Though its scope is limited by the paucity of surviving witnesses, “Musicals Great Musicals” is a fine basic primer on MGM’s Arthur Freed Unit that does the business and includes a couple of surprises even for buffs. Item has been airing on PBS in the U.S. and should prove an enjoyable stocking-filler on other nets worldwide in conjunction with seasons of classic musicals. In the U.K., it goes out on pubcaster BBC over Xmas.
Any docu on the Freed Unit would have to be pretty left-footed not to come up with an entertaining result, though the challenge of producing something fresh is also considerable. Former BBC documaker David Thompson, a Brit, who’s previously essayed weightier subjects (Renoir, Rossellini, Michael Powell, Paul Verhoeven), scores high on the technical side, with his slickest work to date: Editing and segues are smooth, and clips (properly letterboxed) are long enough to involve the viewer rather than just hit the high points and move on.
Only occasionally, however, does one get a feel from the small number of survivors of what day-to-day work at the unit was like, and how the pics and individual sequences were actually put together. Stars Cyd Charisse, Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller prove impenetrably bland, and choreographer Michael Kidd and musical director Andre Previn could have been pushed for more detail. The best stuff comes from arranger Saul Chaplin and (occasionally) director Stanley Donen, plus a first-rate fact-filled interview from Hugh Fordin, author of “MGM’s Greatest Musicals.”
Thompson throws in some extra nuggets for specialists. A seldom-seen sequence of Judy Garland in the “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly” number from “Annie Get Your Gun” neatly segues into Betty Hutton’s final rendering (Garland was fired); a computer graphic succinctly explains how Fred Astaire did the 360-degree dance in “Royal Wedding”; a B&W TV version of the original “On the Town” is juxtaposed with MGM’s massively altered version after Donen admits he preferred the Broadway one; and, in the biggest surprise, a floor plan of the unit’s offices gives a momentary feel of what it must have been like to work there.
All available footage of the little-filmed Freed is also presented, from him and early songwriting partner Nacio Herb Brown going at it on the piano to a 1962 TV appearance. (He died in 1973, age 78.) On the personal side, the privately cultured, publicly commercial-savvy Freed remains an enigma, his greatest gifts being as a master assembler of talent (mostly from the East Coast) and, it is hinted, a clever manipulator of studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Previn pays tribute to the loyalty he inspired among his troops — a rare commodity in picdom, he adds.
Wisely, docu ends on the high note of “Gigi” (1958), last of the great MGM musicals. Only notable omission from the two dozen or so titles excerpted is “Brigadoon”; otherwise, Thompson’s selection gives a good feel for the breadth of experimentation within the genre. Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly are featured in already existing interviews.
Unfortunately, the made-for-TV item was shot in hi-def, which in bigscreen projection does no service to the color clips. On the small screen, however, it’s reported to look just fine.