Tuesday, March 28, 2006

REDEFINING THE MASTER BUILDER OF THE AMERICAN MUSICAL


Busby Berkeley: colossal genius or masochistic joke.

The debate over America’s premiere choreographer from the 1930s rages on, fueled primarily by conflicting testimonials from the people who worked for him and by nearly six decades of fraudulent academic debates (most of them based in Freudian feminism) that have attempted to place Berkeley’s representations of the female form divine somewhere between merely odd to arguably compromised as objectified things rather than glorified women.

There is no denying that as an artist, Berkeley’s ‘use’ of women is in strict service to his construction of conformity - elaborate human kaleidoscopes: vast and mind-boggling geometric patterns that unfold as if by some great domino effect to produce an endless ‘exploitation’ of arms and legs all preening and kicking in unison. Yet, so too is there much to suggest that as an artist Berkeley was inclined to liberate the chorine from her traditional nameless place amongst the backdrop and props. No more confined to long shots, Berkeley drew the focus of his camera in to showcase bouquets of fresh faces blossoming with girlish pride. “We’ve got all these beautiful girls,” Berkeley used to say, “Why not let the public see them?”

The essential magic that is Busby Berkeley on film exemplifies pure escapism at its most wholesomely playful. In recent years, Berkeley’s influence as a choreographer cannot be underestimated. He has been endlessly reincarnated in everything from the ‘Be Our Guest’ animated sequence in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, to the Ice-capades and, more recently still, in television commercial endorsements for The Gap and Old Navy. Even today, the American Thesaurus of Slang continues to identify his name with a definition of the scope and fancy in ‘any elaborate dance number.’

Like so many of the greats of his vintage, William Berkeley Enos was born on November 29, 1895 to struggle, hardship and poverty. He had the very modest advantage of being born close to his future vocation - calling Los Angeles his home. But the death of his father precluded young William from having a normal childhood. Henceforth, the only great loyalty Berkeley would cultivate over the rest of his life was to his mother. In fact, she lived with Berkeley until her death.

In 1918, Berkeley joined the U.S. Army as a lieutenant – a fortuitous decision that ironically paved his way to becoming a choreographer. Fascinated by the precision of military drilling, Berkeley employed much of his early military expertise on his first musical assignment after the army; Broadway’s Holka-Polka. Within a few short years, his enigmatic style had caught the attention of patrons and his contemporaries. Berkeley directed such stage luminaries as Eddie Cantor and worked for no less than Broadway impresario, Florence Ziegfeld Jr. on several of his most popular shows.

Enjoying the autonomy of the stage immensely, Berkeley expressed initial disinterest in propositions from Hollywood where ‘dance directors’ were merely assigned to train dancers without actually being involved in the execution of the final routine, the positioning of the camera or final edit. Eventually, Berkeley convinced producer Samuel Goldwyn to let him have a go at staging a production number his way. However, time was not on Berkeley’s side – at least for the moment.

By 1931, the Hollywood musical had already run its course. Too many haphazardly staged and expensive flops had all but labeled the genre box office poison – a disheartening turn of events that made Berkeley unemployable. He did not remain so for very long.

Then chief producer over at Warner Brothers, Darryl F. Zanuck bought out Berkeley’s contract with the prospect of having him stage the musical portions of 42nd Street (1933) a film billed as ‘the new deal’ in entertainment. From a purely narrative standpoint there was nothing ‘new’ about the project. A standard melodrama lightly peppered in comedy, the plot of 42nd Street focused on frustrated Broadway producer, Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) whose career and reputation are on the line. Marsh’s temperamental nature mirrored Berkeley’s own. He was a relentless task master who insisted upon precision and perfectionism – occasional at the point of an insult.

From a technical standpoint, 42nd Street marked the official debut of the Berkeley style on screen. In three grandiose production numbers (all butted up against one another for the film’s finale), Berkeley’s imagination reigned supreme, transforming the relatively stationary vignettes into a revolving mass of surrealistic beauty. In the last of these sequences, Berkeley transforms his small army of chorines into the urban landscape of Manhattan atop which are perched dancers Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell.

The overwhelming response to the film generated two guarantees: first – that Berkeley would be ordered to make more of the same, and second, that audiences had at last discovered a new reason to indulge their whimsy in the Hollywood musical.

Berkeley’s follow up projects at Warner Brothers (Footlight Parade 1933, Wonder Bar, Dames – both in 1934, and the perennially popular Gold Diggers series) were basically 42nd Street revisited in plot, character and overall story structure. Their one note of distinction it seems was Berkeley’s execution of the musical portions which were becoming increasingly intricate. In Footlight Parade, for example, Berkeley staged the sublime ‘By The Waterfall’ – a swimming pool spectacular (predating Esther Williams extravaganzas over at MGM) capped off by a bizarre ‘ejaculating’ fountain/tower populated by swimsuit attired chorines.

In Gold Diggers of 1933, he employs an army of white satin chorines caressing violins in tri-hooped silk skirts and outlined in neon tubing to form one gigantic Stradivarius playing ‘The Shadow Waltz.’ In Dames, (possibly his best work), Berkeley unfolds kaleidoscope upon kaleidoscope of sharply contrasted dancers in white blouses and black tights, whereupon the final master shot is seamlessly frozen to allow for the protrusion of Dick Powell’s face in extreme close up, warbling the final strains of the title song.

But by far, Berkeley’s most universally respected moment in American film is ‘The Lullaby of Broadway’ sequence from Gold Diggers of 1935; a sublime perversity in which tragedy and death spark the most elaborate tap routine ever conceived on film. In both its scope and undertaking ‘Lullaby’ is a marvel of ambitious film making.

Unfortunately for Busby Berkeley, his tenure at Warner Brothers was nearing its end. His perfectionism – greatly admired on the screen, often translated to bouts of cruelty and rage on the set. When he was not busy planning or executing his next number, Berkeley drank, often to excess. Temperamental and frequently frustrated (and arguably, frustrating to work with) by his inability to procure a complete directing assignment, Berkeley’s outspoken criticism eventually garnered the quiet distemper of his bosses. Warner Brothers relented to his request to direct two non-musical projects; but neither was a critical or financial success, sealing Berkeley’s fate at the studio.

In the 1940s, Berkeley grew more embittered with his work, even after moving to MGM where he was hired once again as a choreographer for other director’s projects. To many who worked with him during this period, Berkeley seemed increasingly prone to fits of unprovoked rage and violence. He went through three marriages in short order and was tried for first degree murder after hitting another vehicle while driving drunk. His acquittal of these charges did not exonerate the inner demons that continued to plague him, and after his mother’s death (his one enduring champion) Berkeley attempted suicide.

