- The Washington Times - Friday, August 27, 2004

The AFI Silver Theatre is closing out the month with an optimum-pleasure revival of four of the greatest musicals — “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “It’s Always Fair Weather,” “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Band Wagon” — made under the executive command of producer Arthur Freed at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during the 1940s and 1950s.

Two of the films — the peerlessly charming “St. Louis” (1944) and “Band Wagon,” which has remained the wittiest of backstage movie musicals since its appearance in summer 1953 — reflect the prime of director Vincente Minnelli. Recruited by Arthur Freed in 1940, he had emerged as a top-flight Broadway director in the 1930s after starting in costume and set design.

Introduced to Mr. Freed by E.Y. Harburg, the lyricist of “The Wizard of Oz,” Mr. Minnelli was encouraged to spend an entire year becoming familiar with film technique and the Metro lot. He began to pay stylistic dividends for the studio with specialty numbers shot for Lena Horne, who arrived at about the same time. Within two years, Mr. Minnelli made a distinctive, exhilarating feature debut with “Cabin in the Sky,” which co-starred Miss Horne and Ethel Waters and used additional songs from Mr. Harburg and Harold Arlen.

The Minnelli flair for film musicals was rivaled only by the co-directing partnership of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, who arrived at MGM as a Broadway headliner and a precocious dance assistant, respectively. They were still in dynamic and playful concert at the time of “Singin’ in the Rain” in 1952. The partnership was clouded by overfamiliarity and estrangement three years later in the fitfully brilliant “Fair Weather,” which not only ended their association but also seemed to anticipate the demise of tailor-made Hollywood musicals.

Not so coincidentally, three of these classics were written by the same celebrated team: Betty Comden and Adolph Green, relative latecomers to the Freed apparatus in 1946. They had no hand in “St. Louis,” which would have been hilariously out of character. New York City had been their professional playground throughout World War II. An earlier metropolis, circa 1903, looms as a distant urban threat to the domestic contentment of the family in “St. Louis,” derived from Sally Benson’s short stories about a turn-of-the-century childhood. The stories initially became popular when published in the New Yorker.

Metro acquired film rights to the first Broadway hit written by Miss Comden and Mr. Green, “On the Town,” in a rather grudging spirit, eventually appeased by the Kelly-Donen movie version, a box-office sensation in 1949. The studio had thought so little of the original score that most of the songs were discarded, including the great romantic ballad “Some Other Time,” which remains to be immortalized on the screen. A belated, faithful remake wouldn’t be out of line.

This awkward beginning almost prompted Miss Comden and Mr. Green to pass on “Singin’ in the Rain.” They wanted to protect their prerogatives as lyricists but found themselves contractually obliged to contrive a humorous screenplay for the Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown songbook, dating to the 1920s.

The songbook pretext proved a stroke of genius for Mr. Freed in the early 1950s: George Gershwin in the case of the Academy Award-winning “An American in Paris,” with Mr. Minnelli directing and Mr. Kelly starring; then “Singin’ in the Rain” from his own back catalog, which he had sold to MGM for a modest capital gain; and, finally, “The Band Wagon” from the catalog of Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, with Mr. Minnelli directing and Fred Astaire starring.

Arthur Freed and his former partner, Mr. Brown, had been hired as the original house songwriters at MGM when sound transformed the business and created the first vogue for song-and-dance movies. That transition, of course, inspired the satirical framework for “Singin’ in the Rain.”

Mr. Freed, a close friend of studio boss Louis B. Mayer, was persuaded in the late 1930s to recruit and supervise a production unit specializing in musicals. This process began with “Babes in Arms” and “The Wizard of Oz.” Its last triumph was the Freed-Minnelli production of “Gigi” in 1958.

The talent pool assembled by Arthur Freed was so deep that it was easy to underestimate its vulnerability to fashion, economics and human frailty. To oversimplify along the bottom line, “Meet Me in St. Louis” cost about $1.7 million and grossed about $7.6 million in its initial release. The comparable figures for “It’s Always Fair Weather” are $2.1 million and $2.5 million.

“We thought the studio would last forever,” Mr. Minnelli mused in his autobiography. When he recalls certain Freed collaborators — Gene Kelly, Kay Thompson, Alan Jay Lerner, Stanley Donen, composer-arranger-producer Roger Edens, choreographers Robert Alton and Charles Walters and Michael Kidd, costume designer Irene Sharaff, set designer Oliver Smith — he’s merely scratching the surface.

MGM has released “special edition” DVDs of “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Singin’ in the Rain” that recall their productions in gratifying documentary supplements. Arthur Freed himself may be heard on the soundtrack of “St. Louis”: He dubbed the voice of Leon Ames in the paternal duet “You and I” with Mary Astor. “Rain” cried out for an adequate commentary track, preferably entrusted to Stanley Donen, Betty Comden and the late Adolph Green, but the opportunity was missed.

It remains to be seen if DVD editions of “The Band Wagon” and “It’s Always Fair Weather” will do the pictures justice. The latter lost two dance sequences, including an extended number for Michael Kidd, back in 1955. Presumably, restoration is justified.

Shot in CinemaScope, “Fair Weather” is one of the musicals that suffered repeatedly from pictorial cropping and scanning when telecast before the letterbox years. As a rule, the dance trios created for Mr. Kidd, Mr. Kelly and Dan Dailey would end up with one performer invisible or two of them bisected down the middle. A full-scale rendering of the movie has been difficult to find outside a responsible repertory theater.

SERIES: “The Golden Age of MGM: The Freed Unit & the MGM Musical”

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre, 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring

WHEN: Concludes Thursday

ADMISSION: $8.50 for the general public; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (65 and over)

PHONE: 301/495-6720

REMAINING SCHEDULE: Today: “Meet Me in St. Louis,” 1 p.m.; “It’s Always Fair Weather,” 3:15 p.m.; “Singin’ in the Rain,” 7:35 p.m.

Sunday: “The Band Wagon,” 1 p.m.; “It’s Always Fair Weather,” 5:40 p.m.; “Singin’ in the Rain,” 9:40 p.m.

Monday: “The Band Wagon,” 7:35 p.m.

Tuesday: “Singin’ in the Rain,” 7:15 p.m.

Wednesday: “It’s Always Fair Weather,” 7:20 p.m.

Thursday: “The Band Wagon,” 9:35 p.m.

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