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50 Years Later, Still Singin’ Praises of a Classic

TIMES STAFF WRITER

“Singin’ in the Rain” is considered by many to be the greatest movie musical ever made. But it began rather inauspiciously, according to the writing team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green.

“We were under contract with MGM,” recalls Comden. “Our producer, Arthur Freed, who had been a very good lyricist, said, ‘Kids'--he called us kids--'you are going to write a movie called “Singin’ in the Rain” and put all of my songs in it.’ So what we were handed was a stack of sheet music.”

Before becoming one of the top movie-musical producers at MGM, Freed penned numerous songs with his partner, Nacio Herb Brown, for early movie musicals, including “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Broadway Melody,” “You Were Meant for Me” and “You Are My Lucky Star.”

“We had to come up with a movie out of nowhere,” says Green. “It could be safely described as getting someone’s catalog of songs that had no relationship with each other [to] make up a movie. It was not a difficult task; it was impossible. When we were finished, we felt triumphant. We were very happy with our work.”

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Though it only received two Academy Award nominations--for best supporting actress (Jean Hagen) and scoring (Lennie Hayton)--"Singin’ in the Rain” has continued to grow in stature and popularity since its release 50 years ago.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is celebrating the movie with a special anniversary screening of the newly restored digital presentation and a cast and crew reunion Thursday. Scheduled to appear are stars Debbie Reynolds, Donald O’Connor, Cyd Charisse and Comden. (Green recently broke his leg, so his status is uncertain.)

Because Freed and Brown wrote songs for early movies, Comden and Green decided to set the story in the wild days of the late 1920s, when Hollywood was moving from silent films to talkies.

Gene Kelly, at the apex of his powers, stars as Don Lockwood, a former vaudevillian turned silent-screen heartthrob who sees his movie career going up in flames because his leading lady, Lena Lamont (Hagen), has a voice that sounds like thousands of fingernails on a chalk board and the studio wants their newest picture to be a musical. Don, though, comes up with an ingenious plan to save his career.

O’Connor plays Don’s best friend, Cosmo, and a very young Debbie Reynolds plays Kathy, an ingenue who helps Don and falls in love with him.

Directed and choreographed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, who had done the 1949 hit “On the Town,” and written by Comden and Green, “Singin’ in the Rain” boasts some of the most magical dance numbers ever captured on screen. Among them are Kelly’s deliciously romantic proclaiming of love in “Singin’ in the Rain,” O’Connor’s hilariously acrobatic “Make ‘Em Laugh,” and the lavish, innovative “Broadway Melody” ballet that features Charisse as a vamp who hooks hoofer Kelly.

Warner Home Video is releasing a new two-disc DVD set Sept. 24. It features the restored film; commentary from the participants; two documentaries, including “What a Glorious Feeling” about the making of the film; excerpts from many original MGM musicals in which the Freed-Brown songs were introduced; scoring stage sessions; a stills gallery; and Reynolds’ outtake musical number, “You Are My Lucky Star.”

“I think the script is the star of this movie,” says Peter Fitzgerald, the writer-director and producer of “What a Glorious Feeling.”

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“I think the performances are standout amazing, but I believe the script is really the engine this movie relies upon. It is such genius storytelling.... It was very much a collaboration.”

Comden and Green were longtime friends of both Kelly and Donen. “We had known each other since the start of Gene’s career,” says Comden. “We knew him socially and personally. Naturally, we were thrilled to write for him. They both knew the way our minds worked, and we had a lot of crazy ideas. Somebody else might have balked at them, but Gene and Stanley knew us and took it a step further. We had entire shorthand among us. It was a very happy collaboration.”

Originally, Freed wanted his friend Oscar Levant to play the role of Cosmo. Levant, who resembled a rumpled suit, was a noted pianist and cynical wit. He had played Kelly’s composer-buddy in the 1951 Oscar-winner “An American in Paris.”

Levant, says Fitzgerald, “was a full-swing drug addict and one of the great pessimists of all time. He was wonderful in ‘The Band Wagon’ and ‘An American in Paris.’ ” But he was wrong for the young, carefree Cosmo.

