What A Glorious Feeling: On Stanely Donen and SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (MGM 1952)

I constantly tout CASABLANCA as my all-time favorite movie here on this blog, but I’ve never had the opportunity to talk about my second favorite, 1952’s SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. Sadly, that opportunity has finally arisen with the death today of Stanley Donen at age 94, the producer/director/choreographer of some of Hollywood’s greatest musicals. Donen, along with his longtime  friend Gene Kelly, helped bring the musical genre to dazzling new heights with their innovative style, and nowhere is that more evident than in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

The plot of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is fairly simple: Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are a pair of silent screen stars for Monumental Pictures. Lina believes the studio publicity hype about them being romantically linked, though Don can barely tolerate her. At the premiere of their latest film, Don is mobbed by rabid fans, and jumps into a car driven by young Kathy Seldon (Debbie Reynolds), who tells him she’s a serious stage actress and looks down on the movie crowd. In reality, Kathy’s a chorus girl, as Don finds out when she pops out of a cake at a studio party! Don falls for her, while Lina fumes.

When THE JAZZ SINGER is released, Monumental Studios boss R.F. Simpson (Millard Mitchell) wants to jump on the talkie bandwagon with the next Lockwood/Lamont epic, THE DUELING CAVALIER. But try as they may, the studio can’t fix Lina’s squeaky, Bronx-accented voice. Music department head Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor as Kelly’s former vaudeville partner) comes up with a brilliant idea: they can dub Kathy’s pleasant voice to replace Lina’s Bronx screech. Lina finds out about the subterfuge, and invokes a clause in her contract to not give Kathy screen credit… or else! At the movie’s premiere, Lina is exposed, Don and Kathy are united and, as they say in Hollywood, live happily ever after!


Producer Arthur Freed wanted to build a film around songs from older musicals he’d written with his partner Nacio Herb Brown: tunes from BABES IN ARMS, BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, COLLEGE COACH, GOING HOLLYWOOD, and HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929, among others, and screenwriter Betty Comden and Adolph Green came up with the deliciously funny script. The many, many musical highlights include the wistful “You Were Meant For Me”, with  Kelly serenading Reynolds on an abandoned studio set; O’Connor’s hilarious solo slapstick number “Make ‘Em Laugh”; Kelly and O’Connor dueting on the tongue-twisting, energetic fast-tap “Moses Supposes”;  all three doing the bright, peppy “Good Morning”; and of course, the glorious, life-affirming “Singin’ in the Rain”:

The film also features the ambitious, exhilarating 13-minute “Broadway Melody Ballet”, a fantasy sequence in which Kelly describes to Mitchell “the story of a young hoofer who comes to New York”. It’s a highly stylized cinematic wonderland that incorporates tap, ballet, comic dancing, and athleticism, not to mention the long-limbed Cyd Charisse  as “The Vamp”, exuding pure sex in her dance with Kelly. Any film fan who isn’t thrilled by this brilliant piece of movie magic better check their pulse!

“A shining star in the cinema firmament”: Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Jean Hagen’s sparkling performance as Lina Lamont. Hagen plays the character to the comic hilt as the dizzy, petulant “shining star of the cinema firmament” who believes her own pub, yet lost the Best Supporting Actress Award to Gloria Grahame’s brief (not even ten minutes!) turn in THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL – Another Oscar Crime!!  Familiar Face spotters will want to be on the lookout for Dawn Addams, Madge Blake, Mae Clarke , King Donovan, Douglas Fowley (as movie director Roscoe Dexter), Bess Flowers, Kathleen Freeman (Lina’s frustrated diction coach), Robert Foulke, Joi Lansing, Rita Moreno (as Lina’s pal Zelda), and silent comic Snub Pollard (the man who winds up with Kelly’s umbrella).

The animated sequence in “Anchors Aweigh” was Donen’s idea

Stanley Donen first met Gene Kelly while working in the chorus on Kelly’s Broadway hit PAL JOEY. The two hit it off, and Donen became assistant choreographer for Kelly’s next stage hit, BEST FOOT FORWARD. He travelled to Hollywood for the film version, and assisted Kelly in creating the dance numbers for COVER GIRL , including the marvelous “Alter Ego” scene which found Kelly dancing with himself! ANCHORS AWEIGH found the pair creating the memorable animated sequence with Tom & Jerry; LIVING IN A BIG WAY and TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME followed. The success of the latter film led to MGM giving Kelly and Donen co-directing chores for ON THE TOWN, much of which was shot in New York City, bringing the Hollywood musical outside the studio confines for the first time and opening up a whole new vista for the genre. While Kelly was making AN AMERICAN IN PARIS with Vincente Minnelli, Donen was given his first solo project, 1951’s ROYAL WEDDING, featuring Fred Astaire doing the unique “dancing on the ceiling” number, which Donen helped recreate when he directed this 1986 Lionel Ritchie video:

After SINGIN’, Kelly and Donen teamed once more for IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, but tensions between the two caused a falling out. Donen had had success with his SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, while Kelly’s solo directorial efforts were met with mixed reviews. Donen went on to make three more classic musicals: FUNNY FACE with Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, THE PAJAMA GAME starring Doris Day, and the baseball-themed DAMN YANKEES. He also directed a string of non-musical romantic comedies beginning with 1958’s INDISCREET, featuring Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman reuniting for the first time since Hitchcock’s NOTORIOUS . He guided Grant again in 1963’s Hitchcock-influenced CHARADE, with Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, and George Kennedy all involved in international intrigue. 1966’s ARABESQUE continued in this vein, only with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren the glamorous stars. TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967) starred Audrey and the late Albert Finney as a couple examining their 12 year relationship while journeying through France. Told in flashbacks and out-of-sequence, it can be difficult to follow at times, but is worth the effort.

Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1998

Donen’s later career was hit and miss: I liked his BEDAZZLED (with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Raquel Welch), LUCKY LADY (with Burt Reynolds, Liza Minnelli, and Gene Hackman) has its moments, and MOVIE MOVIE is an enjoyably nostalgic tribute to the days of the double feature. I can’t say much  for SATURN 5 or BLAME IT ON RIO, but hey, nobody’s perfect. Donen was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1998 for his body of work, but when the Academy announced their new voting rules a few years back, he was a staunch critic of the obvious ageism. Stanley Donen was one of the last living great directors of The Golden Age, and will surely be missed by the film community, especially by his companion of the past twenty years, the multi-talented Elaine May. Bogart says in CASABLANCA, “We’ll always have Paris”; for all us Stanley Donen lovers, we’ll always have SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN.

Rest in peace, Stanley Donen
(1924-2019)
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