The Art Theater continues to be a film lover’s best friend as it continues to screen classic movies during its weekend late night slots. This week, Singin’ in the Rain will be screened (Friday and Saturday at 10 p.m.), the influential movie musical that is continually listed on “Best of” lists some 60 years after its release. Really, it comes as no surprise that this is the case as the film still seems fresh, primarily because of the enthusiastic performances of its three principals as well as the many innovative dance sequences that set the bar high for all other entries in the genre that would come in its wake.
The plot of the film is relatively simple as it focuses on the motion picture industry’s transition to sound and the difficulties it posed not only from a technical point of view but a personal one as well when it comes to the talent of those involved. Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are a popular on-screen couple whose latest silent feature is being transformed into a musical. While Lockwood has the chops to accomplish this task, his co-star’s voice is not suitable for sound films let alone singing so dire steps must be taken. The star enlists his old friend Cosmo (Donald O’Connor) to help him write songs and come up with dance numbers for the revamped production, while he enlists Kathy (Debbie Reynolds), a young actress eager to make it big, to dub Lina’s dialogue and singing.
The musical numbers are not only delightful to behold but something to wonder at as well. The precision and innovation present in each of them never cease to amaze and none of them was accomplished without many hours of hard work. Some production days stretched to 19 hours in length and from all accounts, Debbie Reynolds had it worst of all. Only 19 years old at the time, the actress still lived with her parents and would have to wake up at 4 a.m. in order to get to the studio in time, what with having to take three different buses to get there. Equally trying for the actress was dealing with Kelly, a notorious taskmaster who had no problem berating Reynolds whenever she made a mistake. After a particularly rough day, she retreated under a piano to hide, only to be found, in tears, by Fred Astaire who helped her master some of the film’s more difficult dance scenes.
Even O’Connor, a veteran vaudeville entertainer, was intimidated by Kelly as he recounted long after the film was made that he was afraid of making a mistake for fear of incurring his co-star’s wrath and that overall making the movie was an unpleasant experience. He was so stressed that he took to smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, something that came back to haunt him during has incredible Make ‘Em Laugh number in which Kelly asked him to recreate a trick he had done as a young dancer – running up a wall and doing a somersault. The actor put so much into the sequence that he spent time in a hospital afterward due to exhaustion and severe carpet burns. Unfortunately, the footage that was shot was ruined due to an accident and O’Connor had to redo the sequence when he was up to it.
Without question, the hard work done by all paid off handsomely as the film was a huge hit for MGM as it took in nearly $8 million during its initial release against a budget of $2.5 million. More importantly, it proved to be a landmark work in the genre of the movie musical, providing inspiration for those who would attempt to emulate the dizzying heights that directors Kelly and Stanley Donen achieved.