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.
Don’t be misled by the title – though MGM probably hoped people would be. There is nothing very glitzy about this movie, not all that much pageantry, and the only “king” featured is Fred Astaire in a pasteboard crown for the opening musical number.
For the most part, the royal wedding, of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip, is just a backdrop, and the film was released as Wedding Bells in the UK to make it clear the royals didn’t actually feature. The main story is an amusing and occasionally poignant backstager partly based on Astaire’s own early career, when he and sister Adele were famous dancing partners until she retired from the stage to marry a British aristocrat. However, the story is probably secondary to the stunning dance numbers, including the famous one where he dances up the walls and around the ceiling. Jane Powell ‘s beautiful singing voice is another definite plus to this movie, which has songs by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane and a screenplay by Lerner.
Just editing this posting to say that the Summer Under the Stars blogathon is currently running all through August, and today (August 23) is Gene Kelly’s special day. Please visit to read lots of great postings on his films.
Judy Garland and Gene Kelly starred together in three movies. The best-known is undoubtedly The Pirate, a lavish Technicolor production which I’ll admit leaves me cold. For Me and My Gal, made by Arthur Freed’s famous production unit at MGM, is in black and white and on a much smaller scale altogether, despite having Berkeley as director. Its tightly-constructed musical numbers bear little resemblance to those in his breathtaking pre-Code extravaganzas. The film as a whole is a strange mixture between musical comedy, melodrama and wartime flag-waver, with an intriguing flawed hero. It is set during the First World War, but clearly the scriptwriters were thinking of the Second, and there are scenes urging characters to buy war bonds, echoed in the final frame with an appeal to moviegoers. The fashions also look contemporary for the 1940s. I saw the film on TCM in the UK (it is also due for a showing on the US TCM at 6am (ET) on August 23, 2012), but it is available on DVD in both regions 1 and 2.
Even if it doesn’t always completely hang together and is occasionally corny, I found the film riveting to watch and enjoyed the chemistry between Garland and Kelly, as well as the array of great songs – highlights include the title song and the song-and-dance dance number Ballin’ the Jack – many of which date from the First World War or earlier. It’s just a pity that, in a film with Berkeley as director and starring Kelly, there is relatively little dancing overall – co-star George Murphy, in particular, gets very few scenes where he is able to show his tap-dancing prowess. According to TCM’s article on the movie, 40-year-old Murphy was originally intended as the male lead, but the part was instead given to Kelly, who was 10 years younger and making his movie debut fresh from his success in Pal Joey on Broadway. A disappointed Murphy was demoted to a support role. Another change was that originally the film was supposed to have two leading ladies, a singer and a dancer – but both these roles were combined to give Garland, who was only 19, her first fully grown-up role, with her name as the only one above the title. Looking at the posters for the film, Garland’s name and image dominate and it was clearly seen as her movie all the way. However, Kelly certainly shows his power and charm as both dancer and actor, in a role which made him a film star – while Murphy is also impressive in the few scenes he does get.