MGM Musicals

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: the feature-length musicals produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios during Hollywood’s “golden age.”

MGM Musicals 101: The Classics

The movie musical emerged in an era of intense cultural conflict and competition: between traditional theater and cinema; between the story-driven musical and the more vaudeville-like revue; and between jumped-up jazz and music-hall pop. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer went through the same process of trial and error with musicals as nearly every other Hollywood studio, but MGM quickly developed a reputation as a place that nurtured and properly showcased talented performers, choreographers, and directors. Many—if not the majority—of movie musicals revered by fans of classic Hollywood feature the roar of the MGM lion.

The phenomenon began with The Broadway Melody, a 1929 backstage romance released while MGM was still adjusting to the sound era, which the studio embraced later than its rivals. The movie doesn’t have much of a story—Anita Page and Bessie Love play a sister act who fight for the affections and talent of a Tin Pan Alley songwriter played by Charles King—but MGM poured every technical resource available into the production, including shooting a brief Technicolor sequence that’s been lost to history. The Broadway Melody was a hit, and won the Academy Award for Best Picture, becoming both the first musical and the first sound picture to do so. In the years to come, the “backstage story” became a common framing device for movie musicals, allowing studios to convert the plot-light revue style—with songs chosen more for their catchiness than their narrative relevance—into something with  more of a narrative. The movie also spawned a series, with Broadway Melody Of 1936, Broadway Melody Of 1938, and Broadway Melody Of 1940.

MGM’s first truly great musical arrived a year later: Good News, an adaptation of a popular stage production about a group of college students who are mad about football, dancing, and sneaking off into dark corners to make out. The movie’s technical qualities are crude (with the possible exception of yet another long-lost Technicolor sequence), but the depiction of university life is so frank and modern that Good News ran afoul of the Hollywood production code that was established a few years later, and the film was withdrawn from distribution for decades. The 1930 Good News is a prime example of what makes movie musicals so thrilling and timeless. Even with a battery of makeup artists, costumers, directors, screenwriters, choreographers, publicists, and acting coaches working hard to sculpt an image of chaste sophistication, once a man starts shaking his hips or a woman starts kicking her legs high, the body parts tell a different story. (That’s even true of the 1947 remake of Good News, which cleans up the musical’s lascivious undertones, but still adds a little pelvic thrust whenever the bodies start to move.)

By the mid-’30s, MGM’s musicals had become more star-driven, and the studio signed one of its most enduring performers in 1935: 13-year-old Judy Garland. By all accounts, chief Louis B. Mayer took a special interest in Garland, working behind the scenes to turn her into a star by sheer force of will—even if he had to wreck her self-esteem to do it. Garland finally broke through with the public singing a cooing love song to a photo of Clark Gable in Broadway Melody Of 1938, which was followed by an inspired pairing with Mickey Rooney in a string of “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” musicals and Andy Hardy movies. The apotheosis of Garland’s teenage oeuvre is 1939’s The Wizard Of Oz, an adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s fantasy novel, featuring Garland as a pigtailed naïf from Kansas who inspires the downtrodden denizens of an enchanted kingdom to confront a mysterious mystic. But Garland’s best film at MGM came a few years later, as she was transitioning into more adult roles. In 1944’s Meet Me In St. Louis (an adaptation of a series of Sally Benson short stories, directed by Garland’s soon-to-be-husband Vincente Minnelli), Garland plays the second-oldest daughter of a turn-of-the-century middle-class Missouri family that is simultaneously looking forward to the 1904 World’s Fair and dreading their father’s plans to move the clan to New York City. In both The Wizard Of Oz and Meet Me In St. Louis, Garland’s characters stand up for themselves and revere the concept of “home,” but in the latter, she’s more alive to the sensual pleasures of life, and more cognizant of life’s disappointments. In Oz, Garland sings “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” pining for a better day she’s optimistic she’ll see. In St. Louis, she sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” pretending that everything’s going to be okay when she isn’t at all sure it will. That’s called maturity.

