by Charles Marowitz
Hess, Earl J. and Dabholkar, Pratibha A.: Singin' in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, University Press of Kansas, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-7006-1656-5, 331 pages, $29.95.
(Swans - August 10, 2009) A little while ago, during one of those desultory evenings when a small huddle of film buffs get together over wine and pretzels, the thread of conversation wove itself back to the great film musicals and the question: which one was "the greatest" of the lot?
Of course, there were differences of opinion regarding titles, but there was general unanimity that "the greatest" emerged in the late 1940s and '50s and invariably produced by MGM. The hottest contenders were obvious offerings such as On the Town, Easter Parade, Gigi, It's Always Fair Weather, Meet Me in Saint Louis, Royal Wedding, High Society, Summer Stock, Kiss me Kate, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, An American in Paris -- someone had the temerity to suggest Yolanda and the Thief, but that entry was promptly quashed by outraged majority opinion. My own favorite, I had to admit, was The Band Wagon, which starred Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, and Jack Buchanan. I was just about to start elaborating its virtues when a grizzly old-timer tossed out the title Singin' in the Rain. I was stopped short and the general consensus was that if any film was worth being crowned as "the greatest," it most probably was that inspired spoof of the silents, which Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Cyd Charisse brought deliriously to life in l952.
For comedy, musicality, comedy, Terpsichore, and sheer magnetism, there was nothing to touch this masterpiece produced by Arthur Freed. It appeared shortly after Gene Kelly's An American in Paris and, although no one supposed that specimen of musical magic could ever be matched, Kelly, his co-director Stanley Donen and a sublime cast, created a true milestone in the history of the American musical.
Earl J. Hess and Pratibha A. Dabholkar, in their book Singin' in the Rain: The Making of an American Masterpiece, have ploughed up every particle of script, song, and dance that went into Singin' in the Rain. Their book is virtually a moment-to-moment log of how the diamond was wrenched out of the ground, cut, smoothed, and polished. To call it researched only belittles that overworked verb. Every iota of the company's work has been chronicled in what is the most detailed account of how this cinematic product came into existence -- in some ways, to the book's detriment.
Although verbal descriptions of production numbers such as Good Morning, Fit As A Fiddle, Moses Supposes, and the brilliant dance sequence that gives the film its title stirs the memory bank that contains delightful reminiscences of all these numbers, there is something laborious and slightly off-putting about setting down in print what can only truly be savored on the screen. It's a little like describing the point of a joke so fastidiously that its comic effect is destroyed. The finite details of every moment of the film's creation stirs an irresistible desire to throw the book out the window and slot in a video of the "masterpiece" itself.
However, to be fair to the authors, one has to say that if one is in the film business and fascinated with the elaborate process that creates movies like Singin' in the Rain, there may be something hypnotic about reading about how every camera angle was arranged, every set piece put in place, exactly how much time was spent on this or that routine, how the show was subsequently promoted in advertisements, precisely what preview audiences wrote on their comment cards and critics said in their reviews. Everyone appreciates facts, but in unleashing an endless flood of minutiae, there is a real danger of overkill.
The book comes into its own when it reveals pieces of juicy backstage gossip or revelations that one never knew about the film -- such as the fact that Gene Kelly originally wanted Carol Haney to dance Cyd Charisse's role in the dream ballet, which occurs in the last section of the film and is unquestionably its most memorable set piece. Producer Arthur Freed nixed that idea because he was keen to promote Charisse's career and "turn her into a star" -- an ambition he certainly accomplished. Haney, a brilliant Broadway dancer and treasured assistant to Kelly, then had to proceed to tutor Charisse in the niceties of the role she had lost, which must have been miserable for her. And one can't help wondering, had she won the coveted role of the dancing vamp, would her clouded film career have erupted into a glittering triumph, as did Cyd Charisse's?
And then there is the fact that the dance sequence in the rain, which encompassed the film's title number, was filmed with Kelly painfully recovering from a serious flu infection and bronchial condition. Information of that sort, when recalling the ebullient delight of Kelly splashing around the gutters of that rain-drenched street, gives an entirely different dimension to what is, in the opinion of many, the most joyous dance routine ever caught on film.
The genesis of the film is weirdly serendipitous. The producer Arthur Freed was a songwriter who had been associated with one of the very first movie musicals, The Broadway Melody, for which he wrote the score and which was quickly followed up by The Hollywood Revue of 1929. This landed Freed a contract with MGM and in l939 he became a full time producer with control of his own unit devoted almost exclusively to musicals.
According to the authors, the impetus for the film was Freed's desire to remind a new generation of the music that he and Nacio Herb Brown had created in the 1920s and '30s. This was a momentous collection that contained standards such as I Cried For You, You Were Meant For Me, All I Do is Dream of You, This Heart of Mine, and the ones incorporated in the film such as You Are My Lucky Star, Broadway Rhythm, Broadway Melody, Fit as a Fiddle, and of course, the title song, which Freed had already decided upon: Singin' in the Rain. That was the loosely-stated premise for a film -- some film -- any kind of film -- so long as its music was drawn from the Freed-Brown song book. It was like an apple tossed carelessly over ones shoulder that just happened to land in a gold mine.
The authors' short, compact, and fact-filled book often redeems itself with anecdotes like those and we almost forgive the statistical approach they have taken with the technical processes that combined to make the film the extraordinary work of art it became.
Although much of the drive came from Gene Kelly as director, choreographer, and star, it is Stanley Donen -- the second set of eyes -- who emerges as one of the crucial creative artists in the entire process. Kelly relied heavily on Donen in all those many areas where he desperately needed a stalwart partner to help realize what he was too much engrossed in to monitor objectively. Donen organized setups, supervised lighting, and confirmed the success or failure of every "setup" Kelly instigated.
The top-flight writers, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, although often immersed in other projects in the East, were continually providing revisions of moments that were troubled, extraneous, or redundant. Although much of the time physically removed from the shoot, their sense of what should be lodged in or tossed out was an invaluable part of the collective process. And it is worth pointing out that, Singin' apart, their screen credits included Wonderful Town, The Bells are Ringing, Applause, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and On The Town. In the early l950s they were at the top of their game.
Some of the film's most outstanding scenes are, on the face of it, just brilliant digressions and it boggles the mind as to how they came about. Take Moses Supposes, the tap number by Kelly and O'Connor in which the two performers "take the mickey" out of the harried pedagogue trying to teach them proper enunciation. It is in one sense thoroughly irrelevant to the plotline, and the professor who is manhandled throughout appears in only that one number. Easy to delete, you might say -- except for the fact that it is probably the greatest, most synchronized and stylish tap-dance sequence ever filmed.
Ultimately, if one cannot simply pop in the video of this movie marvel and relive its joys, the next best thing is reading about how in l952, when everyone was bemoaning the coming demise of the studio system, trembling at the onset of television as the new and overpowering national medium and worrying about the moral hazard of Rock 'n Roll, something rare and memorable was taking place at MGM. Although we tend to demean the shameful conformity and blinkered materialism of the dreary old '50s, it was also a period in which, lest we forget, genius was flowering in Hollywood.
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