A great deal of the prestige still attached to the name MGM comes courtesy of its vintage musicals. For this, much of the credit belongs to producer extraordinaire Arthur Freed. Blessed with taste and a love for musical films (he himself was a world-class lyricist - co-writer, for example, of all the songs you hear in “Singin’ in the Rain”), Freed was both brilliant studio exec and top-notch talent scout. He sought out excellence eagerly, eventually bringing together the greatest creative forces in the field to form MGM’s legendary Freed unit. The man knew how to delegate his troops - singers, dancers, choreographers, musicians, arrangers, writers, craftsmen - for maximum payoff. And he also identified, galvanized and inspired some of the best and brightest already on the lot (musical man for all seasons Roger Edens and orchestral arranger Conrad Salinger), adding radically gifted powerhouses like vocal arranger Kay Thompson and writers Comden and Green. Judy Garland, the world’s greatest movie musical star, was already at MGM. Under Freed’s aegis, other ground-breaking performers - some rising (Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra), some already reigning (Fred Astaire) - joined her there. And they were only the most prominent members of an ever deepening onscreen talent pool. Freed fired the first salvo in his ascent at MGM as guiding force behind “The Wizard of Oz” - an auspicious calling card if ever there was one. Within a short time, he’d begun to reshape and re-energize the MGM musical.
For all their charms, the MacDonald-Eddy hits of the 30’s were symbols of an increasingly antiquated genre. Operetta seemed ill-equipped to put down its parasol and duke it out with the rising big band and swing crazes. Eleanor Powell’s movies – tap extravaganzas hobbled by imbecilic scripts - made money in the 30’s. Dancing, Powell was always faster on her feet than the films jerry-built around her. But, between numbers, Powell’s screen persona was largely a matter of good-natured grinning. And by the 40’s its appeal with movie audiences was largely exhausted. The war years produced Freed’s Judy/Mickey let’s put on a show hits - brimming with fresh, youthful vitality, propelled by big band energy, cleverly spotlighting all that was best in its star duo. The public loved the up to date optimism and energy of their pictures. But elsewhere on the Metro lot, not everything was as rosy. By the mid-forties, Garbo and Shearer were gone, Crawford had decamped to Warners and Gable seemed somehow tamer. During the war years, big profits (and Oscar nominations) stuck to Greer Garson’s skirts like static cling. Postwar audiences seemed less entranced. Certainly MGM needed a more secure hook on which to hang its ongoing reputation than Van Johnson, whose sudden (and baffling) bobby-soxer fuelled stardom, was a bubble just begging to be burst. MGM’s musicals became that hook.
The other key behind the scenes figure in this golden age scenario was director Vincente Minnelli. Photographer, art connoisseur, set and costume designer and finally director, by the end of the 30’s Minnelli – still a young man - was one of Broadway’s leading lights. Freed was captivated by his work, recognizing a potentially crucial addition to the MGM team. At first reluctant, Minnelli eventually gave in and by spring of 1940 was California bound. The director’s first major project at MGM, “Cabin in the Sky” revealed the distinctiveness of his gifts. A musical fantasy with an all black cast, the picture was like no other MGM musical before it. Music breathed organically from its every pore, while a particularly fluid camera prowled through inventively stylized sets. A sympathetic nurturer (and admirer) of his stars (Ethel Waters and Lena Horne), Minnelli captured and celebrated their gifts onscreen as no director had before. The film had an extra special glow in its initial showings, released in beautiful sepiatone prints. Critics hailed “Cabin” as an artistic coup for the studio. And MGM was even happier when the public embraced it. On a relatively modest budget, Freed and Minnelli had created something special - and the unlikely, adventurous project netted the studio over half a million in pure profit.
Impressed, MGM entrusted Freed and Minnelli with a big budget and a big star, Judy Garland. Result: “Meet Me in St. Louis”, a heartfelt, lovingly mounted slice of Americana infused with seamlessly integrated musical elements; it broke box office records. And lifted Garland, glowing in material genuinely worthy of her talent, to new heights artistically. Today, the film’s considered a masterpiece, the one that really kicked off the golden age of MGM musicals. Its success confirmed Freed’s mandate at the studio. He was given virtual carte blanche as long as he continued to produce Class A musicals that burnished MGM’s reputation and kept filling its coffers.
Every Freed triumph wasn’t a Minnelli film and every Minnelli film wasn’t a box office smash. But both racked up pretty impressive track records. Certainly, their work, together and apart, continued to excite people who cared about musicals. Though his abilities as a decorative stylist were prodigious (think of the Dali-esque landscapes of “Yolanda and the Thief” and “Ziegfeld Follies”, the hot-house tropical birdcage splendor of “The Pirate”), Minnelli’s gifts went far beyond. Yes, his attention to details of lighting, draping and decoration was legendary. And his unique, flamboyant visual sense registered as infinitely more subversive and sophisticated than anything you might find in, say, one of Betty Grable’s cookie-cutter musicals at Fox. French critic Jean Domarchi rightly hailed Minnelli as someone capable of giving substance to dreams. But he was also an expert at motivating performers, at incorporating them into his vision while preserving and celebrating their singularity. Minnelli could serve up provocative visuals – glamour propelled along by insistent Freudian undercurrents - yet still maintain dramatic momentum, together with sustained and sometimes startling levels of musical excitement. Even Minnelli’s occasional commercial misfires (like “Yolanda” and “The Pirate”) were generally works of tremendous artistic originality and excitement. Other inspired musical directors joined the MGM family (Charles Walters, Stanley Donen, even Gene Kelly took up directing), but Minnelli remained monarch in the field.