In 1945, MGM paired Frank Sinatra with its own hard-to-pigeonhole actor-dancer Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh, a musical about two sailors on shore leave living it up in Hollywood. It’s a fine, breezy programmer—featuring one spectacular scene where Kelly dances with the animated Jerry Mouse from the Tom & Jerry cartoons—but it paled in comparison with the savvier then-hit Broadway show On The Town, created by Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Leonard Bernstein, and Jerome Robbins. So in 1949, Sinatra and Kelly re-teamed for their own adaptation of On The Town, co-directed by Kelly and his choreographer pal Stanley Donen. The movie version replaces a lot of the music from the original, but retains the basic premise, following sailors on the make in New York City. And unlike the more studio-bound Anchors Aweigh, On The Town was shot on location in NYC, expanding the possibilities for how a genre as artificial as the musical could reflect real life.

Kelly continued to innovate for MGM both in front of and behind the camera. In 1951, he teamed up with director Minnelli, veteran producer Arthur Freed (who wrote some of the songs for The Broadway Melody way back when), and screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner for An American In Paris, which uses the culture of Europe and the music of George and Ira Gershwin to turn a fairly thin love story into something deliriously romantic and ambitious, culminating in a lengthy ballet sequence. The movie won the Best Picture Oscar, which was a problem only inasmuch as its success likely robbed Kelly’s next big musical of its due. Widely—and rightly—considered the greatest movie musical of all time, 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain applies the talents of Kelly, Donen, Freed, Comden, and Green to a different kind of “backstage musical,” telling the story of what happened to Hollywood when sound was introduced to motion pictures. It’s also a “trunk musical,” relying on existing songs from Freed’s catalog, though the movie often winks at the corniness of the old numbers even as it draws on their emotional power. In short: Singin’ In The Rain is the musical of musicals, encompassing the history of the form and its possible future in 103 zippy, catchy, funny minutes.

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Before Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen revolutionized movie-musical dancing at MGM, Fred Astaire and his choreographer partner Hermes Pan did much the same at RKO, with no small contribution from Ginger Rogers. Astaire went into semi-retirement in the mid-’40s right as Kelly’s star was rising, but MGM called him back into action in the late ’40s and early ’50s, and made a few musicals that stand up to his ’30s RKO classics. The best of the bunch: 1948’s Easter Parade, directed by Charles Walters and produced by Arthur Freed, with Astaire playing opposite Judy Garland as a stern taskmasker of a Broadway star who molds Garland into a top-notch entertainer as he’s falling in love with her. The Irving Berlin songs are terrific, and Astaire has a different kind of energy than Kelly, who was originally supposed to play the lead, but got hurt. Onscreen, Kelly’s emotions practically drip from his pores, while Astaire in his MGM films is amiable but a little aloof, as though he’s saddened that no one will ever be on his level as an artist. The great joy of Easter Parade comes from watching Astaire open up to Garland, recognizing her as a rare peer.

By the mid-’50s, MGM’s various musical units were working as well-oiled machines, turning out more than a half-dozen quality films a year, many of which are now widely regarded as classics: Vincente Minnelli and Fred Astaire’s Faustian 1953 backstage musical The Band Wagon; Stanley Donen and Michael Kidd’s imaginative, folkloric 1954 comedy-romance Seven Brides For Seven Brothers; Minnelli and Gene Kelly’s 1954 adaptation of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe’s hit Broadway fantasia Brigadoon; and more. But one of the best MGM musicals of the era is one of its lesser-known, less-grandiose affairs: 1953’s I Love Melvin, which re-teams Singin’ In The Rain co-stars Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor as two kooky kids trying to make a name for themselves in the big city. He’s a photographer for Look magazine; she’s an actress stuck playing a football in a campus comedy. He pledges to get her a magazine cover, and she pledges to love him forever if he can pull it off. The stakes are low and the pretensions minimal; I Love Melvin is an example of gifted, joyful professionals doing a job they clearly loved.

