early 1950s, Gene Kelly was already an established film and dance legend. He did it all—Gene could sing, dance, act, choreograph, and direct films. WOW! 1951’s An American in Paris, in which Kelly starred and co-directed and choreographed, was viewed in its day as elevating the movie musical to new heights. He even received an Honorary Academy Award for his work on the film at the 1952 Oscars. Usually, they reserve those special Oscars for many years after you’ve done something big. So yes, Gene Kelly was, as the kids like to say these days, kind of a big deal!
But apparently not even all of Kelly’s clout could stop Debbie Reynolds from being cast as his leading lady in Singin’ in the Rain: according to Debbie Reynolds, Kelly did not want her in the film. Most likely, he was against Debbie’s casting because at this early stage of her career—she was a mere 19 years old!—Debbie was not a dancer. She had zero training, which meant the perfectionist Kelly, the best dancer in the business, would have to teach novice Debbie to keep up with him! I can see how that would be frustrating.
Kelly the Taskmaster
Luckily for Gene though, Debbie was a natural. You would never guess Debbie was learning how to dance while filming Singin’ in the Rain! True, she’s not at Gene Kelly’s level (who is? Not even Donald O’Connor—in my opinion—can keep up with Gene in the film!), but Debbie’s dancing is stellar! It came at a cost though. As Debbie wrote in her fabulous autobiography,
“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.”
Fred Steps In
It was actually the encouragement of Gene’s only peer in the dance world, the equally legendary Fred Astaire, who helped lift Debbie’s spirits. Astaire found Debbie crying one day under a piano on set, consoled her, and took her to his own dance rehearsal, where Debbie
“…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 make it look easier. His kind gesture helped me a great deal.”
How sweet is that? Fred was such a gentleman! Before you start thinking “Oh, that jerk Gene Kelly, being so mean, etc.,” Debbie credits Gene’s pushing her so hard on Singin’ in the Rain for shaping the performer she became. Also, though the two never worked together again, they did stay on friendly terms, and Gene frequently complimented Debbie on her fantastic work in Singin’ in the Rain.
Jean Hagen: an Underappreciated Powerhouse
I’m a huge Jean Hagen fan. Like Ann Miller, Jean is another one of those starlets who for some bizarre reason never became a mega star. As you can clearly see in Singin’ in the Rain, Jean had it all: beauty, charisma, talent, I could go on and on!
For her turn as Lina Lamont, Jean would receive a Best Supporting Actress nomination. And that squeaky voice she perfects in the film was based off of the voice of non other than Judy Holiday!
Oh the Irony!
A little bit of multi-layered irony, Hagen studied drama at Northwestern University before trying her hand at a career in Hollywood, and in real life she had a beautiful voice! Maybe that’s actually one of the reasons she’s so good at making her voice sound so awful in Singin’ in the Rain?
There’s a scene in the film where Kathy and Don are at a recording studio. Kathy is speaking and recording lines for the film she’s dubbing Lina’s voice in. But the voice we hear coming out of Debbie’s mouth in this scene is not her own. Can you guess whose voice it is?
It’s Jean Hagen’s voice! Yep, Jean Hagen’s actual voice was the voice used for Lina’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? Maybe Stanley Donen, who co-directed the film with Gene Kelly, put it better:
“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.”
Who isn’t familiar with the iconic scene in the film where Gene Kelly sings and dances to the title song? It’s a legendary number for a reason!
Apparently, that day was a hard one for Gene, who was running a temperature of over 100 degrees! But he decided to work through the pain, and “mark” the number—dancer lingo for not really doing every step in the dance, just kind of going through the motions—for co-director Stanley Donen. Well, 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.
There’s debate about this, but some sources say that they got the entire dance sequence shot in one take that day, and that was that! Other sources say it took a few more days of filming to get the scene just right. Whatever the truth is, Gene Kelly made movie magic with this scene, despite his fever and wool suit that kept shrinking the longer he was dancing in that rain!
Singin' in the...Milk?
And speaking of rain, I’d always believed that the rain coming down on Gene in this dance was not merely water, but water mixed with milk! Apparently just plain water wasn’t showing up on camera, so they had to find a way to make the rain more visible, the solution being to add some milk!
I just read while refreshing my research for this post that there are now some who swear no milk was used in that rain Gene stomps around it, that clever backlighting was all that was used to get the rain to show up so perfectly on film. That maybe, I can’t tell you which version is the truth with complete certainty, but I must say, I like the milk story!
Summer Under the Stars Continues!
Can you believe August is half way through already? I certainly can’t! I’m just loving this month of Summer Under the Stars! Be sure to check out the TCM calendar for the films this month, and maybe put a few of them on your calendar too!
Have you seen Singin’ in the Rain? What do you think of Rita Moreno’s short but electric scenes in the film? And how about that dancing?!!!! Are you as amazed by Gene Kelly as I am?