❉ We look back on the work of Arthur Freed, producer of the most outstanding musicals of MGM.
‘Don’t try to be different. Just be good. To be good is different enough.’ – Arthur Freed
Of the major Hollywood studios, Metro Goldwyn Mayer led the way in producing lavish, entertaining and inventive musicals, reaching a peak somewhere between the late ’40s and early ’50s.
As the largest of the four studios, MGM could command the biggest stars and most talented designers, choreographers and songwriters. One interesting things about the old studio system (each studio with its own ‘stock’ family of contracted artists) was that it was usually the producer, rather than the director, who created his own ‘brand’. MGM had many such easily identifiable producers during its golden age – notably Joe Pasternak (‘Hit The Deck’) and Jack Cummings (‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’), but to my mind the finest is Arthur Freed (1894 – 1973), whose name will always be associated with the classic MGM musical ‘Singin’ In The Rain’.
Freed started out in Hollywood as a lyricist, contributing songs to the MGM films ‘The Broadway Melody’, ‘The Hollywood Revue of 1929’ (which included a song called Singin’ In The Rain) and ‘Broadway Melody of 1937’. The legendary ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ provided his big break in 1939 as associate producer, leading to a long and successful career as producer. Freed made the most of the exceptional skills of such directors as Vincent Minnelli (‘Meet Me In St. Louis’), developing the careers of Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, and many more stars, and his collaborations with Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen – ‘Singin’ In The Rain’, ‘An American In Paris’ and ‘On The Town’ – remain up there as three of cinema’s finest creative achievements. The following films are not just amongst his finest work, but also some of the best examples of populist movie-making you will ever experience!
MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)
This bona fide classic portrays a year in the life of the Smith family who are due to move to New York shortly before the wildly anticipated 1904 Worlds Fair is due to visit their hometown. One of the best Christmas films ever, a flawless slice of nostalgic Americana. The exciting novelty of such technical innovations as recieving long distance phone calls, and rites of passage like trick-or-treating and first love blues are captured with sparkling freshness, the Smiths are the kind of family anyone would want to come home to (even the child actress Margaret O’Brien is on just the right side of cute), and Judy Garland was never so touching. Features three of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s most famous songs: The Trolley Song, The Boy Next Door – so timeless, that the genders were switched and it was adapted by Frank Sinatra for his first album a decade later – and Have Yourself A Merry Christmas.
EASTER PARADE (1948)
Fred Astaire has one of his best roles here as one half of a dancing duo who has to find a new partner when his other half (the leggy Ann Miller) goes solo. Astaire picks Judy Garland from obscurity and tries to do a Pygmalion number on her, attempting to mould her into a facsimile of Miller, and driving her to distraction in the process. Eventually, he lets Garland develop her own style and the duo have great success. The score includes seventeen (seventeen!) songs by Irving Berlin, including the A Couple Of Swells routine, Garland is given ample opportunity to prove her abilities as a comedienne, and Fred Astaire is given some routines that show exactly why he put dancing on the map in those classic ’30s RKO musicals with Ginger Rogers. This film often turns up on BBC2 during the Easter holidays – if you spot it, do yourself a favour and tune in!
ON THE TOWN (1949)
Possibly the most fun you can have with your clothes on, ‘On The Town’ sees three small-town sailors (Gene Kelly, a young Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin) on shore leave in New York. Munshin hits it off with an oversexed anthropologist (Ann Miller on top form) whilst Sinatra gets ensnared by the kooky Hildy, New York’s only lady taxi driver (played by Betty Garrett). The four of them team up to help Gene Kelly try to find Ivy Smith (Vera Ellen), a poster girl that Kelly has become infatuated with. A great screwball comedy, with some very sophisticated, subtle yet suggestive jokes and lyrics (references to Ray Milland’s novel on alcoholism ‘The Lost Weekend’ and the controversial Kinsey report on sexuality , amongst other things, abound), and a overwhelming sense of pure fun, excitement and enjoyment that is impossible to resist.
Freed made the revolutionary decision to film as much of the movie as possible on location in New York itself for realism (most films were filmed entirely on the studio’s city-sized backlots), and even more controversially almost all of Leonard Bernstein’s original score was ditched. The hidden treasures in this film are Betty Garrett, and Alice Pearce as her flatmate. Judging from this film, Miss Garrett could have had a brilliant career as a comedienne, but sadly she was one of the casualties of the McCarthyite anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s and never returned to films.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)
As far as cheesiness goes, this is pure Camembert, with Gene Kelly as an artist attempting to woo a young French lady (Leslie Caron). Plot aside (it’s the best place for it), ‘An American In Paris’ is really an excuse to create visual set pieces to some of George Gerschwin’s finest music, including I Got Rhythm (a delightful Parisian street scene with Kelly and some classically-nauseating stage school children), the gorgeous ballad Our Love Is Here To Stay and the title piece An American In Paris – a stunning, colourful fantasy sequence inspired by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger’s film ‘The Red Shoes’, and undoubtedly what clinched the Best Picture Oscar.
ROYAL WEDDING (1951)
An often-forgotten minor classic in MGM’s musical milieu. Conceived as an attempt to repeat the formula of ‘Easter Parade’, until Judy Garland was removed from the cast (due to her increasing drug-related unreliability) and replaced by the perky blonde soprano Jane Powell (a few years before starring in ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’). Astaire and Powell are a brother-and-sister song-and-dance couple visiting England to perform, coinciding with the marriage of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip (a canny gimmick to appeal to the UK market, and Anglophiles in the US). The idea of Fred and Jane as siblings is a bit hard to swallow given that Powell was born in 1929, the year that Astaire made his film debut.
