A look at the backstage shenanigans and plethora of legends that sprung up around the greatest movie musical of all time.

What’s the greatest movie musical of all time? For many, the answer would have to be Singin’ in the Rain, MGM’s glorious Technicolor homage to the silent movie era’s struggle to survive the advent of the talkies. It’s a film that has spawned a stage show – the title song has even been covered by Asia’s No 1 girl band! – but what exactly is the secret of its success? 

“It was made post Second World War, and it’s set post First World War, both eras where the world was looking for things to uplift it,” says Jonathan Church, the British director of the hit stage show now playing in Sydney. “What it does so perfectly, both musically and in terms of its storytelling, is to lift an audience’s spirit and send it out into the world feeling better about life.”

Veteran actor Robyn Arthur, who plays gossipy Hollywood reporter Dora Baily in Church’s production, puts it more simply: “It’s very, very funny and it moves at a cracking pace, but there’s heart in it, there’s so much heart. It’s about human nature, and falling in love, and people trying to make their mark in the world. And as human beings, that’s all we ever try and do.”

That desire to make a mark was, of course, a driver for many of the Hollywood creatives on the film, but none were quite so determined to raise the profile of the musical movie than Arthur Freed, the powerful studio guru and instigator of the project. Freed was a Tin Pan Alley lyricist from Charleston who had cut his teeth on the vaudeville circuit, writing and playing for the Marx Brothers before moving to Hollywood in the 1920s. Partnered up with New Mexico-born composer Nacio Herb Brown, they were contracted to write songs for MGM’s first ever musical, The Broadway Melody, which went on to be the Oscar-winning picture of 1929. A decade of song writing followed, but Freed’s real ambition was to be a producer and the opportunity to acquire the film rights to The Wizard of Oz gave him his chance. Shepherding the film as an uncredited assistant, its enormous success earned him a godlike status at MGM. 

Freed was a man of few words. Leslie Caron, who worked with him on his final major musical, Gigi, described him as having only four words: yeah, nah, wonderful and terrible. His Oscar acceptance speech consisted of at most two sentences. Despite possessing a dark side – Shirley Temple claims in her autobiography that Freed exposed himself to her in his office when she was just age 12 – he was a man of excellent artistic taste who surrounded himself with the very best. Several times a year he would do the rounds in New York and bring the best of Broadway back to Hollywood. Freed’s first effort as producer was 1937’s Babes in Arms, the first of a string of hit vehicles for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. By 1940, the Arthur Freed unit had its own offices at MGM.

Singin’ in the Rain had first been sung by Ukulele Ike and the Brox Sisters in The Hollywood Revue of 1929

A string of hits followed. Strike Up The Band, Cabin In The Sky, Meet Me In St. Louis, Easter Parade, Show Boat and An American In Paris are just some of the 36 musicals he produced between 1940 and 1951. But Freed nurtured a dream, and that was to find a home for the ditties that he and Brown had penned back in the 1920s and ’30s. So sometime in 1951 he went to director Stanley Donen and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who he’d worked with on 1949’s On The Town, and said he wanted to make a film using all the songs from those earliest musicals. Given the ragbag provenance of the source material that was a pretty big ask. Singin’ in the Rain, for example, had first been sung by Ukulele Ike (later the voice of Jiminy Cricket) and the Brox Sisters in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 where it culminated in a bizarre sequence with a jolly, presumably doomed chorus dancing in front of Noah’s Ark. All I Do Is Dream Of You was originally a lullaby sung to a sultry Joan Crawford in 1934’s Sadie McKee. And so on.

The resourceful Comden and Green had come out of the New York cabaret scene where their connections included the likes of Judy Holliday and Leonard Bernstein. They were smart, sharp, funny and inventive, and fairly early on they spotted a link: all of the Freed songs were nostalgic, coming out of the period when silent movies were giving painful birth to the talkies. Like in the best jukebox musicals, they realised that by writing a show set around the time and place of the songs (i.e. the pre-Depression-era Hollywood of 1927) they ought to be able to work even the most intransigent ditty into their plot. And so they did. 

Months of revisions followed. The show came together scene by scene, each one read in turn to Freed, Donen and his chosen co-director Gene Kelly for approval. According to Kelly, Freed wanted Singin’ In The Rain to be the title of the film from the outset: “He said, ‘Can you use that number?’ and I said, ‘Sure’. And he said, ‘What’ll you do with it,’ and I said ‘It’ll be raining and I’ll be singing’”. 

