Make ‘em laugh

“Singin’ In The Rain” was on earlier this evening, and I was about to watch “This Week In Tech” at the time, so I set the DVR to tape it.

I’ve seen it a million times, but I can watch it over and over again. I don’t know if it’s necessarily the greatest musical ever made, a title frequently bestowed upon it, because the term “musical” is so broad, encompassing both comedy and drama. But it’s unquestionably one of the greatest.

It’s goofy, of course – but intentionally so, at least in most places. Remember, this movie was made in the 1950s but set in 1927, so they’re looking back patronizingly at the 20s the same way we might look back patronizingly at the 80s, or the 70s, or – for that matter – the 50s.

I sat down here intending to write a blog post, not about the whole movie, but about Donald O’Connor’s incredible showcase number, “Make ‘Em Laugh.” When I was a kid, Donald O’Connor was an old man who turned up on variety shows or, later, on “The Love Boat.” I had no idea what had made him famous, and nothing he did in his golden years impressed the young me all that much. But “Make ‘Em Laugh” is one of the biggest achievements in physical comedy ever, and probably the biggest achievement in comedic dance.  O’Connor, a heavy smoker, threw himself into it so completely that he was bedridden for a week afterward – and then, due to a technical problem with that footage, he had to do it all over again.

The song, of course, is another source of controversy, and had the movie been made today it would have resulted in a lawsuit.

Arthur Freed, a producer at MGM, led the so-called “Freed Unit,” his own staff of technicians, who were responsible for what most people think of as the “MGM musical” – movies starring Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire in his MGM years, Judy Garland, Leslie Caron and so on. Earlier in his career, in the late 20s and early 30s, he had been a songwriter, partnered with Nacio Herb Brown. The original idea behind “Singin’ In The Rain” was a cost-saving measure; rather than pay a lot of money to buy the rights to a Broadway play or commission a new score, Freed asked screenwriters Adolph Green and Betty Comden to build a musical around the old Freed and Brown catalog. Many of the songs, including the title number, had already been used in previous MGM movies from the early days of sound. Since the songs dated from the era when talkies began, Green and Comden had the brilliant idea to set the movie during a period when the songs would sound in place (even though, for the movie, they’re jazzed up with then-current arrangements).

Anyway, they ended up needing a couple of extra numbers, and so producer Freed was called out of his songwriting retirement and asked to co-write one with Brown. He wrote “Make ‘Em Laugh” – except that big chunks of the melody, and the basic idea put forth by the lyrics, are almost identical to “Be A Clown,” from Cole Porter’s score to another Gene Kelly movie, “The Pirate.” It’s not clear whether Freed realized what he was doing at the time – although he certainly realized it later, and quickly changed the subject when Irving Berlin asked him about it. But he was such a revered and powerful figure, and had done so much for Porter and so many others, that no one dared challenge him or seek legal action.

Obviously, the most amazing thing about “Singin’ In The Rain” is a soaking-wet Gene Kelly performing the title number. But in any other movie, “Make ‘Em Laugh” wouldn’t have to settle for second place. And I haven’t even mentioned the “Broadway Rhythm Ballet.”

What a wonderful movie.