Sunday, 11 December 2011
Make 'em laugh...
Watching the best of the studio's output – Singin' in the Rain, Meet Me in St Louis – is to indulge in pure joyous artifice
Friday 9 December 2011
Fred Astaire strolls into a toyshop with a walking stick and spats, whistling. He snatches an oversized Easter bunny from a small boy and proceeds to do a tap dance using a series of conveniently positioned props that happen to be lying around on the shop floor. "I'm plumb crazy for drums," he sings, for no obvious reason. Then he takes his bunny – without paying – and nonchalantly strolls out again.
This – a scene from Easter Parade (1948) – is the sort of thing that could only happen in the fantastical Technicolor world of the MGM musical. Such trifles as logical plot development and plausible human motivation have no place here. What matters is getting as quickly as possible to the next song and the next dance and letting the stars do their thing. In an MGM musical, every sidewalk is made for dancing and every woman has cherry-red lips and high-kicking legs. When you're in the right mood, the formula is absurdly effective. The comfort seeps in from the moment you hear that MGM lion roar. You find your mouth involuntarily turning up at the corners, your toes twitch and your heart feels as if it's being pumped full of candy floss. Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! is the title of the current BFI celebration of the genre, which offers the chance to revisit Singin' in the Rain and Meet Me in St Louis alongside lesser known gems such as The Band Wagon, worth it just for the scene in Central Park where Astaire and Cyd Charisse twirl and clinch to "Dancing in the Dark".
The genius and the oddness of the MGM musical is largely the product of the sensibilities of one man, Louis B Mayer (born Lazar Meir in Ukraine in 1884), who combined sugary sentimentality with a ruthless focus on the bottom line. The star system of the golden era was Mayer's creation. Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Katharine Hepburn all owed their careers to him.
After MGM production chief Irving Thalberg died in 1936, Mayer was able to push MGM even more towards crowd pleasers. Which meant musicals. Much of the genre was shaped by Mayer's gut instincts. In 1939, at the preview screening of The Wizard of Oz, the director Victor Fleming got jittery and wanted to cut "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", arguing it was too long and difficult. Mayer made a snap decision to keep it. In that moment, sitting on a bale of fake Kansas hay, the 16-year-old Judy Garland stopped being a child star and became a real star, whose voice seemed to make all our troubles melt like lemondrops. "There's no place like home," said Dorothy. Oh yes, there is: there's a place even better – the homes created on the MGM backlot, peopled entirely by stars. Mayer liked to say that MGM had more stars than the heavens. At their best, the MGM musicals gave the stars a perfect hermetic space in which to perform: shimmering curtains, yellow brick roads and an aura of homeliness more potent than anywhere people might really live.
"She can't act, she can't sing and she can't dance … The triple threat," says Donald O'Connor's Cosmo of the dreadful silent film star Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) in Singin' in the Rain (1952). As with so much else in the film, it's self-referential. MGM was an efficient machine that showcased talents in a highly targeted manner, depending on how much of a "threat" the particular star might be. There are the single-threat pretty faces, the chorus girls who flash across the screen for a single lovely moment, or the barnstorming male ensemble dancers in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, whose muscular cartwheels and jumps speak louder than words.
Then there are the double threats. Ann Miller was a fantastically leggy and charismatic brunette dance prodigy with Cherokee ancestors. Her publicists claimed that she could tap her feet 500 times a minute. Miller could sing, too, but was no great actor, which made her hard to position in conventional pictures. Her career went nowhere much at RKO or Columbia Pictures before she finally found her form with an MGM contract. MGM gave Miller a way to shine that had nothing to do with characterisation and everything to do with talent. In her set-piece solo dance sequences, Miller was given three minutes of freedom in glamorous outfits to shimmy and tap to her heart's delight, with the camera trained only on her. No dancing woman, not even Rita Hayworth, has ever looked quite so sure of her own power as Miller in Easter Parade, "Shakin' the Blues Away" in yellow elbow-length gloves. Virtuoso doesn't even cover it. Miller later said she had to pour blood from her high heels after all the relentless takes. But all we see on the screen is Technicolor perfection. As someone says at the beginning of "Too Darn Hot", Miller's hottest number in Kiss Me Kate: "Go, girl, go!"
