15 Facts About Singin’ in the Rain

MGM
MGM

Singin’ in the Rain isn’t just an upbeat musical from 1952. It’s also a history lesson about Hollywood in the late 1920s, when silent pictures were giving way to talkies. And, of course, it’s also a valuable tutorial on how to be an awesome dancer (i.e. be Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor). It is many things! Here are some facts about Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's classic musical to enhance your next viewing.

1. It wasn't adapted from a Broadway musical.

Many movie musicals of the 1930s, '40s and '50s were based on stage shows, but this wasn’t one of them. Rather, it was a new script, written just for the movie, featuring old songs written for previous movies. Some 30 years later, after the film had become a beloved classic, it was reverse-engineered into a stage musical, premiering in London’s West End in 1983 and subsequently appearing (with revisions and more songs) on Broadway

2. It was conceived by producer Arthur Freed as a means of showcasing songs he had written, but it wasn't (just) an ego trip.

Freed was a successful lyricist in the 1920s and '30s, collaborating with composer Nacio Herb Brown on dozens of songs for MGM musicals. In 1939, after essentially serving as an uncredited producer on The Wizard of Oz, Freed was given his own unit at MGM, where he oversaw the production of about 45 big-screen musicals (some originals, some Broadway adaptations) over the next 23 years, making MGM synonymous with the genre. The term “jukebox musical” didn’t exist yet, but there were a few films in that era that fit the description, using old sets of songs with nothing in common but their authors as the framework for new stories. Warner Bros.’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and MGM’s own Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) had done it with the songs of George M. Cohan and Jerome Kern, respectively.

In 1951, as Freed was shepherding the George and Ira Gershwin-based An American in Paris into existence, he thought of doing the same thing for the songs he’d written with Brown. Many of those ditties were big hits, and Freed had certainly earned the clout at MGM to advance what might have otherwise been seen as a vanity project. The studio head in the movie, R.F. Simpson, is based on him. 

3. The one "original" song written specifically for the movie is actually a rip-off.

As the film was about to commence shooting, directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly realized Donald O’Connor didn’t have a solo number. Nothing in the Freed/Brown collection seemed to fit, so they asked the pair to whip up something new, something along the lines of “Be a Clown,” from Cole Porter’s 1947 MGM musical The Pirate. Freed and Brown did exactly that, delivering “Make ‘em Laugh,” a song that Donen later called “100 percent plagiarism” of “Be a Clown.”

The similarities were overwhelming and undeniable. (Compare for yourself: here’s “Be a Clown”; here’s “Make ‘em Laugh.”) But Freed, you’ll recall, was the producer of Singin’ in the Rain. One doesn’t really tell one’s boss, “Uh, sir, I think you might have stolen this,” so the song stayed. The story goes that Cole Porter didn’t mind (or didn’t sue, anyway) because he was grateful to Freed for all the career support he’d given him. “Moses Supposes” was newly written for the film too, with music by Roger Edens and lyrics by the screenwriters. But it’s not a complete song, lyrically speaking, so usually isn’t counted.

4. Debbie Reynolds had no dance experience before she made the movie.

She pointed this out when she was asked to be in Singin’ in the Rain, but Kelly said he could teach her, just as he’d done with Frank Sinatra for Anchors Aweigh. Reynolds had been a gymnast, so she wasn’t completely unfamiliar with physical movement requiring grace and stamina. Ever the trouper, she buckled down and rehearsed day and night until she could share a dance floor with Kelly and O’Connor without embarrassing herself. She was quite young, too, turning 19 during the shoot. (Kelly, her love interest, was 39.) She later said, “The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain.” 

5. Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor had never worked together before.

O’Connor, born into a vaudeville family in 1925, had been onstage since infancy and in movies since he was 12. He had 36 film credits, mostly musicals and Francis the Talking Mule pictures, under his belt when he got the Singin’ in the Rain gig. Kelly was 13 years older and came to Hollywood a bit later than O’Connor, yet still racked up 18 films between 1942 and 1951, when at last their paths crossed. And they almost didn’t: Freed, the producer, wanted Kelly’s An American in Paris co-star Oscar Levant for the Cosmo role, but everyone else—screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen—wanted someone who could dance.

