Saturday, December 16, 2017

Consider it Stolen! —the curious case of "Singin' in the Rain"

Donald O'Connor: "Make 'em Laugh"
[post 433]

Way back in the day, 1980 to be precise, when I was working with Joe Killian and Michael Zerphy, whenever we saw other performers do a bit we really liked, we'd say "consider it stolen!" I think the phrase originated with Joe, but he may have stolen it.

You know what they say, there's nothing new under the sun, and that mostly holds true for physical comedy. I'm always amused, for example, when the Marx Brothers (or even Lucille Ball) are given credit for originating the broken mirror routine (Duck Soup), when in fact it not only appears in many early silent film comedies, but is referenced in even earlier reviews of vaudeville acts. Sure, there's originality, but there's a whole lot of borrowing going on and —if we're lucky— creative reshaping of traditional materials.
Keaton as The Cameraman

The historian-detective in me has enjoyed tracing this kind of thing, for example in this post on what I call the oblivious gag. My return to this theme is inspired by some excellent detective work done by silent film pianist and historian Ben Model, showing how Singin' in the Rain (1952) borrowed from Buster Keaton's The Cameraman (1928). But we'll get to that juicy discovery a bit later...

You all know Singin' in the Rain, right? If not, you're in for a treat! It's a corny but delightful MGM musical from1952 starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor, all about the rough transition from silent film to sound. The remarkable thing about Singin' in the Rain is that it began not as a story idea but as a musical woven around old songs, but also a musical partially woven around old physical comedy material.

The big musical link was Arthur Freed. As Cecil Adams points out in this Straight Dope article, "Freed, the producer responsible for most of the MGM musicals of the 40s and 50s, began his career as a songwriter. "Singin' in the Rain" was part of Brown and Freed's score for MGM's first "all talking, all singing, all dancing" musical, The Hollywood Revue of 1929. In 1952, Freed decided to use his own songbook as the basis for an original musical, as he had done with Jerome Kern's songs in 1946 (Till the Clouds Roll By) and George Gershwin's in 1951 (An American in Paris)."

They had Freed's songs, might as well shape a show around them!

So the song Singin' in the Rain goes all the way back to one of the two first big MGM musicals of the sound era, which featured "30 MGM stars! More Stars Than There Are in Heaven!" Here it is, the show's big finale:

Not only did the songs come first, but the fact that they all came from the late 1920s gave screenwriters Comden & Green the idea for the story. According to this piece on the Cafe Songbook site, "Betty Comden and Adolph Green returned to M-G-M in May of 1950 to begin work on the screenplay for the movie they had been contracted to write, believing they were also contracted to write the lyrics for its songs. M-G-M clarified the terms of the contract to them. It was the studio's option regarding the lyrics and M-G-M's choice was that all the songs would be by the songwriting team of Arthur Freed (the film's producer) and Nacio Herb Brown, his songwriting partner. Furthermore, they would be almost exclusively songs from their existing catalog. While looking at these songs, Comden and Green noticed that Freed-Brown songs such as "Should I?," "All I Do Is Dream of You," "Good Morning," You Were Meant for me," "You Are My Lucky Star," "Singin' in the Rain," etc. were written in the late twenties which gave them the idea to create a story that came from that period; and the lynch pin of the plot they created was based on the disastrous results that sometimes occurred when silent screen actors and actresses were forced to talk on screen, to be heard no matter how awful they might sound."

All these songs made it into the film, or should I say "made the film"?

Donald O'Connor
A Tale of Two Tunes
The film was coming together, but co-director Stanley Donen still wanted a solo number for Donald O'Connor, who played Gene Kelly's comic sidekick and was a talented and very physical comedian. In fact, O'Connor's parents were vaudevillians, his father an Irish-born circus strongman, dancer, and comedian, and his mother a circus acrobat, bareback rider, tightrope walker, and dancer. There was nothing in the Arthur Freed oeuvre that fit, but that didn't stop MGM from doing some more borrowing. They just went back to an earlier MGM movie starring Gene Kelly, The Pirate (1948), and "borrowed" from Cole Porter instead.

Again according to Cecil Adams, "Donen suggested that Brown and Freed write a new song, pointing to Porter’s “Be a Clown” as the sort of thing he thought would fit in at that point in the script. Brown and Freed obliged —maybe too well— with “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Donen called it “100 percent plagiarism,” but Freed was the boss and the song went into the film. Cole Porter never sued, although he obviously had grounds enough. Apparently he was still grateful to Freed for giving him the assignment for The Pirate at a time when Porter’s career was suffering from two consecutive Broadway flops."

