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According to a February 5, 1951 Hollywood Reporter news item, Carleton Carpenter was to co-star in the film with Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, and a March 19, 1951 news item noted that the husband-and-wife dancing team of Marge and Gower Champion were to start rehearsals "at the end of the month;" however, neither Carpenter nor the Champions were mentioned in the files on the film in the Arthur Freed Collection or the M-G-M Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library. M-G-M files reveal that Reginald Gardner was sought for a role and that Nina Foch and Barbara Lawrence were tested for "Lina Lamont." Donald O'Connor was borrowed from Universal for his first M-G-M picture. News items also include Gloria Gordon, daughter of producer Leon Gordon, Carmen Clifford, Frances Meehan and Frankie Grandetta in the cast, but their appearance has not been confirmed. As noted in news items and modern sources, actress Gwen Carter, who is seen briefly in the party sequence, was then O'Connor's wife. Dancer/choreographer Jeanne Coyne was briefly married to director Stanley Donen prior to the film's production and married Kelly in 1960. Coyne and Kelly remained married until her death in 1973.
Of the film's numerous songs, only two were written especially for the film, "Make 'Em Laugh" which features O'Connor singing, dancing and doing comic acrobatic turns on a studio set, and "Moses" (also known as "Moses Supposes") in which Kelly and O'Connor sing and dance during a diction lesson. Other songs in the film were from the 1920s and 1930s, most of them previously featured in M-G-M musicals. The song "Singin' in the Rain" was first featured in the M-G-M musical Hollywood Revue of 1929, sung by Cliff "Ukele Ike" Edwards. The song is performed three times in the 1952 film, first in the opening credits, in which Kelly, O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds appear in yellow raincoats, carrying umbrellas; second, when Kelly sings and dances in a downpour; and finally, when "Lina," played by Jean Hagen, lipsyncs as Reynolds' "Kathy" sings at the premiere of The Dancing Cavalier.
The rendition of the song by Kelly, which takes place in a heavy rainfall manufactured on the studio's back lot, is one of the most famous musical numbers of all time. It has been included in many documentaries on the history of motion picture musicals, including the 1974 M-G-M film That's Entertainment, in which Kelly spoke about how the number was filmed. According to Kelly, he had a bad cold and a fever while performing the number. Modern sources have added that the equivalent of two city blocks were used on the studio back lot and pumped with hundreds of gallons of water. The number took seven days to film, with the artificial rain needed for six hours each day. Dancer Gwen Verdon has stated that she and Kelly's dance assistants, Coyne and Carol Haney, dubbed the sound of Kelly's taps and made splashing noises when the film was in post-production.
Other noteworthy numbers in the film include "Good Morning," in which Kelly, O'Connor and Reynolds sing and dance in "Don Lockwood's" Beverly Hills mansion; and the almost seventeen-minute "Broadway Ballet" in which Kelly sings and dances through a large number of sets and partners with Cyd Charisse as the femme fatale of the film-within-a-film. The sequence tells the story of a hoofer who comes to New York and becomes a success on Broadway but is rejected by a mysterious woman with whom he falls in love. The number marked the first of several times that Charisse and Kelly worked together. During Singin' in the Rain, when Cosmo describes his idea for reworking the seventeenth-century France setting of The Dueling Cavalier by adding a modern storyline, the plot he describes is very similar to the popular Cole Porter Broadway musical DuBarry Was a Lady, which was turned into a 1943 M-G-M film starring Red Skelton, Lucille Ball and Gene Kelly (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). The "Broadway Ballet" includes the well-known Kelly tagline, "Gotta Sing-Gotta Dance." According to information in the M-G-M files, the final cost of that musical sequence was $605,960, $85,000 over budget, with the final cost of the entire film $2,540,800, $620,996 over budget.
