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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Singin' in the Rain

Easily the best of the best on all counts (great poster, too).
When I was around nine or ten years old, some group in my hometown was holding a fundraising variety show. This was back in the days before TV took over the entertainment world, when people actually paid money to see local "talent" get up on a stage and make fools of themselves. A year or two before, my father had taken part in a similar affair in which virtually all the men in town dressed up in drag for a farcical little play called The Womanless Wedding. It was hilarious. My first stage performance wasn't quite so funny (at least not for me at the time) though probably, if I had a video of it now, I'd die laughing. Two other boys and I played the male roles in the signature dance number for Singin' in the Rain. The film came out in 1952, so this was probably about 1954. I like to think I was the Gene Kelly type but probably much closer to Donald O'Connor. We sang and danced (sort of) in yellow rain coats twirling umbrellas around without even so much as a drop of precipitation. I was mortified. My dance partner was probably the fattest girl (my age) in town.

Sing along if you know the words, and you probably do. Hollywood legend has
it that Gene Kelly did this number in one "take." He didn't. It took three days.
By the time he was finished, he was running a fever of 103.
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Despite my ignoble introduction to the song and dance world, I've come to love both the song and dance and, indeed, the entire movie. Apparently, so have a lot of others; Singin' in the Rain is often rated among the top two or three motion picture musicals, and indeed, often in the top ten greatest American films ever made. I'm going to do something I've never done in before in writing about cinematic works of art. I'm going to illustrate this piece using only clips from the film (except for the poster, top). Simply posting photos of a musical as light and lively as Singin' in the Rain would be tantamount to singin' in a closet.

Donald O'Connor stole the show with this classic comedy dance routine.
Shooting the number ended up putting him in the hospital.
In watching it, you'll be surprised it didn't kill him.

During the 1930s and 40s, MGM Studios was the king of film musicals. From their first Academy Award winning musical, The Broadway Melody in 1929 until the advent of television walloped the movie industry in the mid-1950s, MGM amassed a musical film library second to none. MGM producer, Arthur Freed was something of a genius. He went back though the studio's film vault and culled from it the best songs from the musicals he found, then charged studio writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, to tie them all together into a modern film musical utilizing the talents of Howard Keel and Oscar Levant. Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor were both second choices as the screenplay developed. The ingĂ©nue role, played by Debbie Reynolds, was originally suppose to go to Judy Garland until she was fired by the studio in a contract dispute (though Kathryn Grayson, Jane Powell, Leslie Caron, and June Allyson were also considered).

Three song numbers from Singin' in the Rain have gone down in the archives of movie musicals as classics. This is the third one. For a novice dancer, 20-year-old
Debbie Reynolds easily holds her own with her veteran dance co-stars.

Taking their cue from the winning formula of The Broadway Melody, the MGM screenwriters set their story in the late 1920s as sound hit Hollywood. Forced to compete with the sound pioneers at Warner Brothers, MGM was, ironically, the last major studio to decide "talkies" were more than just a fad. However, once they embraced sound, they quickly discovered that audiences would pay well to see Broadway entertainment on the big screen; and that, moreover, film allowed them to do things from a production standpoint the Broadway stage could only dream about. Also, if a dancer slipped and fell or a singer hit a sour note, they could just cut out that part and continue. With the likes of Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly however, such missteps seldom occurred.

Gene Kelly and Jean Hagen struggle with the "high tech"
production difficulties of early motion picture sound.

Singin' in the Rain is fascinating for it's fictionalized version of the transitional agony the industry, and particularly several major film stars at the time, went through with the advent of sound. Microphones were highly directional and picked up noise much better than dialogue. Suddenly dialogue, and the writers who could write it, were worth their weight in gold. Voice coaches had a field day, while those in need of them, often found themselves out of work. In the movie, Don Lockwood, (Gene Kelly) successfully adapts. His leading lady, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) does not. The clip above, presents a comic episode from the filming of an early sound feature demonstrated the extent of such difficulties. The clip below, for those not so inclined to watch the whole film, (spoiler alert! for those who are so inclined) features the climax of the movie, which is both sad and funny at the same time, probably very much like my juvenile stage debut at "singin' in the rain."

Lip synching has never been funnier...or more disastrous.

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