How Nintendo Conquered Manhattan in 1985

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getty images

A number of things crossed Bruce Lowry’s mind as he listened to Nintendo of Japan President Hiroshi Yamauchi speak. It was 1985, and the company—flush with capital thanks to the success of arcade sensation Donkey Kong—was poised to move into the American home console market. Yamauchi seemed completely undeterred by the fact that retailers were still stinging from the 1983 implosion of video games: oversaturation and poor quality control had led to systems from Atari and Coleco collecting dust in bargain bins. The former had even buried hundreds of thousands of unsold cartridges in the New Mexico desert, a metaphor for the collapsing industry as a whole.

But Lowry, who had been hired by Nintendo as Vice President of Sales after a stint at Pioneer, also knew things could be different under Yamauchi’s watch if they employed the right strategy. For one, Nintendo’s Famicom (“family computer”) system had sold 2.5 million units in Japan; for another, the games themselves looked far more sophisticated than previous offerings. Lowry’s own sons had played a prototype system and declared it “the real thing,” with the home versions virtual carbon copies of the arcade experience.

A slow rollout of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), Lowry figured, could work. If retailers and consumers were exposed to the game play and ad copy was worded to avoid direct comparison to the market losers, they might have a chance. Houston would be a good place to start. Or Nashville. Someplace, Lowry says, where “if we made a mistake, it wouldn’t have destroyed things. We could figure it out.”

Shoppers try out the NES during the fall 1985 mall tour, via Howard Phillips

Lowry’s internal strategy was broken by Yamauchi’s announcement: the North American debut of the NES would happen in New York City. It had the highest concentration of press, the biggest vendors, and the cache of being a cultural epicenter. It was also an area hit hard by Atari’s collapse, with those same retailers ready to suffocate any video game advocate within arm’s reach.

“We’re launching in New York,” Yamauchi said, his daughter translating, “because that’s where success happens.”

The room grew silent. Lowry sighed. “Leaving Pioneer,” he says, “suddenly seemed like the stupidest mistake of my life.”

The Game Plan

For Lowry and the dozens of Nintendo of America employees who migrated from company headquarters in Seattle to the East Coast in the fall of 1985, selling a gaming system presented a challenge. Though they knew the NES was a giant leap forward, the marketplace was prepared to treat any electronic entertainment like poison. In order to even be heard, they’d have to change the narrative.

The Famicom was originally put on display during the January 1985 Consumer Electronics Show, where Nintendo had dubbed it the Advanced Video System and paired it with strange accessories like a cassette recorder and keyboard; one game professed to tell fortunes. With no children around at an industry trade show, they weren’t sure how much interest they were going to get, but Lowry remembers seeing some buyers gambling on their Golf title. “They kept coming back,” he says. I noticed that when they kept slapping money down on the monitor. It was a good sign.”

No one doubted the games were addictive, but the aesthetics of the clunky-looking system were lacking: Staffers sat down and began refining the control deck to appeal more to children. At the time, the toy industry was awash in robots like Transformers. Nintendo’s Japanese designers developed the R.O.B., or Robotic Operating Buddy, which sported a binocular-shaped head and could “assist” players with objectives in specific games. Nintendo also decided to include the Zapper, a light gun that could take aim at the targets in Duck Hunt.

The company figured the accessories would further distance themselves from past console failures. To help prove it, they conducted extensive market research in Paramus, New Jersey in the summer of 1985. Lowry remembers holding up the Zapper and telling a mother, “It comes with a gun!”

“Not in my house it doesn’t,” she said.

With electronics already being manufactured, there was no opportunity to return to the drawing board. The NES launch was set for late October, which concerned Lowry greatly. “For a Christmas item, you want to be in stores starting in August,” he says. “It was a hugely compressed window of time.”

