A few months ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences paid its highest tribute — Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Screenplay — to The Artist, a French valentine to movies back in the antique days of the late 1920s, when silent pictures gave way to talking pictures. Michel Hazanavicius’ film deserved all those huzzahs, but we’ll have to wait 60 years to see if The Artist qualifies as a true screen immortal.
One movie surely does: Singin’ in the Rain, the 1952 MGM musical, which is also set in Hollywood’s most fraught transition period and does it with some of the most sublime talking, singing and dancing put on film. Singin’ in the Rain won no Oscars, but anyone today would choose it blindfolded over Cecil B. DeMille’s bloated The Greatest Show on Earth, the winner for Best Picture of 1952. Singin’ in the Rain is merely, by consensus of critics and movie lovers, the Greatest Musical of Ever.
(SEE: Singin’ in the Rain on the all-TIME 100 Movies list)
The film has been a TV and video staple for ages; it has been mounted twice as a West End musical, in 1983 with Tommy Steele and right now with Adam Cooper; and in 1986 Twyla Tharp rethought it for Broadway. Tonight, though, the actual Singin’ in the Rain can be seen on real movie screens in nearly 500 theaters around the country, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies. Next Tuesday Warner Home Entertainment will issue a super-duper 60th Anniversary Collector’s Edition: the movie in DVD and Blu-ray formats, plus Peter’s Fitzgerald’s behind-the-screen documentary What a Glorious Feeling, a 47-page booklet — and an umbrella. It’s a suitably swank bow to a movie as fresh and invigorating now as when it opened at Manhattan’s Radio City Music Hall on March 27, 1952.
Arthur Freed, the producer of MGM’s best musicals from The Wizard of Oz in 1939 to Gigi in 1958, had the notion to build a movie around a songbook of old pop songs. Nothing novel there. Plenty of ’40s musicals had been built around the songs of the best pop composers. Usually the movies were sanitized bio-pics of the masters: Cole Porter in Night and Day, George Gershwin in Rhapsody in Blue, Jerome Kern in Till the Clouds Roll By, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart in Words and Music, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby in Three Little Words — but with the homosexuality of Porter and Hart airbrushed into heterosexual yearning. The year before Singin’ in the Rain, Freed had hired Alan Jay Lerner to write a new story around old Gershwin songs, handed the starring role and choreographic duties to Gene Kelly, called it An American in Paris and won a Best Picture Oscar.
Now Freed had an idea even closer to his heart: to build a movie around the songs he had written with Herb Nacio Brown for MGM movies in the decade from 1929 to 1939. Betty Comden and Adolph Green, whom Freed had imported from Broadway a few years earlier to redo their 1944 musical On the Town, had the job of building a story around the songs. “All we knew,” she said later, “was there’d be some scene where someone’d be singin’, and it would be rainin’.” Kelly would play a silent star, Don Lockwood, who makes the transition to sound; Jean Hagen was Lena Lamont, a silent siren with a tinny voice; 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds was cast as the ingenue who dubs Lena’s singing voice; and Donald O’Connor was Don’s sidekick Cosmo. The unsung star was Roger Edens, who took a sheaf of Freed-Brown songs and soldered them into a perkily coherent score. But Kelly was the star-auteur; he also directed the film with Stanley Donen, his co-director for On the Town.
“Gene Kelly created his own style,” choreographer Kenny Oretga says in the 2002 documentary Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer. “He was the most athletic, the most exciting, the most masculine, the most commercial dancer of his time. He created a technique. He was his own technique.” He was also the polar opposite to the movies’ other great dancer, Fred Astaire. Indeed, Kelly could be called the anti-Astaire. Fred was grace, Gene was energy. Fred was poise, Gene was power. Fred was ethereal, Gene was earthy. Fred was the Continental (he danced it too); Gene was all-American. Fred was top hat, white tie and tails; Gene was a baseball cap, T-shirt and jeans — a mid-century Everyman. As another legendary director-choreographer, Bob Fosse, said in the Kelly documentary, “He looked like a guy on your bowling team, only classier.”
(READ Richard Schickel’s tribute to Gene Kelly by subscribing to TIME)
Comden and Green’s approach was parody with affection; the film’s generosity toward its period was as great as the filmmakers’ affection for it. Kelly at his most studiously hammy possesses infinitely more charm and simple competence than Charles Farrell, John Gilbert or Douglas Fairbanks in their early-talkie incarnations. Comden-Green lines such as Lena’s “Why, I make more money than Calvin Coolidge — put together” or Cosmo’s “The Dueling Cavalier with music? How ’bout The Dueling Mammy?” might not have won the writers the Oscar they weren’t even nominated for, but the script’s easy frivolity manages to elevate the standard of late-’20s dialogue even as it kids it. Donen’s camera, gliding around the stationary photographic equipment that froze so many infant sound films, and the art direction by Randall Duell and Jacques Mapes provide a gently satirical and wildly colorful make-believe history of the silent-to-sound age.
