For my second post here on Gene Kelly Fans, I present to you a list of reasons why I think people love MGM’s musicals:
Unmatchable Talent and Star Power
Sure, many classical film fans still love “non-MGMers” like Betty Grable, Dan Dailey, June Haver, Gordon MacRae, and Doris Day, but there is no question that MGM’s contract players were in a class by themselves. No other studio can compare to MGM’s “triple-threat-trio” of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Judy Garland (below). It’s virtually impossible. The other studios tried and, in turn, fared relatively well on the whole, but with those three names (among many others), the musical stars of other studios couldn’t compare.
The Freed Unit
What do Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Easter Parade, Meet Me in St. Louis, On the Town, and Gigi have in common? Other than the distinction of being some of the greatest musicals ever made, they were all produced by one brilliant man: Arthur Freed (pictured below with Vincente Minnelli and Judy Garland). While to this day it’s hard to determine Freed’s exact contributions to all of these films, we can say with certainty that his movies and his “Freed Unit” at MGM are virtually beyond compare.
The producer also had the gift of honing the best talent, both in front of and behind the camera. For example,
- Gene Kelly made his film debut in the Freed-produced For Me and My Gal and rarely worked outside the Freed Unit.
- Similarly, Cyd Charisse made her journey from featured dancer to leading lady in Freed’s capable hands.
- As well, Vincente Minnelli was brought into films (and directing) because of Freed, who admired his work on Broadway.
Arthur Freed also had the knack for choosing the right talent for the right movie, whether it was enlisting arranger/later Associate Producer Roger Edens, voice coach and arranger Kay Thompson, or screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green. For more information on these geniuses behind the scenes, check out Hugh Fordin’s book entitled MGM’s Greatest Musicals, the most in-depth book published to date about life at the Freed Unit.
The MGM Studio Orchestra
While Twentieth Century Fox might have had the highest quality sound studio, MGM contracted arguably the greatest players, conductors, and orchestrators. Once MGM’s musicals grew in popularity around 1944, the studio expanded to hire more professional orchestral musicians. The result? The signature MGM sound heard in every musical from Meet Me in St. Louis onward. A strings section without peer, a killer horns section, and brilliant arrangers and orchestrators at the helm like Lennie Hayton, Roger Edens, Alexander Courage, and the grossly underrated Conrad Salinger, MGM’s Studio Orchestra possessed a finesse like no other.
Joyful, Memorable Moments
The MGM Musicals are full of iconic moments that make us smile, simple as that.
- Gene Kelly dances in the rain and flashes us that dazzling smile.
- Judy Garland “gets happy” in Summer Stock.
- Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse effortlessly dance in the dark in The Band Wagon.
- Garland finally breaks down Astaire’s impeccable style and class when they mug like “A Couple of Swells” in Easter Parade.
- Louis Jourdan realizes he’s actually in love with Leslie Caron’s Gigi.
- Garland and Mickey Rooney sing and dance their way to stardom by “putting on a show” over and over.
Of course, I could go on and on as MGM’s musicals are some of the most joyful ever made.
A Comfort-Food Quality
MGM musical stars are our close friends and extended family, and the films themselves are our medicine when we’re taking a sick day or when we’re feeling down. Plus, they’re easily rewatchable. I’ll never get sick of revisiting Judy Garland and Gene Kelly together in Summer Stock, or Garland and Astaire in Easter Parade. In fact, I’d even say that — as a singer and film buff — my life is happier and richer because of MGM’s musicals. I’m thankful that for a few magical years, the “stars in the heavens” were perfectly aligned and movie magic was created on those MGM soundstages. The films are irreplaceable, and to say they’re special is an understatement. They’re an important part of film history, and they are eternally joyful.