A trade ad hyping the arrival of R.O.B., Nintendo's attempt to connect with the robot-toy trend of the mid-1980s, via Howard Phillips

But Yamauchi was unwavering. His son-in-law, Minoru Arakawa, was running Nintendo of America and had a gentle way of pushing the team forward, encouraging the belief the NES was different and that the industry could be resuscitated with the right strategy. The company leased a base of operations in Hackensack, New Jersey, a musty warehouse where inventory would be stored, seven-foot tall retail displays built, and sales calls made. Employees—arcade distributors and later company VPs Al Stone and Ron Judy, warehouse manager Howard Phillips, contracted sales guru Sam Borofsky, and development chair Don James among them—all worked in concert to set up what amounted to a satellite operation.

Prior to arriving, Lowry had made his first official vendor call to Woolworth’s. It was brief. “No way,” their buyer said. “Not touching it. See ya.”

Later, Lowry would pitch in to unload the first inventory shipment from Japan. The salesman remembers looking at the towering pile of NES systems, which took up an entire side of the warehouse, and wondered where they were all going to go.

Multi-Player

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While Lowry was knocking on doors that were subsequently slamming shut, Gail Tilden was busy trying to convince both the media and consumers that the NES was worth a shot. Hired as a Vice President of Brand Management in 1983 after a former colleague went on maternity leave, Tilden knew little about the implosion of console gaming. “I liked playing Frogger,” she says. “And Pac-Man. Nintendo, to me, was the Donkey Kong company.”

Tilden joined the team in New Jersey and set about trying to draw media interest for the system’s official launch party in October at a trendy spot called the Visage. Unfortunately, the event coincided with the death of actor Yul Brynner and the terrorist hijacking of a ship. “There was real news and soft news,” she says. “We were non-news.”

Attempts to entice a major ad agency to handle commercials proved equally frustrating. Lee Clow, who had just co-created the infamous Apple Orwellian 1984 commercial, didn’t even bother submitting a bid because Nintendo was so small. Others told them the name Nintendo was unpronounceable and would have to be changed. Eventually, Tilden found a smaller agency, Geers Gross, to tackle a series of commercials to air in the local market. “We shot two or three at one time,” she says. “The director ended up in the hospital with exhaustion.”

To combat what Lowry perceived as a poor impression of video games, an early spot depicted a mother watching her children slaughter the waterfowl of Duck Hunt in the safety of their living room. “At the time, drugs were in arcades and it was a bad element,” he says. “We came up with the concept of … Mom has her family home again. People didn’t want kids in arcades.”

Print ads avoided words like “video games” and “cartridges,” which carried negative connotations. Instead, they focused on R.O.B. or the “control deck” and “game paks” available. Tilden also learned a lesson from failed software, which packaged their primitive graphics in boxes with thrilling artwork. (Marketing expert Borofsky had worked for Atari and was quick to point out their mistakes.) “We didn’t want to over-promise,” she says. “We used pixels right on the box so people would know what they were getting.”

Nintendo also had sub-categories for games, which ranged from $20 to $35 each. “One of the categories was Education, which was Donkey Kong, Jr. Math,” Tilden says. “Then you had a programmable game with ExciteBike. That was part of the idea of separating ourselves, making sure people knew there were selections for everyone.”

The Hackensack team delivered their own inventory to stores, which revealed a culture clash: Nintendo’s Seattle exports didn’t think twice about leaving a cargo van unattended in the Bronx. “Everything was getting stolen out of the back,” Tilden says, laughing. “It was a different New York back then.”

Every weekend, Tilden and other employees would venture out to a mall in New York or New Jersey to set up a display intended to pull in foot traffic. Store owners shrugged, but Nintendo had wisely hired Mets players like Mookie Wilson and Ron Darling to draw attention. The pair would sign autographs and compete against shoppers in Baseball. Kids who tried the NES were enthralled, though Tilden had little patience for R.O.B., which had a glacial non-urgency in performing for a crowd. “It was hilarious to try and make him do anything,” she says. “The thing moved at the speed of grass growing.”

