History of Musical Film

1940s III: MGM Reigns Supreme

by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996; revised 2014)

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

Throughout the 1940s, songwriter Arthur Freed headed MGM's main musical production unit. There were other fine musical producers at that studio (including Joe Pasternak), but Freed's team set the industry standard. After proving himself as associate producer of The Wizard of Oz (1939), Freed supervised forty musicals over the next twenty years. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer gave the unassuming Freed an unusual degree of creative freedom. With associate producer Roger Edens, Freed assembled a dazzling line up of creative talents, including Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen, Fred Astaire, Betty Comden & Adolph Green and Alan Jay Lerner. But Freed's greatest single achievement at MGM was shaping the screen career of one young woman.

Judy Garland: "Get Happy"

garlandsm.jpg (27786 bytes)At the height of her screen popularity, Garland was supportive of her For Me and My Gal (1940) co-star, newcomer Gene Kelly.

The top musical film star of the 1940s, Judy Garland appeared in sixteen MGM musicals (and fourteen additional feature films) during that decade, most produced by Freed. No other musical screen star ever had such an exhausting track record.

Aside from her final appearances with Mickey Rooney (see the 1930s film essays), her 1940s screen musicals included –

Garland later insisted that MGM got the most out of her by encouraging studio doctors to prescribe a dangerous array of pills to crank her up by day and force her to sleep at night. But no other performer ever blamed MGM for encouraging chemical dependency. It was Garland's controlling mother who got her started on pills, and while the studio may have abetted the abuse, it also encouraged and supported Garland through several attempts at rehabilitation that always fell apart due to her crushing workload. Between the pressures and the pills, this gifted young lady was often a physical and nervous wreck.

By the time Garland filmed Summer Stock (1950) her frequent illnesses and delays were wreaking havoc with schedules and production budgets. The same studio executives who had worked Garland like a dray horse for sixteen years now labeled her "unreliable." Garland's refusal/inability to film Royal Wedding in 1950 led to a highly publicized and humiliating suspension. The day after the suspension was announced, a distraught Garland attempted suicide. MGM then exercised the "morals clause" in her contract and fired her. Star and studio went on to separate triumphs, but both lost something irreplaceable.

Gene Kelly: "Gotta Dance!"

Summer Stock sheet musicSummer Stock (1950) turned out to be Garland's last MGM project. Gene Kelly, now at the height of his career, offered her the same kind of moral support she had once offered him.

MGM's next great musical star got his big break on screen co-starring with Garland in For Me And My Gal (1942), where Gene Kelly's good looks and macho dance style made him an audience favorite. He was loaned out to Columbia for Cover Girl (1944), where assistant choreographer Stanley Donen put Kelly in a series of winning dance numbers, most notably an "alter ego" dance with his own reflection. Kelly won such acclaim that MGM refused to loan him out for any future musicals, and the studio began to treat him like a major star. Kelly helped pop crooner Frank Sinatra look like a capable hoofer in Anchors Aweigh (1945), and shared a dazzling song and dance duet with Fred Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

Kelly starred in and choreographed the screen version of On The Town (1949), the first of several films he would co-direct with Donen, a former Broadway chorus dancer with a remarkable instinct for musical film. Donen, Kelly and producer Arthur Freed would create some superb screen musicals in the art form's remaining years. Kelly understood what a remarkable team the Freed unit was. As he later explained it:

"The members of the group who worked at MGM during my tenure there were very serious about musicals. That is not to say we didn't make them to entertain and lift the spirit, but we thought that to do this effectively they had to be superbly crafted; and that meant the closest kind of collaboration among the choreographers, directors, producers, musicians, conductors, musical arrangers, designers, costumers – the list is endless. There were probably more assembled talents in this field at Metro than anywhere else at any other time."
- Kelly's introduction to Clive Hirschorn's The Hollywood Musical (NY: Crown Publishing, 1981), p. 7

Although film scholars make much of the "Freed unit," Stanley Donen has denied that such a thing really existed. However, one could say this denial amounts to a confirmation –

"The Freed unit, of course, is a myth. You were under contract to MGM just like everybody else was. It was only that Arthur Freed had particular taste and appreciation of things, and would collect those people together. And he kept collecting those same people over and over so they got to be known as the Freed unit. The other producers were very envious of people being called that, when in fact it didn't exist. There was no Freed unit, except that we did all keep working for Arthur Freed. So, there was a Freed unit in a way, but it was only in all our heads."
- From an interview in The Movie Makers: Stanley Donen (Los Angeles: AMC/Lorac Productions, 1995).

Few would have believed that the original Hollywood musical was entering its final decade, but in a development as monumental as the advent of sound films, television was changing America's movie-going habits. When all-star spectaculars appeared in your living room for free, why bother paying to see a movie? The old vaudevillians who starred in many early television shows may have felt a bittersweet sense of revenge as their work on the small screen made studio moguls squirm.

Although the Hollywood musical was doomed, its last gasps would be among its most glorious.

Next: Film 1950s