Welcome to a weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film considered to be essential to the cinema’s golden age. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with old Hollywood cinema.
Movie musicals are an important genre in the golden age of Hollywood. When the first motion picture with sound, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, it caused a huge stir nationwide. Suddenly, audiences could hear actors not only talking but singing too. Studios were forced to upgrade their equipment due to the demand for more talking pictures. Whether they wanted it or not, sound was here to stay.
Hollywood rolled out memorable early musicals throughout the 1930’s such as Anything Goes, Swing Time, and the popular Broadway Melody series. Directors such as Busby Berkeley choreographed unique routines full of precision and grace. When viewed from overhead, dancers formed kaleidoscope-like patterns in perfect harmony.
In the 1940s, musicals proved to be so popular that MGM started their own production united (headed by Arthur Freed) devoted solely to musical films. Freed helped transition from the old-fashioned formula of 1930s musicals to the inventive technicolor movie musicals of the 1940s. Stars of these films including Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Ann Miller became household names around the world.
One of the biggest stars to come out of the Freed unit in the 1940s was Gene Kelly. Kelly was a triple threat: an incredible singer, actor, and dancer. His early films such as Anchors Aweigh and On the Town (both with Frank Sinatra) were huge hits at the box office. When Freed sought to create a movie musical using his catalog of songs used by previous MGM musicals in the ’30s, Kelly was the natural choice for leading man. That movie, based around the silent to talking era of filmmaking, became Singin’ in the Rain.
Singin’ in the Rain represents the pinnacle of movie musicals. It’s also a wonderful document of American film history. The movie shows how meticulous and involved studios were with their films during that era. Every single aspect of production was controlled by a group of professionals to craft a film made with love and great skill.
The film chronicles the story of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and his co-star Lina Lamon (Jean Hagen), two popular stars of the silent era. When The Jazz Singer hits, they are forced to convert their next picture to a talkie. The problem? Lamont’s grating, screechy voice. When diction coaches prove to be of no help, Lockwood enlists the help of a woman he meets by chance, Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds). Over the course of the film, the two fall for each other as Don tries to help make her a star.
As musicals were supposed to do in the post-war era, most importantly of all Singin’ in the Rain entertains while remaining insightful and visually stunning. Gene Kelly’s athletic, vibrant dancing style was a complete 180 from the rigid Busby Berkeley routines of the previous era. His performances are electric, especially the brilliant dream sequence towards the end of the film. In one of the most memorable dance numbers on film, Kelly dances with Cyd Charisse, another hugely popular triple threat actress of the ’50s.
Across the board, the performances in the movie are fantastic. Jean Hagen holds her own opposite her male co-stars as the defiant silent starlet trying to adapt to the new era of cinema. Donald O’Connor, who plays Lockwood’s best friend Cosmo Brown, proves to be a hilarious and heartfelt sidekick for Kelly. O’Connor’s “Make ‘Em Laugh” musical sequence is an example of physical comedy at its best. Reynolds, who was 19 and new to world of movies, put in hours of hard work (reportedly with the help of Fred Astaire) to play the wide-eyed ingenue of the film. Over 60 years later, Singin’ in the Rain is a masterful piece of filmmaking that continues to dazzle audiences with each new viewing.
By far, the most famous moment in the film is Gene Kelly’s incredible dance sequence in the rain. Kelly had a 103 degree fever when he filmed the scene. Contrary to popular belief, the water used for the rain in the shot was not mixed with milk to make it show up on camera. Extensive backlighting was used to make the rain appear more prominent on camera. In total, the scene took 2-3 days to film, and Kelly’s wool suit shrunk during filming due to all the rain.
After filming the “Make ‘Em Laugh” sequence, Donald O’Connor (who smoked up to four packs of cigarettes per day at the time), had to stay in bed several days to recover from filming the strenuous scene.
In the scenes where Debbie Reynolds’ character is dubbing Lina Lamont’s voice, that voice is actually actress Betty Royce who is dubbing Reynolds’ voice. Additionally, Jean Hagen is actually dubbing Reynolds’ voice in the scene where Kathy Selden is supposed to be dubbing Lina Lamont’s voice. Confusing, right?
After the filming of the “Good Morning” number, Debbie Reynolds had to be carried to her dressing room because she had burst some blood vessels in her feet. Reynolds remarked years later that “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life.”
Singin’ in the Rain is available to buy on both blu-ray and DVD.
What’s your favorite movie musical? What other classic movies would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!
Michelle Buchman is the social media manager at Nerdist Industries. She’s also a huge cinephile. Feel free to follow and chat movies with her on Twitter, @michelledeidre.