Professionally speaking, however, Berkeley made his first mark at MGM directing the finale from Broadway Serenade (1939) with Jeanette MacDonald. His talents were next put to use on the Fascinatin’ Rhythm finale in Lady Be Good (1941) – a tour de force that provided resident tap dancer, Eleanor Powell with one of her most memorable and ironically enjoyable filming experiences.

But by far Berkeley’s most challenging collaboration of this period derived from a tempestuous relationship with the teenage Judy Garland whom he choreographed in Strike Up the Band (1940) Babes on Broadway (1941) and portions of Girl Crazy (1943). Berkeley proved so relentlessly tyrannical on this latter assignment that he was fired midway through the project and replaced by Norman Taurog. His one enduring set piece from Girl Crazy – the dude ranch finale set to Gershwin’s ‘I Got Rhythm’ proved an exercise in manic super kitsch. In truth, Judy Garland’s addiction to prescription drugs at this time had made her hypersensitive to criticism for which Berkeley frequently exercised his penchant.

Placed on suspension from MGM, Berkeley went to 20th Century Fox to direct The Gang’s All Here (1943) a glossy, slickly packaged Technicolor musical costarring Alice Faye and the bombastic Carmen Miranda. Once again, however, Berkeley proved to be his own worst enemy. When warned that his camera boom might clip Carmen Miranda, Berkeley ignored the suggestion to re-choreograph his planned camera movement and nearly injured Miranda by sheering off her elaborate headdress. The film, a great success, was nevertheless not worth the effort of tolerating Berkeley behind the scenes – at least, in reference to Fox executives.

Berkeley returned to MGM, effectively ending his all too brief 40s tenure as a director with Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), a modestly budgeted musical that passed effortlessly on the screen but failed to recapture the essence of his inimitable style. For his part on the project, star Gene Kelly was used to choreographing his own dance routines and came into constant conflict with Berkeley. Eventually, Kelly’s co-collaborator, Stanley Donen was brought in to finish the project – quietly easing Berkeley from his authority.

Berkeley’s smoke and trapeze sequence for Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) marked something of a return to form. The following year, Berkeley topped his water ballet with an even more ambitiously mounted water ski sequence for Easy to Love, and an inspired bit of impressionism run amuck with dancer Ann Miller tapping around an orchestra buried (except for its instruments) below floor level in Small Town Girl (1953).

Fate and ill-timing conspired to prematurely oust Berkeley from MGM – a move in keeping with the slow demise of the studio system itself and changing audience tastes that effectively brought down the Hollywood musical as a viable screen art form. Burnt out, discarded and sinking deeper into depression and financial debt after his mother’s death, Berkeley attempted suicide again. He was all but forgotten – returning briefly to MGM a decade later to stage the scant and lack luster dance routines for Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962); an abysmal Doris Day frolic that did neither career any good.

However, a strange set of circumstances resurrected Berkeley from oblivion in the 1960s. The establishment of film studies courses on university and college campuses introduced a new generation to his masterworks from the 30s.

Suddenly, Berkeley was very much in vogue again – not as choreographer, but as an authority on technique for the lecture circuit. Embracing his rediscovery, Berkeley was asked to lampoon Berkeley in a cold tablet commercial featuring a dancing clock. In his seventy-fifth year, he also returned to Broadway to work with old time friend and colleague, Ruby Keeler on musical sequences for No, No Nannette (1970).

Berkeley’s resurrection in the public’s estimation had a rejuvenating effect on his morale. Active and admired as ‘the premiere dance architect of the Hollywood musical,’ (a fitting moniker – since Berkeley built rather than choreographed his routines) Busby Berkeley died of natural causes on March 14, 1976 in Palm Springs California. In the years since his passing, time has been extremely kind to his creations. Endlessly revived, revered and relived as an integral part of the American film tapestry since, Busby Berkeley defiantly remains that emblematic character of visionary perfectionism in light entertainment.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

CAPRA - the man behind the title

There are no rules in filmmaking. Only sins…and the cardinal sin is dullness.” – Frank Capra

As the final scene of It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) flickers across our collective television screens each holiday season, the overriding message of its director, that “no man is a failure who has friends” seems at once to embody not only the character of every-man George Bailey (James Stewart) but Frank Capra himself. It is that intangible faith and providence imbued in the spirited presence of Frank Capra, as a benevolent, hard-working man about town and who had many friends amongst the Hollywood community, that saw Capra through nearly five decades of film-making and some of the darkest, most ambitious moments of his personal life.

One of the most extraordinary directors of Hollywood’s golden age had one of the most inauspicious beginnings in film folklore. Capra was born on May 18, 1897 in Bisacquino, Sicily. Derived from Italian parentage, Capra and his family immigrated to the United States in 1903 with the promise of the American dream firmly secured in their hearts; first in New York, then on June 3, 1903 onto Los Angeles. Capra’s youth was spent mastering the English language and studying at Castelar and Griffin Elementary Schools. To help support his family he sold newspapers. He was a committed youth, as far as youth’s commitments go, and innately aware that his path in life was unlike that envisioned for him by his parents.

More than anything, Capra wanted to learn. Musically inclined, Capra moonlighted as part of a two-man combo that played the red light district. But it was a stint in chemical engineering at Throop College of Technology that first introduced Capra to his new love - poetry. For a moment his life seemed idyllic. The moment, however, did not last.

In 1916 Capra’s father, Turiddu died. The following year, World War I intervened. Despite these setbacks, Capra graduated from Throop. His near enlistment in the armed forces was derailed by a virulent bout of Spanish influenza; an unhappy circumstance that resulted in happy chance.

While convalescing, Capra heard that director John Ford was looking for extras for his latest film, The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1919). But although he was hired by Ford, extra work did not pay his bills. So Capra assumed the jack of all trades, master of none; toiling as a ditch digger, running errands, freelancing short stories and doing odd jobs of every shape and size. Most of the time, however, he remained unemployed.

Undaunted by his lack of success, together with W. M. Plank, Capra ambitiously incorporated the Tri-State Motion Picture Company in Nevada, producing three short films in 1920 that he also co-wrote. None were enough to sustain the company and once again Capra returned to Los Angeles with his tail tucked between his legs. By March of that same year, he had accepted work for CBC Film Sales Company (later, Columbia Films Studios); a struggling hand-to-mouth operation in which every member was expected to contribute to a variety of tasks. A quick study, Capra learned the rudiments of editing and directing during this tenure. Still, success eluded him.

In 1921 Capra was hired at seventy-five dollars a week by Walter Montague to direct Fulta Fisher's Boarding House. Modestly budgeted at $1700, the film’s $3,500 gross convinced Montague of Capra’s talents. But a minor rift in their early partnership once again sent Capra’s career into a tail spin. It was not until Capra, working as an editor in 1923, met and married Helen Howell that the tide of his folly began to slowly turn.