Grateful, or simply too afraid of MGM's power?

So that's the background. Ironically, Kelly sang the original "Be a Clown" song, and in Make 'em Laugh, it is O'Connor singing to cheer up Kelly's character. Here's a short comparison, brief excerpts from each so you can see the similarity between the two tunes and the message.

But it's not just the tune that was lifted.  The Make 'en Laugh lyrics directly paraphrase those of Be a Clown. Clever but barely disguised plagiarism:

In The Pirate, Kelly is about to be hung by his neck in the town square. O'Connor quotes what that immortal bard, Samuel J. Snodgrass, said "as he was about to be led to the guillotine."

While O'Connor's dad advised him to "be an actor my son, but be a comical one," Kelly was only three when his "clever" mom told him "I’ve got your future sewn up if you take this advice: be a clown, be a clown."

And why go into the funny business? Because you'll get rich, unlike in those other more effete professions. Kelly's mom asks him "Why be a great composer with your rent in arrears? Why be a major poet and you’ll owe it for years? A college education I should never propose. A bachelor’s degree won’t even keep you in clothes." Likewise, O'Connor's dad warns him that "you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite, and you could charm the critics and have nothing to eat."

But if you're funny, what happens?  Kelly is promised  a bright future where he'll "only stop with top folks" and "he'll never lack" and "millions you will win." O'Connor likewise will have "the world at your feet."

Okay, sounds good. But what does it take to be funny? Kelly's clown is instructed to...
• show ‘em tricks, tell ‘em jokes
• wear the cap and the bells
• be a crack Jackanapes
• give 'em quips, give 'em fun
• act the fool, play the calf
• stand on your head
• wiggle your ears
• wear a painted mustache
• spin on your nose
• quack like a duck

O'Connor's comical actor must...
• slip on a banana peel
• [perform] old honky-tonk monkeyshines
• tell ‘em a joke, but give it plenty of hoke.
• take a fall, butt a wall, split a seam.
• start off by pretending you’re a dancer with grace, wiggle till they’re giggling all over the place, then get a great big custard pie in the face

The actual acts differ more than the lyrics because they are structured around the individual talents of the performers. "Be a Clown" actually is done twice in The Pirate, first with Kelly and the fabulous Nicklaus Brothers, and is later reprised by Kelly and Judy Garland. In both cases, it's a partner number with more of a dance base to it. O'Connor, on the other hand, is both a better comedian and a far more skilled acrobat. The result, one of the greatest physical comedy acts ever, became his signature piece.

Here are the complete versions. Enjoy!

Be a Clown #1 (Kelly & the Nicklaus Brothers)

Be a Clown #2 (Kelly & Judy Garland)

Make 'em Laugh

The Plot Thickens
Keaton & Josephine the
monkey in The Cameraman

But that's just the beginning! As I said at the top, this blog post got jump-started by Ben Model unearthing a less obvious and even more fascinating Singin' in the Rain borrow. And this one is all the juicier because it involves our hero, Buster Keaton.

Take it away, Ben...

Wow! Like I said, great detective work. And as if that wasn't amazing enough, think back to the original version of the song from The Hollywood Revue of 1929.  In that cavalcade of stars, did you notice the one luminary who couldn't / wouldn't have "a smile on his face"?  Yep, that's "the great stoneface" himself at the 39-second mark.

The one thing I would add to Ben's chronology is that in the years before Singin' in the Rain (1952), Keaton was an uncredited gag writer for a bunch of MGM movies, including the Marx. Brothers, but especially a slew of Red Skelton vehicles, right up to his 1950 Watch the Birdie, which was partially a remake of The Cameraman, and two more 1951 Skelton films.  So if Keaton wasn't directly consulted on Singin' in the Rain, he was certainly still a presence at the studio. It was also in 1950 that his appearance on the Ed Wynn Show led to a lot of work on early television and made him less dependent on the Hollywood film industry.

Kelly & Skelton in Du Barry Was a Lady
And speaking of Red Skelton...
A talented pantomimist, Red Skelton, like Keaton, had grown up in show business, performing in medicine shows at the age of ten, and later burlesque and vaudeville. Keaton's work with him in the 1940s would be enough to fill another blog post (don't get me started!), but there are a couple of possible links between Skelton and Singin' in the Rain. Gene Kelly's "Broadway Ballet" fantasy sequence was apparently based on an idea that was used for MGM's Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), starring Skelton as a nightclub worker who dreams that he's King Louis XV. And who was his romantic rival for Lucille Ball's affections in that one? Gene Kelly, natch. (And before the film, it was a Broadway musical starring Bert Lahr chasing Ethel Merman.)

