A History of Musical Film

1950s Part II: MGM Gems

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996-2004)

(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

Four of MGM's Greatest

Amid Hollywood's general decline, MGM produced its share of low budget projects. However, it also managed to turn out some of the most extraordinary musicals of any era. Four standouts:

1. An American in Paris (1951)

An ex-GI turned painter played by Gene Kelly avoids seduction by a wealthy heiress and falls in love with Parisian shop girl Leslie Caron, all while pianist Oscar Levant provides sardonic commentary. Director Vincente Minnelli used Alan Jay Lerner's screenplay to showcase classic George and Ira Gershwin songs. "By Strauss" and "I Got Rhythm" became giddy sidewalk production numbers, and a 17-minute fantasy ballet (which took more than two months to rehearse and shoot) turned the tone poem "American in Paris" into the most ambitious use of dance ever attempted in a feature film.

This amazing film has pretentious moments, but they usually go unnoticed thanks to the sheer style, energy and genius the Freed unit brought to every frame. An American in Paris received six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Screenplay (for newcomer Alan Jay Lerner) and a special award for Gene Kelly's contribution to dance on screen.

2. Singin in The Rain (1952)

Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen co-directed this hilarious screenplay written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, inspired by the insanity that reigned in Hollywood when sound was introduced. The plot involves a swashbuckling silent movie star (Kelly) turning a silent flick into a song & dance spectacular with the assistance of his best friend (Donald O'Connor) and soon-to-be girlfriend (Debbie Reynolds), and all despite the machinations of a vicious silent screen diva (Jean Hagen). The cast performed a parade of producer Arthur Freed's vintage MGM songs with one new comedy number by Comden and Green ("Moses Supposses"), and a derivative new song by Freed ("Make 'Em Laugh," painfully similar to Cole Porter's "Be a Clown").

Few cinematic images are as well known as a rapturous, rain soaked Gene Kelly swinging from a lamppost as he performs the title tune. A modest success in its initial release, the film's reputation as a classic grew over time. Singin' in the Rain is now hailed as one of the best films ever made, and is justifiably called the greatest musical comedy created for the big screen.

The BandwagonThe original sheet music cover for The Bandwagon (1953), which took its title from a 1931 Broadway revue with songs by Schwartz and Dietz, and starring (among others) Fred Astaire. The same star an composers worked on the film, which deftly inserted a plot involving a musical in desperate trouble during its pre-Broadway tryout tour. "That's Entertainment" was a new song composed for the film. Decades later, this jubilant number lent its title to a series of popular documentaries that celebrated the glories of the MGM musical.

3. The Band Wagon (1953)

Comden and Green wrote this brilliant backstage story of a stage musical struggling on its way to Broadway. Vincente Minnelli directed and Michael Kidd provided the witty choreography. Using songs from several Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz stage scores (plus the newly composed "That's Entertainment"), it featured Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant and British stage star Jack Buchannan. Astaire and Charisse shared a stunning pas de deux in "Dancing In The Dark," Fabray, Astaire and Buchannan were riotous as "Triplets," and the suave Astaire-Buchannan duet "I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan" is a rarely hailed moment of pure cinematic gold.

4. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1957)

This is the only film in this MGM quartet that was not created by the Freed unit. Produced by Jack Cummings and directed by Stanley Donen, this gem featured singing stars Jane Powell and Howard Keel, but it s fame rests in several hearty ensemble dance sequences choreographed by Michael Kidd. The plot involves a mountain woodsman (Keel) whose marriage to a wholesome town girl (Powell) inspires his six spirited brothers to kidnap six town girls of their own – and all of them are so gosh-darn honorable that the film winds up with seven happily married couples. Even a fine Johnny Mercer-Gene dePaul score ("Wonderful Day," "Sobbin' Women") has trouble outshining Kidd's rousing barn-raising challenge dance and the ax-wielding machismo fest "Lonesome Polecat." Overlooked by studio executives, Seven Brides received a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Score. Although the film cost a hefty $2.5 million, it grossed several times that to bring MGM a handsome profit of $3.2 million.

"MGM's Best?"

Each of these films has been called "the best movie musical ever made" by different critics and fans. And why not? They are everything great entertainment should be, with fresh, witty storytelling, wonderful casts and handsome productions. They also feature superb scores and some of the finest choreography ever devised for film. It s interesting to note that of these four, only Seven Brides has a 100% original score. The others use recycled songs from previous stage or screen projects, depending on a stylish blend of story and dance to make them new and exciting.

Hollywood has always viewed musicals with something less than wholehearted respect. How else can one explain why the corny drama The Greatest Show on Earth won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1952, while Singin' in the Rain was not even nominated? Decades later, when MGM celebrated its 50th anniversary by releasing That's Entertainment (1974), a dazzling collection of scenes from over 100 of their musicals, these films began to get serious attention as cultural treasures. Scholars, critics and the general movie-going public finally recognized that the 1950s at MGM were the end of a golden age.

In their own time, the titles discussed above were not the only claimants to the title of "best screen musical." In fact, several other masterworks may very well top the list of all-time greats. While most of these films came from other studios, all were made by alumni of MGM, which Debbie Reynolds eventually described as "a university of hard work and pain and wonderful creativity."

Next: Film 1950s - Part III