6. Gene Kelly choreographed his dance scenes with Cyd Charisse in a way that hid the fact that she was taller than him.

Or she was when she wore heels, anyway, as she does in the film. To keep the height difference from being obvious, Kelly arranged the routine so that they were never both standing upright when they were next to each other, always bending toward (or away from) one another instead.

7. Yes, Kelly had a fever when he filmed the "Singin' in the Rain" number.

Contrary to legend, it wasn’t shot all in one take—or even all in one day. It lasted a couple of days, and on at least one of them, Kelly was sick with a fever of anywhere from 101 to 103 degrees, depending on who’s telling the story.

8. Costume designer Walter Plunkett said this was the most work he had ever done for a film—and he had worked on Gone With the Wind!

Both films were period pieces, but Singin’ in the Rain required a greater number of elaborate, ornately detailed costumes than Gone With the Wind did. They had to be more accurate, too, since 1952 audiences remembered Hollywood of the late ‘20s more clearly than 1939 audiences remembered the Civil War. All told, Plunkett designed about 500 costumes for the film.  

9. The last shot of the "Good Morning" number took 40 takes.

It’s the part where the three of them somersault over one couch and then tip another one over backwards before collapsing on it and laughing. Kelly was a demanding choreographer and director, and you’ll notice that most of the dancing in the film is presented without a lot of editing. The camera moves around, but it doesn’t cut to other angles very often, and the dancers’s bodies are usually wholly visible. So when there are, say, three dancers who are supposed to be in unison, and one part of one person’s body does the wrong thing, you’ve got to do it again. The whole shoot was difficult for that reason, and this number was particularly challenging. Reynolds said that at the end of a 14-hour day shooting the scene, her feet were bleeding.

10. The 10-minute "Broadway Melody" dance number near the end of the film was a late addition.

Freed was encouraged by how well a similar sequence in An American in Paris had turned out, so he suggested that Kelly and Donen conceive one for Singin’ in the Rain, too—after most of the rest of the film had been shot. That’s why Donald O’Connor isn’t in this part: he was under contract with Universal and had to go make another Francis the Talking Mule movie.

11. Cyd Charisse owed her role in the film to Debbie Reynolds's lack of experience.

Charisse is only onscreen for a few minutes, in the aforementioned “Broadway Melody” dream ballet sequence. The role would logically have gone to Reynolds, but she simply didn’t have the dancing chops to pull it off. Leslie Caron, who’d danced with Kelly in An American in Paris, wasn’t available. So the job went to Cyd Charisse, an acclaimed dancer whom Kelly had admired since seeing her work with Fred Astaire in Ziegfield Follies. (Charisse was actually supposed to have had Caron’s role in An American in Paris, but had to drop out when she got pregnant. She’d given birth only a few months earlier when she took the Singin’ in the Rain job.) 

12. There may have been some censorship in the ballet number.

Watch as Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are dancing at the 1:22:03 mark in the film, and you’ll see a jump cut. The camera doesn’t move, but something’s clearly been snipped. The unconfirmed but probably true explanation is that censors deemed a portion of the dance too suggestive. (They’d warned Kelly beforehand not to choreograph Charisse wrapping her legs around his waist, even though real ballet dancers do that all the time.) The footage was removed, and the music was re-scored to match the new cut. Whatever was taken out is presumably lost forever, as the entire Singin’ in the Rain negative was destroyed in a fire. 

13. Donald O'Connor really should have died filming "Make 'em Laugh."

Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain (1952)
MGM

And not just because you could legitimately break your neck doing those run-up-the-wall flips (although that, too). The physical exertion required for the scene would have been demanding for anyone ... and O’Connor, by his own admission, was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. And after the entire sequence had been shot? He had to do it all over again, because a technical error made the footage unusable. 

14. The first time we see Cyd Charisse, she's smoking a cigarette. It's the only cigarette she ever smoked in her life.

Kelly and Donen thought the character, the seductive girlfriend of a gangster, ought to be smoking. Charisse, who had never smoked before (making her a rare bird in 1951 Hollywood), told them she didn’t know how—so they stopped shooting long enough to teach her. Evidently failing to see the pleasure in it, she never smoked again. 

