1/4/08

"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN": BACKSTAGE AT A BACKSTAGE STORY

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Allow me to plug a very nice CD of the soundtrack of the movie "Singin' In The Rain." It's nothing new--it was actually produced ten years ago--but I found it while on a buying spree at the Virgin Megastore in West Hollywood (everything is 30 percent off seeing how they "lost their lease" which is, I imagine, code for: "why rent space when we can sell all this crap on line?"). It contains not only all the musical numbers from the film but all (or most of) the background cues (with titles like: "Dignity" and "Have Lunch With Me"). Furthermore it has a few fascinating extras--an alternate main title theme (instead of using "You Are My Lucky Star" it concentrates on "Singing In The Rain" proper), a rehearsal version of "Beautiful Girl" being sung by Gene Kelly and Jimmie Thompson accompanied by Lennie (Mr. Lena Horne) Hayton on the piano...and finally, a complete version of Kelly singing "All I Do Is Dream Of You" which was cut from the finished film.

When you divorce the image from the soundtrack of an iconic film like "Singin' In The Rain" a couple of strange things happen. For one, I found that I could envision a great deal more of the movie--shot by shot--than I would have imagined. In fact, it was almost impossible not to picture what was happening on screen while listening to the soundtrack. (I have a similar experience when listening to recordings of Fred Astaire dancing--I can see him). Another somewhat more profound realization sets in after a period of "image deprivation": you begin to grapple with the reality of the backbreaking labor involved in the assembly of a movie like this. The MGM Studio Orchestra--sixty or so top LA musicians of the day--are sitting there reading charts of elaborate arrangements written by a number of different guys who were, in the rarefied world of orchestrators, tops in their field in their day although unknown, by and large, to anyone but musicians; names like Bob Franklyn (he did the "Beautiful Girl" and "Singing In The Rain" arrangements), Wally Heglin ("Good Morning" and the "All I Do Is Dream Of You" at the party where Reynolds meets Kelly), Conrad Salinger ("Make 'Em Laugh" and the massive "Broadway Melody" ballet, along with Lennie Hayton). These guys were probably pulling all-nighters trying to bang these endless and byzantine charts out and one can only imagine the recording sessions themselves as being fraught with comments, concerns and on the spot rewrites. The liner notes of the CD provide an interesting explaination of how the recordings for the musical numbers in MGM movies were actually accomplished. What the hell. I'll quote it:

"Until the mid-1950's MGM musical performances were recorded through several microphones placed strategically throughout the scoring stage each creating discrete recordings called "angles" that captured the vocals as well as the different sections of the orchestra. Each "angle" was then edited, using portions of many different takes of each song or score piece. Finally the edited vocal and orchestral angles were mixed to monaural composite tracks, called "comps" for final use in the film."

It gives you a headache just thinking about it.

What I'm getting at is the INDUSTRY involved in piecing this movie together--and the fact that the final result would remain pretty much a mystery, due to the filmmaking process itself, until the very end of the process. This was due to the organic nature by which the process of the creation of the film unfolded; first the choreographer (in this case Kelly) had to devise a dance routine. This necessarily trial and error process would be done along with a pianist/arranger--in this case either Lennie Hayton or Conrad Salinger--working out the dance arrangement along with Kelly. The piano track would be recorded for playback purposes on set--perhaps it was during this time that the orchestrators came in and started actually creating the full score. (Though, on second thought, I doubt it. They probably waited until the final cut of the film was arrived at so as not to have to unnecessarily rewrite the orchestrations due to cuts in the numbers). Furthermore, although the movie was shot in color the dailies (or the "rushes" as they were then called) were projected in black and white. So for most of the shooting period of "Singing In the Rain", the creators were watching some of the most famous production numbers ever filmed for the first time...in black and white silence. Nerve wracking as this must have been it also allowed for a triumphant moment that anybody whose work in film predates the use of video and computers (I'm dating myself here) remembers well: the FIRST ANSWER PRINT, where the formerly sloppy film suddenly bursts from the screen, polished like a gem with colors ablazing. Only at the mix, however, would the full effect of the soundtrack--with those lush orchestral backgrounds--finally be slotted into place, the last piece of the puzzle.

With so much to choose from in "Singing In The Rain" it's almost impossible to pick one number to post. (One of the extraordinary things about the film is that each number manages to top the previous one so that I occasionally forget about the very existence of a specific number until the next time I see the film). To me the one that most frequently gets lost amongst the glitter that surrounds it is the breathless "Moses Supposes". So here 'tis...

4 comments:

  1. Great post! Do you mind if I link to it on my Gene Kelly blog? Address is genescene.blogspot.com if you want to see what we do there. ;-)

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  2. By all means link away! Thanks for reading.

    Raymond

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  3. Good stuff! I posted about both SITR articles as well as The Pirate at this post.

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  4. Hello
    My name is Sagrario, I´m a spanish girl and I apologise for my horrible English. I was looking for some fotographs of Gene Kelly and suddendly I came here, to this wonderful blog.
    I think you wrote a great post!!
    Singin in the rain is may favorite movie and I want to thank you this tribute to Gene Kelly.
    Bye.

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