Symposium

Milk and mythology in Singin' in the Rain

Kelli Marshall

DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois, United States

[0.1] Abstract—I debunk one of the most widely disseminated myths about the film musical Singin' in the Rain (1952): that set designers added milk (or ink) to the water so that raindrops would show up on screen. In so doing, I also attempt to locate the milk myth's origin and explain why this falsehood has intensified over the last 20 years.

[0.2] Keyword—Fan studies; Film; IMDb; Musical

Marshall, Kelli. 2017. "Milk and Mythology in Singin' in the Rain." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 25. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2017.1159.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Virtually every fan of the film musical Singin' in the Rain (1952) knows at least three behind-the-scenes facts: Gene Kelly was a merciless choreographer and worked poor Debbie Reynolds until her feet bled. Kelly had a 103-degree fever while filming the title number. And set designers added milk to the water so that raindrops would show up on camera ("Trivia for Singin' in the Rain" 2004).

[1.2] The first two statements are true, or at least true-ish. The third one, however? Not so much.

2. Separating facts from fiction

[2.1] First, at the age of 83, Debbie Reynolds was still telling the story about how Fred Astaire found her sobbing underneath a piano, a victim of Gene Kelly's taskmaster ways. The dancing was so difficult that 19-year-old Reynolds thought she'd surely die. Coaxing her out of hiding, Astaire assured her she wouldn't and advised, "That's what it's like to learn dance. If you're not sweating, you're not doing it right" (2013, 205–6).

[2.2] Speaking to the second fact, Kelly tells his biographer that he had "a very bad cold" on the day of filming and was concerned he'd "catch pneumonia with all that water pouring down" on him (Hirschhorn 1985, 215). So while fever is not mentioned, the song-and-dance man was apparently sick.

[2.3] The third fact, however, is false. Even though the milk story has been featured on virtually every site, anniversary tribute, and listicle that mentions Singin' in the Rain—Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and the Internet Movie Data Base (IMDb) included—it is, by all accounts, a myth.

[2.4] Gene Kelly himself described what happened in several interviews, including one with the American Film Institute (1978): "Shooting the title number was just terrible for the photographer Hal Rossen. He had to backlight all the rain and then he had to put frontlight on the performer. That was as tough a job as I've ever seen, because you can't photograph in rain and see it" (quoted in Stevens 2009, 525).

[2.5] Furthermore, Kelly's codirector on the film, Stanley Donen, dispels this milky rain business in his Private Screenings interview with Robert Osbourne (2006) and in a Directors Guild Association column by Robert Abele:

[2.6] When you're shooting rain, it has to be backlit, or you may not see it very well. There have been a lot of stories about how we put milk in the water so you could see the rain. It's not true. You have to put the light behind the rain so that the raindrops show. If you put the light in front of the rain, with no light behind it, the rain disappears. (quoted in Abele ¶7)

3. Origins of the milk myth: Universal Studios and powdered milk?

[3.1] One of the earliest written references I can find to milk's being used in Singin' in the Rain comes from a column in the Chicago Tribune, published August 29, 1976. The reporter, Marilynn Preston (1976), is describing a tour of Universal Studios: "we learned about why fake movie set rain has powdered milk added to it—so it shows up at night" (7). Her source for this information is a guide named Amanda, "young and lovely, the sort of girl who never threw away her go-go boots" (6).

[3.2] Preston continues, "Next time you see Gene Kelly, think of that famous tune 'Singin' in the Milk'" (7). From the text, it appears that the reporter forced this powdered milk connection with Singin' in the Rain, not necessarily the tour guide (figure 1).

Newspaper excerpt that reads: 'Another set of bleachers faced a mock-up of the old "Ironside" set; and we learned about wild walls, fourth walls, hot sets, and why fake movie set rain has powdered milk added to it so it shows up at night. [Next time you see Gene Kelly, think of that famous tune, "Singin' in the Milk."]

Figure 1. Excerpt from Marilynn Preston's column in the Chicago Tribune, August 29, 1976. [View larger image.]

[3.3] If Amanda's general anecdote is true, powdered milk may have been warranted for on-location or open-air backlot shooting. After all, filmmaker Akira Kurosawa recalls adding ink to water when he filmed Rashomon (1950): "the sprinkle of the rain couldn't be seen against [the cloudy sky], so we made rainfall with black ink in it" (1983, 185).

[3.4] But Gene Kelly's musical number was shot on a backlot underneath a huge tarp (Abele 2009), where both weather and lighting could be controlled. In essence, powdered milk would not have been necessary here, just creative backlighting, as Stanley Donen explains (quoted in Abele 2009).

[3.5] A few other newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s mention Singin' in the Rain's milky water: the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (October 1986), the Des Moines Register (April 1992), and London's Evening Standard (August 1992). But the myth doesn't seem to start circulating broadly in popular culture until about the year 2000. Why this uptick? In short, Web 2.0 and most likely, the Internet Movie Database IMDb (http://www.imdb.com/).

4. Laying the blame: I'm looking at you, IMDb

[4.1] Around the beginning of the 21st century, the way in which users interacted with the World Wide Web began to change. The static pages of Web 1.0 (composed of mostly text and hyperlinks) gave way to the dynamic, participatory sites of Web 2.0 (blogs, wikis, image and video hosting, social media). Now, even film buffs who weren't all that tech-savvy could create their own online spaces with ease as well as interact with information on movie-focused Web sites like the IMDb and TCM (http://tcm.turner.com/).

[4.2] Since the mid-1990s, IMDb has encouraged contributors "to add, refine, and correct the data on its pages" ("Contributor Zone" n.d.). This includes star biographies, plot summaries, genre categories, and trivia. But the way to supply information then wasn't necessarily intuitive. For instance, in 1996, if one wanted to add a piece of trivia to Singin' in the Rain's profile, one would need to email the mailserver (figure 2).

