In musicals the energy and effort put into the musical numbers have always tended to outweigh the requirements of the narrative or "book." Already in 1933 the choreography of Flying Down to Rio , featuring a musical climax wherein the "dancers" perform with their waists and feet anchored to the wings of swooping airplanes, clearly exceeded any sense of narrative realism and, as such, paved the way for Berkeley's more elaborate choreography. In Berkeley's musicals, the scale of the production numbers could not possibly be mounted in the constricted space of the theater stage on which they are supposedly taking place, and his giddy overhead shots do not disguise the fact that the production numbers are designed for the cinema, not the audience within the film.

Such musicals as Broadway Revue of 1929 , The Great Ziegfeld , and The Goldwyn Follies (1938) pushed the musical more toward spectacle than story. By contrast, producer Arthur Freed (1894–1973), who produced more than thirty quality musicals between 1939 and 1960, mostly for MGM (and who also wrote many of the lyrics, including those for "Singin' in the Rain"), tended to approach the film musical instead as an organically integrated whole. In Freed's musicals, beginning with his first, The Wizard of Oz (1939), the book and the musical numbers have strong connections; songs, often initiated by a character's strong emotions, arise out of the story and even advance the plot, rather than merely interrupt it, as was too frequently the case in the genre. In The Bandwagon (1953), for example, Astaire's performance of "A Shine on Your Shoes" enables him to acknowledge the loneliness he feels upon his return to Broadway, which he thinks has passed him by, while in It's Always Fair Weather (1955), an advertising executive (Dan Dailey), disgruntled about the superficial banter in the advertising agency where he works, finds rhythms in his colleagues' jargon ("Situation-wise and saturation-wise") and turns it into a cathartic song and dance.

According to critical consensus, the musicals produced by Freed represent the height of the genre's Golden Age, roughly from the end of World War II through the 1950s. Freed's unit at MGM included, among others, performers Kelly and Judy Garland, directors Stanley Donen (b. 1924) and Vincente Minnelli (1903–1986), choreographer Michael Kidd (b. 1919), and screen-writing duo Betty Comden (b. 1919) and Adolph Green (1914–2002). These artists, along with many others, were collectively responsible for such recognized classics as The Wizard of Oz , Cabin in the Sky , Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris , Singin' in the Rain , The Bandwagon , It's Always Fair Weather , and Silk Stockings , among others.

Television, which was introduced commercially in the United States in 1947, had by the 1950s become serious entertainment competition for Hollywood. Partly in response, Hollywood embraced technology as yet unavailable to film, particularly color and wide-screen format, both of which became more common. The wider image was particularly appropriate for the lavish scale of many film musicals, as were the exaggerated hues of Technicolor for the idealized fantasies of the musical's production numbers. An American in Paris exploits color in its production design inspired by French Impressionist paintings, while the climactic twelve-minute "Girl Hunt" ballet in The Bandwagon , a homage to hard-boiled detective fiction, is rendered in appropriately garish colors that accent the pulp quality of the novels.

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