The Brutal Toll Singin' In The Rain Took On Its Stars

Lists of the greatest films of all time tend to be pretty weighty affairs, especially if they're picked by highbrow critics. Just take a look at the Sight and Sound top 250 – it's hardly a laugh riot. But there, peeking out between Andrei Tarkovsky's "Mirror" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura" in 20th spot is a ray of Technicolor sunshine, "Singin' in the Rain." While many of the cinematic big guns wrestle with more somber themes, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's classic musical is an exuberant slice of pure entertainment, capable of warming the cockles of even the sniffiest critic. If there is a greater expression of cinematic joy, I've yet to see it.

While it is first and foremost a romantic musical, "Singin' in the Rain" is also one of the great movies about movies, a surprisingly astute satire of the industry during a time of great change, whisking us back to the late '20s as cinema was making the transition from the silent era to talkies. Some stars made the leap while others fell by the wayside, a fate that threatens Don Lockwood (Kelly), a dashing movie star and his leading lady Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), whose onscreen grace is sorely matched by her screeching voice. When their first clunky attempts to make a sound picture is laughed out of the theater, Lockwood and his best pal Cosmo Brown (Donald O'Connor) decide to turn their latest swashbuckler into a musical. The big problem is Lina, who is bitterly jealous of Lockwood's budding romance with young starlet Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds).

With infectious chemistry between its stars and irresistible songs, the breeziness and joie de vivre of "Singin' in the Rain" belies the hardships faced by Kelly, Reynolds, and O'Connor in getting their iconic dance routines to the screen.

Debbie Reynolds Had a Tough Time...

Debbie Reynolds, just 19 when filming began, knew this was her big chance. She played a few bit parts previously, including an eye-catching role in "Three Little Words," but "Singin' in the Rain" was her breakthrough opportunity. All she had to do was match dance moves with two of the greatest dancers in the industry with no experience in dancing at all. Kelly was one of the biggest and most influential stars in Hollywood at the time, an innovative and charismatic dancer who appealed to the ordinary Joe with his combination of athleticism and masculinity, often melding different dance styles in the space of one number (via Screen Culture Journal). O'Connor, on the other hand, was a talented hoofer from a family of vaudevillians and circus entertainers who reportedly could dance before he could even stand up properly (via Britannica). The good news was, Reynolds had three months to practice.

She put in eight hour shifts, five days a week, with two of Kelly's best dance assistants to get up to speed. Rehearsals for her big number, "Good Morning," were even more gruelling, putting in 14-hour stints to get the dance routine perfect alongside her far more experienced co-stars. After one session, she went home with burst blood vessels in her feet and had to spend a few days in bed. Getting the final shot of the trio tipping a sofa on its back and collapsing onto it laughing took 40 takes alone.

If that wasn't all hard enough, Reynolds still lived with her parents at the time and had to commute to the studio by bus, waking at 4:00 A.M. to make the journey. Sometimes she slept on set to avoid the long trip (via Musicholics). One of the most commonly repeated anecdotes is about how Gene Kelly insulted Reynolds about her inexperience and lack of dancing talent, and she ran off and hid under a piano to cry. She was found by Fred Astaire on his way through the studio, who let her watch him rehearse. She recalled in an interview: 

"He let me sit there by the door and watch him die, creating steps... he was just sweating, turning red in the face, and after about an hour he looked over and he said, that's enough. You see how hard it is? It never gets easier."

On top of bleeding feet and verbal abuse, she allegedly had to deal with the unwanted advances of her leading man, Kelly. According to her biography "Unsinkable," he forcibly French kissed her on one take (via Pop Culture).

I always loved the "Good Morning" scene, and I appreciate it even more since I found out how much hard graft Reynolds had to put in the make it work. There she is, matching Kelly and O'Connor step for step, with a great big sunny grin of determination on her face. She brings such energy and charm to the movie, and her performance propelled her to a starry showbiz career, including her only Oscar nomination for "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

Donald O'Connor Danced Himself To a Standstill...

Gene Kelly's rendition of the title song might be one of the most famous dance routines of all time, but it is almost matched by Donald O'Connor's knockabout number, "Make 'Em Laugh." Kelly wanted O'Connor to have a scene of his own, and the pair devised the sequence based on a bunch of old gags and physical comedy from O'Connor's vaudeville days. The end result is a hilarious slapstick routine as Cosmo literally knocks himself out trying to make his friend laugh, culminating in an amazing display of running up walls and backflipping onto his feet.

The most ridiculous thing about "Make 'Em Laugh" is that O'Connor was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day at the time. When I smoked one pack a day, I'd cough up a lung just running for the bus — forget about doing back flips. The common story is that pulling off the routine exhausted him so much that he took to his bed, only to find out he had to do it all over again because there was a problem with the film. He debunked that piece of lore himself in an interview with Roger Ebert (via RogerEbert.com). It was hard on him physically, suffering bumps, knocks, and carpet burns for his art; to make the wall flip a little easier, the walls were banked slightly (via think360arts).

O'Connor certainly didn't have any issues with the dancing itself, and it is one of the film's greatest pleasures watching him and Kelly in perfect synch in numbers like "Fit as a Fiddle" and "Moses Supposes." Although the pair became lifelong friends, he still found Kelly to be a tyrant on set, admitting that for the first several weeks he was scared about making mistakes in case he got shouted at.

Even Gene Kelly Had Difficult Moments...

Gene Kelly, who had previously danced with Frank Sinatra, Leslie Caron, and Jerry the Mouse, had a reputation as a hard taskmaster and a perfectionist (via Screen Culture Journal). Slacking off wasn't in his nature, even when suffering a bad case of the sniffles and a 103 degree fever when filming his signature dance number, "Singin' in the Rain."

Conditions on the set, which took up a significant wedge of MGM's stages, were difficult enough without coming down sick. Filmed in the late summer of 1951, it was extremely hot under the black canvasses used to create a nighttime scene, and Kelly was running a fever throughout the day-and-a-half-shoot (via think360arts). To make matters more uncomfortable, the mixture of water and milk, added to make the raindrops visible on film, caused his woollen suit to shrink.

The dedication and hard work from Kelly, Reynolds, and O'Connor paid off. The three of them amassed two Oscar nominations between them for their acting abilities, but watching them again with full knowledge of what they went through shooting "Singin' in the Rain," you'd think it was the happiest shoot ever. The film, once thought of something of an also-ran compared to the Best Picture winning "An American in Paris" from the previous year, deserves its place as one of the greatest movies ever made. 70 years on, it is still bringing joy to new generations of movie lovers. If you don't believe me, show it to a friend who has never seen it before, and watch their face light up.