All I want to do this time of year is watch old movies and write new things. Today I’m doing both. The bubblegum glitter and waggish wit and general tail-wagging of these 10 MGM musicals always, always cheer me the fuck up. Not especially swellegant phrasing, but true just the same.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
It’s hard for kids today to imagine the excitement we used to feel when this musical about a lost Kansas girl aired on CBS every November. But even the youngest skeptics are sure to candy-crush on this film’s whirlwind soundtrack, glorious Technicolor, and iconic cast, including a gingham-clad Judy Garland crooning mournfully of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)
Adapted from Sally Benson’s popular New Yorker stories, Vincent Minnelli’s chronicle of a 1903 Missouri family features his soon-to-be-wife Judy Garland as the ultimate girl-next-door and a wonderfully deadpan Margaret O’Brien as a little girl preternaturally obsessed with death. With dazzling design and sweetly lilting songs, highlights include an homage to the World Fair and the seasonally appropriate “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”
It’s Always Fair Weather (1945)
Rachel hipped me to this delight wrapped in chiffon and patent leather, and it’s reason #13,203,3003 that she’s a very, very good friend. Gene Kelly co-directs with Stanley Donen and stars in this homage to the enduring bond of war veterans, and it’s chock-a-block with stunning soft-shoe numbers and midcentury Manhattan sets. With Cyd Charisse as a snapdragon ad exec, this bears all the markings of Kelly’s best work: a wistful elegance paired with a boys-will-be-boys jocularity that never reduces female characters to second-class citizens. (In matters of female equality as in so many others, Gene Kelly was a man ahead of his time.)
Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
Think of this MGM musical as the Hollywood equivalent of an especially wacky NBA all-star game. Framed as a classic Broadway revue, the ghost of legendary producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. presides from a cloud over a series of comedy skits and song and dance numbers starring the likes of Fanny Brice, William Powell, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Cyd Charisse, and Lucille Ball. A heavenly premise marked by all kinds of gorgeous missteps.
Easter Parade (1948)
Despite its gossamer-thin plot, this backstage musical about a love triangle between Broadway performers stands out as one of MGM’s most satisfying spectacles. Who needs plot when you have 17 unforgettable Irving Berlin song and dance numbers; Peter Lawford, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, and Fred Astaire at top form; and a rainbow array of to-die-for chapeaus?
On the Town (1949)
In Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s first joint directorial effort, Frank Sinatra, Ann Miller, and Kelly himself star in this adaptation of a Broadway musical adapted from a Leonard Bernstein ballet. The premise is simple– three sailors make the most of a 24-hour shore leave in New York City–but with Bernstein’s score, Frank’s singing chops, Kelly’s graceful athleticism, and 1940s Manhattan in all its chrome and neon glory, this result is dizzying, dazzling fun.
Annie Get Your Gun (1950)
With big pipes and an even bigger smile, Betty Hutton is toothsomely over-the-top as the titular backwoods babe whose sharpshooting skills land her a spot on Buffalo Bill’s legendary Wild West show. With an Irving Berlin score and the great Busby Berkeley as a musical director, few movies confer more ragtag joy.
Silk Stockings (1957)
The Cold War replaces World War II as a backdrop in one of MGM’s last great musicals. Fred Astaire plays a movie producer dispatched to Paris to sign a music composer who wishes to defect from Russia; Cyd Charisse stars as the Moscow operative dispatched to bring her comrade back home. Fur, satin, and Fred and Cyd two-stepping it to Cole Porter songs? Yes, please.
With numbers like “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” this jewel-toned take on a Colette novella about a Parisian man of means who falls for a young courtesan could never be remade now. Just as well, because nothing today could approximate the bubblegum-pink, Cinescope charm of Vincent Minnelli at the helm, André Previn’s magical score, and performers like Leslie Caron, Eva Gabor, and an especially natty Maurice Chevalier.
Singin in the Rain (1952)
Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly pair up again to adapt this Broadway musical about Hollywood’s transition from the silent to the talkies, and the result is simply the funniest, smartest, and sweetest meta-movie of all time. The cast alone would knock your socks off–among them, Jean Hagen, Donald O’Connor, Rita Moreno, Debbie Reynolds, Cyd Charisse, and Kelly himself–but it’s the physical comedy, clever cultural observation, and perfectly paced, brilliantly hued musical numbers that could make a Pollyanna out of Scrooge himself.