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Five Underrated MGM Musicals
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has produced many great musicals. Audiences are familiar with such classics as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Easter Parade (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin' in the Rain (1952), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), and Gigi (1958).
From about 1940 to 1960, the musical assembly line at MGM was so busy that it produced many other outstanding musicals that don't stand out in movie history as well as the movies mentioned above.
One reason for this lesser popularity might be the lack of a showstopping centerpiece number, like the title song scene in Singin' in the Rain or the house-raising scene in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Or maybe a movie had a serious, artistic tone that limited its general appeal, like The Pirate or Lili. Or maybe it looks better against the backdrop of movie history or current cinema than it did to contemporary audiences.
If your knowledge of MGM musicals includes only classics like An American in Paris and On the Town, you owe it to yourself to see these movies. You might discover a new favorite musical, and you'll gain more appreciation for the talent and creativity that filled the MGM sound stages.
The Pirate (1948)
Gene Kelly plays a travelling performer who masquerades as a pirate to win the heart of Judy Garland, who has been forced into a marriage with an older man.
The Pirate had a darker, more ironic tone than better known MGM musicals of the late 1940s like Easter Parade or On the Town.
"A bit too fancy for the masses, the film did well in city centres and developed an enduring cult following," wrote John Douglas Eames in The MGM Story.
Movie historian David Shipman described The Pirate as "bizarre, unlike any previous musical; critically admired but not popular (later, it acquired a coterie following)."
But the movie does end with one of the happiest performances in movie musical history—the "Be a Clown" number which plainly shows the fun had by Kelly and Garland while shooting the scene.
The Pirate was based on a dramatic comedy by S. N. Behrman that had been made famous on the stage by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. It bursts with quality work behind the camera by songwriter Cole Porter, producer Arthur Freed, and director Vincente Minnelli. The screenwriters were France Goodrich and Albert Hackett, who had written It's a Wonderful Life two years earlier.
Kelly was at his energetic best in elaborately choreographed scenes in which he combined dancing and acrobatics as he maneuvered across the buildings, props and scenery of large sets. His 1948 work included a similar role in The Three Musketeers.
Garland had been off the screen since 1946 while starting a family with husband Vincente Minnelli and daughter Liza Minnelli. She had several powerful solo numbers in The Pirate, including "Mack the Black" and "You Can Do No Wrong."
One of the best scenes with Kelly and Garland is near the end of the movie, when Garland finds out that she has been deceived by Kelly. She batters him with pottery, books, plants, and paintings in a scene that segues smoothly from anger to comedy to romance.
Kelly and Garland had earlier starred in For Me and My Gal (1942). They worked together so well in The Pirate that they were scheduled to re-unite in Easter Parade. But Kelly broke his ankle, which paved the way for Fred Astaire to come out of retirement and star with Garland in Easter Parade.
"A wild, spectacular, and pleasant adventure in theatrical make-believe is offered by 'The Pirate,' the Technicolor musical extravaganza starring Gene Kelly and Judy Garland at the Capitol," wrote E. B. Radcliffe in The Cincinnati Enquirer on June 19, 1948.
Three Little Words (1950)
This solidly entertaining movie is a strong example of the talent and craftsmanship available to MGM under the studio system.
Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen had both recently starred in successful MGM musicals (respectively, Easter Parade and On the Town). Also under contract was comedian Red Skelton, who had starred in the 1948 MGM comedy The Fuller Brush Man.
MGM wanted to base a musical on the lives of the songwriting team Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. This team's songs had appeared in several Marx Brothers movies but they also wrote romantic songs like "Nevertheless" and the title song for Three Little Words.
Astaire, Vera-Ellen, and Skelton could be put to good use in a version of the Kalmar/Ruby story that would be a mixture of reality and Hollywood.
Producer Jack Cummings hired director Richard Thorpe, a competent professional who had started in silent movies and who had been trusted with such different movies as Tarzan's New York Adventure, Her Highness and the Bellboy, and Malaya. Also behind the camera were musical director André Previn and choreographer Hermes Pan, who had worked with Astaire in his famous movies with Ginger Rogers.
