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)

Grand Dame Guignol: WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? (United Artists 1971)

The recent FX mini-series FEUD has sparked a renewed interest in the “Older Actresses Doing Horror” genre, also known by the more obnoxious sobriquettes “Hagsploitaion” or “Psycho-Biddy” movies. This peculiar film category lasted from 1962’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? until winding down around the early Seventies. 1971’s WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? came towards the end of the cycle, a creepy little chiller with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters   getting caught up in murder and madness in 1930’s Hollywood.

I wouldn’t exactly call Debbie Reynolds a “hag”; she was only 39 when this was filmed, and still quite a hottie, especially when glammed-up in a Jean Harlow “Platinum Blond” wig. Deb gets to show off her tap-dancing and tangoing in a few scenes, showing off her still amazing legs for good measure. She and Shelley play a pair of Iowa mothers who (as the opening newsreel footage tells us) have spawned two killer sons that slaughtered a young girl and got sentenced to life in prison. Harassed by angry mobs and receiving threatening phone calls, Adelle (Debbie) and Helen (Shelley) decide to go west and open a dancing school for aspiring Shirley Temple types in Tinsletown.

Changing their last names, Adelle and Helen rent a studio, and soon an oddball unemployed ham named (appropriately enough) Hamilton Starr worms his way into a position as voice coach. Linc Palmer, rich father of one of Adelle’s no-talent pupils, takes an interest in her, while Helen withdraws from the world, finding solace in her pet rabbits and the religious radio broadcasts of Sister Alma (played by Agnes Moorehead, whose genre credits include HUSH… HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE   and DEAR DEAD DELIALH).

Helen is still getting those threatening phone calls, and seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Adelle suspects Helen of sending a newspaper clipping of her sordid past to Linc, and comes home to find blood smeared on a cardboard cut-out of her. She demands Helen leave, and walks out in a huff. A knock on the door finds a man who knows Helen’s real name, and as he walks up the staircase, the frightened, freaked out woman pushes him to his doom. Adelle returns, discovering the horror, and helps Helen get rid of the body.

Helen is now truly cracking up, and not even Sister Alma can save her (“There is no forgiveness for me”). After Adelle receives a marriage proposal from Linc, she arrives back home to discover her bedroom trashed, and blood all over the bathroom. Following a trail of blood down the bannister to the backyard, she gasps as she sees Helen’s pet rabbits all slaughtered in their coops. Then Helen appears, blood on the front of her nightgown, and…

And you’ll have to watch the movie to find out (although that poster up top may give you a clue). Shelley Winters was said to have been having a real-life nervous breakdown while shooting this film, and her acting is more restrained than usual at this stage of her career. She certainly had me convinced she was going bonkers but, given the circumstances, it probably wasn’t that much of a stretch for her. There’s a subtle but noticeable lesbian subtext in Helen’s reliance on Adelle, deftly handled by both ladies. Shelley had previous appeared in THE MAD ROOM, and went on to star in WHOEVER SLEW AUNTIE ROO?, and overcame her breakdown to continue a long career.

Linc is played by Dennis Weaver, taking a break from MCCLOUD to portray Debbie’s lover. Flamboyant Irish thespian Michael MacLiammoir plays the flamboyant Hamilton Starr in a clear case of typecasting (though he did remind me a bit of Sydney Greenstreet). Another oddball actor, Timothy Carey , has a cameo as a down-on-his-luck bum. Pamelyn Ferdin, Logan Ramsey, Peggy Rea, and the immortal Yvette Vickers   all pop up in small parts.

Henry Farrell, whose novel served as the basis for BABY JANE, wrote the spooky screenplay, as he did with SWEET CHARLOTTE. He also did the teleplays for HOW AWFUL ABOUT ALAN (with Julie Harris and Anthony Perkins) and THE HOUSE THAT WOULD NOT DIE (Barbara Stanwyck). Director Curtis Harrington was a huge horror buff responsible for the atmospheric NIGHT TIDE, QUEEN OF BLOOD, GAMES, and the TV Movies THE CAT CREATURE, KILLER BEES (with Gloria Swanson!), and DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND OF HELL. DP Lucian Ballard isn’t a name usually associated with horror films, but he dabbled occasionally early in his career (1942’s THE UNDYING MONSTER, ’44’s THE LODGER), so he knew the territory fairly well.

WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH HELEN? is kitschy fun, with Debbie and Shelley enjoying a good, gruesome romp together. Keep a lookout for more of these “Psycho-Biddy” films on TCM and elsewhere, featuring Golden Age stars like Bette, Joan , Barbara, Agnes, Olivia, Tallulah, Miriam , even Gloria Grahame… just watch out for hidden knives!

 

RIP The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds

debbie1

One day after the tragic death of her daughter Carrie Fisher, the unsinkable Debbie Reynolds has passed at age 84. I’m not going to update my previous IN MEMORIAM  post; Miss Reynolds deserves a post of her own.

Full shot of illustration of Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden, and Donald O'Connor as Cosmo Brown walking together in rain, holding umbrellas during the opening musical number "Singin' In The Rain."

One of the last of the old studio contract players, Debbie got good notices in such musical films as THE DAUGHTER OF ROSIE O’GRADY, THREE LITTLE WORDS, and TWO WEEKS WITH LOVE, but it’s her role as Kathy Seldon in SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN that made her a star. This joyful ode to the transition from silent movies to sound isn’t just my favorite musical, it’s one of my favorite films ever! Debbie shines as the ingénue forced to lip-synch for catty star Lina Lamont (the wonderful Jean Hagen), and more than holds her own in the dancing and clowning departments with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Like CASABLANCA and CITIZEN KANE, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a perfect movie, and 20  year old Debbie played a big part in making it a dream come true for film fans.

debbie3

More hits followed: THE AFFAIRS OF DOBIE GILLIS, SUSAN SLEPT HERE , THE TENDER TRAP, THE CATERED AFFAIR (a dramatic change-of-pace costarring Bette Davis), BUNDLE OF JOY. Another signature role was up next as Debbie portrayed backwoods tomgirl Tammy Tyree in the romantic comedy TAMMY AND THE BACHELOR, singing the hit title tune as well:

debbie4

1964’s THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN brought Debbie her first (and only) Oscar nomination in this adaptation of the award-winning Broadway musical. Her output slowed down as the decade wore on, and Debbie did more television and stage work, garnering a Tony nomination for the 1973 revival IRENE. She kept busy in Vegas, amassed a huge collection of Hollywood memorabilia, and was given the honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar in 2015 for her work in raising awareness on mental health issues (daughter Carrie suffered from bipolar disorder).

debbie5

Debbie Reynolds had her share of tragedies and scandals… first husband Eddie Fisher had a notorious affair with Elizabeth Taylor, resulting in divorce, and second husband Harry Karl’s gambling addiction almost bankrupted her. Her difficulties dealing with Carrie’s mental health and drug issues have been well documented. But through it all, Debbie Reynolds kept smiling and moving forward, a true star not only of show biz, but a star of life. This final tragedy of Carrie’s death was more than she could take, however. Bless you, Debbie Reynolds, I hope you find peace at long last.

 

Naughty Or Nice: SUSAN SLEPT HERE (RKO 1954)

susan1

Looking for something a little offbeat in a Christmas movie? Try SUSAN SLEPT HERE, a film that could never get made today, as it concerns the romance between a 17 year old girl and a 35 year old man. I know some of you out there are already screaming “EEEEWWW!!!”, but indulge me while I describe the madcap moments leading to said romance.

susan3

For starters, the movie is narrated by Oscar. Not Oscar Levant, but THE Oscar, the fabled Academy Awards statuette. This particular Oscar was won by Mark Christopher, screenwriter of fluffy Hollywood comedies yearning to pen a dramatic yarn and prove his mettle as a writer. Into his life comes teenage Susan Landis, a juvenile delinquent dumped on his doorstep by two cops who don’t want to lock her up til after the holidays. They figure Mark can watch her and get a good story idea in the process before she winds up on a prison farm until she turns 18.

