Back in the day, Metro Goldwyn Mayer—a.k.a. MGM—was to musicals what Michael Jordan was to professional hoops. During the studio's Golden Age, which lasted from roughly 1924 to 1954, MGM cranked out one lavish hit after another. The Wizard of Oz. Meet Me in St. Louis. On the Town. An American in Paris. All MGM hits.
"More Stars Than the Heavens"
The studio's three decades of uninterrupted success were no small feat given what was happening in pop culture. "The movie-musical emerged in an era of intense cultural conflict and competition: between traditional theater and cinema; between the story-driven musical and the more vaudeville-like revue; and between jumped-up jazz and music-hall pop," explains the A.V. Club's Noel Murray. "Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer went through the same process of trial and error with musicals as nearly every other Hollywood studio, but MGM quickly developed a reputation as a place that nurtured and properly showcased talented performers, choreographers, and directors" (source).
They also had a secret weapon: producer Arthur Freed.
The Infamous Freed Unit
According to Gene Kelly's widow, film historian Patricia Ward Kelly, Freed was a handful: "He had a nickname, 'The Tank,' and he would often come onto the set and he was like a bull in a china shop" (source). Freed's resume with MGM from the late '30s to the early '60s is a murderer's row of mega-successful musicals. In addition to Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), On the Town (1949), and An American in Paris (1951), he also played a part in Easter Parade (1948), The Pirate (1948), and Showboat (1951), just to name a few. Simply put, when it came to movie-musicals, Freed's producing game was on point.
And with Singin' in the Rain, things got personal.
Arthur Freed's Greatest Hits
Accounts vary about just how Singin' in the Rain came to be. Some say that the movie was all an effort to keep Freed happy. This theory has some weight: The entire film was written around the songs, and those songs were all written by Freed, originally for other movies. Singin' in the Rain is basically an Arthur Freed's Greatest Hits compilation.
Others claim Singin' in the Rain was an attempt to keep the momentum going after An American in Paris, another Freed musical that also starred Gene Kelly and was arguably MGM's biggest critical and commercial success of the century, nabbing the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1952. Regardless, with Freed on board, Singin' in the Rain, which hit cinemas on March 27, 1952, was another big fat hit for MGM and the hottest producer in Hollywood, right?
Don't get it twisted: Singin' in the Rain wasn't a flop by any means. It received generally good, but not great, reviews and pulled in a good, but not great, $7.7 million worldwide. It nabbed two Oscar nominations (Best Score and Best Supporting Actress for Jean Hagen), but lost both. Basically, as critic James Berardinelli asserts, "There seemed to be no good reason to suppose that it would go down in history as one of the best of its genre" (source).
Ti-i-i-ime is on MGM's Side, Yes it is
Time has been very good to Singin' in the Rain. In his 1999 Great Movies review, Roger Ebert wrote, nearly fifty years after the film's release, that "Singin' in the Rain pulses with life; in a movie about making movies, you can sense the joy they had in making this one" (source). Freed's passion project holds up due to its story, performances, production values—and, yep, Freed's songs. The American Film Institute ranks Singin' in the Rain as the greatest musical—and the fifth greatest movie in any genre—of all time.
And what about Freed? "The Tank" would go on to produce several more hits, from The Band Wagon to Gigi. But as critic Steve Vineberg writes, "Among the jewels that Arthur Freed's musical unit turned out at MGM… Singin' in the Rain is the Hope diamond" (source).