Throw in solid character actors like Keenan Wynn and Paul Harvey, and several attractive young actresses (Arlene Dahl, Gloria De Haven, Gail Robbins, and teenager Debbie Reynolds), and you've got the makings of a good, fun movie.
Reynolds had a particularly good scene as Helen Kane, the "boop-boop-a-doop" singer. Reynolds sang Kane's signature song, "I Wanna Be Loved By You," with Kane's voice dubbed in. This scene helped lead to Reynolds' sparkling performance in Singin' in the Rain two years later.
Although Astaire and Skelton were top-billed, Three Little Words is a showcase for Vera-Ellen. Her extraordinary dance skills are shown off in several different styles, both as a solo performer and with Astaire. Her acting has more seriousness and assertiveness than she shows in her two most famous roles in On the Town and White Christmas.
The technically stunning dancing styles of Astaire and Vera-Ellen meshed perfectly. Their duets included the playful "Where Did You Get that Girl?" number that opens the movie; the clever Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer" performance about married dancers; and the elegantly smooth dancing to "Thinking of You." They would dance together one more time for MGM in The Belle of New York (1952).
Reviewers of Three Little Words were impressed by the seriousness of Skelton's performance. His well-known comic side shows up in different ways, but only enough to add variety to his acting and to complement the acting of others.
Three Little Words has a genial, entertaining tone that has just enough seriousness to keep it from feeling fluffy. It's a comfort food type of movie that you can just relax and enjoy.
"Whatever the poet said, lives of great men usually remind Hollywood to make a movie about them," wrote Helen Bower in the Detroit Free Press on August 19, 1950. "In the lives of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, song-writing team, MGM had something to go on beyond the Technicolor musical formula. 'Three Little Words' at the Adams Theater has song, magic and baseball comedy."
Leslie Caron's debut film, An American in Paris, immediately made her a star. MGM then had the pleasurable challenge of finding the right roles for this young ballet dancer from Paris who had been discovered by American in Paris co-star Gene Kelly.
A strong part came along in Lili, about a young orphan who joins a travelling carnival. According to the 1957 MGM history The Lion's Share, Lili did not get a good reception from studio executives when it was proposed, but was approved to take advantage of the growing popularity of Caron.
Like in American in Paris, Caron must decide which of two men she cares for most—a dashing womanizing magician played by Jean Pierre Aumont or a puppeteer played by Mel Ferrer, whose dancing career was ended by a World War II injury.
Ferrer uses a puppet to communicate feelings of affection for Caron that he cannot otherwise express. Ferrer and Caron travel journeys of self-discovery as they learn that everyone is made up of a variety of personalities
Lili has much charm and delicacy, thanks to the puppetry, Caron's sincere sweetness, and the memorable theme song by Bronislau Kaper and screenwriter Helen Deutsch ("Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo"). Caron dances with human puppets in a fantasy sequence that leads up to the climactic scene of the movie.
The marketing of the movie was probably difficult, because of the mixture of the child-friendly elements of puppetry and music, and the serious psychological elements.
But Caron "was delightful in it and its success made her one of the studio's brightest stars," wrote film historian David Shipman. Lili became the basis for the 1961 Broadway musical Carnival.
Lili was directed by Charles Walters, who had previously directed popular MGM musicals like Good News (1947), Easter Parade (1948), and Summer Stock (1950). Caron won a British Film Academy award for her performance in the title role.
"Now and then a picture comes along that, by all sensible standards, shouldn't be any great shakes as entertainment, but which proves to be a thorough-going delight," wrote Jane Corby in The Brooklyn (New York) Daily Eagle on March 11, 1953. " 'Lili' is that kind of film. You think nothing is going to happen in it, and nothing much does, but a pervasive joy emanates from it that fills the theater, and mushrooms out into the street with you afterward."