A move to Hollywood gave Capra his first real job at a real studio, writing gags for Hal Roach’s Our Gang series. Disinterested with this assignment, Capra next went to Mack Sennett Studios and absorbed the opportunity to work on material for comedian Harry Langdon. Langdon was so impressed with Capra’s efforts he hired him to direct The Strong Man.

However, by October of 1927, CBC had become Columbia Pictures – a burgeoning, if struggling, new film studio. Unlike its rivals, Columbia Pictures had no roster of contract talent. Quite simply, they could not afford to invest in a star system the way MGM did. Rather, Production Chief Harry Cohn borrowed his talent from an ever expanding pool of freelance artists that included such luminaries as Irene Dunne, Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Although quickly hired by this tyrannical mogul, Capra was almost as quickly fired after Cohn viewed the early dailies from Capra’s first assignment at the studio, That Certain Thing (1927) and judged them disastrous.

Despite this quiet early animosity brewing between them, Capra continued to work for Cohn – steadily gaining in prestige with each subsequent project. Capra’s early and close association with screenwriter Robert Riskin and cameraman Joseph Walker had begun to develop a distinct style for the studio that was both lightheartedly inspirational and humanitarian.

What Harry Cohn really wanted and needed at this particular point in his studio’s history was a mega hit to fill his coffers and mark the official debut of Columbia as a force to be reckoned with. That zeitgeist that everyone had hoped for was It Happened One Night (1934) – a classic screwball comedy affectionately discounted at its inception by Cohn as ‘a road picture.’ But for once, fate was on Capra’s side.

A tiff between Clark Gable and his alma mater, MGM had resulted in Gable being loaned to Columbia for the project as punishment. Claudette Colbert, a temperamental rising star in her own right, emphatically refused to make the film at first. She was strong-armed by Harry Cohn into complying, openly chastised her forced labor to anyone who would listen – including gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, and quite easily and openly despised Capra, whom she deemed complicit in her entrapment. At the end of her last day of shooting, Colbert telephoned a friend to say that she had “just completed the worst picture of (her) life!”

But the proof was in the can. Upon its premiere, It Happened One Night was an instant and colossal financial and critical success, winning in all four key Oscar categories: Best Actor (Gable), Actress (Colbert), Director (the first of three statuettes for Capra) and Best Picture. Awash in the overnight sensation of instant fame, Capra could now write his own ticket. He directed the effervescent Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), the controversial Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and the lighthearted caper, Arsenic and Old Lace (1941).

But by far, Capra and Columbia’s most ambitious collaborative effort to date was the epically mounted, Lost Horizon (1937).

GETTING 'LOST' ALONG THE WAY

FRANK CAPRA and LOST HORIZON (1937)

Frank Capra’s departure from his usual feel good tales of the ‘every man;’ Lost Horizon (1937) was based on James Hilton’s best selling novel; all about British diplomat, Robert Conway – a man of substance who discovers peace on earth in the mythical enclave of Shangri-La. The book read strictly as utopian fantasy. But in the film, Capra managed to interject something of a timeless message for peace that continues to find authenticity in today’s worldly struggles; and something else, a note of sinister darkness emanating from the periphery of that perfect world.

From the benevolently mysterious Chang (H.B. Warner in an Oscar nominated role) to Sam Jaffe’s haunted performance as the High Lama, there remains a sense of doomed folly about this gentle oasis – an ominous precursor leading up to the film’s climactic moment of realization.

For some time Capra had wanted to make a film based on Hilton’s novel. However, realizing the considerable budget such a project would demand, Harry Cohn had withstood Capra’s requests for as long as he could. With Cohn’s reluctant complicity, and together with Robert Riskin and Sidney Buchman, Capra began the arduous task of hammering out a screen narrative. The project began in earnest with the complex construction of a ‘flashback’ devise that Capra filmed on March 23, 1936 but later jettisoned from the final cut.

In this flashback, British foreign secretary Robert Conway (Ronald Colman) is seen aboard the S.S. Manchurian bound for home. Conway is suffering from amnesia until a piano concerto stirs his memory. Impromptu, Conway plays an unpublished Chopin piece. When asked curiously where he learned the music, Conway distantly replies, “Shangri-La” and the story unfolded from there. However, after viewing Capra’s rough cut – over five hours in length – Harry Cohn ordered the story severely cut. To accommodate Cohn, Capra discarded this meticulously conceived preface.

Instead, the film would open with Conway evacuating the last remnants of white society from the war torn city of Baskul. These unfortunates includes Conway’s brother, George (John Howard), a playful knockabout, Henry Barnard (Thomas Mitchell), a scatterbrained fossil expert, Alexander P. Lovett (Edward Everett Horton) and a fatally stricken prostitute, Gloria Stone (Isabel Jewell).

Capra shot most of this footage in April of 1936 at Van Nuys Airport, leasing a Douglas DC-2 and importing 500 Chinese extras (many of whom could not speak English and therefore could not understand the instructions they were being given) barely visible - except in a brief long shot - in the final cut. Together with scenarist Robert Riskin, Capra also added a sequence on location not derived from James Hilton’s novel; the burning of a hanger to light the runway for evacuating planes.

Escaping on the last plane out of Baskul, Conway and company soon discover that they have been hijacked by a mysterious Oriental pilot (Val Durand) who is flying them deep into the Tibetan mountains. Tragedy strikes as the pilot suffers a fatal heart attack. The plane crash lands on a snowy plain high in the mountains.

What had always been of utmost concern to Capra during his preliminary work on Lost Horizon was how to create not only the look but the feel of extreme cold. His own 1931 story of the South Pole – Daredevil, had incorporated gypsum and marble dust to simulate snow. Although this had been effective in the sequence, no breath showed. For Lost Horizon Capra was determined to remedy this oversight.

He contacted the production manager of California Consumer’s Corporation and leased one of their refrigerated warehouses for 23 days. Inside this mammoth 13,000 square foot warehouse – refrigerated to a temperature of only 24 degrees, a full size mock up of the plane was reassembled with props and an ice chipper capable of delivering 11 tons of pulverized snow into the air. To add to the scope of these snowy sequences, Capra would later insert legitimate stock shots from Arnold Fanck’s German film, Storm Over Mont Blanc (1930).

His first problem overcome, Capra returned to the narrative with all the escapees survived but stranded in the frozen tundra until an unlikely rescue party headed by a mysterious native, Chang (H.B. Warner) arrives. Chang leads Conway and his party through the frozen wilderness to a hidden paradise deep within the mountain range that is strangely warm, inviting and idealistic in its philosophies on life. There, Conway meets Sondra (Jane Wyatt) and is introduced to Father Pereaux – the High Lama (Sam Jaffe).

