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The New Diaghilev

Discreetly increasing itself a few titles at a time, the “MGM Classic Collection” (MGM/UA) has already reached the point where you need a month to take it all in. But unless your first allegiance goes to Elizabeth Taylor modelling lingerie for the fuller figure in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, there can be no doubt that the musicals are what validate the word “classic” in the collection so far. Just follow the dancing feet.

Not that even MGM had a sure-fire formula. Musicals could be either mechanical or successful, but not both. What MGM had was an inspired producer, Arthur Freed. Opinions differ about which was the very best musical with his name on it, Singin’ in the Rain or The Band Wagon, made in 1952 and 1953 respectively.

Those with ambitions towards forming a library will have already purchased or stolen a video of the former, but they should note that the latter is also there for the asking, at an advertised playing time of 108 minutes, which the first-time viewer will find is far short of how long it takes to see once. Some of the numbers will have you lunging for the rewind button before they are half over. The awful, addictive thing about video is that if you can’t bear the visual high to end, it doesn’t have to. The Band Wagon is the video drug in its pure form: cocaine for the corneas.

Freed usually made sure, sometimes too sure, that the numbers, while never clashing with the story, weren’t crowded out by it. Fred Astaire is ruminatively crooning “By Myself” only ten minutes into the picture and ten minutes after that he is in full flight with the shoeshine dance routine, which expands into the amusement arcade production number, which in turn ends with a sight gag so good it makes you laugh even when alone. Direction by Vincente Minnelli, screenplay by Comden and Green, choreography by Michael Kidd—everything fits together straight away because of the producer’s sense of proportion. Away from Freed, no-one concerned was immune from the self-indulgence that spins things out.

Even Astaire, unless advised to the contrary, would chew his dialogue ten times before swallowing. But he always danced economically even when the routine going on around him limped. The Band Wagon never limps, but it does sometimes swan about, especially while establishing Cyd Charisse as a ballerina, so that she can kick over the traces later on. Astaire has to do a lot of standing around flat-footed, and you would be left feeling short-changed if it were not for “The Girl Hunt” production number at the end.

The pre-war musicals usually spaced numbers of even length evenly throughout. The post-war musicals favoured a tease-play approach by which numbers that weren’t long enough led up to a flag-waving finale that went on longer than you could believe, or—as happened particularly when Gene Kelly was involved—could bear. But “The Girl Hunt” brings The Band Wagon to a blissful climax. Astaire and Charisse finally get to strut their full range of stuff, including a two-minute jump-time jazz dance duet which is the most exhilarating thing of its kind on film.

It’s the sequence set in the Dem Bones Café, starting from when Astaire enters with his hat over his eyes. Charisse is perched on a bar stool with her coat done up. She sheds the coat and unfolds that marvellous figure, which would have been poetic even if she hadn’t been able to dance—although if she hadn’t been able to dance she wouldn’t have looked like that. When the film came out I saw it over and over just for those few minutes. When I found out that her real name was Tula Ellice Finklea I only loved her more.

On the Town is earlier and less lush. Freed is once again in charge, but Stanley Donen is keener than Minnelli to cut out the fashion photography and keep things moving. This quality paid off when Gene Kelly was, as here, the star. A Kelly ballet, if left unguarded, would swell to absorb the entire movie. But in 1949 they still had the clock on him.

Since he is one of three sailors on shore leave, and since each sailor has a girlfriend, Kelly gets, theoretically at least, only 16-2/3 per cent of the total screen-time to bare those perfect teeth and/or rise slowly on demi point with his bottom tensed. Otherwise Ann Miller bares her perfect legs and Betty Garrett lures Frank Sinatra up to her place—a rare example, for the time, of a lady taking the lead. The way Sinatra’s voice comes sidling through the ensembles tells you what tone has that loudness hasn’t.

But the producer is the real hero. Five of the six leading characters are wrecking the natural history museum with a song-and-dance routine almost as soon as the picture starts. The sixth character, Vera-Ellen, is an aloof ballerina, but luckily for us she has to earn a secret living as a sideshow dancer on Coney Island, so in the fullness of time she burns the boards with the rest of the gang, and thus obliges Kelly to stop indulging in his least endearing facial expression, shy awe. “Gosh Ivy, I mean Miss Smith, I . . .”

It didn’t matter so much if he talked like that, as long as he eventually danced. In Anchors Aweigh he is still talking half an hour into the picture and not a dancing foot has been heard, nor has Sinatra sung a note. Freed’s name is not on the credits. Once again it is the story of sailors getting liberty, but this time you want them to be deprived of it.

The Barkleys of Broadway ought to be, on paper, a better bet. Freed is in charge, Comden and Green do the script, and Fred Astaire stars with Ginger Rogers. What can go wrong? One tends to conclude that Charles Walters couldn’t direct musicals, but it can only have been the producer’s fault that when you finally finish waiting for the first number it turns out to be Oscar Levant playing “Ritual Fire Dance.” Freed had not yet made On the Town, but he was no beginner: Meet Me in St Louis was already behind him.

While Homer nods, the two stars cool their heels, no doubt remembering the blessed days of black and white. But it wasn’t colour that deprived musicals of their simplicity. It was choreography. The form became so organic that only a producer of genius could keep it under control. In the pre-war Astaire musicals the dances were created by the star himself, with the assistance of Hermes Pan. Together, they knew exactly what was right for him—the routines were balletic only in the metaphorical sense of being light as air, even when he was kicking holes in the floor. Post-war, ballet took over, with An American in Paris providing merely the most gargantuan example. Kelly was ballet-prone anyway, but even Astaire got sucked in.

It was Art with a capital A and it spelt death to the screen musical, a tradition which had previously managed to free itself from the cold hand of Busby Berkeley, whose production numbers looked like colonies of bacteria staging a political rally under a microscope. But from ballet there was no escape. Shoes which had worn taps wanted to point their toes. The new energy fell for the only temptation that could kill it—going legit. Strangely enough it was the genius who fell hardest. Arthur Freed was the new Diaghilev until he tried to be like the old one.

(The Observer, February 26, 1984;
later included in Snakecharmers in Texas, 1988)

Postscript

An aspect I left out of the above mini-survey was the impulse of the director to wreck the unity of a dance number unless haunted by a producer with a firm hand. The besetting vice of Busby Berkeley’s musicals was that he was in control of them, whereas nobody was in control of him. In the long run, the power of the directors has done far more damage to the form than the balletic pretensions of the stars. Even when the director has a firm hand himself, he tends to loosen it as his prestige grows beyond challenge. An illustrative case is the gifted Australian director Baz Luhrmann. In Strictly Ballroom, the movie that made his name, the dance numbers are filmed in takes sufficiently long to show the flow. In Moulin Rouge they are pieced together a few frames at a time. In his first phase you are aware of the dancers. In the second phase you are aware of the director. No doubt Moulin Rouge was twice as hard to do, but I could bear to see it only once. Strictly Ballroom I saw twice in the week it came out. It was as good, and stays as good, as Dirty Dancing: which is actually saying quite a lot. Although we undoubtedly lost a reservoir of expertise when MGM shut down its production line, the musical isn’t yet dead as a form. It will always be there as long as an occasional movie comes out that makes you want to sing and dance. If it makes you want to be a film director, however, someone has made a mistake.

(2003)