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Singin' on the Screen

Of all the various film genres, the one that's had the least success in recent years is musicals. Why that is, is anyone's guess; it could be that, like the western, another genre considered dead not too long ago, the musical is just waiting for the right people to bring it back. Or it could be that audiences have simply grown too skeptical to accept the notion of humans breaking into song for no apparent reason. (Non-humans doing that, though, is fine and dandy, as the success of The Little Mermaid and The Lion King, both musicals in animated wrappings, shows.)

At any rate, for those who wonder why musicals all but dominated Hollywood for three decades, before they began to peter out in the '60s, the Museum of Fine Arts is presenting a series of Saturday matinees this month and next of the films of Vincente Minnelli. Though he might be best known to most people as the husband of Judy Garland and the father of Liza Minnelli, Vincente Minnelli can stand well enough on his own. He's quite likely the best director of musicals in American movie history. Granted, arguments could also be made for Stanley Donen, or even Bob Fosse on the single strength of Cabaret, but Minnelli would edge them out on the issue of warmth. He could do spectacle, but he could also create characters; there's a certain gentle affection that runs through even his weakest musicals that helps draw an audience in, so that when Minnelli actors sing or dance, they're not so much performing as letting out a hidden section of their soul. Mix in Minnelli's genius at set design, and the easy fluidity of his camera movement, and you get such classics as An American in Paris, Meet Me in St. Louis and Gigi.

Those first two films open and close the MFA series, and in between come two near misses -- The Pirate and The Band Wagon -- and one obvious ringer -- The Long, Long Trailer. Why that last film is included is a puzzle; an MFA spokesperson lamely points out that there are a couple of songs in it, but a musical it isn't. What it is is a star vehicle for Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball during the period when I Love Lucy was a TV staple. It's funny enough, but it's also pretty clear evidence that the Arnaz/Ball chemistry worked best in the intimate confines of television. And it has nothing to do with any of the other four films in the series, other than being available, as the MFA also lamely points out, in a vault-quality print.

But the other four films make up for that goof. And if the MFA can further be faulted for arranging them in a slipshod manner -- they're not sequenced historically, going from a 1951 film to one made in 1948, then back to 1953, and again back to 1944, nor are they arranged in any thematic way -- the very fact that they're presented as sheer entertainment rather than film history might actually be an unintentional stroke of genius. Musicals worked best when they simply tried to entertain; the more they moved toward conscious art, the creakier they threatened to become.

That very point is made in The Band Wagon, the weakest of the MFA's Minnelli musicals, and a parody in which Fred Astaire is roped unwillingly into an attempt to remake Faust as a song and dance extravaganza. The Band Wagon has a couple of nice set pieces (it introduced the song "That's Entertainment"), but falls apart in the sections that link the musical sequences together. That almost happens as well with The Pirate, which has an undeserved reputation as an overblown failure. But aside from one over-imagined number that wouldn't have been out of place in The Band Wagon's fiasco of Faust, The Pirate is actually quite charming, thanks mainly to the interaction of Gene Kelly and Judy Garland.

But to see Minnelli at his peak, in two very different ways, the movies to see are An American in Paris and Meet Me in St. Louis. An American in Paris, along with, say, Singin' in the Rain, is one of the few musicals that even non-musical fans have heard of. Its final 20 minutes, in which not a word is spoken as Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron dance through an elaborately choreographed ballet, teeters on the brink of going over the edge, as does much of the movie. It's always threatening to be too much, but it never is, and that very tension is one of the reasons An American in Paris can flirt with being artistic, and yet still work. Both Caron's and Kelly's buoyant personas keep the film from being sunk by its own ambition; they make it fun rather than pretentious.

Yet if An American in Paris won the awards (seven Oscars) and is better known, the single musical not to miss in the MFA series is Meet Me in St. Louis. It's quiet, hasn't a single showstopping production number and the songs themselves are included judiciously. But it's exquisitely charming in a way few movies have ever been. The story of a turn-of-the-century family awaiting the World's Fair in St. Louis shows that what lies at the center of every truly great musical isn't memorable songs or great choreography (even though the film has a few of the former in "The Trolley Song," "The Boy Next Door" and a wrenching "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), but rather heart. Meet Me in St. Louis is as close to perfect as American musicals have come, and that the MFA is making it available on a big screen, the way Minnelli musicals need to be seen, is reason enough to forgive them their missteps in putting this series together.

Minnelli Musical Matinees. Museum of Fine Arts. Through February 19.

 
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