Titles like Duck Hunt were what Tilden calls “pick up and play games,” which required virtually no instruction—making them perfect for passersby. Nintendo had a total of 15 to 18 offerings that season, though no one can say for certain that their future signature hit, Super Mario Bros., was among them. Store ads featured the title—which was already available in Japan—though it could have been reprinted from a master list provided by the company before the game had actually shipped.

While the plumber may have helped move things along, no one game was likely to help retailer apprehension. Regional franchises like the now-defunct Wiz were slowly climbing on board—not because of familiarity with Nintendo, but because of the trust Lowry had built as a Pioneer representative. “It wasn’t anything formal, but I let these guys know we weren’t going to leave them hanging,” he says of Nintendo’s willingness to be flexible with accounts. “If they bought inventory and it didn’t sell, they knew we would help them out.” It wasn’t an explicit promise to return unsold stock, but it helped ease concerns about carrying the $139.99 product at a time Atari systems were rotting on shelves at $50.

”I had retailers saying they’d discount it to $100,” Lowry says. “I said, ‘No, you won’t.’” Nintendo had an absolute conviction in the quality of their product and weren’t willing to compromise, even when pitches didn’t go well: Once, after Lowry’s grandmother passed away, Arakawa was left to demonstrate Baseball for buyers at Sears. “Here’s this engineer from MIT who loved baseball,” Lowry says. He wanted to play all nine innings and they’re just glazed over.”

Eventually, Sears, Macy’s, and other national chains signed on, motivated in part by the sheer hustle demonstrated by Nintendo’s team. But in an era where Walmart was not yet a power player, one account stood out above the rest: Toys “R” Us.

The Final Boss

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As the nation’s then-largest purveyor of playthings, Toys “R” Us had profited handsomely from the Atari craze of the early 1980s. But that meant the company also took a bath when unsold stock began to pile up. By spring 1985, games were being sold for $5 with a $5 rebate from third-party producer Parker Brothers. “They had taken a tremendous hit from the Atari days,” Lowry says.

He sat with the franchise’s buyer—Lowry doesn’t recall his name—who wasn’t radiating enthusiasm. Nearby was Howard Moore, the chain’s Executive Vice President. According to Lowry, the buyer wasn’t swayed by his pitch, by R.O.B., or by the possibility of eating another Atari-sized loss.

“I don’t think we really want to get involved,” he said. Lowry was crushed. Toys “R” Us could set a precedent, but it went both ways. Other stores could be encouraged by their participation, or put off by a lack of it. But before Lowry could protest, Moore intervened. He knew and trusted Lowry.

“Well, that’s why I’m Executive Vice President, Bruce,” he said. “We’ll do it.”

The store went one step further, allowing Nintendo to set up an interactive display at a time when it was not company policy to do so. “That was our biggest move,” Lowry says, along with getting a foot in the door at FAO Schwartz, which featured a massive window set-up viewable from the street. (The store’s buyer happened to be a gamer.) The team was ecstatic—at least until the father of one of the television spot actors saw it and complained. His kid’s contract didn’t include the rights to show it in stores.

The Nintendo Entertainment System officially went on sale in late October across nearly 500 stores in New York, New Jersey, and parts of Connecticut. Retailers paid $98 wholesale; $139.99 bought consumers the console, two controllers, R.O.B., the Zapper, Duck Hunt, and Gyromite.

The brochure for Nintendo's Advanced Video System, shown in January 1985 at a trade show but never released, via Howard Phillips

Stores featured giant R.O.B. displays showing off Nintendo’s graphics and features; one had an audience of the robots moving their heads in unison. Kids, Nintendo’s real clientele, passed word around: This was not another Atari. Like Lowry’s children, they recognized something new and different. (The television spots may not have done much to raise awareness; airing late at night, they were bartered, with Nintendo trading consoles for airtime and the barter agency selling the units right back to Toys “R” Us.)

