Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Class: Singin' in the Rain

Parma Ham, Apricot Preserves and Dijon Mustard Finger Sandwiches
Tossed Green Salad w/ Donald O'Connor's French Dressing
Gene Kelly's Real Irish Lamb Stew
The Hollywood Brown Derby Grapefruit Cake

Well, it's still winter, I suppose, though we didn't get anything close to winter weather here in OSP (oh, so precious) Austin. But there's a little chill in the air, having given us a tease of rain last night, and the sky is currently all cloudy and gray. I mention this because I'm going to be nursing leftovers of Mr. Kelly's lamb stew this afternoon as I snuggle up to work on the next Chef du Cinema blog post (I'm always working for you, friends).

Class went very well again tonight. Good audience, good crew. No complaints.

Singin' in the Rain is one of those movies that just fills you with that feeling you can only get from the movies. Just pure cinematic joy. Seriously, if you are depressed and your meds aren't doing it, just watch Donald O'Connor's Make 'em Laugh sequence, and I promise you that dark mood will be gone by the time he finishes flying through the wall.

I got to see the film The Artist back in October when it showed here at the Austin Film Festival. I had no idea what I was going to see walking in, I only knew it was one of the few films I was excited about at the festival, having long been a fan of Michel Hazanavicius and Jean Dujardin's OSS 117 films. And so it was after being delighted by their latest effort that I decided I was due for a rewatch of Singin' in the Rain. It "borrows" a lot from Singin' in the Rain (And strangely what is the music from Vertigo doing in the middle of it? That one has me confused). But now here we are in February and it's up for an Oscar, not as Best Foreign Film, but alongside the big boys. And don't get me started on this year's Academy Awards. If the gonze machers think it's been a crap year of movies, don't email me. With that said, I will soon be featuring one of the nominees in the Foreign Film category that I was very impressed with very shortly in this here blog.

So let's get to it.... Singin' in the Rain is available for streaming and purchase @ Amazon.


"You're nothing but a shadow on film. You're not flesh and blood."

Let's start here. By 1950, the American musical film was already in decline. The cost to produce them, often two or three times as expensive as dramatic or comedy films, were not bringing the returns needed. Also, 1950 marked the debut of Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, and American audiences were starting to be glued to their new television sets. The one studio that was still committed to producing high quality and regular output of musicals was MGM. And the main producer in charge of the musical film there was Arthur Freed.

Now Freed started out as a songwriter back in the early 1920's as well as performing a bit in vaudeville. Among his gigs, he worked at MGM playing piano during the making of their silent films. Early on, he teamed up with another songwriter, Ignacio "Nacio" Herb Brown and they quickly found themselves writing songs for what would be considered the first true Hollywood musical, Broadway Melody, in 1929 (which would win Best Picture at the second annual Academy award ceremony). That same year, for another picture, Hollywood Revue of 1929, they wrote a number entitled "Singin' in the Rain." For nearly a decade, Freed and Brown wrote many songs which would become part of the canon known as the Great American Songbook. The two split their partnership in the late 1930's. Brown eventually left show business, but Freed turned to production. In 1939, he talked MGM into buying the rights and then associate produced The Wizard of Oz, and with that success he was given his own (one of three) musical film production units there.

Over the next decade, he produced a series of hits including Meet Me in St. Louis, Cabin in the Sky, Easter Parade, and The Barkleys of Broadway. People partially credit Freed's success for his bringing many successful Broadway people to Hollywood, including the writer/performing team of Betty Comden and Adolf Green, whose first writing assignment was 1949's The Barkleys of Broadway. Now, some people think Comden and Green were a couple - they were but only during work hours and never romantically. They are still regarded as "the longest running creative partnership in theatre history." (You might remember that Green played the role of the TV producer in another Chef du Cinema pick, My Favorite Year, loosely based on Your Show of Shows.)

So, now back to 1950. Comden and Green were brought back out to Los Angeles to work on a new musical for Freed. Freed decided he wanted a new film which would incorporate some of the songs he co-wrote way back when. But he had no real idea what this film should be about. All he knew was that he wanted the title of the film to be, yes, Singin' in the Rain. He handed a list of songs to Comden and Green and sent them off to figure out what to do. "All we were told was to write a movie," Comden recalled, "and to get twenty or as many as you could of these wonderful songs into a story."