After 1955, MGM’s production of musicals tapered off to four titles in ’56, four in ’57, four in ’58, and then barely one a year for the next decade. But the studio’s top unit—the Freed unit—went out on a high in 1960 with Bells Are Ringing, a Minnelli-directed adaptation of a hit Broadway musical by Comden, Green, and songwriter Jule Styne. Judy Holliday (in her final film role before her 1965 death) reprises her role from the Broadway production as an answering-service operator who adopts different personas for her clients and tries to do more for them than just take their messages. From the New York setting to the hints of adult sexuality, Bells Are Ringing is a link to MGM musicals past, and though it wasn’t the last good musical the studio ever produced, it does feel like the closing of a chapter.

Intermediate Work: The Subgenres

“The MGM musical” is fairly monolithic as a concept, but the studio’s production units did frequently return to some themes and organizing concepts, creating odd little subgenres. One of the oddest? “Movies about Florenz Ziegfeld.” MGM won the second-ever Best Picture Oscar awarded to a musical for 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, starring William Powell as the legendary theatrical impresario. That was followed by 1941’s Ziegfeld Girl, a semi-sequel featuring three women (played by Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, and Lana Turner) who compete to become Ziegfeld’s latest star. The movie feels cobbled together, but it does feature Jimmy Stewart as Turner’s devoted beau, and several eye-popping Busby Berkeley-designed musical numbers. Then in 1945, Arthur Freed called together all of MGM’s major directors, choreographers, and stars to collaborate on Ziegfeld Follies, an anthology of songs and comedy sketches meant to approximate one of the old Ziegfeld shows.

Along the same lines, MGM produced several musicals that doubled as biopics of real-life composers and performers: 1942’s Freed-produced, Berkeley-directed For Me And My Gal, starring Gene Kelly as vaudeville star Harry Palmer, and Judy Garland as the girl who urges him to serve his country in World War I; 1946’s Till The Clouds Roll By, which leans on an all-star cast to tell a glossy version of the life story of Broadway composer Jerome Kern; and 1950’s Three Little Words, with Fred Astaire and Red Skelton playing the songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. One of the most striking entries in this subgenre is 1948’s Words And Music, the story of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart, with Mickey Rooney playing the troubled Hart, whose real problems are barely hinted at in the film. A hybrid between a biopic and a revue—with sparkling setpieces featuring stars like Gene Kelly and Judy Garland—Words And Music may not be historically accurate, but it’s a stirring tribute to the rewards of collaboration.

Words And Music also marked the 10th and final time Garland and Rooney appeared in a movie together, capping a profitable string of Andy Hardy comedies and musicals. Their first full-blown musical together was 1939’s Babes In Arms, with Rooney and Garland as precocious wannabe Broadway stars who stage their own show to prove themselves. Then they (and producer Freed and director Berkeley) repeated the plot formula in 1940’s Strike Up The Band, 1941’s Babes On Broadway, and 1943’s profoundly nuts Girl Crazy, in which Rooney plays a bratty playboy who tries to save a floundering western college by mounting a big cowboy-themed production. The Rooney/Garland musicals tend to be plotty in the first half and then revue-style in the second half, with Berkeley’s production numbers so much more elaborate than any group of kids could pull off that they come off as an intentional joke—or perhaps just a fantasy, from the leads’ perspective.

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In 1949, MGM released In The Good Old Summertime, a Garland-starring musical version of the 1940 Christmas romance The Shop Around The Corner, and the success of the remake inspired the studio to try more musical remakes of Hollywood classics, like 1956’s High Society, in which Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, and Frank Sinatra take on the Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, and Jimmy Stewart roles from The Philadelphia Story. The same year, the studio made The Opposite Sex, a remake of Clare Booth Luce’s distaff comedy The Women. None of the remakes are as good as the originals, but it’s fun to compare them, especially given how narrow the chronological gap often is between the remake and the source.

The Opposite Sex was originally meant to star MGM contract player Esther Williams, but she refused the assignment and effectively ended her career with the studio. Prior to that, though, Williams had a 15-year run at MGM, starting in short subjects before moving on to cameo roles and supporting parts, and then finally becoming the star of aquatic-themed musicals. A champion swimmer and a star in the “Aquacade” run by showbiz impresario Billy Rose, Williams was hired by MGM to be a counter to 20th Century Fox’s ice-skating musical star Sonja Henie. The “Esther Williams picture” became a genre all its own, and not a very well-respected one, although the 1952 bio-musical Million Dollar Mermaid—about Australian swimming pioneer and entertainer Annette Kellerman—is a clear standout.