By the time Christmas 1985 drew to a close, Nintendo’s exhausted sales force had managed to move between 50,000 and 90,000 consoles. (Lowry says they exceeded their goal of 50,000 units; Tilden believes a New York Times story citing 90,000 consoles may have been Nintendo’s attempt to exaggerate for media.) Either way, it was enough for the team to feel good about moving their efforts to Los Angeles and then nationally. By 1988, sales had grown to $1.7 billion; in 1989, 9 million systems were sold. When the NES was finally retired in the 1990s, more than 60 million had been installed. The media went from writing obituaries for the game industry to wondering who could challenge Nintendo, which was quickly becoming one of the all-time biggest success stories in the toy world.

Lowry left soon after the launch to head up Sega, which would later prove a worthy adversary; Tilden became editor-in-chief of Nintendo Power, an official magazine that was essentially a giant advertisement for games that quickly reached over a million subscribers. But the true monument to their achievement in Manhattan may have come in 2005, when the company opened a 10,000 square foot Nintendo World store at Rockefeller Center.

“Going into New York, there was really no other option than be successful,” Lowry says. “After Yamauchi was done, we walked out of the hotel room, had a cocktail and said, ‘This changes everything. But we can do it.’ And we did it.”

9 Oscar Nominations That Were Revoked

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Although Oscars are usually set in stone (or gold-plated britannium, as it were), there have been some very rare instances where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has revoked or disqualified a nomination. Here are nine of those instances.

1. The Circus (1928)


Three Lions/Getty Images

At the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929, Charlie Chaplin was nominated for four awards for The Circus: Best Actor, Best Writer, Best Director for a Comedy, and Outstanding Picture. Believing (or, more appropriately, fearing) that Chaplin would sweep all four categories, the Academy revoked his individual nominations and instead presented him with a special Honorary Award “for writing, acting, directing, and producing The Circus.”

2. Hondo (1953)

In 1954, the John Wayne western Hondo was nominated for Best Story. The film was later disqualified when it was discovered that the script was based on a short story called “The Gift of Cochise,” and not an original work.

3. High Society (1955)

In 1957, writers Edward Bernds and Elwood Ullman were nominated for Best Story for the musical comedy High Society starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. There was only one problem: Bernds and Ullman didn’t write the 1956 musical comedy starring Bing Crosby and Grace Kelly. They wrote the 1955 Bowery Boys comedy of the same name. The Academy confused the two movies, and mistakenly nominated Bernds and Ullman, who very graciously withdrew their names from the final ballot.

4. Young Americans (1967)

The film Young Americans won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1969. However, a month after it received the Oscar, the award was revoked when it was discovered that the film had played in a theater in October of 1967, making it ineligible for the 1968 movie awards season. The Oscar was given to the first runner-up, Journey Into Self, instead. Young Americans is the only movie in Academy history to receive an Oscar, then have it taken away after the ceremony.

5. The Godfather (1972)

In 1973, Francis Ford Coppola’s mob crime drama The Godfather was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Marlon Brando (who won, but famously sent a woman named Sacheen Littlefeather to collect the statue, and announce that the actor “very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry”). Composer Nino Rota was also nominated for Best Original Dramatic Score, but the accolade was later revoked when the Academy learned that Rota used some of his own score from the 1958 Italian comedy Fortunella in The Godfather. Two years later, Rota won an Academy Award for his work on The Godfather: Part II.

6. A Place in the World (1992)

Uruguay submitted A Place in the World as their official selection for the 65th Academy Awards in 1993. It received one of the five nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, but it was later removed from the final voting ballot because it was an Argentine film and Uruguay had insufficient artistic control over its production. It was director Adolfo Aristarain who asked neighboring Uruguay to submit the film on his behalf, as it was partly financed in Uruguay (and several Uruguayan artists contributed to the film). In response, Aristarain sued the Academy.