Joking aside, Kelly and Donen with Comden and Green assiduously did the rounds of the studios, chatting to all the old-timers who related to them the stories of the dawn of the talkies. Much midnight oil was burned, songs were changed and songs were cut, but what emerged was a script that most now consider a classic.

“It’s very crisp, it’s very funny, it’s very influenced by the Marx brothers,” says Church, who has inherited a great deal of the movie dialogue for his stage show. “Stylistically, it’s rather brilliantly done. It’s very hard to find book writers now with that kind of skill. There’s a real engine to the plot because it’s set around an industry changing moment. The dramatic stakes for everyone are absolutely real. I think that’s unusual in what is ultimately a compilation show.”

Most of the characters are based on actual people: studio head RF Simpson is obviously a mix of Freed and Louis B. Mayer, highly-strung director Roscoe Dexter is a take on Erich von Stroheim, Zelda Zanders (the “Zip Girl”) is based on Clara Bow (the “It Girl”), while squeaky diva Lina Lamont represents just one of the many silent screen actors whose careers came to an untimely end when their vocal talent didn’t match up to their screen persona. Robyn Arthur’s character, Dora Bailey, is based on Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons. “Parsons was around from silent films into the talkies,” she explains, “and the crux of the piece, of course, is who’s going to cut it and who isn’t. 40 million people used to buy Parson’s newspaper, that’s the power these people had. They could make or break a show and a star.”

Eventually the script was green-lighted with a $1.9 million initial budget. Although Kelly and Donen thoroughly looted the MGM warehouses for period props, lighting and vehicles, in other areas they spent lavishly – $157,000 went on Walter Plunkett’s costumes alone. But if anyone at the studio was worried that it ended up costing $2.5 million, they were amply compensated when the film earned a cool $7.7 million on its first release.

The Broadway Ballet from the stage show 

Of course, Freed wasn’t the only genius working at MGM. Gene Kelly had been working his way up since partnering the Judy Garlands and the Lucille Balls in the early 1940s. Graduating from dancer and actor to creative choreographer with his distinctive “men need to dance like men” philosophy, 1951’s An American in Paris was one of the movies that sealed his reputation as one of the century’s most exciting dancers. 

He was also a workaholic. “Gene is easygoing as long as you know exactly what you are doing when you’re working with him,” said Johnny Green, one-time head of music at MGM. “He’s a hard taskmaster and he loves hard work. If you want to play on his team you’d better like hard work, too. He isn’t cruel but he is tough, and if Gene believed in something he didn’t care who he was talking to, whether it was Louis B. Mayer or the gatekeeper. He wasn’t awed by anybody, and he had a good record of getting what he wanted”.

Donald O’Connor admitted to being terrified of being bawled out by Kelly for the first few weeks on set. A growing mutual respect for the two men’s complementary dance skills, however, did the trick. For the killer Make ‘Em Laugh number, Kelly asked O’Connor to resurrect one of his young dancer’s tricks by running up a wall and somersaulting back onto his feet. “I was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day then, and getting up those walls was murder,” O’Connor admitted. “We filmed that whole sequence in one day. We did it on a concrete floor. My body just had to absorb this tremendous shock. Things were building to such a crescendo that I thought I’d have to commit suicide for the ending. I came back on the set three days later. All the grips applauded. Gene applauded, told me what a great number it was. Then Gene said, ‘Do you think you could do that number again?’ I said, ‘Sure, any time.’ He said, ‘Well, we’re going to have to do it again tomorrow.’ No one had checked the aperture of the camera and they fogged out all the film. So the next day I did it again! By the end my feet and ankles were a mass of bruises.”

Reynolds was found crying under a piano by a kindly Fred Astaire who volunteered to help her technique

Debbie Reynolds, only 19 when cast in the female lead, had it even harder. Living with her parents and commuting to the set, she frequently got up at 4am, taking three different buses to get to the studio. With filming sometimes running to 19-hour days, she even took to sleeping on the set. As she was more a gymnast than a trained dancer, Kelly could be fiercely critical. One day Reynolds was found crying under a piano by a kindly Fred Astaire who volunteered to help her with technique. Even so, taking her shoes off after filming the famous Good Morning sequence, she found her feet were actually bleeding. “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life,” she said years later.

