Sunday, 22 January 2017


20. “Don't try to be different. Just be good. To be good is different enough.”


As everyone is finding right now, “La La Land” has been very successful in capturing the feeling of a classic Hollywood musical, then venturing into a postmodern look at what happens after those films normally end, before jumping back into “An American in Paris” territory for its climax.

The reason we have this idea of a Hollywood musical is due to MGM producer Arthur Freed, because whenever you need to give an example of a Hollywood musical made in the 1930s, 40s or 50s, chances are that Freed either produced it or, with his colleague Nacio Herb Brown, wrote some of the songs. Freed and Brown joined MGM in 1929 when sound pictures took over the industry.

MGM was one of the last to succumb, with their eye on providing high quality films causing them to wait until the technology was perfected. Having said that, Freed and Brown’s moment came when a song they composed for “The Hollywood Revue of 1929,” a compendium that featured almost all MGM’s contract stars, decided to take a song used in the second half, and perform it a second time, with all the stars, using a primitive two-strip Technicolor technique – red and blue, but no green – ten days before the film had its premiere. “Singin’ in the Rain” would be re-used over twenty years later when Freed coupled his old song catalogue with a romanticised story about early sound cinema, thereby inventing the jukebox musical.

Freed became a producer, in 1939, after assisting on “The Wizard of Oz,” his first film with a producer credit being “Babes in Arms,” starring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney – Garland would star for Freed later in “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Easter Parade,” the latter film requiring Freed to get Fred Astaire out of semi-retirement. It was Freed that nurtured Gene Kelly’s talent, then allowed him to co-direct his own films, and who brought Judy Garland’s future husband, theatre director Vincente Minnelli, into film directing.

Freed was also well-known for allowing his directors, writers and choreographers to have free rein on what they wanted to make, meaning we get a fifteen-minute ballet piece at the end of “An American in Paris,” and allowing Allan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe to make “Gigi,” then convincing Freed to spend $400,000 to fix the film when they thought it ran too slowly – both films won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the ultimate awards broadcast that, yes, was produced by Freed for five years in the 1960s, so no wonder they have to be big.

Of course, the classical Hollywood period ended around 1960, with Freed’s last film with any musical theme being “The Subterraneans” (1960), spending $1.4 million producing a film based on a novella Jack Kerouac wrote in three days, and using a jazz score by André Previn.

Reading on how long it took to get “La La Land” made, including how a year was spent editing the film to ensure the pacing was right, you get the feeling that, at some point in the last fifty years, we lost the ability to make musicals – that the rigour of a studio system, something long gone, was what got them made. What you need is someone that understands the craft, then gives others the space. Hopefully, the next “La La Land” won’t take six more years to appear.

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