The duo were not happy in the least with this assignment and at first refused, believing they had a clause in their contract that would give them an out. When it turned out that clause never made it into their contract, they reluctantly were forced to come up with some idea. Early on, they liked the idea of setting the story during the transition from silent to sound motion pictures, as the songs were written in that era. But their first script outline was about a silent cowboy who becomes a singing cowboy. Two months into the process, they came up with their first draft which had the basic elements of what would become the film. There was Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, there was Cosmo the sidekick, the love interest Kathy, and the whole "Dueling Cavalier gets turned into a musical" plot. Some of the songs were in different order ("Singin' in the Rain" was where the "Good Morning" song was - they'd be walking home and cheering Don up after the failed Dueling Cavalier premiere), and Lockwood's character was gruffer and less likable. Also, in the end Cosmo would wind up marrying Lina Lamont.

They wrote the script with Gene Kelly in mind, but even though they'd been friends with Kelly since his Broadway days, they were afraid he was so big at that moment, he could make any film he asked to make. But perhaps to hedge their bet, as they wrote the script, they bounced ideas off of Kelly's collaborator Stanley Donen (who also lated directed Chef du Cinema pick Charade). In January 1951, with An American in Paris completed, Kelly had in mind to do a musical version of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn with Danny Kaye. But when Comden and Green brought their latest draft to Kelly "[W]e read it to him," Comden said, "and he decided that would be his next picture." They then began rewrites with Kelly's input. They also interviewed many technicians on the MGM lot who had been around during the first sound pictures where they got ideas for the script like the business of hiding microphones in strange places on the set much to the actors' frustrations.

Now there are several different versions of how Debbie Reynolds came on board. Reynolds had just appeared in a new MGM release entitled Two Weeks in Love, and was only 17 years old in that film. Louis B. Mayer wanted to capitalize on its success and his new star and, according to Reynolds' version of the story, he supposedly called Kelly into his office and told him, in front of Reynolds, she was to costar with him in Singin' in the Rain. As Reynolds recalled, Kelly "was not at all pleasantly surprised," with this teenager who couldn't really dance, couldn't really sing, and had limited acting experience. But in an interview in the mid-1970's, Kelly stated he "never had any meeting with Mayer" concerning Reynolds and he was the one who requested her. Donan said: "Debbie had done this remarkable number called 'Abba Dabba Honeymoon' [in Two Weeks in Love] and when you watched it you adored her. So we said, [we wanted] 'Debbie Reynolds' and Arthur [Freed] said, 'Great!'" So we'll never know the real story.

Cosmo's character was at first written for Oscar Levant who had costarred with Kelly in An American in Paris and was tight with Arthur Freed. Freed, it is thought, also felt Cosmo's character was autobiographical and saw Levant in the role (Freed was also partly the inspiration for RF Simpson, the studio producer character). But Comden, Green, Donan, and Kelly all wanted a dancer, and specifically Donald O'Connor. But O'Connor belonged to Universal Studios so a deal had to be struck. Universal had no problem with lending him out, but O'Connor wasn't so much not interested than believed Universal would cheat him out the money he would be due and turned them down. Eventually, a deal was struck that MGM would pay O'Connor directly and so he signed on.

Rounding out the cast as Lina Lamont, the part was given to Jean Hagen though it was admittedly written for Comden & Green's pal Judy Holliday. They had started a performing group with Holliday back when and had hoped to feature her, but she was now a star in her own right thanks to the success of Born Yesterday. So, Hagen was brought in and transformed for the role - see her in The Asphalt Jungle for comparison - into pretty much a clone of Holliday.

A little bit of trivia. As they began making the film, the MGM legal office informed Freed that a nonfiction inspirational book entitled "Singing in the Rain" had been published in 1936,and they would have to make ensure in the publicity that people understood the film was inspired from the song not the book. Thus to help ensure that, it was decided to drop the "g" and call the film Singin' in the Rain.

The production was able to dig through MGM's archive of props and equipment, using lighting fixtures and sound equipment from the silent and early sound eras to dress the sets. And, in fact, the furniture in Don Lockwood's house had been used in the Greta Garbo/John Gilbert film Flesh and the Devil (and we should note that Lockwood's character was partially based on Gilbert who failed to make the transition from silent to sound era). Also, the costume designer brought in was Walter Plunkett, who had begun working in the 1920's and had experience with the chore of hiding microphones in actors' clothing first hand in the early sound era. (After looking through some of Plunkett's outlandish vintage costume designs, it was decided to create and add to the movie the "Beautiful Girl" sequence.)

As preproduction began, Reynolds, now 19 (Kelly was 39 at the time), was sent off for intensive dancing lessons. The experience was very grueling for her, Kelly was very demanding, and often she would just break down and cry. One day, according to her autobiography, she was crying, hiding under a piano. A voice she couldn't identify said, "Why are you crying?" She couldn't see who it was but responded she felt she'd just never learn the steps, "[I]t's so hard," she cried. She peeked out from under the piano and found herself staring at Fred Astaire. Astaire took her across the hall to his rehearsal studio where he explained and showed her how difficult and frustrating learning to dance a step could be, even for him, but, he told her, you've just got to keep at it. "His gesture was an enormous help to me," she wrote. And even though at the time Kelly seemed a slave driver, she later acknowledged, "Gene taught me discipline.... [and] how to be a perfectionist."