susan2

This idea doesn’t sit well Susan, who thinks the old rascal wants to get in her pants. Mark’s fiancé, the blonde ice princess Isabella, isn’t too happy with the situation either. Susan soon begins to fall for Mark’s kindness and gives him a big kiss under the misseltoe, just when his pal Virgil and attorney Harvey walk in the door. Mark decides he’s going to marry Susan – in name only, of course – in order to keep her out of the hoosegow, so he drives her over state lines for a quickie Vegas wedding, and keeps her up dancing all night so they won’t have time to consummate the honeymoon. Then Mark and his secretary Maude take off for Sun Valley so he can work on his script, leaving Susan alone with Virgil.

susan4

Lawyer Harvey tries to get Susan to sign annulment papers, but she refuses. Later, Harvey sees Susan at a lunch counter- eating strawberries and pickles! Fearing the worst, he calls Mark to chastise him for getting her pregnant, but innocent Mark thinks it’s Virgil that did the dirty deed while he was away. Alls well that ends well, as we find out Susan’s not really preggo, she just digs eating strawberries and pickles! Mark soon realizes he’s fallen in love with Susan, and she pulls him into the bedroom to, uh, well… consummate!

susan6

Screenwriter Alex Gottleib peppers his script with plenty of double entendrees and innuendoes, but it’s Frank Tashlin’s direction that makes the film come to life. Tashlin got his start in cartoons, working for animation studios Terrytoons, Van Buren, Ub Iwerks, Screen Gems, and most notably Warner Brothers’ “Looney Tunes”, cranking out classics with Porky Pig, Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and (during the war) Private Snafu. He put his cartoon training to good use in films starring Martin & Lewis (ARTISTS AND MODELS, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST), Bob Hope (SON OF PALEFACE), and many of Jerry Lewis’s early solo efforts. Tashlin was also responsible for two of the 50’s funniest comedies, THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT and WILL SUCCESS SPOIL ROCK HUNTER?, both with Jayne Mansfield. Most of his films resemble live-action cartoons, with wild sight gags galore, and filled with vibrant, eye-popping Technicolor, captured in SUSAN SLEPT HERE by Nicholas Musuraca, usually associated with the dark world of film noir!

susan5

22 year old Debbie Reynolds plays 17 year old Susan, and she’s a frantic, funny ball of energy as the delinquent teen. 50 year old Dick Powell plays 35 year old Mark, and the difference in their ages really shows. You can tell he’s uncomfortable about the whole thing, and the filmmakers wisely chose to make Debbie the aggressor, chasing Powell with wild abandon. There’s a crazy dream sequence that has Powell in a spangled sailor suit, harkening back to his early Warner Bros musical days, with Debbie a sweet little bird in a gilded cage, and lovely Anne Francis (Isabella) as the Spider-Woman coming between them.

susan7

Glenda Farrell , who was Powell’s age but looks much older, is his girl Friday Maude, and she gets the best lines, calling Isabella “Dracula’s daughter”, having an exchange with Powell’s maid (Maid: “Didn’t he just write a hit for Jane Russell?” Glenda: “His story is NOT what made that picture a hit!”), and this bit with Virgil; Him: “What do you know about motherhood?” Her: “I happened to have typed the script for ‘Stella Dallas’!”. Virgil is Alvy Moore, best known as Mr. Kimball on TV’s GREEN ACRES. Other Familiar Faces are Herb Vigran and Horace McMahon as the cops, Les Tremayne as the lawyer, and bits from Benny Rubin, Ellen Corby, Rita Johnson, and in a funny cameo, Red Skelton .

Times and tastes change, and Tashlin’s 50’s films today may be considered sexist. I like his stuff, as he brings that cartoony sensibility to all his films. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether SUSAN SLEPT HERE belongs on your Christmas watch-list. I enjoyed it, it’s full of Hollywood in-jokes and skewers all Tashlin’s favorite targets- teenagers, television, psychiatry, and SEX! Give it a shot; if you feel offended by it, I’ll be glad to send you a safety pin.