There’s a Western musical number in one of Fred Astaire’s least-known films, Let’s Dance (1950), where a TV set is seen on the wall, showing a cowboy film. Astaire eyes it disbelievingly for a second – then whips out a gun and shoots the screen. A slightly less drastic method of getting rid of the competition is used at the start of another Fifties film musical, Young at Heart (1954.) Here, an elderly Ethel Barrymore is sitting watching a boxing match on television, but the commentary is deliberately drowned out by her musician brother (Robert Keith), until she switches off – and the message is driven home by a wry comment that he “won the fight”.
In real life, however, the fight wasn’t so easy to win.The audience was falling away to television, and the writing was on the wall for big-budget Technicolor musical extravaganzas. When The Band Wagon was released in 1953, MGM’s Arthur Freed unit, which had made so many great films, was facing a struggle for funding, and Astaire’s contract with the studio was coming to an end. It’s hardly surprising that, despite its lavish musical sequences, including Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s romantic Dancing in the Dark, the film at times has a sad, wistful feeling about it compared to the high spirits of Singin’ In The Rain the previous year.
Many great musicals have plots packed with drama and unlikely coincidences. By contrast, on the surface anyway, Meet Me In St Louis has almost no plot at all. However, there is far more to this holiday classic, starring Judy Garland in one of her best-loved roles, than meets the eye on first viewing. Producer Arthur Freed, director Vincente Minnelli and the team at MGM agonised over the ingredients just as the Smith household’s cook, Katie (Marjorie Main) worries over her homemade ketchup bubbling on the stove in the film’s opening scene.
Katie is afraid the ketchup may be too sweet. MGM’s powers-that-be saw the same danger in this adaptation of writer Sally Benson’s humorous Kensington magazine stories, recalling her girlhood in St Louis at the turn of the 20th century. Various scriptwriters were drafted in and encouraged to add exciting plot twists, such as an unlikely blackmail plot involving a Colonel, to make the mixture a little stronger.