There were only two original songs written specifically for the film - "Make 'em Laugh" and "Moses Supposes," with the latter written not by Freed & Brown, but lyrics by Betty Comden and music by Roger Edens. The former has been generally agreed was a complete ripoff of Cole Porter's "Be A Clown" from Kelly's film The Pirate. The story goes that Kelly et al came to Freed and said they needed a solo number to showcase Donald O'Connor's many talents (O'Connor was born in a trunk and was acting in Vaudeville with his family not long after) and it should be like "Be A Clown." And Freed took this a bit too literally.

O'Connor put together the "Make 'em Laugh" sequence mostly from various vaudeville routines he had developed over the years. "Kelly's main contribution" to the sequence, O'Connor said, "was his ability to see something very good and to utilize it. And his only other contribution was where I hit the wall and screw up my face. He thought that was very funny. I didn’t. But he liked it and they kept it in. And it is funny on the screen."

However, a couple of bits had other history. First, the business of him and dummy actually came from a true life, and somewhat twisted, incident. When O'Connor was a teenager, he was riding the subway in Brooklyn when "[s]uddenly this guy who looks like an ex-fighter sits down next to me. I move away, he moves closer. He moves closer and puts his hand on my knee. Then down to my crotch," he admitted. "So I did a gay voice and said, 'Listen, my boyfriend will beat the sh*t out of you if you go any further!' and that's where I got the bit where I put my hand on the dummy's knee and it smacks me." The business of running circles on the floor he learned from Jerry "Curly" Howard, one of the Three Stooges. O'Connor asked permission from the ailing Curly a few months before he passed away to use the routine. The running up the wall and back flip, O'Connor had learned from his older brother, also a Vaudeville performer.

"We began to rehearse the number," O'Connor recalled, "and I'd get very tired. I was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day then, and getting up those walls was murder. I'd roll around the floor and get carpet burns. They had to bank one wall so I could make it up and then through another wall. My body just had to absorb this tremendous shock. So finally we filmed it straight through and I went home and I couldn't get out of bed for three days. On my return, Gene comes up to me and asks if I could do it again. 'Sorry,' he says. 'Hal Rosson [the cinematographer] fogged out the negative by mistake and ruined the footage.'"

As mentioned above, the title song was originally to be placed earlier in the movie, but Kelly felt it needed to be a solo number for him somewhere else in the film and decided to put it at the moment when he realizes his love for Kathy.

"What is always most difficult in musicals is the bridge from dialogue to music," Kelly said of how he developed the sequence. "I had to sit down and say: 'Where do I start? How do I leave this girl, get out in the street, and dance in the rain?' It had to work like a story. I kiss this girl good night, and I'm so in love I don't care if it's raining and send my car home, put my umbrella down, and act like an eight-year-old kid, sloshing through puddles and being happy. The trouble I had was getting into the rain. And I found that through Roger Edens, who gave me that vamp. He said, 'How about [sings opening eight bars of "Singin' in the Rain"] 'dooda-do-do, dooda-do-do-do-do'?" That got me walking and feeling the rain'."

"A number is the same as a short story, you have a beginning, a middle and an end," Kelly further explained. "And you always have to have some comment. A fellow who is singing in the rain has to be observed if it’s going to be funny. The policeman, in this case, saw it.... It was difficult to shoot in the water. It was a harder job for the photographer than it was for me. All I had to do was get wet."

Well, getting wet was only part of it. As they were supposed to begin rehearsing the sequence, Kelly developed a flu which forced him to stay home for a week. Ten days later, when they finally returned to the set, Kelly was still recovering from his illness.

And if that wasn't all to contend with, there were his clothes. "I think the funniest to me is when Gene was filming the main title song Singin' in the Rain out in the rain," recalled O'Connor. "All of a sudden somebody takes a close look at Gene and he's shrinking. The clothes are actually shrinking. No one took into account that the tweed material shrinks, so they're going crazy trying to find cloth now to make him suits. About every 30 minutes, they'd have to make another suit for him. Actually you'd be talking to him in between shots, and you'd actually see the material start to rise in his pants and his cuffs. It was really hysterical; it was funny. Gene was a dignified man, and particularly in his work. When all of this started to happen beyond his control, it got to him too. He was hysterical. That to me is about the funniest I've ever seen in anything."