Similarly, MGM made good use of French actress Leslie Caron in a handful of star vehicles throughout the ’50s. Trained in ballet and possessing a pixie-ish quality that made her somewhat less than versatile, Caron first shone in An American In Paris, then in 1953’s Lili (playing a bumpkin who becomes a star because of the naïve way she interacts with a puppet show) and 1958’s Gigi (playing a courtesan-in-training who loves hearing the worldly Louis Jourdan wax cynical about romance). In the ’50s and ’60s, foreign films began to have an impact stateside, and Hollywood scrambled to grab other countries’ ingénues to play romantic leads in movies that often didn’t work as well as they might’ve because their big stars didn’t speak English expressively enough. But Caron was more of a homegrown product, and she became a bigger star than most of the importees because her movie career actually started at MGM. She’d learned the system.

Advanced Studies: The Artists

Throughout the MGM musical’s 30-year run of superiority, talented artists flocked to the studio to try their hand, often making films that were more daring than the crowd-pleasing norm, or that reached for something just beyond their grasp, leaving a few astonishing sequences in their wake. In 1934, cinema’s reigning sophisticate, Ernst Lubitsch, made his contribution to the MGM musical tradition with The Merry Widow, an adaptation of Franz Lehár’s operetta about a royal lothario who woos a rich woman to try and keep the kingdom solvent. A very European film in style and attitude, The Merry Widow doesn’t have the knock-’em-dead quality of the MGM product to come, but clearly filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and Gene Kelly kept Lubitsch in mind when they tried to make their more mature musicals in the ’50s.

Like every other major studio, MGM didn’t have the most exemplary record on minority hiring, but MGM was the first studio to put a black performer under contract: Lena Horne, a veteran of Harlem’s Cotton Club. MGM used Horne sparingly, usually only in cameo roles, though she played a big part in 1943’s Cabin In The Sky, Minnelli’s directorial debut for MGM, and the rare studio film with an all-black cast. It’s a good movie, too, with Eddie “Rochester” Anderson playing a hopeless sinner who tries to reform for his wife Ethel Waters, but is tempted by drink, gambling, and Horne’s wiles. (Also of note: the 1929 MGM musical Hallelujah, another film with an all-black cast, directed by King Vidor with music by Irving Berlin. It’s a less broadly comic take on redemption among a community of Southern sharecroppers.)

One of the most disappointing byproducts of MGM largely abandoning the musical by the end of the ’50s is that the studio had just begun to nurture some exciting young talent at the start of the decade, like dancer-choreographers Marge and Gower Champion, Bob Fosse, and dancer-actor Bobby Van. The latter two star as roommates in the delightful 1953 campus comedy The Affairs Of Dobie Gillis, with Debbie Reynolds as the object of Van’s unrequited affection. Reynolds also appears in Stanley Donen’s Give A Girl A Break, playing an aspiring star with whom Fosse becomes infatuated, while Gower Champion plays the director of the Broadway show that Fosse wants Reynolds to star in. (Champion, however, wants another young woman, played by Marge Champion.) These were MGM’s equivalent of B-movies, but like the similarly low-budget I Love Melvin, they have a youthful energy that some of the later MGM musicals could’ve used, and the varied dancing styles of Van, Fosse, and the Champions offer alternatives to Astaire’s smoothness and Kelly’s muscularity.

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It wasn’t just the young bucks who were doing inspiring work at MGM in the ’50s. Once Fred Astaire decided to un-retire to help out the studio on Easter Parade, he stuck around for a few years and delivered some of MGM’s most memorable routines. In 1951’s Royal Wedding, directed by Donen, Astaire again plays a successful, fastidious performer flummoxed by romantic feelings, which have him literally dancing on the ceiling. And in 1957’s Silk Stockings, Astaire got in on the “musical remakes of the classics” game by tackling Lubitsch’s Ninotchka with director Rouben Mamoulian, playing an obnoxious movie producer who knows all the angles, as evidenced by the big number where he and Janis Paige tout the necessity of “glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope, and stereophonic sound.”