The sheer scope of introduction to Shangri-La as a tangible lost paradise could not be underestimated. Capra employed supervising art director Steven Goosson and art directors Paul Murphy and Lionel Banks on the creation of an idealized structure that met with considerable resistance from purists, because its inspiration drew more from the deco designs of Frank Lloyd Wright than legitimate Tibetan architecture. Nevertheless, the lamasery set constructed at the Columbia Ranch (a property adjacent the studio) was one of the largest (at 500 feet wide and 1000 feet long, and with a central façade towering 90 feet tall) and most impressive ever built for a movie.

Upon arrival to this magical place, the troupe is skeptical about their hospitable hosts. But then subtle miraculous things begin to happen: Conway discovers inner piece, Gloria’s failing health is slowly restored, Lovett reconnects with his innate abilities as an educator and Henry begins to fall in love with Gloria. Only George is unhappy. He views Shangri-la as his prison, an interpretation furthered by his chance meeting and growing affections toward a young Russian girl, Maria (Margo) who shares in his quest to escape the controlled serenity and return to her country. To quell George’s suspicions, Conway finagles a meeting with the benevolent ruler of Shangri-La: the High Lama.

Capra had wanted noted character actor, Sam Jaffe for the role. Harry Cohn, however, was not at all convinced of Jaffe’s participation on the project – perhaps largely due to the fact that Jaffe’s political affiliations had loosely branded him a potential Communist sympathizer. Reluctantly, and at the behest of Cohn’s urgings, Capra hired Walter Connelly for the part and reshot all of the High Lama’s sequences on a newly constructed set.

However, when Cohn screened both Jaffe and Connelly’s performances he had to reluctantly concur with Capra that his first choice of Jaffe had been the right one from the start. Even before this minor controversy, gossip columnist Louella Parsons had managed to generate a sensation over the casting of the High Lama with a puff piece that suggested actors A.E. Anson and Henry Waffle had been set for the role. Both Anson and Waffle died after doing their screen tests – an ominous curse that made Jaffe’s debut all the more dramatic.

One aspect of Jaffe’s performance that Cohn absolutely refused to relent on was its length. Capra had literally photographed whole speeches verbatim from Hilton’s original text. In some cases, these speeches ran on for more than twenty minutes at a time – a length both Cohn and the author agreed dramatically slowed down the narrative and damaged the overall impact of the story.

The narrative progressed with George prodding his brother to steal away into the night with him and Maria. Warned earlier that Maria is two hundred years old (even though she looks no more than twenty-one), the prophecy of her fate is fulfilled when, after venturing beyond Shangri-La’s ageless borders, she decomposes into a mummified corpse before Conway and George’s eyes. Realizing that the mysticism and magic of Shangri-la has been legitimate, George succumbs to an act of cowardice, throwing himself off the mountainside and leaving Conway to fend for himself.

Half frozen and starved, Conway is discovered by natives in a small Tibetan village and reunited with his British colleagues in London. But he cannot get either Shangri-la or Sondra out of his mind. Abandoning his duties, Conway drudges back through the snow in search of the peace he left behind.

Although Capra provides both Conway and his audiences with a glimpse of Shangri-la glistening in the distance through the wind-swept Himalayas he never quite rectifies the journey for either. Does Conway get back to Shangri-la? Does he find Sondra awaiting his return? Or has he merely hallucinated paradise lost and is doomed to die alone on the mountainside?

Undoubtedly, Capra’s attention to authenticity was working overtime on this opus magnum. But it was also working against Harry Cohn’s patience. In the end, Capra lost six reels of footage – much of it establishing the burgeoning romances and changes occurring to the temperament of the entire rescue party. As a result, the narrative – even today – tends to suffer from a series of inexplicable gaps that leave a choppy impression behind. Still, Capra had hoped for a success beyond all his previous endeavors.

Unhappy chance, for both director and mogul that Lost Horizon’s three and a half hour preview in Santa Barbara was not what either had expected or hoped for. Disappointed and disillusioned by the lack of immediate response to the film he considered his masterwork, Capra reluctantly distilled his narrative to a mere 132 minutes – functional and compelling, though hardly inclusive of all the effort he had put forth in the preceding months.

Even then, the general release of Lost Horizon failed to recoup its $1,200,000 budget. But the story of Lost Horizon – the film - did not end there. During an unrelated press conference speech several years later, President Franklin Roosevelt made a joking reference to the location of a hidden military base as being located in Shangri-La. Almost instantly a renewed interest sprang up around the film. However, for its 1942 reissue, Harry Cohn took to modifying the film even further, cutting its running time down to 107 minutes and changing its main title to the more awkward Lost Horizon of Shangri-La.

From that moment on, the film as it came to be more widely known and exploited through television reissues and private screenings only existed in the Cohn (not Capra) version. Shelved for years, Lost Horizon’s original camera negative deteriorated to the point of no return and was thrown away – leaving only truncated second and third generation prints available for public viewing.

However, in the mid-1970s preservationist Robert Gitt and UCLA undertook to conduct research into the restoration of Frank Capra’s original 132 minute cut. From varying source material that had been gathered around the world and still photos inserted to compensate for the (as yet) still missing footage, Gitt and his associates managed to cut together a facsimile of what the original film must have played like. Sadly, as a film in totem, Lost Horizon remains a lost film; a tragedy since what exists continues to sparkle with a ghostly brilliance that few Hollywood productions of its vintage attained.

POSTSCRIPT to the career of Frank Capra

Capra’s career never entirely recovered from the financial failure of Lost Horizon. He would continue making films with varying success – most notably, Meet John Doe (1941) and the political drama, State of the Union (1946). But his feature film career was sidetracked with a commitment to co-direct eight military propaganda documentaries between 1942 and 1945. The Why We Fight series earned Capra Oscars, but it put his professional career on hold. His return to features – It’s a Wonderful Life (now, regarded as a quintessential holiday classic) was virtually ignored upon its initial release. Produced under Capra’s independent banner, Liberty Films, its disappointing box office bankrupted his fledgling company.

Capra regressed with like-minded light and fluffy fair that had served him well during his heady successes in the 30s. But more often than not, these subsequent projects; Here Comes The Groom (1951) and, A Hole in the Head (1959) were met with cynical indifference. Capra’s final film, A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) was a remake of his own Lady for A Day (1933) a once poignant programmer turned obnoxious by Bette Davis’ gregarious central performance.

As with all aging eminences of his vintage, Capra gracefully retired from the fray of film making, content to quietly age away of the public spotlight, but still gracious enough to accept whatever projects came his way. He produced several television specials in his later years and even found the time to pen his memoirs in an autobiography; The Name Above The Title.

Ever interested in giving interviews and providing his perspectives to young film makers, Frank Capra remained active until his death of a heart attack at the age of 94 in 1991. The man may be gone, but his legacy on film, that inimitable positivism and belief for a better tomorrow is eternally ingrained in anyone whose thoughts are only half secured in daydream.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

WITH A SONG IN HIS HEART: ARTHUR FREED - the early years (1923-1944)


It seems fitting that around the backlot at MGM, producer Arthur Freed and his entourage of creative performers were affectionately known as ‘the royal family,’ since the Freed Unit (as it eventually came to be known) managed to produce a princely sum of song and dance films that have since become the ruling class of all popular musical motion picture entertainment.

