MGM’s Stairway to Paradise

Two of the most spellbinding scenes in any Hollywood movie: In the first, Judy Garland, bedecked in a cinched, blue-and-white-striped dress, and topped with a long, auburn wig, sings of her longing for “the boy next door,” her adorable, ginger-peachy neighbor, who seems as yet oblivious to her existence. In the second, Judy is again singing, though this time, rather than comforting herself, she’s attempting to calm little Margaret O’Brien—perched next to her, on the verge of tears—imploring the child to “have yourself a merry little Christmas.” Each scene is an emotional centerpiece and an aesthetic statement of intent in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, and in both, Garland, one of the greatest, most multitalented performers who ever lived, simply . . . sits there. At a window. Looking out at the world, looking back at us. With her patented vocal embodiment of both tremulousness and titanic strength, she gets right to the heartsick essences of Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane’s songs. That’s what matters, the way she hits and attenuates certain words and makes them sound as if they were wrenched from some deep, hidden part of herself: “How can I ignore the boy next door?” “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” She’s in Technicolor, and so is her voice.

The fireworks set off in these carefully staged yet physically sedentary scenes aren’t simply reflective of Garland’s magnetic brilliance or Minnelli’s compositional confidence. These moments also speak to the revolution of the movie musical that was going on at MGM in the forties. Meet Me in St. Louis was a megahit for the studio in 1944, and it managed to be such a success by breaking all the rules of the genre: more forcefully—and effortlessly—integrating songs into the narrative than ever before, focusing on an everyday American family rather than showbiz folk or aspiring performers, and not making a romantic courtship the sole excuse for the story’s forward motion. What Judy Garland is expressing by singing—and just sitting—is as essential to the emotional integrity and authenticity of the story as any of the dialogue. The turn-of-the-century saga of the Smiths, who are shown over four seasons wrestling with the terrifying prospect of having to leave their beloved St. Louis for that bad Big Apple out east after their patriarch is promised a job transfer, becomes an occasion, not just an excuse, for expression through song. More than anyone else’s, this was the intention and handiwork of producer Arthur Freed, who was all but handed the keys to the musical kingdom by MGM in the early forties, and who forever changed the way we would think of the form.

Top of post: An American in Paris; above: Meet Me in St. Louis

MGM is often remembered as the dreamiest of the “dream factories,” but in the thirties, the first full decade of sound cinema, musicals were not what it was known for. Back then, Louis B. Mayer’s studio had been most identified by a purposeful classicism and forthright wholesomeness: literary adaptations, biopics, and period pieces were its bread and butter. Other studios had more recognizable musical styles: Paramount’s dance-hall-influenced Ruritanian comedies with Maurice Chevalier; Warner Bros.’ backstage dramas, whose precarious plots were mere pretense for Busby Berkeley’s mind-boggling choreographic showstoppers; RKO’s gossamer screwball romances with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. MGM certainly offered up its own approach, but it was a less splashy one, chiefly defined by the studio’s arch striving for classicism, as illustrated by its Broadway Melody revue franchise; its chaste operetta vehicles for Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy; and the best-picture-winning The Great Ziegfeld, a biographical treatment of stage impresario Florenz Ziegfeld’s life featuring a couple of elaborate Berkeley-esque numbers thrown in for good measure. But something huge happened at the very end of the decade: The Wizard of Oz. The studio had been keen on finding the right way to adapt L. Frank Baum’s classic 1900 fantasy. Consequentially, Freed, a former Tin Pan Alley songwriter and vaudevillian who had been writing music for the studio, was hired to work on the film, as an uncredited associate producer. It was Freed who suggested turning Oz into a musical in the first place, and who also suggested hiring then-underestimated kid star Garland for the lead role of Dorothy—originally earmarked for Shirley Temple.

Freed’s intuition and taste contributed, of course, to a masterpiece and a box-office smash, and it wouldn’t be long before he was promoted by the studio and given his own department, to be devoted entirely to musicals. That special Freed flavor would gradually develop as the years wore on. No one at MGM—or likely in the entire industry—had a better handle on the kinds of people who would make the movie musical particularly special, even epochal. With his knowledge of and connections to the New York theater world, he began amassing a crew of extraordinary talents. When one thinks of the movie musical, one probably thinks of the MGM musical that Freed helped to develop. Beyond the integration of songs into the plot, as typified by Meet Me in St. Louis, these musicals’ trademarks were visual flights of fancy and abstraction, metatheatrical cleverness that belied their simple plots, and break-the-fourth-wall performative exuberance, even if the performer was just, say, sitting at a window.