In fact, Comden and Green, avid movie buffs from way back, were making a case for philistine vulgarity. The movie’s famous elocution lesson (“Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously”) makes their bias clear. The song — indeed, the entire film — is proof that the writers didn’t go to Hollywood to make a buck or a name for themselves, like so many of their Broadway forebears, but to repay the movies with thanks, and with interest, for the joy it had brought them.
(READ: William A. Henry III’s review of the Twyla Tharp Singin’ in the Rain)
In addition to their old songs, Freed and Brown wrote a comedy number, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” for O’Connor to dance to. It was supposed to be a jester’s anthem, in the style of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown,” which Kelly had performed in the 1948 MGM musical The Pirate. So closely did Freed and Brown imitate the Porter tune that, when Irving Berlin visited the set and heard the song, he said, “Arthur, that’s ‘Be a Clown’!” Still, the number was original and enthralling, thanks to O’Connor’s amazing anthology of all the acrobatic hoofer tricks he had learned in vaudeville. The crazy climax of the routine, which took three exhausting days to shoot, comes with O’Connor running up a wall and somersaulting back to the ground — a stunt his brother Jack had taught him. “Simple to do,” Donald says modestly in the Fitzgerald doc, “and rather spectacular.”
Reynolds, a couple years removed from a high-school stint as a cheerleader, was no professional dancer, so before the shoot she spent three months getting tutored by dance captains Carol Haney (who later costarred as Gladys in The Pajama Game on Broadway and in movies) and Jeannie Coyne (who had been married to Donen and would be to Kelly). The study paid off: Debbie was able to keep up with Kelly and O’Connor in the “Good Morning” trio. When she removed her shoes at the end of the 16-hour filming sessions, she saw that her feet were bleeding.
(READ: Corliss on the dancin’ man Gene Kelly)
Kelly was a notorious taskmaster with his dance partners. He put the young Frank Sinatra, another dance novice, through eight grinding weeks of rehearsal and filming for a singing dance number in the 1945 Anchors Aweigh. Tony Martin, the husband of Cyd Charisse, who has a sexy specialty number in Singin’ in the Rain’s big “Broadway Melody” ballet, said he always knew whom she’d been dancing with at the studio: if it was Gene, she’d “come home black and blue.” But he was hardest on himself. Whereas Astaire suggested nonchalance, Kelly didn’t mind audience seeing the sweat he put into his numbers. Some of them — like the chop step with straight, churning arms, or the bit in Singin’ in the Rain where he briskly windmills his arms — could be adapted to a power-workout regimen. The climax to “Broadway Melody” has Gene spinning and stopping, spinning and stopping, a furious seven times. And at the end, he’s somehow still smilin’.
The title number was introduced in The Hollywood Revue of 1929 by Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, a sardonic comic actor with an angelic tenor singing voice that would later be put to use as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. His deadpan delivery, as he strums away in the downpour, seems to say, “I’m singin’ in the rain. Why the heck am I singin’ in the rain?” (Edwards also performs the bridge to the song, not heard in the 1952 version.) Since then, the number has been covered incessantly, in movies from North by Northwest to A Clockwork Orange and the 2005 animated feature Robots, and such vocal artists as the Korean pop group Girls’ Generation and, on Glee, Gwyneth Paltrow. But Kelly gives it the definitive rendering; the unaffected “doo-dle-oo-doo”s at the start and the giddy catch in his voice at “And I’m ready for love” are every bit as ingratiating as his fabulous hoofing.
(LIST: TIME’s Top 10 Movie Dance Scenes)
But the dance, which took six days to shoot, is the thing. In the pouring rain, on the night he realizes he’s in love, Gene walks Debbie to her front door. Before he goes dancin’ in the rain, he kisses Debbie goodnight at her front door, and does it without bending any part of his body — just leaning, as if he were wearing clown shoes for balance. Then he walks out and goes into his act. He’s got one prop, an umbrella, and his dance exhausts its every use: as a cane, a pointer, a balancer on the tightrope of a curb, a cyclotron whirling him inside a whirlwind. But often he just holds it — who needs protection from the elements when you’re in love? “Come on with the rain! I’ve a smile on my face!” In perhaps the most rapturous single shot in a Hollywood musical, the camera pulls up and back as Kelly lets the umbrella spin him (again, seven times). At the end he splashes, stomps his feet in the water; ecstasy makes him infantile. Suddenly, a big cop appears. Gene’s giddy explanation: “I’m dancin’ and singin’ in the rain.” That showbiz grin never seemed so genuine.
Singin’ in the Rain might have been the last musical of the ’50s to convey irrepressible optimism through what Alan Greenspan would call “irrational exuberance.” But what exuberance! Look at it and try to think of a contemporary picture that has half as much vivacity, fun, joy. When your movie-loving grandpa says, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” he is surely thinkin’ of Singin’ in the Rain.