Hollywood’s general approach to its own past is ably summed up by a single line of dialogue from the 1962 Western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But when it comes to the legendary Gene Kelly musical Singin’ in the Rain, Patricia Ward Kelly would prefer to see the facts in print.
“The true story is pretty magical — I don’t think you have to embellish it,” the actor’s widow and official biographer tells Yahoo Entertainment ahead of the beloved film’s 70th anniversary. “The facts are that they pulled this remarkable thing off, and that everybody is performing at the top of their game. The true story is a good story.”
Released in theaters on April 11, 1952, Singin’ in the Rain long ago achieved mythic status as the apex of the film industry’s Golden Age movie musicals. It’s also regarded as one of the best movies about “the movies” ever made, telling a larger-than-life version of how Hollywood transitioned from silent pictures to talkies. According to Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain‘s exalted place in pop culture never failed to surprise her late husband, as well as his co-stars Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, who passed away in 2003 and 2016 respectively.
“Gene always said that they never imagined that people would be watching the movie 70 years later,” she explains, adding that Kelly believed that his lasting contribution to the form would be 1951’s Best Picture winner, An American in Paris. “Everybody thought that was the sine qua non of movie musicals, and Singin’ in the Rain was kind of a deep second place. And An American in Paris swept the Oscars, whereas Singin’ in the Rain didn’t win any. But over time, it rose to the top.”
While Kelly was the director and star of the show, he believed that Singin’ in the Rain had many authors, from his co-director, Stanley Donan, to his fellow actors to screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden. But each of those authors also had their own version of events that they told and re-told over the years, allowing the various embellishments surrounding its making to take root.
Since her husband’s death in 1996, Kelly — who first met the star in 1985 when she was 26 and he was 73 — says that a lot of her job is “myth-busting” Singin’ in the Rain when she presents the film at anniversary events and retrospective screenings. (Fathom Events is bringing the movie back to theaters on April 10 as part of TCM Big Screen Classics series.) “It would be nice if we could get some of them stopped,” she remarks. “A lot of the myths get printed in books and get taken down as fact and they’re just not.”
To commemorate 70 years of Singin’ in the Rain, we spoke with Kelly about some of the popular legends about the film — and her husband’s later career — that she most hopes to correct as it continues to sing and dance its way into moviegoers’ hearts.
Milk drops kept falling on his head
Decades before Prince sang about purple rain, Kelly allegedly danced in milky rain for Singin’ in the Rain‘s signature musical number. As the legend goes, the star and Donan were concerned that the raindrops wouldn’t show up on camera, so they added milk to the mix in order to give the water the right sheen — a tall tale that Kelly’s widow calls “absurd.” Instead, she credits “phenomenal cinematography and lighting” as being responsible for making those raindrops pop.
“Gene always said it was very difficult to backlight the rain, particularly in front of the plate glass windows that he’s dancing in front of,” she observes. “And in the production notes, you can see that they had to do other takes because they could see some of the equipment reflected in the glass.”
Details like that point to another misconception surrounding the “Singin’ in the Rain” number — that it was somehow effortless, an impression owed to Kelly’s fluid footwork and the relative spareness of the sequence compared to the film’s bigger production numbers. And, to be fair, Kelly’s widow says that he often referred to it as “a simple Irish clog dance” that he wanted others to feel they could imitate. “He made it approachable,” she says. “What’s made it so timeless is that people think they can go out in the rain and do it.”
In fact, it took exacting choreography to achieve that level of simplicity. “Gene even choreographed the puddles in the street so that he would hit them in a certain way! He always wanted dance to tell the story, and the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ number is one of the best examples of that. It conveys so much in such a simple way.”
Blood on the dance floor
Debbie Reynolds was a pageant winner-turned-MGM contract player when she nabbed her Singin‘ role as aspiring starlet, Kathy Selden, who strikes up a romance with Kelly’s dashing silent-era leading man, Don Lockwood. What she wasn’t at that time was an experienced dancer, necessitating an arduous crash course in tripping the light fantastic. In her later years, Reynolds said that her lack of dance experience initially raised a red flag with Kelly. “He seemed surprised,” she told TCM host Robert Osborne about the star’s reaction when she was cast.
Prior to production, Kelly designed an intense training regimen for Reynolds and she often spoke about the physical and mental toll that her accelerated dance program took on her. “My feet were bleeding from all that dancing,” she told the Sunday Express in 2013, a story she also told in her memoir, Unsinkable. “When I pointed it out, Gene would say ‘Clean it up!’ He was very sentimental like that!”
Kelly’s widow, however, pushes back against those stories. “Most of what [Debbie] said about it was fabricated and would change over the years,” she says. “Gene said he didn’t see blood all over the floor the way it was described.” She also disputes Reynolds’s memories of doctors attending to her because of her feet or having to rehearse late into the night. “Again, if you look at the production notes, you know exactly when she checked in and out and when she had lunch. And if doctors are called to set, it’s always noted. They just weren’t.”
As for her husband’s “surprise” about being paired with a non-dancer, Kelly says that he made that decision along with producer, Arthur Freed. “He chose her,” she says. “Arthur called him up to his office and showed a clip of her performing ‘Aba Daba Honeymoon‘ [in 1950’s Two Weeks in Love] and Gene thought she was the perfect ingénue. So they called up Stanley, and his comment was: ‘Yeah, but can she dance?’ Gene said, ‘It doesn’t matter.’ He knew that he could teach somebody and also choreograph so you could even make an inexperienced person look good onscreen.”