Process and template for trivia submissions to the Internet Movie Database

Figure 2. Submitting trivia to IMDb in 1996. "IMDb Trivia Submission Guide" 1996. Screenshot, Wayback Machine. [View larger image.]

[4.3] It makes sense, then, that the top contributors of data around the mid-1990s were the site's owner, Col Needham, and others who worked at IMDb ("Top Contributors: 1995" n.d).

[4.4] But by the year 2000, IMDb's submission process was simpler. Now, the contributor clicked a button to update information and then submitted additions or corrections by using the online interface (figure 3). In fact, by 2000, IMDb "recommend[s] most contributors stick to using the online additions interface" as the convoluted method seen above is "of a very technical nature" ("IMDb Submission Guides" 2000).

Submission information and update button on IMDb

Figure 3. Submitting trivia to IMDb in 2000. Screenshot, Wayback Machine. [View larger image.]

[4.5] Here's what we know about Singin' in the Rain's IMDb trivia page, which I think is the driving force behind this milk-water myth, at least for the 21st century.

[4.6] First, the film's trivia page has been there since at least 1996. Unfortunately, we can only see its listing in IMDb's Trivia Index and cannot access the page itself ("Trivia Index: S" 1996). To this end, we cannot tell for certain if the milk myth is a featured piece of trivia that year.

[4.7] But knowing that newspapers in the 1980s and 1990s reported the myth and that Universal Studios' tour guides were presumably still relaying the powdered milk story, it is likely that an IMDb employee or contributor added it around this time. And why should she not? The Chicago Tribune, Evening Standard, and Universal Studios would be considered legitimate sources.

[4.8] Second, while it's likely that the myth was on IMDb before the turn of the 21st century, we can be confident it was there by 2001. Two personal Web pages from that year mention Singin' in the Rain's water-milk mix as they attribute IMDb trivia (Anonymous [2001] and Carothers [2001]). It is also likely that reporters from The Guardian used IMDb's trivia page to flesh out their columns "This Movie Changed My Life" (French 2000) and "100 Top Film Moments" (2000), both of which reference Singin' in the Rain's "blend of water and milk."

[4.9] Third, the milk myth remains on Singin' in the Rain's IMDb trivia page until roughly 2012. In 2015, it is replaced with another falsehood: "Ink was added to the water for the title number to make the rain appear more visible" (figure 4). To date, this statement is still present on IMDb.

IMDb trivia page showing false ink fact

Figure 4. Singin' in the Rain's trivia page in 2017. Screenshot, IMDb. [View larger image.]

[4.10] Theoretically, then, for 15 years (1996–2012), Singin' in the Rain's milk myth was featured on "the most comprehensive free source of movie information on the Internet"—where everyone, including Roger Ebert, the New York Times, and Edinburgh University's Film Society, apparently retrieved film-related information ("Reviews and Comments" 1996). It's no wonder that the legend begins to show up elsewhere.

5. And the myth grows: TCM and Filmsite.org

[5.1] Around the turn of the 21st century, TCM also began interacting with its fans. Forums like Reel Time Chat and Between the Scenes, for example, encouraged viewers to watch a film on TCM's cable channel while simultaneously interacting online with "fun bits of trivia and behind the scenes info" of said film. In 1999, TCM also featured The Writer's Hat, a contest in which contributors would review upcoming films, which would be rewarded with online publication and prize packages (figure 5).

Screenshot of Writer's Hat web site

Figure 5. TCM's "Writer's Hat" 1998. Screenshot, TCM via the Wayback Machine. [View larger image.]

[5.2] That said, most of TCM's Singin' in the Rain trivia was compiled not by a random contributor (like at IMDb) but by an employee, Scott McGee. His articles "Behind the Camera: Singin' in the Rain" (2002a) and "Singin' in the Rain: Trivia and Other Fun Stuff" (2002b) carry on the milk myth.

[5.3] In one column, McGee writes, "milk was added to the water to make it more visible to the camera," (2002a) and in the other, "the rain, consisting of water and a touch of milk, also caused Kelly's wool suit to shrink" (2002b). Oddly, this information is still on TCM, despite Stanley Donen's debunking of it on the network's interview series Private Screenings (quoted in Osbourne 2006).

[5.4] A third well-traveled Web site of this period is Filmsite.org, also known as "The Greatest Films: The 'Greatest' and the 'Best' in Cinematic History." Specializing in classic Hollywood and American films, Filmsite.org has featured a write-up on Singin' in the Rain since its 1996 inception.

[5.5] But like TCM, Filmsite.org did not begin perpetuating the milk myth until 2002: "It is well-known that milk was mixed in with the water" (Dirks 2002). This statement remains on Filmsite.org until 2011, when it's replaced with this aside: "It is a widespread—but bogus film fact—that milk was mixed in with the water, fed by long lengths of pipes leading to overhead sprays, to make the liquid more visible" (Dirks 2011).

[5.6] At this point, the milk myth has been featured for more than a decade not only on IMDb but also on two of the best-known Web sites devoted to classic Hollywood movies.

6. Conclusions

[6.1] After 2002, Singin' in the Rain's online milk references grow exponentially, as a quick Google search indicates. While it's debatable who started the rumor—maybe Universal Studios' tour guides? —it's pretty obvious that shifts in technology, along with the way in which we (and media companies) use the Internet, have helped to perpetuate it.

[6.2] Now you know: the only milk featured in Singin' in the Rain sits in a glass bottle, right before Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor joyfully break into the number "Good Morning" (video 1).

Video 1. "1080p HD 'Good Morning'—Singin' in the Rain (1952)" (YouTube).

7. Works cited

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