But even more interesting than that is the similarity between some of Skelton's pratfall moves from Du Barry and those of O'Connor, as seen in this comparison video. In the first part, Skelton and friend think they have tricked Gene Kelly into downing the drink with the Mickey Finn, but (of course!) the glasses have been switched, which leads to Skelton's wonderful drunk pratfall sequence. Skeleton is drunk, O'Conner is giddy, but the writhing around and the circular movements when on their side on the floor are strikingly similar.

Did O'Connor borrow this? Who knows? —but not necessarily. It's just as likely that these moves were standard fare. After all, the 108 pratfall was also common property (if you could do it!). Still, you need someone to preserve the vocabulary, and in the yakkety-yak-yak 1940s, that someone may well have been Red Skelton.

Of course, once you start making these connections, it's endless — run amok— so I'll stop the narrative here and just leave you with a few tidbits for dessert...

• When they made the biopic The Buster Keaton Story in 1957, can you guess who played Keaton? Dramatic pause. Are you really guessing? Space filler. Space filler Space filler. More space filler. Even more space filler. Yep, Donald O'Connor. This stuff's downright incestuous.

• Trav SD points out that Singin' in the Rain producer/songwriter Arthur Freed wrote material for the Marx Brothers’ act and performed in their sketches way back in their vaudeville days.

• As for the Nicklaus Brothers, according to Wikipedia "this dance sequence was omitted when shown in some cities in the South, such as Memphis, because it featured black performers the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard and Harold, dancing with Kelly. It was the first time they had danced onscreen with a Caucasian, and while it was Kelly's insistence that they perform with him, they were the ones who were punished. Essentially blackballed, they moved to Europe and did not return until the mid-60s."

• Kevin Kline does his own version of "Be a Clown" in the 2004 Cole Porter biopic, De-Lovely. Interesting enough and a much bigger production number.

• In 2006 or so, Volkswagon did this commercial where they remade Gene Kelly's dance in the rain, using his face and choreography but a break dancer's body and moves. Very interesting!

• Anthony Balducci, whose Journal blog I highly recommend, has an excellent piece about gag borrowing/ stealing, with some interesting comparisons between the tv work of Ernie Kovacs and the sketches of the British comedy duo Morecambe & Wise.

• For a list of Keaton's uncredited gag writing, see Buster Keaton: Cut To The Chase by Marion Meade.

• Keaton's downward spiral as a star at MGM is chronicled in Kevin Brownlow's 2004 documentary, So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton and MGM. It is included as part of the DVD set, Buster Keaton Collection: (The Cameraman / Spite Marriage / Free & Easy).

Braggedy-brag-brag, but my personal show-biz DNA intersects with several of the performers mentioned here:
—My first acting job was just days past my 7th birthday, a skit with Skelton and Jackie Gleason on the Red Skelton Show. Skelton had worked extensively with Keaton, and Keaton had done a version of clown Sliver Oakley's classic one-man baseball pantomime in The Cameraman. The skit I did with Gleason & Skelton was —yep!— about a baseball game. Also, around this time, Skelton did some research for creating his Freddie the Freeloader tramp clown. He visited Coney Island and studied the clown Freddy the Tramp, later "borrowing" some of his bits for his new character. Freddy the Tramp was the father of my long-time clown partner, Fred Yockers. When Fred, Jan Greenfield, and I started the First NY International Clown-Theatre Festival in 1983, Skelton agreed to be honorary chairperson, though we never actually got to speak with him.
—Keaton was on the Ed Wynn Show in 1950, and I was on a tv show with Wynn about nine years later. (There's no way telling which of us Wynn preferred working with.)
— In The Pirate, the great character actor Walter Slezak played the town mayor who (spoiler alert!) is really the pirate Macoco. In 1958 I acted with Slezak on "Beaver Patrol," a comic drama on the U.S. Steel Hour about an eccentric New York uncle who visits relatives in Beverly Hills, takes over a scout troupe, and teaches the spoiled rich kids gritty New York City stuff. Yes, I'm the one looking at the camera. I do remember Slezak as being very affable and a pleasure to work with.

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