NPR logo Kathryn Grayson: The MGM Soprano


Kathryn Grayson: The MGM Soprano

Kathryn Grayson, seen here around 1945, made a series of musicals for MGM in which she was a little different from the other leading ladies. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kathryn Grayson, who died on Wednesday, wasn't like the rest of the leading ladies from MGM musicals.

For one thing, many of them were primarily dancers — Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller, for instance. Others had rich and marvelous voices more suited to popular singing styles, like Judy Garland, or they were perky like Debbie Reynolds.

The studio had had Jeanette MacDonald in the 1930s, but that was a little different — those were not the upbeat, singing-and-dancing, flashy MGM musicals that came along in the 1940s. The incorporation of an operatic style into a movie where, for instance, Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra are tap-dancing sailors; that was a little trickier than, let's say, incorporating an operatic style into the dramatic wooing of a Mountie.

Grayson was a soprano whose aim had been opera (and who would do opera after she was through with movies), and MGM liked it that way. In fact, in Anchors Aweigh with Kelly and Sinatra — you may know it as the one where Kelly dances with Jerry the Mouse — she played a soprano trying to get an audition with Jose Iturbi, leading to this scene after she's finally prevailed (that is not a spoiler, if you have ever watched a movie musical in your life).

That's just not a common sequence in those particular movies. Almost like the ballet sequences Kelly liked to do (though less tinged with pretentiousness), it represents one of the ways MGM allowed a little bit of genre-mixing from time to time.

But in that movie, even her love songs, like "All Of A Sudden, My Heart Sings" — an unassuming little song that's literally just a scale up and then back down — show off her shimmery voice.

It wasn't just that movie with its opera-singer role, though. She was in Kiss Me Kate opposite Howard Keel, too, and in Show Boat, and in quite a few other things, too.

Grayson did her opera later, after her movie career was over. Candidly, this is not everyone's style, this kind of singing in a musical. Most of your really big popular stars — the ones who became the most beloved — had pop-style voices and didn't dream of opera. But Grayson's ten years or so as a regular MGM player is an important part of the story of that era at that studio, and that era at that studio has kept many of us company on a lot of Saturday afternoons.