'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly's widow talks about his legacy and why he never wanted a biopic made about him

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'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly's widow talks about his legacy and why he never wanted a biopic made about him
A poster for "Singin' in the Rain."Movie Poster Image Art/Getty Images
  • Warner Bros. released a new 4K Ultra HD version of "Singin' in the Rain" for its 70th anniversary.
  • Insider spoke to director and star Gene Kelly's widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, about his legacy.
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At the time "Singin' in the Rain" was released over 70 years ago, there had never been a film like it. And there likely never will be one like it again.

The satirical musical comedy — directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and starring Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen — has achieved classic film status in the decades since its debut, though it was only a modest hit at the time of release and won no Oscars the year it was eligible.

In honor of the film's 70th anniversary and Warner Bros.' release of a vibrant new 4K Ultra HD version on Blu-ray, Insider spoke to Kelly's widow and biographer, Patricia Ward Kelly, about "Singin' in the Rain," myth-busting false stories about the movie, Gene Kelly's legacy, and why he never wanted a biopic made about his life.

'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly's widow talks about his legacy and why he never wanted a biopic made about him
A still from "Singin' in the Rain," courtesy of Warner Bros.Courtesy of Warner Brothers

You recently said Gene always thought his best-remembered film would be "An American in Paris," which swept the Oscars in 1951. I'm always surprised to be reminded that "Singin' in the Rain" won nothing at the Oscars. Why do you think a movie that's become such a classic was virtually shut out that year, with no awards recognition?

Gene did talk about this. I asked him about it and what happened. His feeling was that comedy was considered a lesser element. That it wasn't real drama and the people weren't chewing the scenery and you didn't have all the neurosis of all of the actors and everything.

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There wasn't a recognition of how difficult comedy is, things like the great improvisation of Donald O'Connor in the film, and the performance of Jean Hagen, who was nominated for an Oscar for the movie but didn't win. Gene always said Jean was really the glue that held "Singin' in the Rain" together.

'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly's widow talks about his legacy and why he never wanted a biopic made about him
Jean Hagen in a still from "Singin' in the Rain," courtesy of Warner Bros.Courtesy of Warner Brothers

Even to this day, we're a little reluctant to acknowledge musical theater, although those movies are getting some recognition — like "La La Land," obviously. Still, there's a sense that maybe it's not as serious. But the work involved, the complexity of it, the orchestration, the choreography of all of it... I wish people would recognize it. I wish they would make more of them.

Gene thought it was the true American art form. And I think it would be nice if we begin to elevate it to that level.

You've often spoken about how many myths surround this film. What's the most outlandish story you couldn't believe people ever thought was true?

I keep trying to bust the myths and they just sprout up like mushrooms. They just keep coming up. I stomp it down and it pops back up.

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There's one that even was out when Gene was around, and he just thought it was preposterous — that they put milk in the water [in his iconic "Singin' in the Rain" dance number] so that you could see the raindrops instead of recognizing that it's just fantastic cinematography and lighting. And it's the really difficult thing of backlighting the rain, especially when Gene is dancing along in front of all the plate glass windows, because they had to backlight that rain without showing all the equipment in the windows.

And several of the people in the film had a tendency to elaborate. Stories about the making of the film just grew and changed and evolved, and I think in some ways it does a disservice to all of the players. I never understood why you would have to elaborate or really manufacture details about what transpired because the making of the film is so amazing. You don't have to make anything up, you just read the production notes and it blows your mind.

And how about Gene himself, and the stories and myths surrounding him as an artist?

You hear Gene described as a "taskmaster" and well, he was a professional. He hated being described as a perfectionist. He said, "What professional is not a perfectionist?"

He's pulling together an entire film. Rita Moreno [who appeared in "Singin' in the Rain" as silent film star Zelda Zanders] said he was in constant motion. He's up on the boom as the director, setting the shots with dancers down on the stage, and then he's setting lighting with the lighting designers. He goes in and changes into his own costume, does a take. Maybe two out of eight takes actually works for the camera and for Gene's movement.

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And one story about the filming of the movie that was true: He was very sick with a temperature of about 103 degrees when he shot the iconic dance number in the rain. So he would go outside and lie on the sidewalk and just try to bake the fever out of him. And then he'd go back in and many times.

'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly's widow talks about his legacy and why he never wanted a biopic made about him
A still from "Singin' in the Rain," courtesy of Warner Bros.Courtesy of Warner Brothers

It's also true that they ran out of water in Culver City [the Los Angeles neighborhood where the MGM lot was] because everybody came home from work and watered their lawn and took showers. And suddenly there wasn't enough water pressure.

He choreographed the camera movement in addition to his own movement and all of the dancers, and the lights were hot and burning, and often the bulbs would explode. And just the complexity of it was amazing. So it's kind of amazing these films got made.

Gene always said that MGM was a repertory company. You had everyone under one roof, and I think that's what made movies of this scale possible. That's why we don't see them today — because to gather all that talent in one place, it's virtually impossible.

You've spoken at length about how important it is to you — and how important it was to Gene — to protect and maintain his legacy and how he had you record your conversations with him to memorialize everything. He seemed extremely aware of the fact that people would be talking about him for years after his death. What was one rumor or myth about Gene that bugged him the most?

This perfectionism notion and this notion that he would ever be abusive toward anyone, or that he had a huge ego. He was the most humble man, really. And I'm not just saying that as his wife but also as his biographer. I had to check him on all this stuff.

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I talked to a lot of people, and particularly the musicians and a lot of the technical people, and you get a very different story than you might get from some of the costars whose stories evolved over time. The musicians were consistent about Gene's behavior.

You'll read things that Gene would sometimes eliminate somebody else's number because he felt it outshone his, but that's not Gene at all. He said, "You surround yourself with the best. And if you surround yourself with the best, it only elevates your position." So a lot of these stories are just kind of nonsense.

'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly's widow talks about his legacy and why he never wanted a biopic made about him
Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Gene Kelly in a still from "Singin' in the Rain," courtesy of Warner Bros.Courtesy of Warner Brothers

It also bothered him that a lot of people forget that he directed anything. A lot of people will come up to me and say, "Did he ever direct any pictures?" And they'll say, "Did he ever choreograph anything?" I just had those questions this weekend. I think that's what hurt him the most because he was always left off of lists of directors and choreographers because his presence on the screen is so huge.

People are stunned that he directed "Hello, Dolly!" They just kind of forget. He said, "I want to be remembered for change in the look of dance on film. I want to be remembered for being behind the camera." And he said, "If anybody is going to do it will be you." I feel that responsibility pretty much every minute of every day.

In response to the news that Tom Holland is playing another legendary dancer Fred Astaire in a biopic, you wrote a Facebook post saying that Gene absolutely did not ever want a biopic made about him. Is there any truth that you're aware of to the reports that Chris Evans has been tapped to play Gene in an upcoming movie? And what would your reaction be if such a project moved forward?

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'Singin' in the Rain' star Gene Kelly's widow talks about his legacy and why he never wanted a biopic made about him
Gene Kelly and Patricia Ward Kelly in 1994.David Keeler/Getty Images

That was one of Gene's strongest objections. He said, "I absolutely do not want a biopic." He had watched so many of them, about his friends and Judy Garland and others. And it was really hurtful to him because he knew these people. He felt what was projected up on the screen really diminished them and their memories.

So he said, "Absolutely not. I do not want it. Do not do it." And so I'll just sit over in the corner and just keep saying that. I don't know. I don't have any association with that one. I'll just be that little voice over here going, 'He didn't want that.'

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

"Singin' in the Rain" is now available on 4K Ultra HD and digitally.

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