Was there really milk in the rain? Or was it ink? Did Gene Kelly really have a fever of 103?
There are a lot of myths and facts bouncing around about what happened during the filming the sequence featuring Singin’ in the Rain (1952)'s eponymous song. Though it comes off as a fleet-footed, whimsical reverie of grace and harmony, it was absolutely a challenging piece of cinema to record, particularly in 1952. But not all the details circulating internet trivia boards are true.
First, let’s get this out of the way: It's true that Kelly wasn't feeling great (though the severity of his illness varies in different accounts), and no, there wasn’t milk (or ink) in the water.
Filming rain is tough. If the rain isn’t backlit, it completely disappears on camera. Cinematographer Harold Rosson had to light the rain from behind while simultaneously front-lighting Gene Kelly to make the rain show up on film without Kelly appearing as a dancing silhouette.
Singin’ in the Rain co-director Stanley Donen explained in this Directors Guild Association column, “There have been a lot of stories about how we put milk in the water so you could see the rain. It’s not true. You have to put the light behind the rain so that the raindrops show. If you put the light in front of the rain, with no light behind it, the rain disappears.”
But even before all the lighting concerns, there’s the logistics of making it rain in the first place. Although Gene Kelly’s gleeful tap number is set on what looks like a city street, it was, of course, a studio set. Giant pipes were fitted all around the top of the set, each with holes punched in them to release the “rain.” As Donen recalled in the same interview, “We had a funny kind of trouble, though, in that we were at MGM in Culver City, and it was a hot summer, so what would happen is that at 4:30 or 5 in the afternoon, when the sun was starting to go down, the people of Culver City watered their lawn, which made us lose water power. So every afternoon between 4 and 5, we had to stop, because there wasn't enough pressure to make rain. We had to work with the reality of life.”
The set was actually located in an outdoor studio area, which posed another interesting dilemma for the cinematographers: the scene took place at night, but they were filming in the day. To fix this, they stretched a giant tarpaulin across the whole area to block out the light, then filmed as if they were shooting in the dark. Additionally, filming took place during the summer, which made the entire area covered by a black tarp extremely hot - especially for Kelly, who was performing the number in soaking wet wool suits.
The filming itself was intensive and costly. Cinematography was done in Technicolor, which was slow and expensive, and needed bright, specific light to render the color properly. Lighting efforts were meticulous and all controlled by hand. Everything had to be perfectly timed and choreographed, from the kicking of puddles to Kelly standing in front of specific windows at specific seconds. If anything else happened, it wouldn’t get captured right on film. Rehearsals for this number went on for six months to work out as many kinks as possible, leaving little room for error during filming.
As it was, only a few takes of each segment were needed. The crew would film a chunk, allowing Kelly to remove his saturated suit and dry off while the next section was lit; then Kelly would grab a fresh suit and perform the next part. Popular belief has it that the whole number was shot in one take. That’s verifiably false and logistically impossible based on the setting and cinematic requirements of the shoot.
If there's anything to learn from Singin' in the Rain, it's the value of the rehearsal. Without coordinating every meticulous detail, the scene would never have come together. The end result is an almost-perfect dance number that, over 60 years later, lives on as one of Hollywood's most recognized, referenced, and parodied musical scenes in history.