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15 Toe-Tapping Facts About Singin’ in the Rain

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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 the 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’D 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 TO HIDE THE FACT THAT SHE WAS TALLER THAN HE WAS. 

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 EVER DID—AND HE’D DONE 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 OWES 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.”

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. 

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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Health
200 Health Experts Call for Ban on Two Antibacterial Chemicals
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iStock

In September 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a ban on antibacterial soap and body wash. But a large collective of scientists and medical professionals says the agency should have done more to stop the spread of harmful chemicals into our bodies and environment, most notably the antimicrobials triclosan and triclocarban. They published their recommendations in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The 2016 report from the FDA concluded that 19 of the most commonly used antimicrobial ingredients are no more effective than ordinary soap and water, and forbade their use in soap and body wash.

"Customers may think added antimicrobials are a way to reduce infections, but in most products there is no evidence that they do," Ted Schettler, science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a statement.

Studies have shown that these chemicals may actually do more harm than good. They don't keep us from getting sick, but they can contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as superbugs. Triclosan and triclocarban can also damage our hormones and immune systems.

And while they may no longer be appearing on our bathroom sinks or shower shelves, they're still all around us. They've leached into the environment from years of use. They're also still being added to a staggering array of consumer products, as companies create "antibacterial" clothing, toys, yoga mats, paint, food storage containers, electronics, doorknobs, and countertops.

The authors of the new consensus statement say it's time for that to stop.

"We must develop better alternatives and prevent unneeded exposures to antimicrobial chemicals," Rolf Haden of the University of Arizona said in the statement. Haden researches where mass-produced chemicals wind up in the environment.

The statement notes that many manufacturers have simply replaced the banned chemicals with others. "I was happy that the FDA finally acted to remove these chemicals from soaps," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute. "But I was dismayed to discover at my local drugstore that most products now contain substitutes that may be worse."

Blum, Haden, Schettler, and their colleagues "urge scientists, governments, chemical and product manufacturers, purchasing organizations, retailers, and consumers" to avoid antimicrobial chemicals outside of medical settings. "Where antimicrobials are necessary," they write, we should "use safer alternatives that are not persistent and pose no risk to humans or ecosystems."

They recommend that manufacturers label any products containing antimicrobial chemicals so that consumers can avoid them, and they call for further research into the impacts of these compounds on us and our planet.

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