Singin' in the Rain: A Conversation with Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Baer, William, Michigan Quarterly Review
Betty Comden and Adolph Green are legends of the American musical who have distinguished themselves as playwrights, screenwriters, and lyricists. Both born in New York City, they began their careers as cabaret performers in Greenwich Village and eventually created their own nightclub act, The Revuers, which included Judy Holliday. Their first Broadway musical, On the Town, with music by Leonard Bernstein, was a great success, and it led to a studio contract with Metro-- Goldwyn-Mayer. Writing for the famous Arthur Freed musical unit at M-G-M, they wrote the scripts for various musical features including: The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; On the Town (1949) starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra; Singin' in the Rain (1952) with Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor; Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953) featuring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, for which they were nominated for an Academy Award; It's Always Fair Weather (1955) with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, for which they were again nominated for an Academy Award; and Vincente Minnelli's Bells are Ringing (1960) with Judy Holliday. At the same time, they were also writing award-winning musicals for the Broadway stage including Billion Dollar Baby (1945), Bells are Ringing (1957), Applause (1970), and On the Twentieth Century (1978).
BAER: In 1946, after the great success of your Broadway musical, On the Town-with its score by your friend Leonard Bernstein, you were offered a Hollywood contract to write musicals for the Arthur Freed unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. What was Arthur Freed like?
COMDEN: He was actually a very complicated man. Before becoming a producer, he was a songwriter and a great lyricist. He was also a man who was used to working with highly talented people, and that's what made the Freed unit so unusual. More than anybody else in Hollywood, Arthur brought people out from New York who were not necessarily movie people and put them to work. People like Alan Jay Lerner; Vincente Minnelli; Oliver Smith, the designer; and anyone else he thought was exceptionally talented. That was one of his greatest gifts: the ability to bring people together and get them to work together.
GREEN: Arthur had a real "instinct" about things, and he also had a most invaluable assistant in Roger Edens, his second-- in-command. Roger was extremely important at M-G-M; he was just like Arthur's co-producer-his partner, really-and he was involved in every aspect of the Freed productions.
COMDEN: The writing, the music, everything. And Roger was a very talented musician himself.
BAER: So you dealt more with Edens?
COMDEN: Yes, right from the very beginning.
GREEN: We only dealt with Arthur on and off. He was very friendly and nice and helpful, and he was never a tyrant or anything like that, but he was always so busy. So Roger was the one we worked with every day.
COMDEN: As members of the Freed unit, we had a very unusual experience for writers in Hollywood. The unit had a reputation for being very respectful of all its various talents, particularly the writers, and it was true. No other writer was ever put on one of our pictures, and no one was ever brought in to rewrite anything. Never. Which was very unusual.
GREEN: And very pleasant. Although our office in the Administration Building was barely better than a prison cell! It was bleak and stark, and our window looked out on the Smith and Salisbury Mortuary. That was our daily view.
COMDEN: Arthur was right down the hall in the corner office ... in his suite of offices.
GREEN: So we'd come in early every day, and we'd work like mad in that little room.
COMDEN: When we first arrived in 1946, we were stunned to learn that our first assignment was Good News, a rather hokey campus football story from 1925! We were considered -- I hate to use the word, but it was our reputation back then -- rather sophisticated New Yorkers, and then we were handed Good News! …