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THROUGH THE COVID LENS: Singin’ in the Rain
Reassessing “Singin’ in the Rain” in the Age of Coronavirus
Seventy years ago this month, MGM Studios released one of the greatest movies of all time. “Singin’ in the Rain” stars Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O’Connor in a story about the arrival of “talkies” in Hollywood.
Now widely considered to be the greatest movie musical ever, “Singin’ in the Rain” was not as well loved in its day. Much like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” it took years for “Singin’ in the Rain” to achieve the iconic status it has today.
Made on a budget of $2.5 million (nearly $26.8 million in 2022), “Singin’ in the Rain” earned lukewarm reviews and a respectable $7.2 million at the box office ($77 million in 2022). At the time, the film was considered a lesser also-ran when compared to Kelly’s previous film “An American in Paris.”
Renown film critic Pauline Kael is credited with launching the critical reassessment of “Singin’ in the Rain.” In the program notes for her 1958 Cinema Guild screening of the film in Berkeley, California, Kael wrote, “‘Singin’ in the Rain’…is just about the best Hollywood musical of all time.”
Since then, “Singin’ in the Rain” has reigned supreme among classic Hollywood films. The American Film Institute named “Singin’ in the Rain” the tenth best movie of all time, the #1 movie musical, and it has voted the title song the third best song in film history. “Singin’ in the Rain” has spawned numerous imitations, a Broadway musical, and was beautifully reinterpreted from the silent film perspective by 2011’s Oscar-winner, “The Artist.”
When the National Film Registry was established in 1989, “Singin’ in the Rain” was among the first 25 films chosen for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.” “Singin’ in the Rain” is the embodiment of the Hollywood musical and a foundational part of American cinema history.
To celebrate the 70th anniversary of an unrivaled classic, let’s take a closer look at this indelible scene with an eye toward COVID-19 safety. To do so, we’ll break it down into three parts:
- Safety first: what makes this scene safe
- Bing on the rain: the importance of location control
- Fresh perspective: 2022 considerations
Safety First: What Makes This Scene Safe
The first thing we notice when we look at this 70-year-old Hollywood classic is how safe it already is. In fact, from a pandemic safety perspective, this scene is nearly as safe as they come. Let’s look at two big reasons why:
- Cast size
- Post-production sound
As we have emphasized since the beginning of this series, one of the best ways to increase COVID-19 safety in a scene is to decrease the number of characters in it. Well, this scene involves only one primary character: Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood.
In earlier drafts of the script, this scene was supposed to involve all three of the leads. During pre-production, however, co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen – along with writers Adolph Green & Betty Comden – decided that it would work better as a solo number.
They were right. None other than Leonard Bernstein called this scene a “reaffirmation of life.” The combination of Kelly’s happy, energetic dancing, the beautiful rain, and the cheerful tune makes this scene – even 70 years later – a pure joy to watch.
The choice to focus on Lockwood decreased the number of people in this scene and increased its pandemic safety. If we were shooting this scene today, in the middle of COVID-19, we would second the creative team’s suggestion to limit the main cast.
As we pointed out in our article on Automated Dialog Replacement (ADR), we can make our shooting days safer by relying on post-production sound instead of trying to capture sound on the day.
Pre-production and post-production are far safer than principal photography from a COVID-19 safety standpoint. The sooner we can wrap and get the project into post the sooner we can get everyone to safer ground.
Watch the title number from “Singin’ in the Rain” with a keen eye (and ear) and you’ll notice that Gene Kelly’s voice and the sound of his shoe-taps are not recorded live. In fact, dancing legend Gwen Verdon – along with Tony-winner Carol Haney – dubbed Kelly’s feet by tap dancing in pans of water.
While the scene still took a day and a half to shoot, the focus on the visuals allowed production to be less concerned with the audio. This, in turn, allowed them to shoot more quickly. It likely, also, reduced the number of people required on set – eliminating some of, or all, the sound crew – thereby further increasing safety.
By relying on post-production sound, the creative team behind “Singin’ in the Rain” was able to increase pandemic safety. This is a tactic that we suggest any production follow if they know they can add/fix the sound in post.
Kelly and company made this scene safer to shoot during a pandemic by limiting the cast to just one person and relying heavily on post-production sound. These twin strategies help to lay the foundation for pandemic safety. But what really makes this scene COVID-19 safe is its amazing location control.