Whilst not on a par with its predecessor, it does include two once-seen-never-forgotten solo dance routines performed by Fred Astaire, proving he was as elegant, athletic, and graceful as ever and still capable to conceive innovative routines – in Sunday Jumps, he dances with a hatstand in an empty gymnasium, and dances on the ceiling in You’re All The World To Me, three decades before Lionel Richie, thanks to some innovative camera trickery.
SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)
Anyone who has seen ‘Singin’ In The Rain’ (and if you haven’t, do it today) will know that it is entirely deserving of its reputation as one of the best films of all time. It’s also a lot more smart than many people give credit for, as a well-observed and very sharp comedy of the beginning of ‘talking pictures’, showing how the old silent stars (and the studios) struggled to cope with the changes it heralded, hoping that it would be a “gimmick”! The film is packed with songs from the early days of musicals, some written by Freed himself including the world famous title song, the ballad You Are My Lucky Star, and All I Do Is Dream Of You.
The starring trio of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and the very talented Debbie Reynolds are at the height of their game here, and like ‘On The Town’ it has a contagious atmosphere of pure joy. Cyd Charisse makes a stunning debut appearance, practically burning up the screen with slinky sexiness, whilst Jean Hagen is unforgettable as the egotistical, talentless and spiteful bimbo and the unfortunate Kelly’s co-star, with an unfortunate combination of looks and voice second only to David Beckham!
IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER (1955)
As with ‘Royal Wedding’, ‘It’s Always Fair Weather’ is another ‘lost gem’; and also conceived as a companion to an earlier hit, in this case ‘On The Town’. Here, three buddies (soldiers, rather than sailors) uphold a pact to re-unite ten years after going their seperate ways upon leaving the army. Unfortunately, they find that they have next to nothing in common, and cannot stand each other’s company! This doesn’t stop a ‘human interest’ TV show attempt to make a story of the reunion and try and paper over the cracks.
Dolores Gray performs Thanks But No Thanks, an acid-sharp number with Surrealist visuals; Cyd Charisse performs a song and dance routine in a boxing club where the jocks seem more interested in each others’ bodies than hers (homoerotic gags was a speciality of permissive cinema!) and the scenes involving the TV station feature some great jokes at the expense of continual ‘words from our sponsors’.
Take my hand, I’m a stranger in paradise, and let me take you to the Arabian delights of ‘Kismet’, a gloriously camp MGM musical that defines Kitsch with a kapital K. An enjoyably preposterous feast for the eyes and ears, with Howard Keel (apparently still wearing his fake goatee from ‘Kiss Me Kate’) as a beggar and poet who is on the run from an evil Wazir. Things get complicated when he is seduced by the Wazir’s wife (Dolores Gray). Meanwhile, Keel’s daughter (Ann Blyth, who played the daughter from hell in the Joan Crawford melodrama ‘Mildred Pierce’) falls in love with a young prince (crooner Vic Damone) during a chance meeting and spends the rest of the film trying to find him. The film practically defines ’50s-style exotica, right down to the soundtrack – which was based upon Borodin’s Potslovian Dances from “Prince Igor”. Look out for Jamie Farr, aka Corporal Klinger from M*A*S*H, as a peddler in the early part of the film.
SILK STOCKINGS (1957)
A late example of the high quality musicals MGM was capable of producing. A remake of the Greta Garbo comedy ‘Ninotchka’, with new songs by Cole Porter, Cyd Charisse played a Communist sent from Russia to bring back three emmisarries – Joseph Buloff, legendary actor Peter Lorre (‘M’, ‘The Maltese Falcon’) and ‘On The Town”s Jules Munshin. Fred Astaire plays the songwriter who eventually cracks Ninotchka’s ice-cold facade with the decadent Western ways of fancy footwork and sublime songs (Paris Loves Lovers, All Of You, It’s A Chemical Reaction). ‘Silk Stockings’ comprises Cole Porter’s last work for an MGM musical, but songs such as the aforementioned three are amongst his best. The three Russians succumbing to capitalist pleasures are hilarious, as is Janis Paige (calling herself ‘Neptune’s Mother’ in reference to swimming star Esther Williams!) who sings the dynamite opening number Stereophonic Sound.
The last gasp of the golden age of musicals, and the third of Leslie Caron’s French-themed musicals, about a young Parisienne girl coming of age. Watching this film in one go is a bit like eating a whole box of chocolates, but it’s impossible to resist the charms of songs such as The Night They Invented Champagne and Gigi (Gaston’s Soliloquy) and Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold are charming as the old couple who Remember It Well and are Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.
As Freed’s penultimate musical – and indeed the end of an era for MGM – it sees him standing down in style, and Vincente Minnelli’s visuals are his most opulent since ‘Meet Me In St. Louis’. ‘Gigi’ gave Freed his second, and last, Oscar for Best Picture.
Freed left MGM in 1970 after failing for almost a decade to bring his dream project, a biographical film of Irving Berlin, ‘Say It With Music’, to the screen. He died three years later surrounded by his family.
❉ Hugh Fordin’s ‘M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit’ is still available to buy new or used from Amazon.
❉ James Gent is the Editor of We Are Cult, and is the co-editor of Me and the Starman, (Chinbeard Books, 2019) Available in paperback from Amazon: All profits from this book go toward supporting the work of Cancer Research UK.