Monday, November 22, 2010


One brand of musical towers head and shoulders above every other: the MGM musical. The mere phrase conjures up a string of iconic images – Gene Kelly ecstatically splashing about in puddles, a be-ginghamed Judy Garland skipping off down the Yellow Brick Road, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby singing while supping at the bar, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland slumming it as tramps, Maurice Chevalier crooning his way through a park packed with pretty Parisiennes ...

Between 1939 and 1959, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took the musical genre to a new level – well, several new levels, actually. They gave us the first musical with black stars in the leading roles, in the shape of 1943’s Cabin in the Sky, and six years later, they took the musical out of the studio and on location with the groundbreaking, New York-set classic On the Town.

And whereas the musicals up to that point had been very self-conscious about the use of song’n’dance routines – they invariably featured in “let’s put on the show right here” style plots – The Wizard of Oz blended them seamlessly into the story, just as the songs, by Harold Arlen and EY Harburg, rose organically out of Arlen’s score.

Requiring 29 sound stages, 65 sets, hundreds of costumes, 150 singing and dancing midgets and breathtaking special effects, The Wizard of Oz was typical of MGM’s opulent, no-expense-spared house style – but it was their most ambitious musical to date, and the first in colour. As a result of its success, studio chief Louis B Mayer decided to set up a musical unit at MGM with Oz producer Arthur Freed (the man who ensured Over the Rainbow was reinstated to the film, after it had been cut) at the helm.

And it is to Arthur Freed, that much of the credit for these glorious musicals is due. He puts the unrivalled greatness and splendour of the MGM musicals down to the fact that “MGM had a sort of repertory company, in the shape of the Freed Unit. Their musicals were the best ever made because Freed had this extraordinary gift of assembling talent, and he had a very loyal group of craftsmen that he used time and time again – directors Vincente Minnelli and Charles Walters, composer/arrangers Conrad Salinger, Johnny Green and Andre Previn, choreographers Gene Kelly and Hermes Pan and costume designer Helen Rose. He had the same people doing the same job year in, year out – they really knew what they were doing.” As a result, every aspect of films such as Meet Me In St Louis, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon and Gigi was absolutely first class.

Of course the perfect example of that – and much else besides – is Singin’ in the Rain (1952), the ultimate Freed Unit production (not least because he also co-wrote the title song). As Gene Kelly later pointed out, “You could watch that and enjoy it even without the music.”

But, oh, what music. Pick any legend of American popular songwriting and you’ll find he worked for MGM during the glory years. Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Harry Warren – they all wrote songs for MGM – and in some cases, the songs outlived or outshone the films. And it wasn’t just the songwriters whose music enchants.

The MGM movies endure because they are meticulously crafted works of art which offer pure unadulterated escapism and complete and utter joy. As Gene Kelly sang in the 1951 MGM extravaganza An American in Paris, “who could ask for anything more?”


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