It was Arthur Freed, for example, who set the standard in early pop tunes, though his talents today are rarely considered beyond serviceable; Freed, who provided that fertile creative venue in which Judy Garland’s genius could flourish – at least for a time; Freed who conceived that musicals were much more than a passing fancy; Freed who developed the concept of, and thereafter cultivated the ‘integrated musical’ in which songs advanced the plot of the narrative rather than interrupt it.

Blessed with an innate ability to recognize great talent in an instant, it is largely due to Freed’s foresight and conviction that the MGM musical endures within the fond recesses of our collective consciousness. For who among us can dismiss Dorothy’s longing to return to Kansas, or the sense of familial tenderness so poignantly realized in Meet Me In St. Louis (1944); the magical materialization of a Scottish village in Brigadoon (1954), or marvelous Maurice Chevalier thanking heaven for little girls? The world inhabited by Freed musicals is a myriad of idyllic snapshots – some more financially successful than others, all bearing his hallmark as a master craftsman whose greatest gift to the world was blind faith in a genre that – at least for a time – all other studios tried in vane to emulate.

A poet/lyricist/producer par excellence; Arthur Freed was born to a privileged and musically inclined family in Charleston, South Carolina on September 9, 1894. His early childhood and youth were spent almost without incident in Seattle, the one blemish being the loss of his brother Victor during World War I. The eldest of eight children, Arthur and his family eventually settled in a large home overlooking the cherry orchards near Lake Washington.

Those who knew Freed later in life would agree that he was a man of few words, considerable patience and congenial temperament unobstructed by the fame, power or wealth that had been afforded him throughout his career. At the time of his father’s death, Freed – a highly sentimental man, who vehemently believed in the sanctity of the American home, assumed responsibilities as the head of his family. He married Renee Klein in 1923 – a woman of distinguished culture, intelligence and beauty who complimented his mostly carefree outlook.

Whether it was an unconscious or deliberate move, from the onset of his collaborative endeavors with Nacio Herb Brown Arthur Freed sought to expand his understanding of movie musicals. After co-writing the complete scores for MGM’s The Broadway Melody, Hollywood Revue (both in 1929) and Going Hollywood (1932), Arthur made his first fortuitous decision by hiring musical arranger and pianist, Roger Edens; thus beginning Freed’s long and lucrative association between Hollywood and Broadway.

Generally speaking, the mid-1930s in Hollywood were a fascinating venue for burgeoning new talent; but perhaps no other singular performer so instantly captivated the heart and soul of American music as 13 year old Judy Garland. Though it was MGM’s head of music publishing, Jack Robbins who brought the child star to Freed’s attention it was undoubtedly Arthur Freed who nurtured her talent from thereon. The promotion of Garland was made problematic by L.B. Mayer’s reluctance to see much potential in her beyond a novelty act. But Freed and Edens persisted, if not on celluloid, then on radio, in press promotions, loan outs to other studios – anything and everything to convince Mayer that Garland was the next big thing to hit the movies.

The breakthrough for Judy Garland came when she auspiciously debuted a new introduction that Roger Edens had written to the song, ‘You Made Me Love You’ for Clark Gable’s 36th birthday party; ‘Dear Mr. Gable.’ The performance so impressed Mayer that both Judy and the song quickly found their way into Broadway Melody of 1938 – the studio’s latest and most lavish musical with words and music by Freed and Brown. Following the film’s great success and warm reception to Garland, Mayer reportedly told Freed, “Well, Arthur, now is the time” – a nod that effectively opened the door for Garland to star in, arguably, the best musical of the 30s, The Wizard of Oz (1939).

L.B. Mayer had initially resisted the idea of bringing Lyman Frank Baum’s children’s classic to the screen. As a rule, fantasy films had been ill received at the box office – the most financially disastrous to date; Warner’s costly attempt at Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935). More to the point, Mayer was as yet unconvinced of Garland’s capabilities to carry an entire film.

Freed however could not be dissuaded from his choices. He also was not convinced that the song ‘Over the Rainbow’ slowed down the pace of the film – “the song stays or I go! It’s as simple as that.”

Hence, Mayer reluctantly acquiesced on both counts, moving forward with the understanding that Mervin LeRoy would produce Oz with Arthur as his associate. Although he considered himself a gambling man, Mayer was not about to entrust his costliest production to date to a first time producer. However, the rumor that has long persisted - that Mayer sought to replace Garland with Shirley Temple by loaning rival studio 20th Century-Fox Clark Gable and Jean Harlow – seems to be just that – a rumor; for Harlow had already died by the time the deal on Oz was signed.

During this infancy in his career, Arthur Freed turned an important corner by acquiring the rights to Broadway’s, Babes in Arms (1939). Moving from the music department to his own suite of offices in the Thalberg Building, Freed signed a producer’s contract at $300 per week. What mattered most about the position was not the money (for Freed had taken a considerable pay cut) but the creative freedom allotted his position to pursue any and every project that his heart desired. By the end of 1939, Freed could breathe a sigh of relief. The Wizard of Oz’s exorbitant production cost of $2,777,000 had been offset by a modest $3,017,000 gross. But Babes in Arms was the real clincher; at a modest budget of $748,000 it earned a whopping $3,335,000.

The early forties were a profitable time for the studios. Everything made money. Amidst the heady excess that was corporate Hollywood then, Arthur Freed continued to gain artistic ground. He purchased George M. Cohan’s sentimental Little Nellie Kelly (1940), the patriotic flag waver, Strike Up The Band (1940), and managed to script and produce a follow up to Babes in Arms; Babes on Broadway (1941) – all starring Judy Garland, the latter two films costarring Mickey Rooney.

Freed was also busy negotiating the terms that brought relative unknown Aquacade starlet Esther Williams international fame and popularity as ‘America’s mermaid.’ He produced faithful and lavish screen spectacles of Broadway’s Du Barry Was A Lady and Best Foot Forward (both in 1943), as well as two Broadway smash hits; Lady Be Good (1941) and Panama Hattie (1942). Oddly enough, neither of these latter two film incarnations equaled the critical or financial stature of their live shows. But Freed’s biggest coup of the period came not with the acquisition of a property, but a person; Vincente Minnelli.

Minnelli had been a veteran window dresser, self-taught sketch artist and stage designer, soured by a brief tenure at Paramount Studios, by the time Freed offered him a chance to come out to MGM. “Don’t blame Hollywood because of one studio,” Freed reportedly told the reluctant Minnelli, “Come out for five or six months, take enough money for your expenses – no contract, nothing. If you don’t like it at any time you can leave.” Intrigued by the offer, Minnelli took his first assignment on Strike Up The Band, devising an inspired and imaginative sequence in which a bowl of fruit is transformed into a troupe of animated musicians.