There's a lot more I could write about here, but I gotta cut it short. Suffice to add, the "Broadway Melody" sequence with Cyd Charisse was added after they started filming to capitalize on the ballet-esque sequences from An American in Paris. It was very complex to stage, especially the business of the Dali-esque dance with the scarves number. The fans had to be coordinated with every move to blow the scarves one way or the other. Charisse noted, "I could hardly keep on my feet when the fans were turned way up and the enormous scarves tugged at me.... It took all my strength to do it because the force from those motors was tremendous." That sequence also caused some ruffled feathers amongst the Hays Office folks. They wanted a lot of the sexy stuff cut out, but the producers fought back after more than a few minor cuts. (Remember this was just about the time the Hays Office influence was beginning to decline - see my post on Some Like It Hot for more on this.)

Okay, one final bit of trivia. Now, you'll remember one of the main plot points of this movie is about one actress being dubbed by another actress. Correct? Well, here we go. In the dubbing number sequence in the movie, where Reynolds sings the song 'Would You?' SHE is, in fact, being dubbed by singer/actress Betty Noyes! Here's the dubbed version and here's with Reynolds' original vocal restored. Now if that weren't enough, in the sequence where Reynolds' is supposed to be dubbing Jean Hagen's speaking voice, it is actually Jean Hagen's REAL voice being dubbed over Reynolds. Got it? So Hagen is dubbing Reynolds' dubbing Hagen. The problem was that Reynolds' voice couldn't imitate a "cultured" enough sound for that sequence, what with her Texas accent, according to Donen.

Although the film was nominated for several Academy Awards, it has been suggested that because An American in Paris swept the awards the previous year, Singin' in the Rain was passed over by the powers that be. That didn't stop the film from eventually being considered perhaps the penultimate, and certainly one of the most beloved of all the MGM musicals made.


The history of talking pictures is usually discussed in terms of the technical hurdles it had to overcome, such as focusing on the problems of synchronization (which is depicted in Singin' in the Rain), the problems of getting a good recording (also depicted in the film), and the invention of the Phonofilm to transcribe the soundtrack directly onto the film stock itself (Lee De Forest is its inventor). Those are the three typically mentioned. But the biggest obstacle is hardly ever mentioned. And that was the inability to amplify the sound sufficiently. All the early experiments with talking pictures - and this goes back to Edison, Lumiere, et al - suffered from not having decent amplification to fill a theater with sound. But the technology to synchronize picture and sound, though using separate recording devices, was around by the early turn of the century. As early as 1888, Eadweard Muybridge met with Edison to work on putting sound to moving pictures. (Here's part of a very interesting history of the development of sound motion pictures that is worth checking out.)

One early example of an attempt to amplify audio was the Auxetophone which used compressed air to push the sound out. However, it wasn't until Lee de Forest (yes, him again - though this was his earlier invention before the optical Phonofilm), "[u]sing Ambrose Fleming's recent invention of a thermionic diode, de Forest added a third electrode as a control grid which allowed an audio signal to modulate the electron flow," wrote John Aldred. "He called it the Audion, and found it could provide amplification." But it had a very limited frequency response which made it a nice start, but still not practical. Then in 1924, Chester W. Rice and Edward Kellogg, working for General Electric, patented what we know as the modern loudspeaker and that's when sound film projection became a reality. In 1926, Warner Brothers, having purchased the Vitaphone process (using phonograph synchronization and de Forest's Audion amplifier) from Bell Labs, released Don Juan, which had no talking, but a recorded musical & sound effects track. A year later, Warners premiered The Jazz Singer, and talking pictures were here to stay.

Now as also depicting in Singin' in the Rain, there were human obstacles to overcome, as well. Many important players in the business were unconvinced that sound would take off. They felt, as Jack Warner was quoted in the 1926 Associated Press article below did (just as he was introducing the Vitaphone!), that with taking pictures, specifically English language taking pictures, they would be losing a big chunk of their consumers who didn't speak the Queen's lingua. (Though I think he's especially eloquent with his second reason - that of the magic of silent pictures which lent itself to a tacit element of audience creative participation at the very moment a film is viewed - which is both a shared and personal experience.)

Next we jump to one of my idols, one of the great writers and raconteurs of the 20th century - Robert Benchley. Benchley wrote in The New Yorker magazine in 1928 a humorous dispatch regarding Hollywood at the time Singin' in the Rain takes place.

"Voice culture has become the order, even the command of the day," he wrote of the terror striking silent movie actors "whose speaking voices could hardly be counted on to put across the sale of a pack of Fatimas in a nightclub."