Ultra-conservative studio policies (championed by Louis B. Mayer) generally kept Metro away from the edgier, more progressive or noirish material flourishing at other studios. Metro dramas tended to be stodgy rather than relevant. The studio’s “serious” films were seldom what you’d call hard-hitting, smug patriotism and sentimental clichés being poor substitutes for genuinely provocative drama. Studio chief Darryl Zanuck at Fox was much more ambitious and daring. The few good noirs MGM put out in the era (“Act of Violence”, “Border Incident” “The Asphalt Jungle”) were practically filmed under executive protest, receiving little more than grudging promotional support. The Freed musicals, on the other hand, attracting both big box-office and critical applause, naturally emerged as the boutonnierre on Leo the Lion’s lapel.
By the late 40’s an anti-monopoly measure from the government had forced the studios to divest themselves of the movie theater chains they controlled. And suddenly MGM found distribution much more of a challenge. All this, combined with the (in Hollywood eyes) insidious growth of TV, sent box office profits spiralling downwards. In 1951 a nervous New York brass replaced Louis B. Mayer as studio head. Dore Schary, the man who took over, had a plan for MGM’s future; he envisaged a program of modestly priced, socially conscious (though still, as it turned out, timid) programmers, buttressing a limited number of deluxe items. His favoured genre, when it came to those deluxe items, was the historical spectacle. He leaned toward costume epics s like “Quo Vadis”, and swashbucklers with Stewart Granger and Robert Taylor. And for a time, these did very well at the box office. Schary, unfortunately, was no fan of musicals. But the Freed unit’s dual aura of prestige and profit seemed to insulate it – at least for the moment –from studio shake-ups. Vincente Minnelli’s “An American in Paris”(1951) won Metro its first Best Picture Oscar in years. It also made tons of money, while simultaneously stretching artistic boundaries. Whatever the problems in the industry, Arthur Freed had successfully shepherded the movie musical into its crowning era. “Singin’ in the Rain” followed gloriously a year later, then in ’53 came “The Band Wagon”(also Minnelli). A late and undeniably great pinnacle in the career of Fred Astaire, the genre’s longstanding king, it was also the best putting on a show movie ever made . With masterpieces like these appearing every year, raising and refining the standards, movie musical fans might be forgiven for not realizing that the era was soon to come to a screeching halt. 1953 was to be the last year when all – at least from the outside - seemed well. Metro’s musicals may have been the most prestigious. But the genre seemed to be bustling, still nearly as ubiquitous as the western. Every studio could be counted on for its annual quota of movie musicals. But TV’s leapfrogging popularity wasn’t the only cause for Hollywood hand-wringing. Trouble was that with changing tastes, the Brando infused wave of realism, the spread of frank foreign imports offering new levels of artistry and/or titillation there was new competition for the North American moviegoer’s dollar. Yes there were still huge domestic hits – but they were becoming widely separated peaks in a desert of flops. “Quo Vadis” and “Ivanhoe” couldn’t make up for all the red ink MGM was starting to bleed. Musicals – with their elaborate production numbers and hordes of specialists - tended to be an especially expensive gamble. Spoiled by an embarrassment of riches in the field, critics and audiences turned up their noses at delights like “The Belle of New York”, “Give a Girl a Break” and “I Love Melvin”(all of which lost buckets of money). Suddenly musicals weren’t the financially reliable propositions they’d been for so long. Even well-received items like “Kiss Me Kate” and “The Band Wagon” couldn’t break even. Hits, if they happened, were likely to come out of left field. Unexpected financial bonanzas from modest productions like “Lili” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” helped save Metro’s bacon. While a seemingly sure-fire Broadway-tested property like Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon” turned into a box office bloodbath, undermining every bit of good supplied by the occasional surprise hit. By the end of 1953 the only MGM musicals that were guaranteed profit-makers were the Esther Williams aquacades. She’d made one or two every year since ’44 and all of them had come up roses financially. The studio had also lost its most important star, Judy Garland, in 1950. That definitely robbed MGM and – specifically the MGM musical of one of its biggest box office magnets. Metro’s inability to reconcile Judy’s personal problems and on-set unpredictability with commercial realities led to a parting of the ways between studio and star. It's sad she couldn’t have been part of the MGM musical’s glorious Indian Summer. Certainly, her presence would have made it that much richer.
Still, Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli, were firmly entrenched at the studio – bearers of the artistic banner and – for the most part – commercially successful. Minnelli’s directorial versatility was one of the studio’s key assets. Taking time out from musicals, he’d helmed some of the studio’s biggest dollar spinners, “Father of the Bride” , “The Bad and the Beautiful”and “The Long, Long Trailer”) So when Freed declared his determination that the studio buy “Kismet”, part of his pitch was that Minnelli would direct. Schary reluctantly acceded. And Freed wasted no time in presenting the property to his prize director. On the face of it, “Kismet”practically seemed to demand the pictorially inspired, exotically inclined Minnelli touch. According to received Hollywood history, it was at this point Freed suddenly discovered Minnelli had seen the show in New York and loathed it. Who’d have guessed? On paper “Kismet” and Minnelli seemed like an ideal match. But it appears at this time Minnelli was only interested in a long gestating pet project, “Lust for Life”, a biographical portrait of Vincent Van Gogh, to be filmed mainly on location in Europe. Metro had already invested heavily in “Kismet” and in the end, Freed had to issue an ultimatum. Do it first or MGM won’t okay the European jaunt for “Lust”. No “Kismet”, no “Lust for Life”. Minnelli grudgingly gave in and agreed to do the musical, but, having been virtually blackmailed into it, now hated the idea even more than before. Not a good beginning.