7. Tuba Atlantic (2010)

Tuba Atlantic is a 25-minute Norwegian short film about a 70-year-old man who only has six days to live and spends that time reconciling with his estranged family. It was nominated for Best Live Action Short Film in 2012, but the nomination was later rescinded after it was discovered that the film aired on Norwegian television before its theatrical release, which goes against the Academy’s rules.

8. ALONE YET NOT ALONE (2013)

In 2014, the title song from the Christian film Alone Yet Not Alone was nominated for Best Original Song, then disqualified two weeks later. The Academy discovered that Bruce Broughton, the song's composer and an executive committee member of the Academy's music branch, “had emailed [some of the other 239] members of the branch to make them aware of his submission during the nominations voting period,” which goes against Academy rules.

“No matter how well-intentioned the communication,” said Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, “using one’s position as a former governor and current executive committee member to personally promote one’s own Oscar submission creates the appearance of an unfair advantage.”

“I’m devastated,” Broughton told The Hollywood Reporter of the Academy's decision. “I indulged in the simplest grassroots campaign and it went against me when the song started getting attention. I got taken down by competition that had months of promotion and advertising behind them. I simply asked people to find the song and consider it."

9. 13 Hours (2016)

David Denman, John Krasinski, Pablo Schreiber, and Dominic Fumusa in 13 Hours (2016)
Paramount Pictures

In 2017, 13 Hours—a Benghazi action-drama starring John Krasinski and directed by Michael Bay—earned a single Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Sound Mixing, with four members of the sound team (Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush, Mac Ruth, and Greg P. Russell) singled out for their work. But on February 25, 2017—just one day before the ceremony—the Academy announced that they were rescinding Russell's nomination as a result of "telephone lobbying." The Academy's full statement on the matter read as follows: 

Upon recommendation by the Sound Branch Executive Committee, the Academy’s Board of Governors voted Thursday (2/23) to rescind the Sound Mixing nomination for Greg P. Russell from 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi for violation of Academy campaign regulations. The decision was prompted by the discovery that Russell had called his fellow members of the Sound Branch during the nominations phase to make them aware of his work on the film, in direct violation of a campaign regulation that prohibits telephone lobbying. An additional nominee for 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi will not be named in his place. The remaining Sound Mixing nominees for the film are Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth.

In the end, the film lost the award to Mel Gibson's Hacksaw Ridge.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2017.

15 Facts About Singin’ in the Rain

MGM
MGM

Singin’ in the Rain isn’t just an upbeat musical from 1952. It’s also a history lesson about Hollywood in the late 1920s, when silent pictures were giving way to talkies. And, of course, it’s also a valuable tutorial on how to be an awesome dancer (i.e. be Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor). It is many things! Here are some facts about Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen's classic musical to enhance your next viewing.

1. It wasn't adapted from a Broadway musical.

Many movie musicals of the 1930s, '40s and '50s were based on stage shows, but this wasn’t one of them. Rather, it was a new script, written just for the movie, featuring old songs written for previous movies. Some 30 years later, after the film had become a beloved classic, it was reverse-engineered into a stage musical, premiering in London’s West End in 1983 and subsequently appearing (with revisions and more songs) on Broadway

2. It was conceived by producer Arthur Freed as a means of showcasing songs he had written, but it wasn't (just) an ego trip.

Freed was a successful lyricist in the 1920s and '30s, collaborating with composer Nacio Herb Brown on dozens of songs for MGM musicals. In 1939, after essentially serving as an uncredited producer on The Wizard of Oz, Freed was given his own unit at MGM, where he oversaw the production of about 45 big-screen musicals (some originals, some Broadway adaptations) over the next 23 years, making MGM synonymous with the genre. The term “jukebox musical” didn’t exist yet, but there were a few films in that era that fit the description, using old sets of songs with nothing in common but their authors as the framework for new stories. Warner Bros.’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and MGM’s own Till the Clouds Roll By (1946) had done it with the songs of George M. Cohan and Jerome Kern, respectively.

