Behind the Musicals


The baffling Oscar triumph of Chicago might represent a flat-footed step toward a broader studio confidence in the musical. But what if the gates swing wide only for more disheveled, dance-impaired loudmouths of recent vintage? What the embattled genre needs now, other than Justin Timberlake (start with the “Like I Love You” video and work outward!), is a reincarnation of Arthur Freed, legendary producer and subject of Film Forum’s three-week series.

Freed began his show business career as a vaudeville performer and entered MGM as a lyricist (Gene Kelly sings his words in the title sequence of 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain), but Freed’s métier proved to be the spotting, recruitment, and coordination of talent plucked from other studios, Broadway, and Tin Pan Alley. (Straightaway, he head-hunted Busby Berkeley from Warner Bros.) The Freed Unit soon comprised Vincente Minnelli’s delirious designs for living, Fred Astaire in the shimmering twilight of his dance career, Broadway hoofer Kelly (who hit age 30 before he ever made a film) and his eventual directing partner Stanley Donen, dancer and choreographer turned director Charles Walters, the whip-smart screenwriting team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and of course, Judy Garland, in the mountingly messy decade before her star was reborn. Freed’s garden of earthly delights begets many a film-historical daisy chain: Kelly broke his ankle before the making of Walters’s Easter Parade (1948), facilitating the film’s somewhat unlikely pairing of Garland and Astaire; Garland then dropped out of the intended follow-up, The Barkleys of Broadway (Walters, 1949), paving the way for an Astaire-Rogers reunion . . .

A crucial early champion of Garland, Freed campaigned for her casting in Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (1939), in which he worked as an uncredited associate to producer Mervyn LeRoy. Only 22 when she filmed her first collaboration with Minnelli, as the love-struck teen Esther Smith in the exquisite and strange Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Garland already exhibited all the symptoms of the spiraling diva: chronic tardiness, illnesses real or imagined, and mysteriously persistent “car trouble.” The production lost countless hours and dollars to Garland’s firmament of infirmities, exacerbated by the frequent AWOL status of seven-year-old Margaret O’Brien, who played the cheerfully morbid Tootie. Yet the only hint of behind-the-scenes turmoil swims in the burbling Minnellian currents of delicious hysteria—cue Tootie at the nightmarish Halloween bonfire, flinging a chair on the flames and shrieking, “I’m the most horrible!”

The success of Meet Me in St. Louis wrote a blank check for Freed & Co.’s increasingly ambitious enterprise. Myriad filmmaking and performing styles united through technical expertise and promiscuous Technicolor—each frame running over with all the hues in the Pantone book. Sure, a few entries have aged into kitsch: George Sidney’s amiably vulgar Show Boat (1951) suffers from show bloat and burdens Ava Gardner with a camp drunk scene (avidly snogging a glass while gripping a pincushion). But Donen and Kelly’s On the Town (1949) is as breathlessly exciting as ever: Horny for NYC, flushed and fleet, feminist-minded and offhandedly homophilic, the movie still shoots off into the sky like fireworks over the Hudson. Same goes on the Seine in the Gershwin-scored An American in Paris (Minnelli, 1951), in which everyday café culture and baroque fantasy realms meet in starbursts of song, dance, and design: in Oscar Levant’s daydream of orchestral megalomania, in the flabbergasting Dionysiac black-and-white ball, and in the moment that Kelly’s starving artist lifts Leslie Caron into his arms only to open his eyes and see a clutch of flowers, slipping from his grasp.