Gene Kelly and Judy Garland appeared together in some of MGM’s best musicals and often brought out the best in each other, though their onscreen chemistry was more brother-sister than boyfriend-girlfriend. In Vincente Minnelli and Arthur Freed’s wonderful 1948 romance The Pirate, Kelly plays an actor who tries to win over the resistant Garland by pretending to be the dashing buccaneer she idolizes. And in Kelly and Garland’s final film together, 1950’s Summer Stock (also Garland’s last film for MGM), Kelly again plays an actor, who borrows Garland’s farm to rehearse a show with his troupe and winds up falling in love with his host and making her a star. Both films deal with the power of theatrical illusion, and both show Kelly playing with the stages his characters trod as well as with the space of the screen, using his athleticism to showcase sweeping gestures along with the subtle sounds produced by human movement.

Kelly extended his interest in combining the broad and the graceful with 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather, which he co-directed with Donen, from a Comden and Green script, produced by Freed. Donen and Kelly reportedly squabbled throughout the production and never worked together again, which is appropriate in a way, given that It’s Always Fair Weather is about WWII army buddies who keep their promise to meet up again in New York 10 years after the war and discover they can’t stand each other. The film was intended as a sequel of sorts to On The Town, but MGM nixed the idea of a full cast reunion, so Kelly appears alongside galootish character actor Dan Dailey and brilliant Broadway choreographer Michael Kidd, in a story that sees the three friends departing their reunion acrimoniously, then coming back together through a series of coincidences. The movie has a strikingly bitter tone, yet it features some of the most inspired song-and-dance routines of its era. (And the ’50s were a fertile era.)

Kelly didn’t always have the full support of his home studio. In 1952, he wrote, directed, and starred in Invitation To The Dance, an experimental musical consisting of three dialogue-free stories told in pantomime and dance. The film is more kitschy than transcendent, but Kelly’s dancing is some of his strongest, and Invitation To The Dance is fascinating as a peek into the man’s personal ideas of what constitutes beauty and art. Unfortunately, movie audiences didn’t get that peek until later—MGM shelved the finished film, then gave it only a token release in 1956.

MGM’s musical production sputtered to a close in the ’60s, reduced to oddities like The Singing Nun and the musical version of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. By the ’70s, the studio developed into a nostalgia factory, thanks to the successful That’s Entertainment series, which excerpted the best of the MGM library to show to a new generation and their reminiscing elders. MGM did stamp its name on a couple of musicals by iconoclastic Englishmen: In 1971, it released a sloppily edited version of The Boy Friend, Ken Russell’s postmodern adaptation of Sandy Wilson’s pastiche musical, and in 1981, MGM released Pennies From Heaven, based on Dennis Potter’s BBC miniseries about a miserable, Depression-era sheet-music salesman (played by Steve Martin in the movie) who daydreams about living in a world more like the songs he sells. Yet even with those two films—innovative as they were—MGM was largely paying tribute to its own past. The MGM musical era was over.

The Essentials

1. Singin’ In The Rain. A pure happiness-delivery device, Singin’ In The Rain is self-aware yet thoroughly sincere, representing the best of an American art form.

2. It’s Always Fair Weather. As cynical as Singin’ In The Rain is sentimental, It’s Always Fair Weather applies some of the MGM factory’s best techniques to a story about how romance and friendship fades. Even with a sunny ending, the movie’s cloudiness is never completely dispelled.

3. Meet Me In St. Louis. The best kind of nostalgia piece: one that shows how people who lived decades or even centuries before us still experienced joy and heartache comparable to our own.

4. I Love Melvin. The true measure of a form’s greatness can’t just be taken from its prestige projects; this lower-to-the-ground romantic comedy shows that MGM’s musical-makers could turn out top-notch entertainment even when they were out of the spotlight.

5. Good News (1947). Stanley Donen, Vincente Minnelli, and Busby Berkeley are all better-known names, but Charles Walters directed some of MGM’s best musicals, starting with this ebullient remake of one of the studio’s most scandalous films.