In 1951, as Freed was shepherding the George and Ira Gershwin-based An American in Paris into existence, he thought of doing the same thing for the songs he’d written with Brown. Many of those ditties were big hits, and Freed had certainly earned the clout at MGM to advance what might have otherwise been seen as a vanity project. The studio head in the movie, R.F. Simpson, is based on him. 

3. The one "original" song written specifically for the movie is actually a rip-off.

As the film was about to commence shooting, directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly realized Donald O’Connor didn’t have a solo number. Nothing in the Freed/Brown collection seemed to fit, so they asked the pair to whip up something new, something along the lines of “Be a Clown,” from Cole Porter’s 1947 MGM musical The Pirate. Freed and Brown did exactly that, delivering “Make ‘em Laugh,” a song that Donen later called “100 percent plagiarism” of “Be a Clown.”

The similarities were overwhelming and undeniable. (Compare for yourself: here’s “Be a Clown”; here’s “Make ‘em Laugh.”) But Freed, you’ll recall, was the producer of Singin’ in the Rain. One doesn’t really tell one’s boss, “Uh, sir, I think you might have stolen this,” so the song stayed. The story goes that Cole Porter didn’t mind (or didn’t sue, anyway) because he was grateful to Freed for all the career support he’d given him. “Moses Supposes” was newly written for the film too, with music by Roger Edens and lyrics by the screenwriters. But it’s not a complete song, lyrically speaking, so usually isn’t counted.

4. Debbie Reynolds had no dance experience before she made the movie.

She pointed this out when she was asked to be in Singin’ in the Rain, but Kelly said he could teach her, just as he’d done with Frank Sinatra for Anchors Aweigh. Reynolds had been a gymnast, so she wasn’t completely unfamiliar with physical movement requiring grace and stamina. Ever the trouper, she buckled down and rehearsed day and night until she could share a dance floor with Kelly and O’Connor without embarrassing herself. She was quite young, too, turning 19 during the shoot. (Kelly, her love interest, was 39.) She later said, “The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and Singin’ in the Rain.” 

5. Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor had never worked together before.

O’Connor, born into a vaudeville family in 1925, had been onstage since infancy and in movies since he was 12. He had 36 film credits, mostly musicals and Francis the Talking Mule pictures, under his belt when he got the Singin’ in the Rain gig. Kelly was 13 years older and came to Hollywood a bit later than O’Connor, yet still racked up 18 films between 1942 and 1951, when at last their paths crossed. And they almost didn’t: Freed, the producer, wanted Kelly’s An American in Paris co-star Oscar Levant for the Cosmo role, but everyone else—screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen—wanted someone who could dance.

6. Gene Kelly choreographed his dance scenes with Cyd Charisse in a way that hid the fact that she was taller than him.

Or she was when she wore heels, anyway, as she does in the film. To keep the height difference from being obvious, Kelly arranged the routine so that they were never both standing upright when they were next to each other, always bending toward (or away from) one another instead.

7. Yes, Kelly had a fever when he filmed the "Singin' in the Rain" number.

Contrary to legend, it wasn’t shot all in one take—or even all in one day. It lasted a couple of days, and on at least one of them, Kelly was sick with a fever of anywhere from 101 to 103 degrees, depending on who’s telling the story.

8. Costume designer Walter Plunkett said this was the most work he had ever done for a film—and he had worked on Gone With the Wind!

Both films were period pieces, but Singin’ in the Rain required a greater number of elaborate, ornately detailed costumes than Gone With the Wind did. They had to be more accurate, too, since 1952 audiences remembered Hollywood of the late ‘20s more clearly than 1939 audiences remembered the Civil War. All told, Plunkett designed about 500 costumes for the film.  