Singin' in the Rain, meanwhile, is a film starring three all-singing, all-dancing, all-acting "triple threats" in the form of Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly, who also co-directed. To see the three of them, perky and bright-eyed, linking arms and singing "Good mornin', good mornin', we talked the whole night through" is to participate in a deeply wholesome version of the American dream. It's almost Nietzschean in its polished will to power. You feel: these people have fought their way to the top as performers in the most competitive society in the world. They have been dressed by the finest costumiers (Debbie Reynolds's cute neckerchief deserves its own Oscar), slathered in greasepaint by the finest make-up artists and lit and shot by the most talented technicians. And they are still smiling! If the routine were even a tiny bit less crisply rehearsed, it would seem horribly trite. But somehow the three are such pros that they take all the artifice – the gimmickry with raincoats and sofas – and make it loveable and spontaneous.
The formula wasn't always so winning. In the 50s, the studio continued to churn out expensive musicals, with all the trademark MGM polish, after public tastes had moved on. Mayer's biographer Bosley Crowther noted that his "authority as a showman relied upon insistence on qualities of sentiment and make-believe that were nothing short of 'corny' in the postwar age". Mayer himself was ousted from MGM in 1951, replaced by a supposedly grittier chief of production, a kid from RKO called Dore Schary. But still the sentiment and make-believe continued, except now they often had a desperate air of cynicism.
You may hate me for saying this, because this movie has a bewildering number of fans, but a nadir was reached with High Society (1956), a film so much smaller than the sum of its starry parts. Take Grace Kelly's beauty in a white swimming costume, Bing Crosby's crooning, Frank Sinatra's worldliness, Louis Armstrong's humour and jazz, Cole Porter's songs, and what do you have? A cold-hearted, self-regarding mess of a film. The various classy elements never really gel. High Society lacks the emotional punch of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of the late 50s and 60s, and does not have the pure joyous artifice of 1940s MGM.
The one person who could have made it work had sadly lost her contract with MGM back in 1950, after one too many nervous collapses. The actor who found her truest form in the MGM musical was Garland, the original quadruple threat: she could dance, she could act, she could be funny; and oh, she could sing. Garland took the most preposterous lines that Irving Berlin could dream up – "I was born in Michigan / And I wish and wish again" – and imbue them with heart-stopping resonance.
It is no accident that Garland was the star of the finest MGM musical of them all, the only one so brilliant and human that it surpasses the genre, 1944's Meet Me in St Louis. It's showing from 16 to 29 December at the BFI, the perfect Christmas treat. Directed by Garland's future husband Vincente Minnelli, it tells the story of an affluent St Louis family during the four seasons of a single year, 1903, the year before the World's Fair. Garland plays Esther, the second of four sisters (there is also a brother). The family is thrown into turmoil when their father is offered a job in New York. You wouldn't think that having to leave St Louis for New York was the stuff of tragedy, but it is. The critic David Thomson calls it "the most satisfying story ever told as a musical", comparing it to a Chekhov play, though here the sisters want to stay in their home, not leave it.
For once in an MGM musical, the bits between the songs are good enough to sustain a film by themselves. Minnelli gives us a non-mawkish picture of family life at the turn of the century, when five-year-olds might stay out all day riding the milk float and grown-up daughters suffer the embarrassment of having to conduct a long-distance phone conversation with a man trying to propose in front of the entire family. The cast are all excellent, from Mary Astor as the mother to Tom Drake as the boy next door. For stretches, you almost forget it's a musical. Then Garland as Esther opens her mouth to sing and you are transported to a higher plane. "The Trolley Song" is sublime, as is "Under the Bamboo Tree", where Garland pulls off the trick of dancing with a child – her little sister Tootie – and making it look completely natural.
It all culminates in "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas". This song has been ruined by a thousand smug, easy listening versions. But the original, as sung by Esther to her distraught little sister, trying to console her for the fact that they are leaving the place they love, is almost unbearably sad. Garland's lustrous voice is not saying: "Isn't it jolly? It's Christmas." She is saying: "Yes, things are miserable, but one day they might not be" – a powerful message in 1944, and still resonant now, in this recession Christmas.
"Someday soon, we all will be together / If the Fates allow / Until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow." We are a long way from Fred Astaire and the Easter bunny, but also not so far. Like all the other studio's musical stars, Garland was simply parading her talent, in this case, a talent for wringing tears from a willing audience. It took all the artifice of MGM to create a moment of such purity and truth.
Gotta Sing! Gotta Dance! The MGM Musicalis at the BFI Southbank until 30 December.