The Basics: Was There Really Milk in Singin’ in the Rain?

This entry is part 2 of 15 in the series Gene Kelly: The Basics.

Virtually every (uh, misinformed) fan of Singin’ in the Rain (1952) proudly relays three behind-the-scenes “facts”:

  1. Gene Kelly was a hard-ass and worked Debbie Reynolds until her feet bled.
  2. Kelly had 103-degree fever while filming the title number.
  3. Also regarding the “Singin’ in the Rain” number, directors, Kelly and Stanley Donen, added milk to the water so that the raindrops would show up on camera.

The first two statements are true, or at least true-ish. In fact, Debbie Reynolds still tells the/a story about how Fred Astaire found her sobbing underneath a piano, a victim of Gene’s taskmaster ways.

However, the third “fact” above is false. Even though “the milk story” is featured on virtually every site that mentions Singin’ in the Rain, IMDB.com included (sigh), it is, as Gene Kelly guru/researcher Sue Cadman points out, “a bogus ‘fact’ that has been disseminated as gospel truth.” Moreover, as Cadman also reminds, Gene Kelly himself described what happened in several interviews, including American Film (1979):

Shooting the title number was just terrible for the photographer Hal Rossen. He had to backlight all the rain and then he had to put frontlight on the performer. That was as tough a job as I’ve ever seen, because you can’t photograph in rain and see it.

Furthermore, Kelly’s co-director, Stanley Donen, also dispels this “milky rain” business in his Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne (a great interview available for free on iTunes; get it, if you haven’t already!). And Donen explains the same in this Directors Guild Association column “Still Singing“:

When you’re shooting rain, it has to be backlit, or you may not see it very well. 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.

Therefore, if you’re a fan of Singin’ in the Rain and/or Gene Kelly — and we assume you are since you’ve made your way to this site — now you know the truth, or at least the truth as the film’s directors tell it.

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