Singin’ in the Rain is considered a cinema classic, due in part to Gene Kelly’s iconic song and dance performance of the movie’s titular musical number. And 70 years later, imagery from the scene continues to be a visual shorthand for Old Hollywood at its best.
Kelly opened up to ET’s Leonard Maltin about filming the memorable sequence in 1994, two years before his death at age 83. When stacked up against his many notable on-screen tap dances, such as Thousands Cheer, The Pirate and Anchors Aweigh to name a few, the actor said the 1952 movie’s title number didn’t present a challenge.
“It was an easy number, dance-wise. It was a scene,” Kelly explained. “It had a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
While he may not have broken a sweat from the choreography, an oft noted anecdote claims Kelly was running a fever on the set. But decades later, he believed the scene’s camera operator “had the toughest part” behind the scenes, as they were responsible for back-lighting the rain to ensure precipitation would show up onscreen.
As Kelly recalled, he approached the performance by tapping into his inner child.
“The whole thing had to be done like a child in a state of euphoria,” he said. “His mother says, 'Don't jump in the puddles.' And we all wanted to do that all our lives. The guy was so much in love, he did it.”
The guy in this case was Kelly’s role as Don Lockwood, a movie star against the backdrop of Hollywood’s watershed transition between silent films and “talkies.” With the help of his best friend and musical director, Cosmo Brown (Donald O’Connor), Don hopes to make the tricky career leap. Meanwhile, his frequent on-screen love interest, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), isn’t faring well on her end. Off the set, Don’s romance with chorus girl Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) blossoms and she becomes integral to the operation by dubbing over Lina’s less than optimum voice in their new medium. Don’s feelings build until they crescendo with his performance of ‘Singin’ in the Rain.’
In a movie full of tributes and homages to Hollywood’s early years, Kelly also wanted to transcend well-known musical tropes. One such trademark he cited was characters breaking into songs with little to no organic segues or gradual buildup. With ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ Kelly described how they “sneaked into” the sequence and “broke that old cliche” after Don gives Kathy a goodnight kiss.
“I came out. It was raining. And I looked at the rain and sent the car home with the chauffeur. And I started to get wet. And I started to hum. And, finally, I came into singing,” he said (Kelly also co-directed Singin’ in the Rain with his On the Town collaborator, Stanley Donen).
As the movie celebrates its 70th anniversary this week, Kelly remains an icon decades later and the gold standard for today’s high-profile triple-threats. Dancing With the Stars pro Derek Hough says he often asks himself, “What would Gene do in this moment?...” Justin Timberlake paid tribute to the late actor at the Academy's Centennial Tribute to Gene Kelly in 2012. “Make no mistake. This remarkable, remarkable presence remains so vivid in the world of film and dance, especially for someone like me,” Timberlake said. The ‘Suit and Tie’ singer went as far as to boldly refer to Kelly’s ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ performance as "the single most iconic dance number of all time."
And in a time of Mank, La La Land and Damien Chazelle’s upcoming Babylon, Hollywood might never tire of celebrating its days of yore. Even Kelly’s personal contributions to cinema are on track to be honored by way of Chris Evans, who’s set to play the man himself on the big screen. The movie, which is still in development, is about a 12-year-old boy who works on the MGM lot in 1952, and creates an imagined friendship with Kelly, who is working on his next film (it should be noted that while Singin’ in the Rain hasn’t been officially confirmed to be part of the story, the project takes place in the same year it hit theaters).
While speaking with ET in 1986, O’Connor shared his estimation as to why Singin’ in the Rain became a classic. “It's because of the effort that was put into it. That comes across on the screen,” the Francis star said. “They had somebody looking over this picture. They really did, because it came together beautifully. It was well thought out and it worked.”
According to Kelly’s co-director, there’s no single formulaic explanation for the movie’s enduring popularity and timeless qualities.
“You can't set out to make something that's gonna be great,” Donen told ET in 1986. “You just do your job and whatever happens, happens.”
But when asked why multigenerational audiences continue loving the Hollywood spoof, he did make a point to observe, “It makes them laugh.”
Singin’ in the Rain is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.