Singin' in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by John Fidler

Singin' in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece
by Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar: University Press of Kansas, 2009. 331 pp., illus. Hardcover: $29.95

In America at the Movies (1975), his potent and spirited cultural history of movies in the 1940s and 1950s, Michael Wood sets the waning days of the MGM musical against a backdrop that includes the American 1950s we wouldn’t really understand until Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002) held up its mirror of despair, the Iron Curtain that fell across Europe after World War II and America’s reluctant entry into yet another war barely five years after the atomic bombs fell. Wood reminds us that when President Dwight D. Eisenhower had his heart attack in 1955, the stock market took a nosedive that reminded Americans of the Great Depression. The Korean War brought an exhausted post-war America back to the front and resulted in the battle deaths of more than 30,000 troops. And in Hollywood, Wood writes, the last of the great MGM musicals were bowing out as films like The Wild One (1953), On the Waterfront (1954) and East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause (both 1955) began redefining how Hollywood looked at America and how America looked at itself.

None of Wood’s darkening colors appear in Singin’ in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece by husband and wife writing team Earl J. Hess, a history teacher at Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee, and his wife, Pratibha A. Dabholkar, who teaches marketing at the University of Tennessee. That is both the book’s salvation and its downfall. Their book is about gaiety’s last gasp, a solidly researched if flatly written account of what the authors remind us continuously is America’s favorite musical. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, tops the American Film Institute’s list of the 25 greatest musicals. British film critic Philip French said the movie changed his life and called it “a perfect cocktail of wit, elegance ebullience and grace, intoxication without a hangover, an innocent Eden to be visited by those well acquainted with good and evil.” Frank Sinatra, who starred with Kelly in George Sidney’s Anchors Aweigh (1945), Donen’s On the Town and Busby Berkeley’s Take Me out to the Ball Game (both 1949), wrote of Singin’ in the Rain in the foreword of Clive Hirschhorn’s biography of Kelly, “To me, all film musicals before and since look a bit Neanderthal by comparison.”

Singin’ in the Rain – a film as tireless as Kelly’s dancing, as snappy as Betty Comden’s and Adolph Green’s script and as sparkling as Arthur Freed’s and Nacio Herb Brown’s tunes, only one of which, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” was written for the film; the others appeared in earlier movies – is a satire on the problems the industry encountered when sound joined images in the last days of the Jazz Age. The book reflects the film the authors want to remember, and want us to remember. They describe, in detail that would satisfy any accountant, when the filming of certain scenes began and ended, down to the minute. “Kelly rehearsed with the ‘bit children’ from 3:25 to 3:41 and the kids rehearsed by themselves for another seventeen minutes before the first take of the ‘mobbing’ took place from 4:46 to 4:48.” While I was interested in knowing that 60 minutes of Singin’ in the Rain’s 103-minute run time consisted of dancing and singing, I wondered who but a film historian or the most dedicated fan would need to know that one take of a scene took exactly two minutes. Elsewhere, every major player’s date of birth is given. And for the most part, the authors’ voices are hidden behind their thorough research. We seldom get a word of their own analysis, so driven are they to marrying the rich lode of earlier writings on the film to the defense of their thesis, genuine if not very original, that Singin’ in the Rain is, as their title announces, an American masterpiece.

There are moments, however, when Hess and Dabholkar break free of their scrupulous mining of others’ words to reveal their own opinions. Or at least I think they do. They credit the apt use of the Freed-Brown song “Temptation” as a bridge after Don Lockwood (Kelly) leaves Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) after the jalopy ride. Another example of an insight I would like to credit to the authors is the story about the Sound Department’s reworking of a sequence in which the sound was out of synch with the images. It was supposed to be that way, “to poke fun at the problems in the early sound movies.” But with the footnote number at the end of the paragraph, the reader can’t tell if the nub of the story, which I quoted above and is in the middle of the paragraph, comes from the voice of the authors or from the source identified in the footnote. Throughout this well documented book, they end paragraphs with a footnote and when the reader consults it, numerous sources are listed, leaving the reader to decipher what, if anything, in the paragraph is original analysis and what is drawn from other sources. I’d never encountered this practice before and found it distracting. In one observation that is unmistakably the authors’ own (and made me wish for more), they write about Donald O’Connor, who played Lockwood’s friend and pianist Cosmo Brown: “He seemed content to make a great deal of money dancing his way through potboilers that did not tax his talents too deeply. This was the real reason O’Connor did not take advantage of the exposure Singin’ in the Rain offered him – he was happy being a second-level success.” No footnote, and a welcome if rare example of the authors going out on a limb.

The gold standard of books on a single film is Round up the Usual Suspectsthe Making of Casablanca - Bogart, Bergman and World War II (1992), Aljean Harmetz’s sweeping account of another American movie classic. Harmetz, who has written widely about Hollywood for The New York Times, invests her story with the contours of a mystery (in many ways it was – just like the film) and the sharp observations of the world beyond the soundstage. And while she relies heavily on primary sources, just as Hess and Dabholkar do, her writing radiates with intrigue and invention. Here is one example: “Hollywood films have always been rich in archetypes, and whatever the treasures that can be mined from the subtext of Casablanca, it is the specifics of the actors, the potent music and the satisfying drama of commitment and renunciation that have a compelling hold on our emotions today.” This kind of writing – urgent, precise, impassioned, is as riveting as the film and is in fluid harmony with the story she tells. Frequently (and unfortunately), Hess and Dabholkar give us passages like this: “The soundstage was a beehive of activity as everyone understood that time was money when filming a musical.” Isn’t every soundstage busy and aren’t all productions concerned about the budget? Besides writing that lacks electricity to describe the most electric of American musicals, Hess and Dabholkar‘s book contains a mere 16 pages of photographs that have not transferred well. They are pale and unexciting. Harmetz’s book on the other hand is peppered with photographs and copies of important documents: telegrams, newspaper clippings, studio memoranda, budget worksheets and script revisions.

Any book about a single movie has several obligations. The first is to the film itself. The book must not just be about the film under discussion but must evoke the film. We must be able to see keys scenes, if not the entire film, through the author’s detailed, even loving descriptions. Second, the book must reflect the period of time during which the film was made and in which it was first screened. And third, it must bring to the reader countless details about the film that can be found nowhere else. Absent this, it must at least round up previously available details and repackage them with fresh analysis, much the way a scientific review article gathers previously published research, presents it anew and draws new conclusions. But mostly, a book about the greatest American movie musical must itself sing and dance. It must aspire to be like the film, in this case, as film critic Dave Kehr writes, be a “celebration of movement as emotion.” Hess and Dabholkar succeed immensely in their research and in sharing it with the reader. But their book falls short in spirit. It fails to grab our attention, the way Kelly’s dancing with Cyd Charisse compels in their stunning “The Broadway Ballet” inSingin’ in the Rain. Part of the problem might be that neither Hess nor Dabholkar has written previously about movies; he has published 10 books on the Civil War and she has written about technology and service management, according to the dust jacket. Together they have published two short works of fiction. Murray Pomerance has written, in An Eye for Hitchcock (2004) “perhaps one must become the films one loves.” Hess and Dabholkar never convince us that they love Singin’ in the Rain. Their achievement lies in convincing us only that lots of other people do.

To buy Singin’ in the Rain, click here.

John Fidler, an editor and writer for the Reading Eagle in Reading, Pa., writes about movies and books for Senses of Cinema. He has also written for The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.