15. The film was a bit of a letdown after An American in Paris.

An American in Paris—also starring Gene Kelly; also built around a particular songwriter’s work; also featuring a large-scale dream ballet sequence—was released in November of 1951. It was a hit, eventually winning six Oscars, including Best Picture. Three weeks after the Oscar ceremony, Singin’ in the Rain came out. It did well enough with audiences and critics, but it got very little awards attention, and it wasn’t perceived as being nearly as successful as its predecessor. Over time, public sentiment changed. An American in Paris is still highly regarded today, but it’s Singin’ in the Rain that shows up on the “best” and “favorite” lists.

Additional sources: Featurettes and commentary track on the 60th anniversary Blu-ray.

This article originally ran in 2015.

Hee-Haw: The Wild Ride of "Dominick the Donkey"—the Holiday Earworm You Love to Hate

Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images
Delpixart/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?

That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.

 

Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.

And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.

There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”

“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”

Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.

“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.

 

As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.

Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.

“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.

With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.

According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.

Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.

Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”

The 11 Best Movies on Netflix Right Now

Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson in Marriage Story (2019).
Wilson Webb/Netflix

With thousands of titles available, browsing your Netflix menu can feel like a full-time job. If you're feeling a little overwhelmed, take a look at our picks for the 11 best movies on Netflix right now.

1. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

Spider-Man may be in the middle of a Disney and Sony power struggle, but that didn't stop this ambitious animated film from winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 2019 Academy Awards. Using a variety of visual style choices, the film tracks the adventures of Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), who discovers he's not the only Spider-Man in town.

2. Hell or High Water (2016)

Taylor Sheridan's Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water follows two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who take to bank robberies in an effort to save their family ranch from foreclosure; Jeff Bridges is the drawling, laconic lawman on their tail.

3. Raging Bull (1980)

Robert De Niro takes on the life of pugilist Jake LaMotta in a landmark and Oscar-winning film from Martin Scorsese that frames LaMotta's violent career in stark black and white. Joe Pesci co-stars.

4. Marriage Story (2019)

Director Noah Bambauch drew raves for this deeply emotional drama about a couple (Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson) whose uncoupling takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll on their family.

5. Dolemite Is My Name (2019)

Eddie Murphy ended a brief sabbatical from filmmaking following a mixed reception to 2016's Mr. Church with this winning biopic about Rudy Ray Moore, a flailing comedian who finds success when he reinvents himself as Dolemite, a wisecracking pimp. When the character takes off, Moore produces a big-screen feature with a crew of inept collaborators.

6. The Lobster (2015)

Colin Farrell stars in this black comedy that feels reminiscent of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman's work: A slump-shouldered loner (Farrell) has just 45 days to find a life partner before he's turned into an animal. Can he make it work with Rachel Weisz, or is he doomed to a life on all fours? By turns absurd and provocative, The Lobster isn't a conventional date movie, but it might have more to say about relationships than a pile of Nicholas Sparks paperbacks.

7. Flash of Genius (2008)

Greg Kinnear stars in this drama based on a true story about inventor Robert Kearns, who revolutionized automobiles with his intermittent windshield wiper. Instead of getting rich, Kearns is ripped off by the automotive industry and engages in a years-long battle for recognition.

8. Locke (2013)

The camera rarely wavers from Tom Hardy in this existential thriller, which takes place entirely in Hardy's vehicle. A construction foreman trying to make sure an important job is executed well, Hardy's Ivan Locke grapples with some surprising news from a mistress and the demands of his family. It's a one-act, one-man play, with Hardy making the repeated act of conversing on his cell phone as tense and compelling as if he were driving with a bomb in the trunk.

9. Cop Car (2015)

When two kids decide to take a police cruiser for a joyride, the driver (Kevin Bacon) begins a dogged pursuit. No good cop, he's got plenty to hide.

10. Taxi Driver (1976)

Another De Niro and Scorsese collaboration hits the mark, as Taxi Driver is regularly cited as one of the greatest American films ever made. De Niro is a potently single-minded Travis Bickle, a cabbie in a seedy '70s New York who wants to be an avenging angel for victims of crime. The mercurial Bickle, however, is just as unhinged as those he targets.

11. Sweet Virginia (2017)

Jon Bernthal lumbers through this thriller as a former rodeo star whose career has left him physically broken. Now managing a hotel in small-town Alaska, he stumbles onto a plot involving a murderer-for-hire (Christopher Abbott), upending his quiet existence and forcing him to take action.

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