Minnelli’s next assignment was far more personally satisfying; Cabin in the Sky (1943). Freed had begun the project enthusiastically but was almost immediately thereafter inundated with negativity on all sides. Understandably, MGM’s executives had placed their misgivings in the lackluster public response to the Broadway show. It had been an artistic but not a financial success. More concern and critical backlash however derived from the Black press of the period – who viewed such depictions of their race and culture as ludicrous and insulting. Several years earlier, Warner Brothers had released another all black musical, Green Pastures (1936) and it had infuriated the Black Coalition.

For his part in the venture, Arthur Freed gave extensive interviews to the Black Press; “The motion picture industry in its basic forms will never discriminate…more than ever … (it) will result in a dignified presentation…I will spare nothing and will put everything behind it. It will be a picture on a par with any major film under the MGM banner.” Despite Freed’s claims, at $662,141.82, Cabin In The Sky was one of the more modestly budgeted projects at MGM. As expected, the film did only moderate business at the box office – primarily due to the fact that in the Deep South its distribution was limited.

Undeniably, Arthur Freed’s most successful film of the forties was Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); the heartwarming traditionalist vignette of Americana at the turn of the century. However, in adapting Sally Benson’s 5135 Kensington Avenue stories (first published in the New Yorker), Freed and Vincent Minnelli ran into considerable opposition from the front offices, L.B. Mayer and Judy Garland.

The executive branch misperceived Benson’s stories as maudlin and lacking in any great conflict to sustain a film narrative. Mayer opposed Minnelli’s insistence on constructing a new and fully functional ‘street’ of Victorian houses on the backlot at a cost of $208,275. Instead, Mayer had wanted the Carver Street set (where all the Andy Hardy films had been shot) redressed at the more modestly budgeted $58,275. For her part, Judy Garland balked at the prospect of playing a precocious teenager once again. She had fought hard to break the ‘awkward child’ roles that MGM had relegated her to for nearly a decade.

On this latter score it was Vincente Minnelli rather than Arthur Freed who possessed the gift of persuasion. A gentle, guiding and understanding director (something Judy had not been exposed to in her associations with director, Busby Berkeley) Minnelli eventually won Garland over to his side – a professional coup that crossed over to full fledged romance and eventually marriage.

L.B. Mayer relented to the construction of the St. Louis Street, saying “Go ahead Arthur. Either you’ll learn or we’ll learn.” But during production Mayer expressed another concern; that Meet Me in St. Louis would feature only three new songs from Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine; a disappointment echoed by the song writers. Freed, however, was determined to anchor his film in a catalogue of vintage songs and one of his own; ‘You and I’ (co-written with Nacio Brown and actually sung in the film by Freed with actor Leon Ames lip-syncing to the playback).

The final slight of indignation on the project occurred when MGM’s music publishing house, Leo Feist Inc. claimed that, at 13 pages, it would be virtually impossible to recoup expenses on printing costs for sheet music of The Trolley Song. Ordered to cut the song to a more manageable length, Martin Blane instead disseminated a few copies to friends Bing Crosby and Kate Smith for their radio broadcasts. When the song proved a smash hit even before the film’s premiere, Feist was reluctantly forced to publish the song in its entirety - easily recouping his costs with over half a million in sales. As for the film, Meet Me in St. Louis premiered at a cost of $1,707,561.14 – a gargantuan sum for a musical then, easily eclipsed by its meteoric gross of $7,566,000. Both Mayer and Freed breathed a sign of relief. But it was Freed who had proven that he was indeed at the top of his game.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

WITH A SONG IN HIS HEART: Arthur Freed - MGM'S 'company' man (1945-1950)


Immediately following the critical and financial success of Meet Me In St. Louis (1944) Arthur Freed entered a brief latency period, exacerbated by too many projects launched too quickly to receive his complete and undivided attentions. Though his autonomy and prestige were envied around the backlot at MGM, Freed’s next few endeavors (Ziegfeld Follies 1946, The Clock 1945, Yolanda and the Thief 1945) failed to recapture either the magic or profitability of ‘St. Louis’ and, in fact, even artistically in retrospect seem to be a step backward.

Foremost in Freed’s mind – if not his heart – was Ziegfeld Follies (1946), a review based extravaganza pitched by L.B. Mayer to celebrate MGM’s 25th anniversary in show business. Over the years, MGM had acquired an enviable catalogue of unused sketches and songs. Freed’s scavenger hunt distilled these down to a handful of selections including the song ‘Frankie and Johnnie’, borrowed from the Broadway musical Bright Lights of 1944. However, the song’s reference to prostitution met with considerable opposition from the censorship offices and was eventually discarded from the film’s repertoire.

What is most regrettable when viewing Ziegfeld Follies today however is not how much talent appears to such ill effect in the finished film, but how much footage shot never made it into the final cut. Fred Astaire’s performance of a stunning tap routine to a song he wrote ‘If Swing Goes I go Too’, Avon Long’s swaying rendition of ‘Liza’ sung to a mute Lena Horne perched atop a lavish showboat, Jimmie Durante’s ‘Start Off Each Day With A Song’ and ‘The Pied Piper’, ‘A Cowboy’s Life’ featuring operatic James Melton, a comedy skit with Fanny Brice’s Baby Snooks, the song portion of Esther Williams ‘Will We Meet Again in Honolulu’ and much of the ‘bubble’ finale staged by Vincente Minnelli were all discarded after a disastrous preview.

Meanwhile, Freed was encountering problems on the set of the The Clock (1945); Judy Garland’s first non-singing film. Though the chemistry between Garland and costar Robert Walker was genuine and palpable, her lack of chemistry with director Fred Zinnemann was proving fatal to the project. After much consternation it was mutually decided to replace Zinnemann with Vincente Minnelli – a move that bode well with Garland’s temperament and helped get the shoot back on track.

Yet, with one crisis resolved came another on another project. Garland had wanted to star in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) – Ludwig Bemelmans’ effervescent fairytale about a naïve grown woman who believes that a con artist is her guardian angel. After considerable cajoling, Freed convinced Garland to accept the lead in The Harvey Girls (1946) instead – a project originally begun as a straight western drama starring Lana Turner.

In re-conceiving the project as a musical, Freed managed a minor coup – to generate the same level of excitement Broadway audiences were currently experiencing with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! while at the same time creating an original – if like-minded themed project for the big screen. Freed had intended to court Rodgers and Hammerstein for the project – a prospect that eventually fell through, with song writing duties reuniting veteran composers Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer. On the whole, The Harvey Girls proved the singular high point during this period in Freed’s tenure, earning in excess of $5,175,000 against its $2,524,315 production cost.

