- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 13, 2002

''Singin' in the Rain," the most joyous and exhilarating musical comedy ever created in Hollywood, has more than one eligible anniversary day. The Turner Classic Movies cable channel has selected Thursday to celebrate the movie's 50th birthday.
For the record, the official release date was April 10, 1952. The New York engagement actually began at Radio City Music Hall on March 27. Only the Hollywood opening, April 9 at the Egyptian, corresponds almost exactly with the release date.
Moviegoers could make a fond case for Aug. 19, 1950, when Betty Comden and Adolph Green submitted the first draft of their screenplay to producer Arthur Freed and other interested parties at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, then the most glamorous business enterprise in Culver City, Calif.
Making a day of it, TCM will show a batch of forerunners to "Singin' in the Rain," scheduled for 8 p.m. These are MGM musicals (and a few nonmusicals) that had showcased the songs that were revived for the movie. The pivotal titles are "The Broadway Melody," circa 1929, scheduled for 7 a.m., and "The Hollywood Revue of 1929," booked more conveniently at 6 p.m.
An MGM sound stage was inundated in "Hollywood Revue" to showcase a production number inspired by the song "Singin' in the Rain." A generation later, of course, it became the pretext for one of Gene Kelly's greatest dance solos, arguably the happiest song-and-dance interlude in movie history.
The movie "Singin' in the Rain," an affectionate spoof of the movie business when it was making the transition from silent films to talkies, was willed into existence because Mr. Freed had begun his movie career as a successful songwriter. A lyricist and the pre-eminent producer of MGM musicals for two decades, he had formed a Tin Pan Alley partnership with composer Nacio Herb Brown in 1921. They were summoned to Hollywood in the wake of the talkie uproar caused by "The Jazz Singer" in 1927-28.
MGM had been lagging other major producer-distributors in making the switch to sound. By the time production supervisor Irving Thalberg was ready to approve "The Broadway Melody," so many partial talkies had come and gone that it could be heralded as the first "all-talking, singing, dancing sensation."
It also won the Academy Award for best motion picture in 1928-29. Three numbers from the Freed-Brown inventory were instrumental in its success: the title song and "You Were Meant for Me" and "The Wedding of the Painted Doll." The team became MGM's first resident songwriters. Not that Mr. Freed was a stranger to the West Coast. He had worked at other studios, sometimes playing mood music for silent actors, and he had managed a legitimate theater called the Orange Grove.
Mr. Freed was persuaded in 1939 to specialize in musical productions at MGM, cutting his teeth on "Babes in Arms" and "The Wizard of Oz." Subsequently, his "unit" became the industry's most celebrated collection of musical comedy talent, in front of the camera and behind it. He helped launch the starring careers of Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Mr. Kelly and the directing careers of Vincente Minnelli, Charles Walters and Stanley Donen. By the late 1940s, Fred Astaire was a member of the unit.
"Singin' in the Rain" was contrived to remind people of Mr. Freed and Mr. Brown's heyday as tunesmiths. MGM had bought the rights to their songs for what was then a tidy sum, about $250,000. It was generally agreed that a musical using them anew would be a swell idea. Ultimately, the price of the purchase was charged to the movie's budget, roughly $2.5 million, handsomely recovered when the movie grossed $7.66 million in its initial release.
"Singin' in the Rain" ran into a timing problem with the Kelly-Minnelli-Freed musical "An American in Paris." That film had been prompted by Mr. Freed's purchase of the George and Ira Gershwin songbook from Ira a few years earlier. Ultimately, the prestige of "An American in Paris" proved to be something of an obstacle to the debut of "Singin' in the Rain" and perhaps to its chances with Oscar voters a year later. "An American in Paris" won the 1951 Academy Award as best movie (and five other prizes) as "Rain" was about to open in 1952. Some bookings had to be postponed to take advantage of the fresh swell of interest in "American in Paris." ("Singin'" received two Oscar nominations Jean Hagen for best supporting actress and the movie for best score for a musical and won none.)
Miss Comden and Mr. Green had made a successful transition from Broadway to Hollywood with Mr. Freed's 1949 version of their 1944 show "On the Town." Generously, they had forgiven MGM for largely ignoring the original song score created by themselves and Leonard Bernstein.
Accommodating to a fault, Miss Comden and Mr. Green contributed lyrics to several new and mostly lackluster songs commissioned for the MGM "On the Town." The composer was Roger Edens, the studio's jack-of-all-trades when mounting musicals. He was active again as an associate producer on "Singin' in the Rain.'' The three of them collaborated on one of the songs that doesn't derive from the Freed-Brown catalog. This is the tongue twister "Moses Supposes," which rationalizes a sensational tap duet by Mr. Kelly and Donald O'Connor.
In the movie, Mr. Kelly, cast as silent movie swashbuckler Don Lockwood, is completing one of the elocution classes started to help performers adjust to sound. Mr. O'Connor, as his buddy, studio musician and quipster Cosmo Brown, pops in; they turn the classroom into a dance wonderland.
Mr. Kelly and Mr. Donen, his precocious assistant through the 1940s and only 26 when "Rain" got under way, had shared co-directing credits for the first time when shooting "On the Town." The new project was intended to reunite the Comden-Green team with the Kelly-Donen team, although Mr. Kelly's participation had to await his completion of "An American in Paris." He was a relatively late arrival during the pre-production phase. Oscar Levant, the legendary pianist, humorist and hypochondriac, also was supposed to co-star as Mr. Kelly's sidekick. He was supplanted by Mr. O'Connor, when it became obvious that the male co-stars of "Singin' in the Rain" needed to be championship hoofers.
