There are many descriptions that could be used to categorize the impressive scope of work of an on-screen icon and multi-faceted persona the likes of whom have not been — and will probably never again be — seen since the Golden Age of Hollywood. Dancer. Actor. Director. Singer. Producer. Choreographer. These all certainly fit the bill, and yet, the most suitable moniker of all, which stands out among the rest, is GENIUS.
A legend in his own right, a title to which he also has earned every right, Gene Kelly wasn't just an entertainer. Nor was he the only performer who could call upon a triple-threat talent (of acting, singing and dancing) to put on the greatest show on earth. But among the array of shining personalities in a village of dream-makers who graced the silver screen to create pure movie magic, at a time when it was needed most, his star was one of the brightest.
Highly charismatic, classically handsome and athletically built to boot, Gene Kelly infused a winning combination of energy, precision and confidence into every step (or tap) of the way throughout his Hollywood journey. And he did it alongside the greatest of the great. For Me and My Gal, Gene's 1942 film debut as vaudevillian Harry Palmer alongside Judy Garland's Jo Hayden, could be considered his humble beginning, but it was so significant and memorable, that it set the technicolor stage in motion for Gene to collaborate with future co-stars like Frank Sinatra, Rita Hayworth, Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams and Jerry Mouse in future years.
My personal Gene Kelly experience, limited in scope but equally as inspiring (or inspired by a muse, to be exact), happened to come with a set of paintbrushes and a pair of roller skates. Growing up, I had first caught a glimpse of the more mature but equally as polished and very stylish Danny McGuire, a big-band era orchestra leader whose passion has lost its spark, in Xanadu. A box-office failure that was shunned by critics and dismissed by audiences upon its release, despite an Electric Light Orchestra-infused soundtrack and the best-shot efforts of its leading actors, the 1980 film eventually gained a cult following both on the screen and on various theater stages throughout the country.
For me, the impression of Gene Kelly dancing alongside Australian songbird Olivia Newton-John was not just a scene in a musical gone awry but an homage paid to a bygone era that captured the imagination of the nostalgist I consider myself to be. Learning more about a living legend in his prime was a step I've since wanted to take but never found time for; it took several decades and a much-needed trip to Wonderland for me to discover and dance with Gene all over again in Stanley Donen's Singin' in the Rain (1952).
With all of the special effects and technical advances that exist today, it's hard to believe that there was a time when the concept of talking pictures — talkies, for short — was a novelty the likes of which no one has ever experienced. The introduction of sound in motion pictures, which was heard as early as 1927 in The Jazz Singer, would forever change the dynamic between audiences and actors.
Seasoned, skilled performers were put to the ultimate test when their somewhat exaggerated gestures and theatrical mannerisms were no longer the sole requirements for a film role; in short, their actions could no longer speak louder than words. Although the careers of silent film stars like Raymond Griffith took unsuspecting turns when they found themselves at odds with their own vocal capabilities, others were able to make the necessary transition to talkies and seal the motion picture deal once and for all.
Like their real-life counterparts, Singin' in the Rain's Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont had their work cut out for them when Monumental Pictures, the fictitious studio that oversaw the stars' silent rise to the top, decided to produce a much louder response to rival Warner Bros.' take on talkies. No match for Gene Kelly's Don, whose melodious voice turned out to be just as swoon-worthy as the man himself, leading lady Lina's attempt to win over the big studio bosses with crude vocal inflections, heavily accented pronunciations and an overall exasperating tone did not go over as well. Nevertheless, Jean Hagen's pitch-perfect portrayal of the character did; along with a stellar cast of supporting players, the film that drew upon the story of Hollywood's more humble beginnings became a timeless classic in the starry eyes of musical enthusiasts who are thrilled and enchanted by it to this day.
At the onset, when we first meet Don and learn of his rumored relationship with a delusional Lina, who believes he is in love with her, we are in for a feast of the senses that is consistently infused with just the right blend of comedy and entertainment. Thanks to a series of flashbacks and the accompanying song-and-dance number "Fit as a Fiddle," perfectly timed with a humorous dialog of personal recollections, we learn about Don's early days as a hoofer (an outdated slang term denoting a professional dancer) and temporary stint as a stuntman, which equipped him with the skillset necessary to evade a horde of devoted fans at a premiere of his newest picture. It is then that Don first meets young stage actress Kathy Selden, and we are introduced to another Hollywood legend in one of her most iconic roles. But more on that later.
While Kathy slowly dances her way into the heart of a captivated Don in the "All I Do is Dream of You" number at the premiere's after-party, beloved film and TV personality Donald O'Connor steals the show as fellow hoofer and Don's best friend Cosmo Brown. The "Make 'Em Laugh" number, written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, is remarkable in many ways, one of which is its uncanny resemblance to Cole Porter's "Be a Clown" from 1948's The Pirate, yet another film collaboration between Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.
Both tunes are similar in many ways, melodically and lyrically, but to say that one is superior to the other is difficult when both performances are equally matched in caliber and showmanship.
As work on The Dueling Cavalier begins, Monumental Pictures and its bigger-than-life stars find themselves facing difficulties of similar proportions. While Don takes lessons to improve his own diction, having a bit of fun along the way in "Moses Supposes," Lina struggles to make ends meet at the hands of a coach (fittingly played by a straight-faced Kathleen Freeman) whose own patience is wearing thin.