Several additional old songs are heard briefly in the film, including "Should I," "I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin'" and "Temptation." According to M-G-M files, two numbers were cut from the film, a solo of "You Are My Lucky Star," sung by Reynolds and included in the film's special edition LaserDisk, and a long solo by Kelly singing "All I Do Is Dream of You," which, according to information in the M-G-M collection, was cut after the film's preview. Another number, featuring Kelly and O'Connor dancing to "The Wedding of the Painted Doll," was planned but not shot. That song is heard briefly in the film, however. According to co-director Stanley Donen's autobiography, Rita Moreno's character, "Zelda Zanders," was to sing "Make Hay While the Sun Shines," but that, and most of Moreno's role, was not in the released film. Donen also indicated that the originally conceived ending included a premiere for Lina's newest film, Jungle Princess in which she "doesn't say a word-just grunts," and Lina and Cosmo's marriage.
Many of the characters within the film's storyline were patterned after real people. "Dora Bailey" was loosely modeled on Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons; director "Roscoe Dexter" was modeled after musical director Busby Berkeley and, according to modern sources, "R. F. Simpson" was modeled after producer Arthur Freed, although Freed was unaware of it. According to memos in the M-G-M files, Jimmie Thompson, who sang the "Beautiful Girl" number, was to be modeled after popular 1920s crooner Rudy Vallee, but Vallee was imitated in a brief montage just before the number. Charisse, who had no dialogue in the Broadway Ballet sequence, had hair and makeup reminiscent of the screen persona of 1920s film star Louise Brooks.
Books and feature articles on the film have noted that several of the film's sets were previously used in some of M-G-Ms films of the 1920s and 1930s, including the Greta Garbo-John Gilbert picture Flesh and the Devil, which provided the setting for Don's mansion. Costumes and wigs in The Dueling Cavalier were from M-G-M's 1938 picture Marie Antoinette. (See AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40.)
According to information in the M-G-M files, because Reynolds' voice did not work well for the scene in which her character, "Kathy," dubs the speaking and singing voice for Hagen's Lina Lamont in The Dancing Cavalier, Hagen's own voice was used to dub for Reynolds. Hagen was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role, and Lennie Hayton was nominated for Best Scoring of a musical picture. The film was named one of the top ten pictures of 1952 by the National Board of Review; Donald O'Connor received a Golden Globe award for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and Betty Comden and Adolph Green won the Writers Guild Award for Best Written American Musical.
In modern interviews, Comden and Green have stated that the film was proposed to them by Freed, head of M-G-M's musical division. According to Comden and Green, Freed, who was one of the songwriters of the 1929 song "Singin' in the Rain," proposed that they write a musical film based on the song. The pair then spent several weeks trying to come up with an idea and hit upon a storyline that was, as they explained, funny, but also a reflection of the sadness that accompanied the film industry's transition to sound. Modern sources offer variations on the film's origins; some state that the production was devised as a way to keep Freed's production unit happy and maintain the momentum started on An American in Paris, which was still in production when pre-production began on Singin' in the Rain. Contemporary news items and production information indicate that Singin' in the Rain was being developed prior to the start of production on An American in Paris, however. Singin' in the Rain was mentioned as being on Freed's slate in a Hollywood Reporter news item on May 15, 1949. Information in the Freed Collection also reveals that he received $25,000 for all musical materials for the film on August 29, 1950. In his autobiography, Donen mentioned that the basic story idea for the picture was developed in 1948 under the title Excess Baggage and intended as a starring vehicle for dancer Ann Miller.
Singin' in the Rain has often been cited in modern surveys and documentaries as one of the most popular films of all time. Among its many accolades, in 2007, Singin' in the Rain was ranked 5th on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies-10th Anniversary Edition list of the greatest American films, moving up from the 10th position it occupied on AFI's 1997 list. The film was re-issued in 1974 and again in 1992 with a fortieth anniversary premiere. It was also selected as one of the first American films presented in Communist China. A stage production of Singin' in the Rain opened in London in 1983, starring and directed by Tommy Steele and produced by Harold Fielding. The stage production closely followed the film, including the same songs. The play also recreated Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" number.