Singin’ In The Rain is rightly regarded as the greatest Hollywood musical of all time, and stories of its production have melted into movie legend, from Debbie Reynolds’ remark that “Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do”, to Gene Kelly running a 103° fever during the classic dance number.
The film’s story began more than twenty years before its release. MGM producer Arthur Freed spent the ’20s as a lyricist, scoring talkies with Nacio Herb Brown, and their song ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ appeared in The Hollywood Revue of 1929. By the 1940s, Freed – now head of his own MGM unit – wanted to create a musical from his own back catalogue. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were hired to write the screenplay. Realising the songs were very much of their era, “it occurred to us that rather than try to use them in a sophisticated, contemporary story… they would bloom at their happiest in something that took place in the very period in which they had been written.” The transition from silent to sound was inspiring; film-within-a-film The Duelling Cavalier was lampooned directly from the talkies of silent screen star John Gilbert.
By 1951 the Hollywood Reporter was claiming that Carleton Carpenter would be starring and that Marge and Gower Champion, a husband-and-wife dance team, were starting rehearsals “at the end of the month”, but none were ever really involved. Gene Kelly’s interest in the role of Don Lockwood shifted it from song-centred to a full-on dance extravaganza, to be directed by Kelly himself. Stanley Donen, who directed him in On The Town (1949), came with him. Lina Lamont had been written with Judy Holliday in mind, but it was her Broadway understudy Jean Hagen who got the part. Donald O’Connor took on the role of Cosmo Brown, which had been written for songwriter Oscar Levant. 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds, a gymnast who’d been discovered at a beauty pageant, was cast as Kathy Selden, and had no dance experience at all.
The movie went into production on 15th June 1951, lasting a gruelling five months. Kelly’s position as star, co-director and choreographer prioritised the film’s dance numbers over its singing. For novice Reynolds the long hours and difficult routines would result in the famous ‘Good Mornin” anecdote; after fourteen hours of shooting her feet were bleeding, and she had to be carried to her dressing room. Her unlikely saviour was Fred Astaire, who found her one day crying under a piano in the studio lot. He let her watch him rehearse (something he literally kept under lock and key). “He let me sit there by the door and watch him die, creating steps,” Reynolds said. “He was just sweating, turning red in the face, and after about an hour he looked over and he said, that’s enough. You see how hard it is? It never gets easier.” 
Donald O’Connor, despite being on the Vaudeville stage from 3 days old, also suffered from the physical exertion. The ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ sequence (created because Kelly wanted O’Connor to have a solo number) was brainstormed by the two of them from his old vaudeville work and from skits O’Connor would perform to amuse the crew, including the off-the-wall somersault. 27-year-old O’Connor, who was smoking four packets of cigarettes a day, was so exhausted he had to go to bed for a week after filming the sequence – but a mistake with the camera equipment meant that the film was unusable, and he had to shoot the entire thing over again. One of the few new songs Freed wrote for the film, ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ ‘borrowed’ rather heavily from Cole Porter’s ‘Be A Clown’, so much so that when Porter’s friend Irving Berlin was on the set he recognised it immediately. Donen called it “100% plagiarism.”
Even as choreographer and at peak physical fitness, Gene Kelly couldn’t escape the film’s catalogue of maladies, performing the signature sequence with a cold and fever. It would go on to become the most famous musical number in film history, despite Kelly keeping its content vague for the producers out of fear that it wouldn’t sound worth doing. “I was asked by the producer, Mr. Freed, what I would do to this number – it was a favourite of his, being the author of it – and… I said, well, it’s gonna be raining and I’m gonna be singing.”  Modest as ever, Kelly would attribute the number’s success to the crew, musicians, and composers.
The film’s homage to the silent era was reflected in its mise-en-scene. Donen and Kelly raided the MGM warehouses for contemporary props, dressing sets with items from 1926 drama Flesh and the Devil (yet another reference to its star, poor John Gilbert). Older crew members were cross-examined on the problems of early sound recording and a silent-era soundstage was brought back into service for the production. Cyd Charisse, appearing in the fantasy Broadway sequence (and for the first time opposite Kelly), was made up to echo 1920s actress Louise Brooks. Costume designer Walter Plunkett duplicated outfits he’d made for silent film star Lilyan Tashman.
Perhaps the most roundabout homage was the reliance on dubbing, a cornerstone of the plot, in the film’s own production; MGM didn’t like Reynolds’ voice, so when her character Kathy dubbed over Lina Lamont’s lines, the voice in fact belonged to Lina Lamont – Jean Hagen’s natural voice was much lower than the falsetto she adopted for the part. To clarify: Jean dubbed Debbie’s character dubbing Jean’s character.
By the end of production the film’s budget had ballooned from $1.8m to $2.5m (with $150,000 spent on costumes alone), but on its release in April 1952 it grossed $7.6m and ensured a win for the studio. Audiences flocked to see it and, despite being largely ignored by the Oscars, it was a triumph; it’s seen as a creative zenith for many of those involved.
Could they have imagined that sixty years later, in an era of HD, GCI, and with most of its cast long gone, that generation after generation would still be falling in love with Singin’ In The Rain? Perhaps not – but the dedication and perseverance detailed in its production certainly seems to have paid off.