“The MGM musical dove, with full-body somersaults, into its own movieness.”

It’s Always Fair Weather

In the coming years, the talent roster put forth by MGM would balloon until it was almost laughably daunting. In addition to Garland and Minnelli, who first met on Meet Me in St. Louis and married soon thereafter, there were stars such as Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Leslie Caron; choreographers Robert Alton and Charles Walters; costume designer Irene Sharaff; vocal coach Kay Thompson; and screenwriter-lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who would also become two of the genre’s most influential screenwriters. It was a murderers’ row, and the output of the so-called Freed Unit only grew more daring and accomplished throughout the forties and into the early fifties, the era that constituted its creative peak. So aesthetically influential were these films that even those MGM musicals that weren’t Freed Unit products—such as the exceedingly delightful Debbie Reynolds vehicles I Love Melvin and Give a Girl a Break, both from 1953, after Dore Schary had taken over the studio from Mayer—seemed to contain their distinct tone, color, and wit, a testament to the notion, widely presumed then and still contested by some today, of studio as auteur. Give a Girl a Break especially offers up a bevy of uncommon pleasures, tapping into the pure, raw talent of choreographers Marge and Gower Champion and a young, nimble Bob Fosse, all of them appearing in rare starring roles.

Though the MGM musical offered its fair dose of melancholy—what would Meet in St. Louis or An American in Paris (1951) or Brigadoon (1954) be without the threat of failure and loss that looms over them?—it was all the better to accentuate the light bursting through the darkness. These films could have seemingly slight premises—three sailors on leave look for love in New York City; an American painter living on the G.I. Bill tries to make it in Paris; three up-and-coming stage talents vie for the same Broadway role—but they were never fluffy. This was by sheer force of the megawatt talent and charisma on-screen, but also because of the movies’ sophisticated self-reflexivity. The MGM musical dove, with full-body somersaults, into its own movieness. Entertainments like An American in Paris, The Pirate (1948), Summer Stock (1950), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) were not just works of art—they were about art, centering on artists and performers; they foregrounded, with a mix of earnestness and reassuring self-deflation, the stoutheartedness it takes to put on a show, or to finish that canvas, or—in the case of the scene-for-scene jaw-dropper Singin’ in the Rain—to get that movie musical made, at whatever cost. Furthermore, these were films that tapped into the thrill of live performance without ever having to show any fidelity to reality. With performers like Garland, Kelly, O’Connor, and Charisse, one didn’t necessarily need complexly layered plots or even visual ingenuity, but with writers like Comden and Green and directors like Minnelli and Stanley Donen and Kelly himself—and with Technicolor processing and sound recording more advanced than in previous decades—MGM musicals didn’t often rest on their performers’ laurels.

Remember that bright, sunshiny day you woke up in bed next to your long-unrequited crush, proceeded to win the lottery, and had pancakes for dinner, chased by the most delicious hot fudge sundae of your life? That day didn’t have much on the joy of watching an MGM musical. Describing the infectiousness of the experience is difficult, perhaps impossible, but one way of getting at its otherworldly delight is to just take a look at the wide-open expression on Gene Kelly’s face when he’s performing. Whether swashbuckling for Garland’s devotion amid the self-aware theatrics of Minnelli’s The Pirate; silently romancing Caron within the dream ballet of An American in Paris, Minnelli’s elaborate homage to French painting; roller-skating on a crowded New York City street to the unabashedly egocentric “I Like Myself” in It’s Always Fair Weather; or, of course, joyously tapping his wet feet in spite of a rainstorm—and an alleged head cold—in Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly is the poster boy for the musical’s ability to smile, and make you smile, despite all challenges, to make you forget the limits and shackles of reality, not to mention the grueling effort it takes for such athleticism to seem so effortless.