As for Yolanda and The Thief, Freed had hoped to use the film to officially launch dancer Lucille Bremer (who had previously appeared in a minor part in Meet Me in St. Louis – and more recently, dancing opposite Fred Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies) as an actress. Bremer, however, was much more palpable when relegated as a bit player. As the child-like Yolanda she seemed stilted awkward and unsympathetic. Worse, for the first time in his career, Vincente Minnelli’s overemphasis on visual effects and props had transformed a feather-light tale into a weighty bit of stagy kitsch, with garish sets and radically shifting moods that betrayed the fairytale quality of the original work.

In the end, Yolanda was a complete and painful failure – perhaps because Freed had moved too quickly too fast in his attempt to realign the rudiments of the Hollywood musical. He regressed somewhat with his next venture, a fictionalized biography of composer, Jerome Kern: Till The Clouds Roll By (1946) that nevertheless proved highly successful on its initial release. It grossed $6,724,000.

In essence, the plot of ‘Clouds’ is a straight forward melodrama periodically interrupted by staged sequences showcasing highlights from every Kern Broadway show. To consolidate the rights for all of this music proved a minor nightmare, made more palpable by Kern’s interest in the project and his acceptance of the fact that what would be seen on the screen was far removed from the specifics of his own life.

At around this same time Freed endeavored to bring Eugene O’Neill’s Ah Wilderness! to the screen – rechristened Summer Holiday (1948). Initially, director Rouben Mamoulian had his own misgivings: “The only valid reason for transforming Ah, Wilderness into a musical would be to tell that story in richer, more colorful and more imaginative terms, without sacrificing any of its true values, but on the contrary, bringing to it more beauty and excitement than was there before.” At his best, however, Arthur Freed could be a very persuasive man – enough to make Mamoulian forget that his first hunch had been the correct one all along. The final film – an abysmal affront to O’Neill’s tenderly poignant tale lost $1,460,000.

Meanwhile, Gene Kelly’s discharge from the navy warranted a comeback project in the Freed pipeline. Ultimately, it was Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli who conceived of The Pirate (1948) – a spoof on swashbuckling, with Kelly cast as a clown, Serafin mistakenly identified as the dashing rogue pirate, Macoco by his infatuated lover, Manuella (Judy Garland). Artistically sound, the project was once again marred by Minnelli’s over exploration of props and settings at the expense of developing character and mood. The result was another gargantuan flop.

But a reprieve was on the horizon for the Freed Unit. By the end of the 40s Arthur Freed could be proud of the fact that he had produced the quintessential college musical Good News (1947), Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade (1948); another charming if fictionalized biography (this time on the lives of Rodgers and Hart) Words and Music (1948); the baseball musical, Take Me Out To The Ball Game (1949), On The Town (1949) and Fred Astaire’s reunion with Ginger Rogers; The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) without much consternation or conflict. Only the latter film is perhaps disappointing, featuring a decided lack of memorable tunes or for that matter any considerable dancing worthy of the Astaire/Rogers legacy pre-dated at RKO. Nevertheless, even Barkleys managed to reign in a profitable $5,421,000.

By the end of the decade Arthur Freed also secured the rights to Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun (1950); a project marred by costly delays that marked the end of Freed’s association with his greatest star, Judy Garland. Busby Berkeley had been assigned the task of directing Garland – a move that should have sent up early warning flags, considering Berkeley and Garland’s mutual disdain for one another. Garland, who was at this point in her career chronically addicted to prescription sedatives, was also ill at ease about a part that had not been exclusively written with her in mind.

Eventually, Berkeley was replaced with director, Charles Walters who on the whole was far more sympathetic and compassionate. But for Garland, the move proved too little too late. After a series of absences she was removed from the project and replaced by Betty Hutton. Inexplicably, Walters was also replaced by George Sidney. One final bit of recasting proved a necessity; Louis Calhern as Buffalo Bill after Frank Morgan died of a heart attack. At a total cost of $3,768,785 tensions ran high on the precarious success or failure of the film – a nervous hiccup cured when Annie brought in a record $8,010,000.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).

WITH A SONG IN HIS HEART: Arthur Freed & the Golden Years (1950-1960)


In an Arthur Freed musical inventiveness and ingenuity had always been hallmarks. Throughout the forties these qualities had been tested and proven fallible on several occasions. On the whole however and as a producer, Freed was the envy of all others – and not just those he worked along side at MGM. To date, Freed’s zeal for musical entertainment coupled with his uncanny ability to spot a talent and make it famous had resulted in a repertory company of trained professionals from Hollywood and the New York stage, collectively functioning as a single unit with one clear artistic vision at its forefront.

Never one to rest on the laurels, Freed marked the beginning of the 1950s by launching into two of his most ambitious projects; An American in Paris and Showboat. For some time, Freed had endeavored to make a musical about an ex-GI pursuing his dream of becoming a painter in Paris. His passion for the project was fueled primarily by the late George Gershwin’s ballet ‘An American in Paris’ and by several other Gershwin tunes penned in collaboration with his brother, Ira.

During preproduction, Freed sent his star Gene Kelly to Paris to screen test Leslie Caron. Already impressed by her work in the Ballet des Champs-Elysees, Kelly discovered a reluctant young girl who had little interest in appearing in films. In fact, Caron would later muse, “I only did it (the test) to please my mother.”

Preproduction began with a singular daunting task for Vincente Minnelli; how to recreate Paris on an MGM backlot. Shooting in Paris was out of the question. With the exception of the film’s opening monologue and one quick glimpse of a limo pulling up to a hotel, all exteriors in the film were pure California confection. Director, producer and star submersed themselves in clippings to aid in the recreation of sets and costumes.

Although preproduction proved a collaborative effort for the most part, it was Arthur Freed who came up with the idea of celebrating the impressionist painters in the final ballet – a decision he never wavered from. Reportedly, Irving Berlin visited the impressionist sets as they were being constructed, inquiring “Am I to understand that you fellas are going to end this picture with a seventeen minute ballet and no dialogue?...I hope you boys know what you’re doing.”

Indeed, there was an intense backlash from MGM’s New York offices upon screening the rough cut of the film prior to the inclusion of the ballet. President Nicholas Schenck thought the budget of $419,664 excessive. Dore Schary, who had succeeded Mayer on the West Coast argued, “…this picture is going to be great because of the ballet – or it’ll be nothing. Without the ballet it’s just a cute and nice musical.” Evidently, the gamble paid off to the tune of $8,005,000 and a Best Picture Academy Award – the first for a musical since MGM’s The Great Ziegfeld (1936). But the highest compliment paid to Freed came four months after An American in Paris went into general release. Impressionist painter Raoul Dufy was visible moved and emphatically impressed.