The writers began pondering how to integrate the Freed-Brown songbook with a playful and evocative romantic comedy plot about the turmoil in Hollywood during the late 1920s, the period that many of the songs reflected. There was an initial hitch: Miss Comden and Mr. Green thought that they had a new contract that protected their prerogatives as songwriters. They thought they got to do lyrics unless they were working with a score by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.
They discovered that a former agent had misled them; their deal allowed Mr. Freed to use them without such restrictions. Their new agent, Irving Lazar, clarified the situation memorably: "Anyone can write lyrics for your picture Berlin, Porter, R and H, Freed, Karloff, Lugosi, Johnny Weissmuller. My suggestion is you write 'Singin' in the Rain' at the top of a page, followed by 'Fade-In,' and you don't stop until you come to 'That's all, folks.'"
Putting their chagrin to excellent use, the writers invented a last-minute plot complication revolving around the fine print in a contract. Miss Hagen's magnificent bimbo character Lina Lamont, the top female draw at Monumental Pictures has caused a professional crisis by being unable to master presentable English enunciation. She discovers a clause in her contract that threatens to undermine Debbie Reynolds as heroine Kathy Selden, who has agreed to dub Lina's voice in a crossover talkie, "The Dueling Cavalier." The dopey but treacherous Lina thinks of Kathy as a romantic upstart as well, failing to appreciate that Monumental's leading man, Don Lockwood, has never been keen on Lina, despite their co-starring success. He is genuinely sold on Kathy.
One of the great comic stooges in movie history, Lina is the device that provides just enough conflict for the frequent and frequently transporting musical numbers of "Singin' in the Rain" to possess a flimsy but witty structure. The filmmakers had contemplated scavenging the plots of two Jean Harlow movies from the early 1930s, "Bombshell" and "Platinum Blonde." They wisely refrained, but did create Lina as a Harlow caricature sort of the Harlow no one could love, assuming they ever got close enough to observe her ignorance and vanity.
The Oscar record book would look much better if Miss Hagen had won as supporting actress for "Singin' in the Rain." That year was a rather mystifying one for the Academy Awards.
"The Greatest Show on Earth" was voted best movie, and "Singin" never was a major contender. "Singin'" was inconvenienced by a studio stablemate: Mr. Minnelli's Hollywood soap opera "The Bad and the Beautiful," which collected five Oscars.
A certain legend seems to have emerged that the merits of the movie were not immediately appreciated. But my own experience, as a 9-year-old in faraway Alameda, Calif., suggests that moviegoers loved the movie from its opening splash of pleasure, with the co-stars offering a sample of the title song while garbed in rain slickers and striding toward the camera.
At that time, my parents went to the movies frequently. (It was another year before they bought a TV set.) They looked forward to "Singin' in the Rain" and were not disappointed. In the circles they frequented, the prospect of a new musical starring Mr. Kelly aroused nothing but positive vibes. Although movie bills tended to change every week, the pictures that played the Alameda one week shuttled over to the Neptune the next, so it was possible to savor numbers as sublime as "Make 'Em Laugh," "Moses Supposes," "Good Morning" and the title dance more than once.
A friend of mine who loved the movie dearly notes that no movie studio in the late 1920s had actually tried the Monumental ploy of substituting a nicer speaking voice for one of its microphone-challenged silent stars. The performers whose voices sounded funny, usually because of accents or faulty recording equipment, were allowed to suffer sudden reversals of fortune.
One of the choicest jokes in "Singin' in the Rain" is that Miss Hagen can be heard using her normal voice to dub the voice of Miss Reynolds supposedly dubbing her. As Mr. Donen recalled: "Jean's voice is quite remarkable, and it was supposed to be cultured speech. Debbie had that terrible Western noise." Vocally speaking, Miss Reynolds was sort of Lina Lite.
The one new song contributed by Mr. Freed and Mr. Brown also involves a priceless joke. The directors needed a number appropriate for a knockabout slapstick solo by Mr. O'Connor. They found nothing that fit the bill, so they approached the retired songwriters and requested something special. Like what?
Well, like the Cole Porter number "Be a Clown," which had accompanied an acrobatic dance by Mr. Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers in "The Pirate" a few years earlier.
The Freed-Brown team returned with a near duplicate, "Make 'Em Laugh." Mr. Donen regarded it as "100 percent plagiarism, and partly we are to blame. None of us had the courage to say, 'It works, but it's a stolen song, Arthur.'"
Mr. Porter never uttered a word about the funny resemblance. Curiously, TCM has booked the movie version of his "Kiss Me Kate" for a showing after "Singin' in the Rain" on Thursday. The appropriate family selection would really be "The Pirate."

***
TITLE: "Singin' in the Rain"
RATING: G (originally released in 1952, years before the advent of the rating system)
CREDITS: Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Produced by Arthur Freed. Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Mr. Freed. Musical numbers staged by Mr. Kelly and Mr. Donen, assisted by Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyne. Cinematography by Harold Rosson and John Alton. Editing by Adrienne Fazan. Musical direction by Lennie Hayton.
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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