Effortlessness was, of course, the name of the game for an industry that wanted to produce films whose seamless perfection made one forget about the well-oiled machine that created them. In the most basic description, the goal of the Hollywood movie is to appeal to consumers as easily as a perfectly made car right off the assembly line, and at no point in history was this truer than in the forties and fifties, but the MGM musical also was slyly pulling back the curtain a bit. These were not just images of all-American normality but movies that called attention to the impossibility of that normality: the inherent dual nature of these rosy-cheeked, white, middle-class people—they speak and they sing, they walk and they dance—reveals that all the world’s quite literally a stage.

“Even in the space- and time-shattering world of musicals, fantasy has its limits.”

Cabin in the Sky

Poignantly underlining the gap between the real and fantasy worlds is the historical fact that so many of the craftspeople and below-the-liners working on MGM musicals were openly gay. Writes queer theorist Matthew Tinkcom, “Especially in the Freed Unit, there was a kind of laissez-faire attitude toward there being queer employees. The Freed Unit was, in fact, a kind of place where queer talent could flourish.” It was a department that functioned as its own little world, not unlike the ideal of the movie musical itself, where everyday standards of masculinity don’t apply. Thanks to such artists as Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor—not to mention Fred Astaire, who would appear in such Freed musicals as The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) and The Band Wagon later in his career—physical delicacy could become an aspect of manhood, not its antithesis.

Gender somehow feels less fixed in MGM musicals than in other movies of the period, and not just because the men are less straitjacketed by “real” codes of masculinity. In many of these films, there is a pronounced tweaking of gender roles despite the movies’ reliance on boy-meets-girl frameworks: George Sidney’s pseudowestern The Harvey Girls (1946), starring Garland and Angela Lansbury, and with a story by Eleanore Griffin and William Rankin, mythologizes the Old West by focusing on female labor and camaraderie; The Pirate, with Garland and a short-shorts-flaunting Kelly, is a homoerotic buffet that explicitly pivots on female desire; Donen and Kelly’s On the Town (1949), which features Kelly, Sinatra, and Jules Munshin as randy sailors, redefines postwar masculinity by connecting it to balletic grace; and Donen’s wildly energetic Pacific Northwest backwoods romp Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) locates in its farcical tale of multiple marriage a heteronormativity so extreme it practically becomes parody.

Nowhere in the MGM musicals catalog do the marginalized become more central than in Freed and Minnelli’s first collaboration, 1943’s black-and-white Cabin in the Sky. In a break from the white, middle-class dreamworlds of most of these films, Cabin features an entirely African American cast in a spiritual melodrama of marriage, redemption, and the afterlife. Spry, raucous, and enrapturing, Cabin in the Sky is a rare big-studio showcase for talent otherwise largely invisible. At the same time, it’s also a reminder that not everyone got to equally partake of Hollywood’s bedazzling riches. Amid an astonishing cast headlined by Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson and also featuring none other than Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne makes a dazzling impression as temptress Georgia Brown; it would be the only major Hollywood role for the former Cotton Club singer before her career was notoriously cut short by the dictates of a racist industry. Cabin in the Sky is full of such talent: that Horne, Waters, and Anderson didn’t end up making film after film for the studio, as Garland, Kelly, O’Connor, or Charisse did, is conspicuous yet sadly unsurprising. Even in the space- and time-shattering world of musicals, fantasy has its limits.

All musicals are in one way or another about utopias—and therefore their impossibility. MGM musicals are perhaps the genre’s most utopian, creating worlds of perfect color, light, and harmony that make you forget, for a couple of hours, that reality isn’t populated by people who communicate like songbirds, who move like weightless angels. Of all the films ever put out by Hollywood, they might be the most closely attuned to the artist’s imagination, as tributes to an almost Wildean aesthetic ideal. In The Pirate, Garland’s unhappily betrothed Manuela, who craves romance and adventure, insists, “Underneath this prim exterior, there are depths of emotion, romantic longings.” It’s a statement that could be made by virtually any character in any musical. These are hardly frivolous matters. The musical is for anyone who has ever longed for something or someone—that is to say, everyone. What is life without fantasy? To be firmly grounded, one must occasionally walk on air.


MGM Musicals from the Golden Age is available to stream on the Criterion Channel through the end of 2019. A few films included in the series—An American in Paris, The Band Wagon, The Harvey Girls, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers—leave the service at the end of November.