9. The last shot of the "Good Morning" number took 40 takes.

It’s the part where the three of them somersault over one couch and then tip another one over backwards before collapsing on it and laughing. Kelly was a demanding choreographer and director, and you’ll notice that most of the dancing in the film is presented without a lot of editing. The camera moves around, but it doesn’t cut to other angles very often, and the dancers’s bodies are usually wholly visible. So when there are, say, three dancers who are supposed to be in unison, and one part of one person’s body does the wrong thing, you’ve got to do it again. The whole shoot was difficult for that reason, and this number was particularly challenging. Reynolds said that at the end of a 14-hour day shooting the scene, her feet were bleeding.

10. The 10-minute "Broadway Melody" dance number near the end of the film was a late addition.

Freed was encouraged by how well a similar sequence in An American in Paris had turned out, so he suggested that Kelly and Donen conceive one for Singin’ in the Rain, too—after most of the rest of the film had been shot. That’s why Donald O’Connor isn’t in this part: he was under contract with Universal and had to go make another Francis the Talking Mule movie.

11. Cyd Charisse owed her role in the film to Debbie Reynolds's lack of experience.

Charisse is only onscreen for a few minutes, in the aforementioned “Broadway Melody” dream ballet sequence. The role would logically have gone to Reynolds, but she simply didn’t have the dancing chops to pull it off. Leslie Caron, who’d danced with Kelly in An American in Paris, wasn’t available. So the job went to Cyd Charisse, an acclaimed dancer whom Kelly had admired since seeing her work with Fred Astaire in Ziegfield Follies. (Charisse was actually supposed to have had Caron’s role in An American in Paris, but had to drop out when she got pregnant. She’d given birth only a few months earlier when she took the Singin’ in the Rain job.) 

12. There may have been some censorship in the ballet number.

Watch as Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse are dancing at the 1:22:03 mark in the film, and you’ll see a jump cut. The camera doesn’t move, but something’s clearly been snipped. The unconfirmed but probably true explanation is that censors deemed a portion of the dance too suggestive. (They’d warned Kelly beforehand not to choreograph Charisse wrapping her legs around his waist, even though real ballet dancers do that all the time.) The footage was removed, and the music was re-scored to match the new cut. Whatever was taken out is presumably lost forever, as the entire Singin’ in the Rain negative was destroyed in a fire. 

13. Donald O'Connor really should have died filming "Make 'em Laugh."

Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor in Singin' in the Rain (1952)
MGM

And not just because you could legitimately break your neck doing those run-up-the-wall flips (although that, too). The physical exertion required for the scene would have been demanding for anyone ... and O’Connor, by his own admission, was smoking four packs of cigarettes a day. And after the entire sequence had been shot? He had to do it all over again, because a technical error made the footage unusable. 

14. The first time we see Cyd Charisse, she's smoking a cigarette. It's the only cigarette she ever smoked in her life.

Kelly and Donen thought the character, the seductive girlfriend of a gangster, ought to be smoking. Charisse, who had never smoked before (making her a rare bird in 1951 Hollywood), told them she didn’t know how—so they stopped shooting long enough to teach her. Evidently failing to see the pleasure in it, she never smoked again. 

15. The film was a bit of a letdown after An American in Paris.

An American in Paris—also starring Gene Kelly; also built around a particular songwriter’s work; also featuring a large-scale dream ballet sequence—was released in November of 1951. It was a hit, eventually winning six Oscars, including Best Picture. Three weeks after the Oscar ceremony, Singin’ in the Rain came out. It did well enough with audiences and critics, but it got very little awards attention, and it wasn’t perceived as being nearly as successful as its predecessor. Over time, public sentiment changed. An American in Paris is still highly regarded today, but it’s Singin’ in the Rain that shows up on the “best” and “favorite” lists.

Additional sources: Featurettes and commentary track on the 60th anniversary Blu-ray.

This article originally ran in 2015.

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