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And Kelly didn’t want just a pal for this film; he was looking for someone who could literally go toe to toe with him in the dance numbers

O’Connor, a former vaudeville performer, was best known as a straight man to a talking mule in the popular “Francis” movies produced at Universal. He had also starred in numerous youth-oriented musicals at Universal, including “Chip Off the Old Block,” and was a host on the television variety series “The Colgate Comedy Hour.”

“I think the part was open at the time, and they said, ‘Get that kid,’ ” says O’Connor. “We were all having a very good time, though it was difficult because of the dance routines; there were so many routines in the picture. They had to keep on schedule, so we would finish one routine in the daytime and then go immediately into the next one. So you never knew which routine you were doing.”

Trying to find the right Freed-Brown song for O’Connor’s solo was a challenge for the filmmakers. The creaky “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” was suggested but was quickly nixed. The creative team agreed they wanted something like Cole Porter’s jaunty “Be a Clown” that Judy Garland and Kelly performed in “The Pirate.” So Freed and Brown wrote a new song, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” that sounds suspiciously like “Be a Clown.”

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“It was a direct rip-off of ‘Be a Clown,’ ” says Fitzgerald. “Nobody made a stink about it, certainly not Cole Porter. It was a tremendous success. You’ll notice when O’Connor falls on his back, there is a long, slow fade for applause until the next scene because it was a showstopper. Kelly could have very well have cut it, but he left it in. He wanted everyone to shine.”

One whole day’s worth of shooting on “Make ‘Em Laugh,” which finds O’Connor wrestling with a dummy, back-flipping off walls and making crazy faces, was actually ruined.

“When they filmed it, no one checked the aperture of the camera properly,” says O’Connor. “It was all fogged up. So the whole day’s shooting was ruined. We had to go back and do it again. But for me it kind of helped, because I knew it better and I was able to do better in the number.”

Kelly choreographed the numbers to show off both his and O’Connor’s differences and strengths. “He was an athletic dancer and I am an athletic dancer,” says O’Connor. “But he was more ballet and athletic, and it was always strictly comedy for me except for a few things I did with Vera-Ellen in ‘Call Me Madam.’ ”

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Charisse wasn’t supposed to do the “Broadway Melody” number in “Singin’ in the Rain.” Carol Haney, then one of Kelly’s dance assistants, had been doing the number in rehearsals.

Recalls Charisse: “But it just so happened that Arthur Freed met me one day walking into the rehearsal hall and he turned around and said ‘Cyd, how would you like to dance in the big finale with Gene Kelly?’

“Of course, I just had to stop breathing, because everyone was saying on the whole lot what a great picture ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ was. I said I would love to. Arthur Freed had signed me under contract and he was my mentor. He was always looking out for me.”

Charisse describes Kelly as a brilliant and creative dance partner and choreographer. “People don’t understand that he did as much as he did in the choreography areas,” she says. “He would set it up all beautifully. I worked with Fred Astaire, and he was a different personalty. Gene was a man of the street and Fred liked to be the elegant dancer. [Astaire] did his own choreography with Hermes Pan, but he was a not a choreographer for other people like Gene was.”

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One of the hardest aspects of doing the movie, she says, was learning how to smoke for one scene.

“It came to the point where I had to be the vamp and smoke this long cigarette with the smoke coming out of my nose,” Charisse says. “I had never smoked a cigarette in my life, so Stanley said, ‘We are going to stop everything’ and they had to teach me how to smoke a cigarette. That took some time. I went home a little sick to my stomach.”

Though the film received great reviews and was a big box-office hit, it was overshadowed by Freed’s production of “An American in Paris,” which won the 1951 Academy Award for best film.

“It stood under the shadow of ‘An American in Paris,’” says Fitzgerald. “But when I show ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to someone who has never seen it before, they are just astounded by it. It’s completely fresh and entertaining and up to the minute as anything. It is the eternal classic.”

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“Singin’ in the Rain” screens Thursday at 8 p.m. at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. The event is sold out but call (310) 247-3600 for stand-by ticket procedures.


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