At MGM, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen contributed the pioneering shot-on-location musical On the Town (1949), as well as the much-beloved Singin in the Rain (1952), about the early days of sound in Hollywood. Vincente Minnelli continued with his series of lavish musicals for the Arthur Freed production unit, such as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951), and Gigi (1958). Charles Walters emerged as a sort of second-string Minnelli who was nevertheless capable of excellence at times, with such musicals as Easter Parade (1948), starring Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, as well as High Society (1956) and The Tender Trap (1955).

Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Charles Walters’s classic musical Easter Parade (1948).

Musicals of the 1950s existed in a peculiar state of flux, because as with the western, changing audience tastes were about to radically transform the genre. Musicals were an integral part of the 1930s and 1940s studio system, produced on an assembly line basis, as a reliable and profitable genre staple. In contrast, 1950s musicals were often aggressively lavish and laced with spectacular production numbers, as if trying to top themselves from scene to scene. Freed’s MGM unit was almost an anachronism by 1955, as MGM’s new production head, Dore Schary, eased out Louis B. Mayer to create a series of socially conscious films and ambitious biopics, such as Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956), starring Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh. The rock ’n’ roll revolution was just over the horizon. Richard Brooks’s Blackboard Jungle (1955) used Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” over its main titles; one year later, Fred F Sears’s film of the same title, starring Haley and his band, became the screen’s first true rock ’n’ roll musical. The big band era ended practically overnight, and traditional musicals, with a few exceptions, began to fade from the screen.

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