It’s hard to forget the scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex and his droogs break into somebody’s house and rape a woman, all while Singin’ in The Rain plays in the background. It’s a brilliant and/or sensationalist and/or ridiculous moment in movie history, depending on who’s teaching your NYU Film Studies class. But according to Malcolm McDowell, who played Alex in the film, Kubrick never paid Gene Kelly for rights to the song, causing an enormous disruption between the two.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, McDowell said:
“He was cheap. And of course, I roared with laughter. Of course, he never paid him. He thought it was enough that ‘Stanley Kubrick’ was going to use the song. That’s what he thought.”
Apparently, Kelly refused to talk to McDowell at a party after the film’s release, and it wasn’t until Kelly’s death nearly forty years later that McDowell learned the reason why.
Speaking to Kelly’s widow at the funeral, McDowell learned that Kubrick had purchased the rights, without ever following through on the ‘payment part’ of purchasing. From McDowell: “She was very sweet and she came up to me afterwards, and said, ‘Malcolm, just to let you know, Gene was not p—– off with you. He was p—– off with Stanley… because he never paid him’.”
Still, the actor appears to have a pretty balanced perspective of the director, calling him a “brilliant” director who – surprise surprise – had a mean side. Kubrick did respond to his actors and the scene, we learn, came out of an improvisation:
“So this thing of coming in just attacking the guy, it was too realistic. It was not in sync with what we’d shot. But nobody knew how to do anything about it. And we sat there for five days. He changed the furniture umpteen times, because I guess, he was looking for anything. I was just sitting there, and he came up to me and he said, “Can you dance?” By this time, I had had a few days off, so I was ready and energized. I jumped up and started singing “Singin’ in the Rain” as an improv, on the beats, slapping, kicking, boom. And why did I do that? Because [that song is] Hollywood’s gift to the world of euphoria. And that’s what the character is feeling at the time. So Stanley shoved me in the car, we drove back to his house, and he bought the rights to “Singin’ in the Rain.” We came back, he constructed what happened in the rehearsal and for the next week, we shot it.”
Typically, only terrible things come out of improv, because improv is everything terrible. McDowell’s suggestion, however, helped to transform an outrageously traumatizing scene into a outrageously traumatizing and memorable scene. All for the price of nothing.