Like Lina, Broadway and Hollywood stars influenced by real-life vocal coach and consultant Edith Skinner had to hone their craft by learning all the ins and outs of so-called 'good speech,' meant to help them eliminate any hint of regional accents and slang in favor of developing a more uniform, articulate and upper-class way of speaking. And while many stars (including Bette Davis, William Powell, Myrna Loy, Irene Dunne and Carole Lombard) succeeded in adapting the so-called Mid-Atlantic accent, their distinctive voices becoming signature tokens all on their own, the same can't be said for Lina and the disastrous but scene-stealing results that followed the sneak preview of the film.
The ultimate decision to turn The Dueling Cavalier into a musical and save face is a turning point of Singing' in the Rain as viewers are introduced to yet another scene that is so easily recognizable, so iconic, that it has become immortal in the world of cinema. Recorded in the early twentieth century, "Singin' in the Rain" had already made its on-screen appearance in 1929's The Hollywood Revue of 1929, 1932's Speak Easily and 1940's Little Nellie Kelly by the time that Singin' in the Rain, the movie, was released. But the definitive version, perhaps the one that will never be overlooked or forgotten like the others, belongs under the umbrella of a larger-than-life Gene Kelly.
The "Broadway Melody" production — a kaleidoscope of song, dance, color and design that pays tribute to 1930s Hollywood musicals and features a special appearance from classically trained dancer Cyd Charisse in the "Gotta Dance" and dreamy ballet sequences — looks and feels like a typical grand finale. Its placement in the film, however, receives a tongue-in-cheek treatment after Monumental Pictures' studio head, R.F. Simpson, can't quite picture the execution of such an extravagant production but agrees to dub Lina's voice with that of Kathy's.
Don's unadulterated joy at the prospect of Kathy getting the exposure and publicity she deserves is felt long after he dries out and dusts off in preparation for the new and improved Cavalier. He is all aglow, as is the audience, while listening to her in-studio recording, but his and Kathy's happiness is short-lived. While R.F. and his team are threatened with a lawsuit by a furious Lina, who is determined to keep the new-and-improved vocal credit all to herself, Debbie Reynolds also meets a similar fate when singer Betty Noyes' dubbed version of "Would You" (chosen by M-G-M over the original recording) makes it into Singin' in the Rain while Jean Hagen herself speaks for Debbie's Kathy as she, in turn, is supposedly giving Lina her voice.
The act of dubbing, as sad as it may seem to those of us who prefer to hear the vulnerability and unpolished inflections of actors' and actresses' natural voices, was common practice at a time when classic musicals were at their peak of popularity. Given the unusual cases of Clark Gable, with his amusing rendition of "Puttin' on the Ritz" in 1939's Idiot's Delight, and Jimmy Stewart, who gave "Easy to Love" his best shot in 1936's Born to Dance — one can conclude that singers must have been in high demand at a time when Golden Age films were produced at factory speed. But what would have happened, for instance, if Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner and Leslie Caron — all of whom had their vocals dubbed — starred in West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Show Boat and Gigi, respectively, decades earlier? Would the stories they attempted to bring to life through song have made the musical cut? As they say, anything is possible, and in the mythical, mystical world that is Hollywood, everything is possible.
What makes Singin' in the Rain so simple but yet so special is that it tells the Hollywood story from a historical (though not always historically accurate) point of view. And it does it so exceedingly well, making it difficult for anyone to come up with any sort of criticism, that its only flaw is that it eventually comes to an end. All the way to the finish line, it carries on with its feel-good energy, expert storytelling and eye-catching cinematography to deliver the final scene — one in which Kathy unknowingly defeats the villainous Lina and finds the professional reconciliation that's evaded her for so long. And while Kathy rides off into her happily ever after with Don, the sentiment expressed through "You are My Lucky Star" (also available in an undubbed vocal version), is only the beginning.
Fresh-faced and vibrant, 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds was determined to prove herself worthy of a leading role in a major picture when she was cast alongside two seasoned performers in 1951. Having starred in several musical films in previous years, Debbie would find herself challenged professionally when it came time to deliver what some consider to be a breakthrough performance in Singin' in the Rain. She certainly did not disappoint, and her hard-earned efforts led to a decade-spanning career, several accolades and roles in film favorites such as Tammy and the Bachelor, Hit the Deck and The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
As for Gene Kelly, there are countless gems that could be found in his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) repertoire, including quintessential favorites Anchors Aweigh (1945), On the Town (1949) and An American in Paris (1951). Each classic holds a candle to the other, and yet there are plenty of casual film viewers who have never seen even one. How and why do certain musicals stand the test of time while others lurk quietly in the background, waiting to be discovered? Do the films that hold a certain degree of defined commercial appeal seem more prominent and accessible to the general public? I'm almost certain that a generation gap is not to blame here. After all, how many of us have not watched The Sound of Music, Grease or Mary Poppins at least once in our lives? But when asked about Singin' in the Rain, how is it that some can shake their heads so easily?
I don't really know the answers to any of the above questions, but I can easily say that Singin' in the Rain has earned its place in movie history as one of the best and most memorable musicals ever made. Umbrella and all.