No naps allowed
In contrast to Reynolds, Donald O’Connor had the dancing experience necessary to keep up with Kelly. The actor even claimed that he once lapped his co-star and director on the dance floor. While shooting back-to-back musical numbers — “Moses Supposes” and “Fit as a Fiddle” — both performers felt exhaustion setting in. But as O’Connor later remembered, neither he nor Kelly would admit that they were beat. After 10 takes, Kelly called a halt and asked to look at O’Connor’s violin bow.
“I showed him my bow and his bow was about an inch-and-a-half shorter than mine,” O’Connor said. “He said, ‘That’s what’s the matter! That’s why I can’t do this thing.’ He threw the bow down and went in his dressing room.” After waiting awhile for him to return, O’Connor knocked on the door and found Kelly taking a breather. “He said, ‘I was tired.’ He didn’t want to tell me!”
According to Kelly’s widow, O’Connor — who she affectionately calls a “wonderful storyteller” — added other details to that account over the years. “We went to dinner with Donald and his wife and he said that Gene deliberately broke his bow during ‘Fit as a Fiddle’ so he could take a nap in his dressing room,” she remembers. “When we walked to our car, I said to Gene, ‘You never told me that story.’ And he said, ‘It never happened. Can you imagine? That would have been an $80,000 nap!'”
Despite O’Connor’s penchant for exaggeration, Kelly says that her husband always considered his co-star the real star of Singin’ in the Rain. “Gene felt that Donald never got the credit he deserved for his work. He wasn’t a romantic lead: the public didn’t buy him in that capacity, so he never moved up. But Gene thought he was an immense talent.”
“The next time you watch it, look for the funny scene at the beginning where they’re being interviewed,” she continues. “When Gene does the ‘Dignity, always dignity’ speech, watch Donald because he looks over and rolls his eyes. It’s the funniest thing to see! You’re usually watching Gene and not looking at Donald, but Donald’s making a face. It’s a beautiful pairing, those two.”
The beginning of the end?
Just as Singin’ in the Rain‘s story bridged Hollywood’s silent and sound eras, the film itself is often held up as the pivot point where the Golden Age of movie musicals gave way to a more troubled period for the genre. But Kelly says that the truth is more complicated. “In a lot of books written about Gene and movie musicals you get this notion that Singin’ in the Rain was the pinnacle, and then everything spiraled down, including Gene’s career,” she notes. “But Gene always said: ‘After that, I made Brigadoon, which has some of the best dancing I ever did on film!'”
At the same time, Kelly acknowledges that seismic shifts were happening within the industry and in popular culture at large that left her husband navigating a rapidly changing landscape. “You had television coming in, you had the Beatles and Elvis and you had this explosion of big extravaganzas like The Sound of Music. Gene was aware that everything was morphing.”
Kelly eventually directed one of those “big extravaganzas” himself — Barbara Streisand’s 1969 hit, Hello Dolly! Meanwhile, in front of the camera, he started for looking for opportunities outside of the genre, appearing in dramas like Inherit the Wind and Marjorie Morningstar. “He wanted to do other roles, but kind of got pigeonholed as the musical theater guy,” his widow says. “He also wanted to do Death of a Salesman, but it didn’t come together.”
Twenty eight years after Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly made his final appearance in a movie musical in 1980’s Xanadu, opposite Grease star Olivia Newton-John. It wasn’t a happy experience. “He said that it was the only time that no one knew what they were doing,” his widow says, laughing. “He had great hopes for it … but when he got there, there was no script and it was criminal to him to see people waste time and money. In fact, the number he does with Olivia was not in the original cut when they previewed it. Gene refused to take the producers’ calls, and finally agreed to create the number provided it was done on a closed set and the producers were nowhere near it.”
In recent years, though, Xanadu has found a new fanbase, especially after it went from screen to stage with a hit 2007 Broadway adaptation. “It’s the movie that has introduced so many young people to Gene,” Kelly notes. “I have to give it credit for that. And Gene adored Olivia. You can see the chemistry between the two of them in their dance number. He choreographed it to make Olivia look terrific, and she does. I think he would shake his head at how it has come around again, but I’m often asked to introduce it and talk about it. It’s funny that that’s the one that draws people in.”
Living in a Material World
Here’s a story that Kelly doesn’t have to myth-bust: Three years before his death, her husband really did meet with Madonna about choreographing some numbers for her 1993 “Girlie Show” tour. “He was very excited to do it,” she remembers. “I have the notes for it and little sketches of the numbers. He was really happy to be working with the dancers.”
Unfortunately, the Singer in the Rain and the Material Girl didn’t hit it off. Kelly describes their brief collaboration as “tense” and says that Madonna ultimately ended things. “I don’t think she really wanted a collaborator — she didn’t really want what Gene could bring to the table. She let him go, essentially. I can’t say what was in her mind with that decision, but it didn’t go forward.”
Singin’ in the Rain screens Apr. 10 and Apr. 13 in theaters as part of the Fathom Events and TCM Big Screen Classics series; the film is also streaming on HBO Max