Brigadoon is a screen version of a musical play by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who later did My Fair Lady, Gigi, and Camelot.
The many memorable songs are performed superbly. The dancing takes full advantage of the year-old widescreen CinemaScope process, especially the wedding dance and the ethereal "The Heather on the Hill" duet of Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse. Kelly also was the choreographer for Brigadoon.
The use of Hollywood sets for Brigadoon was strongly debated. Some people thought this approach limited the Scottish feeling of the movie and compared it unfavorably to the 1952 movie The Quiet Man, which was filmed in Ireland. However, others thought that the sets added to the fantasy feeling of the movie about a community that comes to life only once every 100 years.
Kelly and Charisse had worked together in the 1952 classic musical Singin' in the Rain. They acted and danced together much more in Brigadoon, and the journey of their romance adds much emotional depth to the movie. Charisse also was coming off a big success with Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon (1953).
Secondary characters played important roles in Brigadoon. Barry Jones is a significant mediating character who tells Kelly the secret of Brigadoon and helps along the romance of Kelly and Charisse. Van Johnson plays Kelly's buddy and provides a gruff, cynical counterpoint to Kelly's idealistic yearnings.
Another highlight of the movie is a scene in a New York City bar that is a good satire of the social and professional world of the 1950s.
Brigadoon re-united producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli, who since The Pirate had teamed up on An American in Paris (1951) and The Band Wagon (1953).
"As a screen musical 'Brigadoon' ranks with the better ones in the field," wrote E.B. Radcliffe in The Cincinnati Enquirer on October 7, 1954. "It certainly is a show to be seen and heard—for sound on this job, vocally and instrumentally, makes the most of some of the most ear-pleasing numbers ever written."
Bells are Ringing (1960)
Ten years before Bells are Ringing, Judy Holliday won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Born Yesterday. Through the 1950s, she continued to use her uniquely quirky mixture of comedy, drama, and romance in movies like It Should Happen to You and The Solid Gold Cadillac.
Holliday then starred on the stage in the musical comedy Bells are Ringing. This play was later adapted for the screen, for what turned out to be Holliday's last movie.
Dean Martin co-starred with Holliday in this story about a telephone answering service operator (Holliday) who falls in love with a playwright who uses that service (Martin). Along the way, Holliday also manages to get mixed up unintentionally in some criminal activities.
The musical score by Jules Styne (music) and screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics) has many entertaining songs that add depth and meaning to the plot. There's melancholic and poignant beauty in songs like "Just in Time" and "The Party's Over." The cleverly humorous song "Drop That Name," with its recitation of famous names, takes the listener back in time to the cultural world of the late 1950s.
Frank Gorshin adds a shot of manic energy when he enters about halfway through the film. Jean Stapleton plays Holliday's supervisor years before Stapleton became Edith Bunker on the television show All in the Family.
Once again, Arthur Freed and Vincente Minnelli ran the show, two years after their greatest triumph—Gigi. Bells are Ringing was the last collaboration of this great partnership.
And of course, we now see Bells are Ringing as a farewell tribute to Judy Holliday, five years before she died of cancer at the age of 43 in 1965. She was such an expressive personality that it's easy to recall her laughter, her smile, and her friendliness.
" 'Bells Are Ringing,' which opened at the Adams Theater Friday, should find itself rated among or very close to the ten best pictures of the year," wrote Ken Barnard in the Detroit Free Press on July 9, 1960. "With 14 musical numbers, the majority having better than average appeal, and excellent performances both behind and in front of the cameras, the picture provides two hours and seven minutes of entrancing fun."
- Crowther, Bosley. The Lion's Share: The Story of an Entertainment Empire. E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc, 1957.
- Eames, John Douglas. The MGM Story: The Complete History of Fifty-Four Roaring Years. Crown Publishers Inc., 1979.
- Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars 2: The International Years. Little, Brown and Company, 1989.
- Thomas, Lawrence B. The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years. Columbia House, 1972.
© 2016 Bob Smith