Bring on the Rain: The Importance of Location Control
Contrary to popular belief, this scene was not shot indoors on a sound stage. It was, in fact, shot outdoors on MGM’s studio backlot. Giant black tarps were used to block out the sun to make it look like night and rain machines created the desired conditions.
A Hollywood myth that has persisted over the years is that they mixed milk into the rainwater to make it appear on film. This is not the case. With back lighting and strategic camera placement the creative team was able capture the rain drops clearly.
The scene was delayed one day due to water shortage in Southern California. The production was set and ready to shoot when the residents of Culver City came home and turned on their sprinklers. The rain machines on set produced little more than a trickle.
Once the water issues were figured out, production made it rain and captured cinema history.
As we have talked about in several of our early pandemic articles, location control is vital to keeping our sets safe in a pandemic. And one of the best ways to achieve that is to shoot on a studio lot. Studio lots afford productions a level of location control that we can’t even dream of attaining when we shoot on location.
Gene Kelly’s legendary dance in the rain is a showcase for the power of location control and the benefits of shooting on a studio back lot.
If we had to film “Singin’ in the Rain” during a pandemic, we would make many of the same choices that Gene Kelly and company made. We would limit the cast, focus on the visual, minimize the crew, and shoot it on a backlot to maximize location control. These elements together would create shooting conditions that are nearly as safe as we can hope for in a pandemic.
Fresh Perspective: 2022 Considerations
Here are some pandemic considerations we would want to account for if we had to film this rainy-day number during COVID-19:
- Cast Symptoms: When Gene Kelly reported to set to shoot this scene, he was running a fever of 103℉. This means that we would not have been able to shoot this scene at that time. A fever is one of the symptoms of a COVID-19 infection. We would have had to isolate the affected cast and crew and follow proper protocol before we could resume production. [On a side note, we hope that all of us can perform as well as Kelly did with a 103℉ fever.]
- Vaccinations: We would want to encourage a fully vaccinated set. While the vaccines are not 100% effective, they are one of our best defenses against COVID-19.
- Booster Shots: The FDA has now authorized a second round of boosters for people over 50 and those with compromised immune systems. We would want to make sure that all cast and crew members who fall into those categories be made aware of their new eligibility.
- Union Guidelines: We would be sure to follow all union guidelines pertaining to COVID-19 safety on set.
If Hollywood musicals had a logo, it would be Gene Kelly swinging from the lamppost. This one scene is the singular embodiment of the American movie musical. “Singin’ in the Rain” is a feel-good film that showcases the lost art of the triple-threat: a singer, actor, dancer. And in Kelly’s case, director as well.
If we had to shoot “Singin’ in the Rain” today, we would want to make sure that all our cast and crew members are symptom free before reporting to set each day. We would also follow union guidelines and encourage both vaccinations and boosters.
The creative team behind “Singin’ in the Rain” made decisions that ensured its title scene was as pandemic-proof as possible. They created a showcase of location control, a billboard for studio backlot filmmaking that eliminated all non-essential characters and relied on post-production sound to finish their masterpiece.
For all its much-deserved accolades, “Singin’ in the Rain” only has two original songs in it: “Moses Supposes” and “Make ‘em Laugh.” The rest of the music is cobbled together from previously recorded works. In fact, the song Singin’ in the Rain first appeared on screen in 1929’s “The Hollywood Revue.” By the time it was used in “Singin’ in the Rain” this one song had already been in at least seven films.
When we look at contemporary cinema’s penchant for recycling material, we should remember that one of the greatest films of all time was pieced together from spare musical parts. “Singin’ in the Rain” remains a classic because of the talent on display. A welcome reminder that, sometimes, execution matters more than originality. That if you do it best, yours is the one that will be remembered most.
Join us later this month to celebrate the 20th anniversary of an indie classic when we look through the COVID lens at 2002’s “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
Brian Smolensky is a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and a former Air Force Full Spectrum Threat Response Officer with over 15 years of experience in film and television production.
DISCLAIMER: This information should not be considered comprehensive and is not a substitute for hiring risk management professionals and personnel trained in COVID-19-specific procedures. Please consult with your insurance company, your investors, all applicable union reps, and health and safety professionals before starting production in a pandemic.