"The greatest bonanza of all, however, comes to the voice teacher," Benchley continued, "who are reported to be rushing by the covered-wagon-load, to the Pacific Coast, to get it on the newly opened gold fields."

Once The Jazz Singer stirred up the audience's desire for more sound pictures however, there was no turning back. And true to Benchley's prediction, live theater and Vaudeville would be mostly a thing of the past a decade later.


It is just a little over a year since I published here in this blog another meat stew known as Scouse, a local Liverpudlian dish to pair with A Hard Day's Night. So I was a bit reluctant to include a somewhat similar stew, but I was just so enamored with the idea of Gene Kelly cooking this stew at home that I just had to try it.

As Kelly himself noted, “When I want a very simple meal, I'll just make an Irish stew, but without gravy. It's just potatoes, turnips, onions, and carrots, but no peas. I just boil and boil that. And then the next day reboil it and that's Irish stew.”

The beef you get for stew is much stringier. Besides, lamb is tastier. The thing that really gives the stew its flavor is the onion,” he added. “I just love it and all I do is put a hunk of horseradish on the plate and cut that. But I must confess, I eat bread and butter along with the meat and potatoes.”

Traditionally, Irish stew (known at home as "ballymaloe" or "stobhach gaelach") is made with either lamb or mutton. According to Wikipedia, the simple definition of the difference between lamb is mutton is this: "The meat of a sheep in its first year is lamb; that of a juvenile sheep older than 1 year is hogget; and the meat of an adult sheep is mutton." When the Irish emigrated to America, they found more beef than lamb available, so they started making it with beef. And still today, here in the US, you will often see Irish stew made with beef. Another ingredient often added in modern times is some nice Irish stout, which sounds like a fine idea, but I decided to stick pretty close to Kelly's original recipe rather than to play much with it. But feel free to add it in when you make it.

Now according to this interview with Chef Declan Cass of New York's Stove restaurant, "Meat wasn't a thing that would be readily available to a lot of people [back when in Ireland]. If you could afford more meat, you could afford more taxes." So when the Tax Collector came around, "if he smelled meat [being cooked], you could afford more taxes. So they buried everything under the cabbage, and the smell of that killed any smell of meat." And with the Irish stew, the vegetables would hide the smell of meat, he claims.

So an Irish stew might be a fine thing to eat while preparing your taxes. As always, cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Gene Kelly's Real Irish Lamb Stew
adapted from Celebrity Cooks, compiled by Johna Blinn
Click for Printer-Friendly Version

Serves 6-8

3 pounds lean boneless lamb (shoulder or leg), cut in 1½” cubes
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3 cups water (approximate – enough to cover meat)
2 onions, sliced (about 3 cups)
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
2 turnips, peeled and cut in large pieces (about 15-16 ounces)
6 carrots, peeled and cut in chunks (about 12 ounces)
3 cups potatoes, peeled and diced (about 1 1/2 pounds)
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, minced
salt and pepper to taste

for serving:
prepared white horseradish sauce
dark or crusty bread & butter

Sprinkle lamb cubes with salt and pepper then brown meat on all sides in oil in large skillet. Remove from heat and add enough water to cover meat.

Return to medium heat. Add onion, salt and pepper, and bay leaf. Cover and simmer until meat is tender, about 1 1/2 hours.

Add remaining vegetables, cover and cook until vegetables are tender, about 35 minutes. Remove cover during the last 15 minutes of cooking to reduce stock. Adjust seasonings to taste.

To serve, spoon lamb and vegetables into bowls. Spoon juice over and as Mr. Kelly suggests, “For a touch of the 'green,' garnish with parsley.” Serve with prepared horseradish and slabs of dark or crusty white bread and butter.

Gene Kelly Fan Site
Gene Kelly, Creative Genius (Fan Site)
Donald O'Connor Fan Site
Donald O'Connor Interview @ DanceView Times 2003
Official Debbie Reynolds Website
The MGM Musicals: A Primer @ The Onion AV Club
The History of Motion Picture Sound @ The Widescreen Museum
100 Years of Cinema Loudspeakers, by John Adred @

Singin' in the Rain (Two-Disc Special Anniversary Edition) DVD
Singin' in the Rain (1952 Film Soundtrack) (Deluxe Edition) CD
Singin' in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, by Earl J. Hess & Pratibha A. Dabholkar
Singin' in the Rain (BFI Film Classics), by Peter Wollen
Gene Kelly: A Biography, by Clive Hirschhorn
Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams, by Alvin Yudkoff
Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his Movies, by Stephen M. Silverman
Debbie: My Life, by Debbie Reynolds and David Patrick Columbia

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