“Singin’ In The Rain” Ethics: The Strange Saga of “Make Em’ Laugh”

Last month Turner Movie Classics arranged for MGM’s classic musical “Singin’ in the Rain” to be shown on big screens in selected theaters around the country.  At the theater where I saw the film again with my wife and some friends, the place was packed with a multi-generational crowd including many children seeing Gene Kelly-Donald O’Connor-Debbie Reynolds (and Jean Hagan…mustn’t leave out “Lina Lamont”!) romp for the first time. Of course, they loved it; I’m worried about anyone who can see the film and not love it.

The timing of TCM’s limited revival was felicitous in two ways. One was that  it occurred just after the death of Debbie Reynolds, and provided a lovely way to salute her memory. Another was that “La La Land” was surging in buzz and box office around the country, culminating in last week’s 14 Oscar nominations. There are several visual references to “Singin’ in the Rain” in the film; ironically, enjoying “LaLa Land” may rely on unfamiliarity with its 65-year-old predecessor, because calling what the stars in “La La Land” do “dancing” seems unduly generous compared to the performances of Gene, Donald and Debbie.

Seeing the film reminded me, however, of the strange ethics breach behind one of the movie’s most famous numbers. Donald O’Connor’s solo “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the high point of the movie for me, and I am not alone. It finished at #49 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema, but that doesn’t do it justice: this is not just a great musical number, it is one of the greatest four minutes of physical comedy ever put on screen, featuring dozens of jumps, pratfalls, and as its grand finale, O’Connor running up two walls and flipping backwards to the ground. (He checked into a hospital for several days as soon as filming  the routine was over). The problem is that “Make ‘Em Laugh” was plagiarized, and everyone knew it.

“Singin’ in the Rain” was conceived as  something of a vanity project for MGM musical czar Arthur Freed. Before presiding over MGM’s Golden Age of Movie Musicals ( “That’s Entertainment!”, the MGM musical’s valedictory, is dedicated to him) was part of a very successful song-writing team with Nacio Herb Brown. They wrote the song “Singin’ in the Rain” for “The Hollywood Revue of 1929,” an early talkie, and the seed that grew into the great movie musicals to come. As narrator Frank Sinatra says at the start of  “That’s Entertainment!,” the song also came to be regarded as the studio’s anthem for its half-century domination of the movie musical genre.After Freed given up tune-smithing for musical-producing, he decided to make a musical using the best of the songs he and Nacio Herb Brown had written over the years.  The great Adolph Green and Betty Comden wrote a screenplay that spoofed the early years of Hollywood, linking  the musical numbers seamlessly. But co-directors Kelly and  Stanley Donen wanted Donald O’Connor to have a solo number, and nothing in the Brown-Freed songbook worked. The old Tin Pan Alley team was assigned to write a new number. (There was already one new one, “Moses Supposes.”)

What the boys came up with was…somebody else’s song. Not just any somebody, either, but Cole Porter, who was not only one of the most famous and successful songwriters alive, but also one who had recently worked for Freed, and would again. Not only that: the song Brown and Freed ripped off was prominently featured in a 1947 big budget MGM movie musical produced by Freed, and it had starred Gene Kelly (and Judy Garland).

That song was “Be A Clown,” from the Vincent Minnelli directed musical film, “The Pirate.” Note the similar subject matter. Watch the video above, and the one below and don’t get distracted by the differences in tone and staging: the melodies are almost identical.

Donen later described “Make ‘Em Laugh” as “100% plagiarism.” I’d say 95%, since “Make ‘Em Laugh” has a few extra notes, but that’s about right. Donen probably felt guilty, as he reportedly asked Freed to write something like “Be A Clown.” Freed being his boss, the director apparently didn’t have the guts to say, “I said a song LIKE “Be A Clown,” you idiot, not the exact same song!

Since the whole point of the movie was to feature the Freed-Brown collaborations, “Make ‘Em Laugh” was presented as their work, and the copyright says “by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.” There is no credit to Cole Porter in the film. He never sued, nor complained publicly. Yet the two songs are twins: “Sweet Little Sixteen,” the Chuck Berry hit the Beach Boys turned into “Surfin’ USA,” wasn’t nearly the victim of plagiarism that Porter’s “Be A Clown” was. (Chuck also collected every penny “Surfin’ USA” made for the Beach Boys.)

What’s going on here? Nobody is sure. Why would Freed mar his own vanity project by including a song everyone would identify as  plagiarized? Where was his self-respect, his honor?  “The Pirate” had been made just five years earlier. It was a flop, but somebody saw it. All the movie critics who could carry a tune had to see the resemblance. How did Freed and MGM get away wit such flagrant, undisguised plagiarism? One theory is that Freed quietly paid Porter a bundle to basically give him the song. Another is that Porter wanted to stay on good terms with MGM and Freed, and didn’t want to damage the relationship over a minor song (for Porter) in a bomb.

Whatever the reason, the rip-off, thanks to Donald O’Connor running up walls, is more famous than the original. Most people who see “Singin’ in the Rain” have no idea that the song was stolen from Cole Porter. It is a case where cheating and stealing worked.

But it was still unethical.

16 thoughts on ““Singin’ In The Rain” Ethics: The Strange Saga of “Make Em’ Laugh”

  1. Is it possible that the payoff happened before the filming; i.e., no unethical behavior.

    And wow — those songs are identical. I remember seeing The Pirate a lifetime ago. It is not a good movie.

    • It’s terrible. And I put the stage play it was based on in the very first season of The American Century Theater, leasing to multilateral disaster that nearly sunk us.

      Yeah, I agree, it had to be some kind of deal before the filming. Or Cole was magnanimous to an old friend. Something.

  2. what the stars in “La La Land” do “dancing” seems unduly generous compared to the performances of Gene, Donald and Debbie.

    Ditto the unmemorable tunes. lalalalalaaa indeed, fingers in my ears. Run-of-the-mill storyline going nowhere. Great production design though.

  3. I feel badly for Cole Porter, though he likely didn’t miss those royalties.

    But the irony hit me hard. Considering the behavior of today’s Hollywood luminaries, this is small stuff. The the egotism, bombast, ugliness, ignorance and hatred exhibited by today’s Hollywood creates an entirely new perspective. They are untouchable because they’re rich, and think they have brains because they can act. Neither means they should have a political platform. Sorry to digress, but I just had to…

  4. I’m a musician. Last year a fellow musician woke up with a tune in his head and wrote it down. He sent it to me and asked whether it was anything I’d ever heard before. He was afraid it was something he had heard before and stored in his subconscious, and didn’t want to put his name on it until he was reasonably sure it was actually original. I’ve considered trying composition myself, but have always had that very same fear. If you don’t know you’ve done something unethical, I don’t see how it can possibly count, but how could you ever convince anyone it was unintentional?

    • That was George Harrison’s defense of “My Sweet Lord,” a rip-off of “He’s so fine.” In muiscal copyright infringement, intent doesn’t matter. It is too close, or isn’t it? Nobody believed Harrison would intentionally steal a song; not many thought Brian Wilson ripped off Chuck Berry, either.

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