The next time your English teacher gives you an assignment that seems impossible, we want you to think of Betty Comden and Adolph Green. They're the writing duo whom producer Arthur Freed tagged to pen the script for Singin' in the Rain, a musical that was to recycle several old tunes from his days as a lyricist. According to Comden, Freed gave her and Green an exasperatingly simple directive: "Kids, you're going to write a movie called Singin' in the Rain. Just put all of my songs in it" (source).
Um, okay. Sure thing, buddy.
Before writing Singin' in the Rain, Comden and Green were already consummate professionals with several successful scripts under their collective belt. Ultimately, their partnership spanned sixty years' worth of collaborations, earning them an armful of Tony and Screen Writers Guild Awards, Kennedy Center Honors, and induction in the Songwriters Hall of Fame (source). Their partnership was so prolific that many people believed they were married. They weren't. Well, at least not to each other.
So Comden and Green weren't newbies when Freed came to them and said, "Hey, write a whole movie around this random bunch of ancient songs I wrote. KTHXBYE!" Still, if Freed's instruction sounds like the worst writing prompt ever, it's because it was. "All we knew was there would be some scene where someone would be singing, and it would be raining," Comden later explained (source). She and Green labored for half a year to come up with a plot.
Then it dawned on them: Since all of Freed's old tunes were, well, old, they'd set the movie twenty-five years in the past, at the dawn of the Sound Era in Hollywood, when the advent of talking pictures turned the entire movie industry upside-down (source). At least then the songs would have some context.
Well played, Comden and Green, well played.
The Surgeons of Satire
Once they had a workable idea, it was time to actually write the script. According to Gene Kelly's widow, film historian Patricia Ward Kelly, the pair "did their homework," combining research and their own experiences in the industry to construct a crisp, witty satire of Old Hollywood (source). "Betty Comden and Adolph Green's screenplay burlesques the movie business with as much deadly accuracy and outrageous wit as anyone ever has," writes critic Steve Vineberg (source).
Several of the film's colorful characters have real-world counterparts. Dora Bailey is modeled after gossip maven Louella Parsons. Roscoe Dexter is a stand-in for legendary musical director Busby Berkley. R.F. Simpson is a fictionalized version of Freed himself (source).
Singin' in the Rain may be the epitome of the movie-musical, but it's also a sharp, clever comedy in its own right.
Comden and Green's script also expertly weaves in Freed's recycled songs. According to Empire Online, this melding of music and story is where the script really shines: "Rather than merely stringing its songs together by means of a play-within-a-play, Rain's tunes… are adroitly sutured into the story, utilized to underline and enhance plot points or underscore the characters' feelings and emotions at every turn" (source). That's some sophisticated screenwriting, and in 1953, Comden and Green were awarded the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Musical for their work on Singin' in the Rain.