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Viewer Guide: “Singin’ in the Rain” and “My Week with Marilyn”

January 12, 2022 | Richard Peña

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN 

Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

This week’s double feature starts with Singin’ in the Rain, the beloved 1952 MGM musical spoof of Hollywood’s silent era, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green and co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. 

Set in 1927 during the waning days of “the roaring twenties,” Gene Kelly stars as Don Lockwood, a dashing Hollywood matinee idol. Don attends the premiere of his latest silent epic, “The Royal Rascal,” along with his beautiful leading lady, Lina Lamont, portrayed in a brilliant comic turn by Jean Hagen. If you believe the fan magazines, Don and Lina are just as hot an item off-screen as they are on-screen. When asked about his rise to fame, Don insists his guiding motto has always been “dignity,” yet a flashback sequence relates how Don’s actual career trajectory has been anything but dignified, along with an off-camera relationship with Lina that’s been anything but romantic. 

The fantasy perfection of Don’s movie star life dims further after a chance encounter with a high-minded young theater actress named Kathy Selden, played by Debbie Reynolds in a career-making performance, who is thoroughly unimpressed by Don’s melodramatic movie “acting.” The most ominous sign that Don’s days of silver screen glory are numbered occurs at “The Royal Rascal” premiere party, where Don sees—or rather “hears”—the writing on the wall in the form of a short “talking picture,” and learns of the preposterous plans to create a feature-length sound film, something with the improbable title The Jazz Singer. The rest is history. Don’s next swashbuckling romance is halted in order to be re-shot as a sound movie, resulting in an array of comic complications, particularly when it comes to Lina and her “elocution.” 

Donald O’Connor also stars as Don’s song & dance partner Cosmo Brown, and Cyd Charisse shines in a series of iconic dance performances. The movie’s much-loved soundtrack is largely made up of songs by composer Nacio Brown and lyricist Arthur Freed, who also happened to be the studio chief of the “Freed Unit,” the division responsible for the MGM “lion’s share” of legendary movie musicals. 

In the nearly seven decades since the film’s release, Singin’ in the Rain has come to be regarded as the apotheosis of Hollywood’s golden age of movie musicals. The production was initially conceived as a framework to showcase the songs of legendary MGM producer Arthur Freed and composer Nacio Brown, whose string of memorable tunes had all been featured in earlier movies. Freed assigned scriptwriting duties to Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the acclaimed duo who had created On the Town for Broadway with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Since most of the songs dated from the 20s and 30s, once Gene Kelly became attached to the project Comden and Green hit on the idea of lightly satirizing Hollywood’s silent era, which provided a charming variety of witty situations to use as settings for the songs and production numbers. 

As lighthearted as it all looks, all that “singin’ in the rain” wasn’t easy. While shooting the title number, Gene Kelly toughed it out with a 103-degree temperature, enduring two days of drenching artificial rain, which was filmed during a Culver City water shortage. Nineteen-year-old Debbie Reynolds was not a trained dancer, and after strenuous rehearsals and multiple retakes of the “Good Morning” number under Kelly’s grueling direction, she left the set with bloody feet. Despite a childhood upbringing in a circus family, Donald O’Connor’s heavy smoking habit required a week of bed rest after filming “Make ‘Em Laugh.” 

The production also offered plum opportunities for the supporting cast. Comden and Green had originally written the role of Lina Lamont for their friend Judy Holliday. However, after Holliday’s Oscar-winning success in 1950 with the movie version of Born Yesterday, she was considered too big a star for a supporting role, so Holliday’s Broadway understudy Jean Hagen ended up snagging the greatest role of her career. After years of lingering at the edges of several MGM films, Cyd Charisse finally vaulted to leading lady status with her alternatingly smoldering and lyrical appearances in the lavish “Broadway Melody” dance number. 

The film is also a good lesson in film history. The movies transition to sound was a difficult process, as beautifully depicted in the filming of Don and Lina’s first sound sequence. There were multiple problems—range, pitch, directionality, focus, not to mention synchronization—that plagued early sound filmmaking, working with still primitive recording equipment. Happily, within a few years the technology caught up with the cinema’s needs, and creative filmmakers were soon integrating sound into the very fabric of their films. 

While it’s hard to believe now, Singin’ in the Rain was initially overshadowed by more “artistic” musicals of the era like An American in Paris, and only garnered two Oscar nominations—one for music scoring, the other a richly deserved Supporting Actress nod for Jean Hagen. However, the film was a box office success, and over the decades has steadily grown in both popularity and critical estimation as the Golden Age of the movie musical—much like the silent era—entered its own twilight with the arrival of the 1960s. Even critic and filmmaker François Truffaut once declared that Singin’ in the Rain was his favorite film. 

REEL 13 DOUBLE FEATURE | MY WEEK WITH MARILYN

My Week with Marilyn (2011).

This week’s double feature continues with My Week with Marilyn, a 2011 biographical drama directed by Simon Curtis. 

Based on the memoirs by filmmaker Colin Clark, My Week with Marilyn recounts Clark’s alleged romantic interlude with Marilyn Monroe during the production of The Prince and the Showgirl at London’s Pinewood Studios in the summer and fall of 1957. Eddie Redmayne stars as Clark, a recent Eton College graduate eager to break into the movie business. Through family connections as well as his own perseverance, Clark manages to get a job as “third assistant director”—or in more prosaic terms, all-around production gofer—on a film initially titled The Sleeping Prince, to be directed by and starring Laurence Olivier, played by Kenneth Branagh. But the big excitement surrounding the film is Marilyn Monroe, played by Michelle Williams in an Oscar-nominated performance. As Olivier’s much-ballyhooed co-star, Monroe is taking over a role originally performed on the London stage by Olivier’s wife, Vivien Leigh, played by Julia Ormond. Regardless of the media frenzy generated by the pairing of England’s reigning king of acting with Hollywood’s ultimate “blonde bombshell,” the production immediately gets off on the wrong foot, with Olivier’s Shakespearean discipline instantly clashing with Monroe’s naturalistic technique. To make things worse, Monroe’s recent marriage to playwright Arthur Miller is also off to a shaky start. With his behind-the-scenes access, Clark finds himself increasingly enthralled by the vulnerable superstar, becoming an unexpected go-between in the war of wills between Olivier and Monroe. 

Also featured in supporting roles are Judi Dench as Dame Sybil Thorndike, Zoe Wanamaker as Monroe’s method acting coach Paula Strasberg, Dominic Cooper as Monroe’s producing partner Milton Greene, and Emma Watson as a wardrobe assistant who presents for Clark a more realistic romantic prospect. 

The son of famed art historian Kenneth Clark, Colin Clark went on to a career in documentary film, including a stint at Channel 13 in the 1960s. He published his first memoir about working on The Prince and the Showgirl in 1995, but curiously it contained no mention of a romance with Marilyn Monroe; however, his second account, published five years later, under the title My Week with Marilyn, contained the additional intimate details dramatized in the film. With no verification from other surviving cast and crew members, the true nature of Clark’s relationship with Monroe remains, shall we say, speculative. What isn’t speculative is the depiction of The Prince and the Showgirl’s difficult production circumstances, with Monroe’s chronic lateness to the set and dependence on her acting coach Paula Strasberg pushing her co-star and director Laurence Olivier to his limits. Putting aside questions of factual accuracy, My Week with Marilyn was released to positive reviews, with Michelle Williams in particular receiving wide critical acclaim for channeling an understanding of Monroe’s essence without resorting to mimicry, a unique approach that she again displayed in 2019 with her Emmy Award-winning performance as Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon. 

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema. 

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