In the face of such overwhelming critical and financial success, Singin’ In the Rain (1952) passed in and out of the Freed Unit almost as an afterthought – a rich satire of the early sound years in Hollywood immeasurably fleshed out by an extensive Freed/Brown catalogue of 1920s standards. Almost immediately the film was a box office hit, grossing $7,665,000. But its impact ‘as the best musical of all time’ was not immediately evident. Indeed, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green were shocked during a trip to France several years later when they were accosted with accolades by the noted French film maker Francois Truffaut who was able to quote whole scenes.

On the heels of Singin’ In The Rain there was arguably nowhere to go but down – a direction Freed unwittingly explored with back to back failures; The Belle of New York and Invitation to the Dance. Working under the pressure that times and tastes were changing, and with the very real understanding that MGM’s commitment to musicals had already started to wane, Freed rebounded to profitability with The Band Wagon (1953) a $2,169,120 comedic stab at live theater folk. The film’s overwhelming financial success of $5,655,505 was by now far more important to the corporate front offices than its artistic merit – though The Band Wagon is perhaps the second to last time any Freed musical would so idyllically blend artistry with commerce.

By the mid-1950s, technological innovations, some gimmicky and short-lived, dominated the concerns of most movie studios, including the newly christened widescreen process of Cinemascope. Beginning with Brigadoon (1954) all of Arthur Freed’s subsequent musicals were shot in this 2:35.1 aspect ratio – a framing and composition device that particularly frustrated director Vincente Minnelli. Freed flew to France to discuss exterior locations on Brigadoon with Gene Kelly.

Originally the idea had been to shoot all of the exteriors in Scotland. Freed pursued Moira Shearer – the green eyed ballerina who had made a stunning debut in Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948) as well as the Sadler’s Wells Ballet Company for his ensemble. All of his requests were met with polite regrets. However, the biggest regret of all for Brigadoon – a primarily outdoorsy and rustic folktale - was that it would eventually be shot entirely indoors on soundstages at MGM – the first victim of the studio’s cost-cutting measures.

To recreate Scotland in Hollywood, the studio’s art department built a cyclorama that stretched 600 ft. wide by 60 ft. high; a relatively convincing backdrop that Minnelli was never entirely satisfied with. In the final analysis, the studio’s shortsightedness dampened Brigadoon’s reception. At a cost of $2,352,625 Brigadoon proved only a modest success with a return of $3,385,000.

So too did MGM’s frugality hamper Freed’s next two musical endeavors; It’s Always Fair Weather and Kismet (both in 1955). Conceived as a follow-up to On The Town (1949) (which, despite Freed’s meddling, had nevertheless been a colossal hit), the only returning cast member in It’s Always Fair Weather was Gene Kelly – this time cast as a downtrodden ex-GI turned gambler/racketeer. In place of Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra, Freed settled on choreographer Michael Kidd and Dan Dailey. The film would be the final project co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen and the least successful of any, barely breaking even at a gross of $2,485,000. At this point in their respective careers both men were eager for independence from their partnership. As Donen would later state, “I didn’t really want to codirect…we didn’t get on…and, for that matter, Gene didn’t get on well with anybody.”

On Kismet, Arthur Freed faced a litany of problems, beginning with Vincente Minnelli’s indifference toward the assignment. Minnelli desperately wanted to direct his pet project, Lust For Life (1956). That provision granted, Minnelli was enslaved to direct Kismet first – a prerequisite he thereafter regretted. As with the limitations imposed on Brigadoon, Kismet was shot entirely on soundstages, but this time without Minnelli’s usual thoughtfulness in staging. Barely breaking even with its $2,920,000 gross, the film was neither an artistic triumph nor the financial powerhouse that both Freed and the studio had hoped for.

If all of these setbacks disheartened Freed’s association with the ever declining lion’s share of his autonomy that had once seemed impervious and untouchable, Freed at least rounded out the decade with two of his most glorious and enduring offerings; Silk Stockings (1957) and Gigi (1958). The former was a musical remake of Garbo’s Ninotchka – a scathing satire brought marvelously in line with 1950s sensibilities. At a cost of $1,853,463.21 Silk Stockings had one of the tightest budgets of all Freed musicals. Its $4,417,753 gross helped ease the pain somewhat. Gigi, however, proved to be the magical elixir capable of wiping clean any and all failures that had gone before it.

Thinly disguised to capitalize on the success of Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway smash ‘My Fair Lady’ – Freed’s Gigi derived its narrative from Colette’s novella about a waif tutored in the ways of a courtesan by her aunt and grandmother. Vincente Minnelli’s excitement for the project extended primarily from his understanding that Gigi would be shot entirely in France – a promise that MGM reneged on during the final months, forcing Minnelli to stage one of the film’s best loved songs, ‘I Remember It Well’ against an obvious backdrop on a soundstage.

This shortcoming excused – Minnelli very quickly discovered the reason why most of his contemporaries abhorred location shooting. Working in France during the hottest summer on record in recent history, many of the corseted extras became ill and fainted. Plastic foliage that had been added to augment several sequences melted in the hot sun. The ice at the Palaise du Glace suffered similar consequences. Yet, despite these setbacks, Gigi proved a critical and box office success – by far the biggest of Arthur Freed’s career, winning nine Oscars (including Best Picture) and earning a then record $13,208,725.

What followed in the career of Arthur Freed after this penultimate moment in 1958 bears little mentioning. For although he still had three films left to produce before retiring (The Subterraneans, Bells Are Ringing, and, A Light In The Piazza) his supremacy as a producer had been severed prematurely by the demise of the studio system. The great advantage during most of Freed’s career had always been that he was assured any and all of the assets and resources necessary and required to make whatever flight of fancy his heart desired.

Even though Freed had never been one to limit himself to only those resources (pooling talent from around the world and forever augmenting MGM’s roster of accomplished performers and artisans), these last attempts at rekindling his former greatness paled considerably in that illustrious tenure. So too was MGM’s ever changing management during those final years a chronic source of aggravation for the aged producer.

For example; when Freed begged then MGM head Joseph Vogel to purchase the rights to the stage versions of Camelot and Paint Your Wagon he was emphatically turned down. A revolving interest Freed had to produce a film based on a cavalcade of Irving Berlin standards, entitled Say It With Music was repeated stalemated until Freed at last was too old and too tired to resurrect the project from its inevitable oblivion. After 42 movies, Freed was ostensibly exhausted of having to explain and defend his every move to men who were neither loyal to his vision nor understood anything about film making except their bottom line.

Arthur Freed officially retired from MGM in December, 1970. He died suddenly three years later. One of the last awards he received before decamping offices in the Thalberg Building was the International Union of Film Critics Gold Medal. Quite simply, the inscription read “To honor Arthur Freed, Master Musical Maker.” For Arthur Freed, the final flower in that ancient crown he wore so prominently for nearly forty years would always remain Gigi. His legacy in film musicals however, remains unsurpassed.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).