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The MGM Musical: 1951-1955From Triumph to Collapse in 4 Years


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#1 miliosr

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Posted 25 July 2014 - 01:52 PM

Arguably, the greatest year for the MGM musical was 1951, with the studio winning the Best Picture award at the Oscars for An American in Paris and having several ultra-profitable box office successes.  Yet, within four years, the MGM musical went into freefall at the box office.

 

Through the magic of Wikipedia, I was able to access, year-by-year, the actual profits for these musicals as recorded by Eddie Mannix, the long-time vice-president (and fixer) at MGM.  Apparently, he kept a real time ledger (now titled 'The Eddie Mannix Ledger') with profit information on every single MGM release.  So, as time allows, I'm going to provide a year-by-year analysis of what (and who) was making money for the studio before the collapse in 1955.

 

Note: This isn't a commentary on the aesthetic merits of these musicals.  Nor does it track how certain movies (like Singin' in the Rain) have kept right on earning for someone over the intervening decades.

 

1951: 6 musicals released/42 total films released

 

The Great Caruso (w/ Mario Lanza/Ann Blyth)  profit: $3,977,000

Show Boat (w/ Kathryn Grayson/Ava Gardner/Howard Keel/Marge&Gower Champion)  profit: $2,337,000

An American in Paris (w/ Gene Kelly/Leslie Caron)  profit: $1,346,000

Texas Carnival (w/ Esther Williams/Red Skelton/Howard Keel/Ann Miller) profit: $681,000

Royal Wedding (w/Fred Astaire/Jane Powell)  profit: $584,000

Rich, Young and Pretty (w/ Jane Powell/Fernando Lamas/Vic Damone)  profit: $54,000

 

Basically, everything the studio released in 1951 found favor with audiences and three of the releases -- The Great Caruso, Show Boat and An American in Paris -- were box office smashes.  The Esther Williams "aquacals", then in their eighth year, continued to make money.  Even the one laggard -- the Jane Powell musical Rich, Young and Pretty - broke even.

 

Based on this year, the studio would have been justified in thinking that the Golden Age would continue on forever!

 

Last note: The studio weathered the firing of Judy Garland in 1950 very well considering she had been associated with two of the releases -- Show Boat and Royal Wedding (which was the film she was "working on" when MGM fired her.)  It is tempting to speculate how Show Boat (w/ Garland as Julie) and Royal Wedding would have fared with her in them.  My own feeling is that her box office impact on Show Boat would have been negligible (given its walloping box office total without her) and Royal Wedding would have seen only a mild boost.



#2 sandik

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Posted 25 July 2014 - 10:26 PM

Oh, this is fun stuff!

 

I don't know that Garland as Julie in Show Boat would have boosted the box office, but I think she would have given a significantly different performance than the one we have.  Ditto with Royal Wedding (especially thinking about her earlier work with Astaire)



#3 ballet_n00b

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Posted 29 July 2014 - 05:52 AM

I personally think the 1936 version of Showboat with Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel, Helen Morgan and Paul Robeson is much better than the 1951 version.

Apart from Singin' in the Rain, I don't have much love for the garish MGM musicals. 



#4 miliosr

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Posted 31 July 2014 - 02:22 PM

Moving on to . . .

 

1952: 8 musicals released/39 total films released

 

Because You're Mine (w/ Mario Lanza)  profit: $735,000

Singin' in the Rain (w/ Gene Kelly/Donald O'Connor/Debbie Reynolds/Cyd Charisse)  profit: $666,000

Skirts Ahoy! (w/ Esther Williams)  profit: $342,000

Million Dollar Mermaid (w/ Esther Williams)  $243,000

The Merry Widow (w/ Lana Turner/Fernando Lamas)  profit: $27,000

Everything I Have Is Yours (w/ Marge&Gower Champion)  loss: -$459,000

Lovely to Look At (w/ Kathryn Grayson/Red Skelton/Howard Keel/Marge&Gower Champion/Ann Miller)  loss: -$735,000

The Belle of New York (w/ Fred Astaire/Vera-Ellen)  loss: -$1,576,000

 

After the blockbuster year it had in 1951, M-G-M had an up-and-down year in 1952.  Mario Lanza and Gene Kelly were still big earners for the studio although neither one came close to their stellar results in 1951.  The Esther Williams "aquacals", in their ninth year, were still turning respectable (if diminishing) profits.