At least she was spared the lavish Broadway Ballet sequence, which took a month to rehearse, two weeks to shoot, and cost $600,000. Cyd Charisse, who danced the vampish siren, concurred about Kelly’s rigourous work ethics. “Gene was a perfectionist,” she said. “He always knew what he wanted. He didn’t want to hear no. He said ‘That’s the way it’s gonna be, and that’s the way it is’. My husband always used to say ‘I can always tell who Cyd’s working with’. If it was Gene Kelly she’s black and blue.”

Charisse must have been doing something right, though. In her steamy dance with Kelly, both the Hollywood Production Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency, who used to regularly patrol the studios sniffing out impropriety, objected to at least one particularly suggestive movement that had to be cut. Another problem occurred when it was discovered that her pubic hair was visible through her skimpy dress. One anecdote goes that having fixed the problem, costume designer Walter Plunkett announced: “It’s OK, guys, we’ve finally got Cyd’s crotch licked.”

Debbie Reynolds leads All I Do Is Dream Of You from the film

Of course, the famous Singin’ In The Rain sequence itself spawned hundreds of apocryphal legends – they added milk to the rain to make it visible, they added ink to it, it was filmed in one take, Kelly’s clothes shrank, etc. etc. It is certainly true that they shot it during the day and the water pressure was adversely affected by locals sprinkling their lawns. Shot on two tarpaulin covered outdoor city blocks on the MGM lot, the routine took two or three days and Kelly had a 101°F fever. 

“Shooting the title number was just terrible for the photographer,” Kelly recalled. “He had to backlight all the rain and then he had to put frontlight on the performer. That was as tough a job as I’ve ever seen, because you can’t photograph in rain and see it.” It’s also true that the sound of Kelly’s taps were post-dubbed by his interning assistants, Gwen Verdon and Carol Haney, who had to stand ankle-deep in water to achieve the desired effect.

Despite all that, the number became immediately iconic, and even today can bring a lump of sheer pleasure to the throat. “It’s the joy of a man dancing in the rain because he’s in love,” says Church. “What’s the old expression? ‘If you can’t say it you sing it, if you can’t sing it, you dance it.’ The emotional hierarchy. We all recognise that moment and the beauty of being in a thunderstorm.”

Although the film was well received by moviegoers, strangely it didn’t fair so well in the awards stakes. Comden and Green won a Writers Guild Award and Jean Hagan won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, but the film lost out to Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth and Kelly was beaten to best actor by Gary Cooper in High Noon. That, however, was just the beginning of its rise to popularity. TV and then DVD releases allowed it into every home on the planet and it was voted the greatest movie musical in American film history by the American Film Institute in 2006. A year later they ranked it as the fifth greatest movie of all time.

O’Connor, Kelly and Jean Hagan arrive at the onscreen movie premiere

Unusually for a Hollywood film, the first stage adaptation took place not on Broadway but in London’s West End, directed by and starring toothy Brit favourite Tommy Steele. To ‘beef it up’, it was felt necessary to add extra tunes by the likes of Gershwin, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter, and although it ran for two years it wasn’t universally admired. “The stage downpour is so noisy – and poses such a danger of microphone short circuits – that Steele has to mime his song to a tape recording,” lamented one critic at the time. “I think they tried to emulate the film too much,” says Church. “It was a wonderful show, but it was built around Tommy’s strengths and avoided his weaknesses. He wasn’t as great a dancer as Gene Kelly.”

For his acclaimed Chichester Festival staging, Church and his choreographer Andrew Wright chose to focus far more on the crucial element of dance, probably the film’s most revolutionary aspect. “This is my 41st year in the industry, and I’ve got to say, the dance that I’m seeing, I’ve never seen in any other show I’ve ever been in,” says an impressed Robyn Arthur.

The new staging is by no means a slavish imitation, but Church and his team clearly debated the iconic moments. “Does Don Lockwood have to hang onto a lamp post during Singin’ in the Rain? – we sort of felt the lamp post is important, as is the policeman,” Church admits. “To achieve the glorious image of Kelly splashing in the puddles we flood the stage from underneath as well. And we don’t just do that for the Kelly number, we do it for the finale. The whole ensemble becomes Gene Kelly, celebrating that moment. And of course, if you’re in the front six rows, you participate in the experience.” Well, you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

Singin’ In The Rain is in Sydney and then touring to Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth