The Screening Room’s retro of classic MGM musicals is, wittingly or unwittingly, an homage to Arthur Freed. Eight of the 12 films were made by the Freed Unit, the autonomous production group whose name was synonymous with the MGM musical. Freed, who started out as a songwriter and vaudeville performer, was hired as a lyricist by MGM in 1929 and, after a gig as coproducer on The Wizard of Oz, elevated to producer status. Surrounding himself with directors like Vincente Minnelli, Stanley Donen, and Charles Walters, he helped shape the careers of Judy Garland (he signed her when she was 13), Gene Kelly, and Fred Astaire. He was the uncontested master organizer of the postwar movie musical.
The Unit’s innovative On the Town (1949) broke completely with Hollywood musical conventions, taking song-and-dance out of the soundstages and into the streets—never before had any major studio shot musical sequences on public sites in New York. The first of Kelly and Donen’s codirecting triumphs, it was followed by their Singin’ in the Rain (1952), mainly with songs written by Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. In Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), one of the most effective pieces of Americana ever filmed, Garland was transformed by Minnelli—there’s a depth of feeling in her performance unlike anything in her previous work. Freed’s voice can be heard in the film, singing one of his own songs, “You and I,” dubbing for Leon Ames, who plays Garland’s dad. In Minnelli’s The Pirate (1948), a flamboyant Caribbean costume romp, Kelly is an actor who poses as a notorious pirate to win the hand of sequestered virgin Garland. Minnelli teams Kelly and the Nicholas Brothers in the superb “Be a Clown” sequence—a distinct change from the great black specialty dance team’s usual segregated numbers. A flop when released, this ravishing film has developed an enduring cult following. It looks better every time around.