 

On the down side, the all-star remake of Roberta -- Lovely to Look At -- was a big money loser for M-G-M despite reuniting and merging the casts from the previous year's hits Show Boat (Grayson, Keel, the Champions) and Texas Carnival (Skelton, Keel [again], Miller).  The Champions proved they worked better as supporting players as their first starring vehicle failed.  And Fred Astaire had one of the biggest bombs of his career with The Belle of New York.

 

All in all, 1952 was a bit of a wash for M-G-M.  The studio more or less broke even with its released musicals.  However, the studio made a "musical" in 1952 that the studio heads felt was so uncommercial that it gathered dust in the M-G-M vaults until 1956.  This was Gene Kelly's all-dance film Invitation to the Dance, which featured leading ballet dancers (Claude Bessy, Tamara Toumanova, Igor Youskevitch) and in in-house M-G-M dance talent (Carol Haney, Tommy Rall).  In 1956, Invitation to the Dance would lose -$2,523,000 for M-G-M.  So, factoring that into the picture for 1952, gives a very different cast to how M-G-M was doing financially with its musicals.



#5 sidwich

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Posted 31 July 2014 - 08:49 PM

Thank you, miliosr.  It's very interesting to look at these figures.  I do wonder, though, what the return on investment was as well.

 

For example, ​Rich, Young and Pretty may not have made enormous profit, but given it's a Jane Powell musical, it was probably a Joe Pasternak production.  Pasternak's films were usually all-singing, fairy low-budget films.  They were the "C" team of the MGM musical arm, so the movie probably didn't cost too much to make.  Even though the profit wasn't big, the ROI might have been okay.

 

It certainly cost a lot less than any other of the films on that list, although The Great Caruso probably turned a massive profit and ROI, since I don't think it was a big Arthur Freed "A" production.  Comparatively, even though Singin' in the Rain's profit looks okay, I know it was considered an MGM disappointment because it was not a cheap film to make and it was considered an underperformer.  



#6 miliosr

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Posted 01 August 2014 - 03:08 AM

You make an excellent point, sidwich.

 

Eddie Mannix, when he was compiling his ledger, only tracked the actual profits.  But that doesn't account for performance relative to expectations.  The Great Caruso not only turned a huge profit but almost certainly exceeded all expectations.  Singin' in the Rain performed well enough for M-G-M but had to be considered (as you say) an underperformer given the walloping success of An American in Paris in 1951.



#7 miliosr

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Posted 10 August 2014 - 07:40 AM

1953: 11 musicals released/44 total films released

 

Lili (w/ Leslie Caron)  profit: $1,878,000

Dangerous When Wet (w/ Esther Williams/Fernando Lamas)  profit: $386,000

Easy to Love (w/ Esther Williams/Van Johnson)  profit: $355,000

 

The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (w/ Debbie Reynolds/Bobby Van/Bob Fosse)  loss: -$131,000

Torch Song (w/ Joan Crawford/Michael Wilding)  loss: -$260,000

Small Town Girl (w/ Jane Powell/Ann Miller/Bobby Van)  loss: -$287,000

I Love Melvin (w/ Donald O'Connor/Debbie Reynolds)  loss: -$290,000

Kiss Me Kate (w/ Kathryn Grayson/Howard Keel/Ann Miller/Tommy Rall/Bobby Van/Bob Fosse)  loss: -$544,000

Latin Lovers (w/ Lana Turner/Ricardo Montablan)  loss: -$837,000

Give a Girl a Break (w/ Marge&Gower Champion/Debbie Reynolds/Bob Fosse)  loss: -$1,156,000

The Band Wagon (w/ Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse/Oscar Levant)  loss: -$1,185,000

 

1953 is the key year for the M-G-M musical.  With a few exceptions, nothing seemed to work any more.  On the plus side, Lili (for which Leslie Caron received an Oscar nomination) was an out-of-nowhere smash.  And Fernando Lamas and Van Johnson joined Esther Williams in the pool to insure that the Esther Williams 'aquacals' continued to be moneymakers for the studio.

 

But everything else was a miss.  Probably no one was too concerned that the teen musicals (The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, I Love Melvin, Small Town Girl) and the Joan Crawford "blackface" musical were mild money losers.  More concerning had to be the poor performances of the studio's more stellar entries for that year.  Kiss Me Kate, which reunited Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel and featured some of the studio's rising young talent (Bob Fosse, Tommy Rall, Bobby Van) couldn't turn a profit.  Give a Girl a Break showed that the younger generation of musical stars couldn't carry a musical on their own.  Despite being called Fred Astaire's Singin' in the Rain (an opinion with which I disagree), The Band Wagon ended up being M-G-M's biggest musical bomb of the year and, after the commercial failure of 1952's The Belle of New York, showed that Astaire was growing cold at the box office.



#8 Quiggin

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Posted 10 August 2014 - 09:47 AM

Thanks for posting those movies and the Eddie Mannix numbers.

 

I think the problem was as much that audiences by 1953 were no longer interested in all-out Hollywood musical – which was a form associated with second world war, big bands, troop shows, etc. At MGM things were moving towards movies like Butterfield Eight, Two Weeks in Another Town, Some Came Running, light comedies and biblical epics.

 

Perhaps it also seemed that Singin in the Rain and Bandwagon and Kiss Me Kate (in 3D), with backstage and onstage scenes, had deconstructed the MGM musical and it had nowhere to go.

 

After that you could say it resurfaced in France (via Kelly's influence?) in Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherboug, Jean Luc Godard's A Woman is a Woman, Chantal Ackerman's A Nos Amours and Jacques Rivette's The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque. Fellini's 8 1/2 (Rota) was like a musical without songs, as was Bertolucci's Partner (cinemascope and Morricone) ... (At least that's how I followed it post-Singin in the Rain.)



#9 sandik

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Posted 10 August 2014 - 01:39 PM

The thing about a category is the way it brings individual items together. These films are indeed all musicals, but as a viewer, I have very different interests and expectations between something like The Band Wagon and The Affairs of Dobie Gillis. Fascinating stuff -- many thanks for the post!

#10 miliosr

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Posted 24 August 2014 - 02:06 PM

1954: 7 musicals released/24 total films released

 

By 1953-54, even the mighty M-G-M could no longer resist the tremendous pressures that were now buffeting the studio system.  One of the immediate results was a downsizing of the fabulous roster of actors which the studio had displayed on the occasion of its 25th anniversary in 1949.  By the end of 1953, the studio had ended its relationships with any number of actors, including former musical stalwarts (June Allyson, Fred Astaire, Kathryn Grayson, Ricardo Montablan) and then up-and-comers (Bob Fosse, Bobby Van).  Another result was a reduction in the number of films released from 44 in 1953 to 24 in 1954.  The number of musicals released remained constant, though, despite the relatively poor showings in 1953:

 

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Jane Powell/Howard Keel/Tommy Rall/Russ Tamblyn)  profit: $3,198,000

The Student Prince (the voice of Mario Lanza/Ann Blyth/Edmund Purdom)  profit: $451,000

Rhapsody (Elizabeth Taylor)  loss: -$217,000

Rose Marie (Ann Blyth/Howard Keel/Fernando Lamas)  loss: -$284,000

Deep in My Heart (various musical stars)  loss: -$435,000

Athena (Jane Powell/Edmund Purdom/Debbie Reynolds/Vic Damone)  loss: -$511,000

Brigadoon (Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse/Van Johnson)  loss: -$1,555,000

 

The good news for M-G-M in 1954 was the walloping (and unexpected) success of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Stanley Donen's direction, Michael Kidd's choreography, the singing of Jane Powell and Howard Keel and, perhaps most importantly, the collective dynamism of the brothers gave the studio an out-of-nowhere blockbuster.  The other good news for the year was that the singing voice of Mario Lanza (who the studio had fired during the making of The Student Prince) attached to the face and body of Edmund Purdom could still generate box office returns.

 

The bad news was that everything else lost money.  Athena had an interesting concept (which Esther Williams had developed for herself but the studio gave to Jane Powell) but was years ahead of its time.  (Williams herself made no films for the first time in over a decade.)  Brigadoon was supposed to be the studio's big musical performer for the year but ended up being its biggest flop and showed that Gene Kelly was now growing as cold at the box office as Astaire.

 

Perhaps more ominous than the box office returns was the out-of-date feeling to so many of these productions.  Remakes of The Student Prince (a 1927 silent with Norma Shearer and Ramon Novarro) and Rose Marie (a 1936 blockbuster for Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy) and a Sigmund Romberg bio pic hardly showed the studio as keeping up with contemporary trends.




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