Saturday, January 3, 2009
Most Friendship is Feigning
Though I never really wrote about seeing WHITE CHRISTMAS at the Egyptian a few weeks ago, one thing which stuck out to me was its portrayal of veterans a decade after the war’s end and how its finale gives the feeling of being the ultimate celebration of what the Greatest Generation that returned home was meant to accomplish. They’ve made a success of their lives and nothing is ever going to come along to ruin that. As the title card reading “THE END” comes up, snow has begun to fall on that Christmas in Vermont and it really feels like everything is going to be ok. Released a year later in 1955, IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER plays like the sobering response to that idea. I’d always heard that it was the “depressing” MGM musical, in spite of its title, and that’s not too far off. But within the bitterness and regret in the storyline is a genuinely interesting film that actually tries to explore what its characters have to deal with when the music, as well as the good times, comes to an end. Co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, the film still feels problematic but maybe that’s part of what makes it interesting as well.
As the war ends in 1945, former soldiers Ted, Doug and Angie (Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd) spend one final night drinking in New York. And though they encounter hostility from their favorite bartender and Ted has come home to a “Dear John” letter the three guys are the best of friends and nothing is going to stop that. When they realize it’s time to part, they make a pact to meet at that bar again ten years later for a reunion. Ten years go by, life doesn’t quite go how they expect it to and though they all show up at the bar so much time has gone by that not only do they have absolutely nothing in common, they realize that they don’t even like each other anymore.
The initial idea for the story was to make it a sequel to ON THE TOWN which starred Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin and it changed from that into a story with different characters, becoming essentially a vehicle for Kelly, this time supported by the less-famous Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd. After the plot sets up how much the three now hate each other, instead of having them reluctantly work together to accomplish something (which probably would make it awfully similar to WHITE CHRISTMAS) the film then splits the characters apart as they get mixed up with the nightly TV program “Midnight With Madeline” a clearly satirical jibe at certain Dinah Shore and Queen for a Day-type shows of the time which aims to present a live on-air reunion of the three men who now hate each other—honestly, these are some of my least favorite parts of the film, but I have to admit that when compared to some shows on TV these days that aren’t all that different some of the satire still seems strangely current. Written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, the film feels like it’s almost more interested in satirizing the world of advertising and television circa 1955 than it does exploring the depressing lives of the three leads, giving a certain lack of focus to the whole thing. Maybe the idea is to contrast the lives of ex-G.I.’s with the rise of television and in doing so comment on the path America took in the intervening decade but either I’m overreaching or it’s just too weighty an idea for an MGM musical…even a downbeat MGM musical. Interestingly, I noticed that the chaos-during-a-live-broadcast climax feels more than a little like the end of MY FAVORITE YEAR which of course featured Adolph Green in the cast.
On the romance side, there’s Gene Kelly’s Ted immediately going after “Midnight With Madeline’s” program coordinator Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse), a 50s career gal who does everything she can to “remove the initiative” as he pursues her but they both seem to fall each other pretty quickly nevertheless. For that matter, Gene Kelly gets the most emphasis throughout and the other two guys seem to disappear for a long stretch in the middle. Little attempt is made to present Dailey and Kidd as singers and their big numbers are either dancing only or done in a talk-sing fashion—for that matter, Kidd (much more famous as a choreographer than for any of his acting work) doesn’t even get a solo number of his own, which throws off the balance even further. The special features on the DVD reveal that he actually did get one and it was shot but later cut, possibly at the behest of star Kelly. While the various songs in here are good, none of them are really classics and the emphasis placed on dancing throughout is actually one of the most successful things about the film. The early number of the three male leads dancing with trash can lids on their feet is absolutely thrilling, easily the highpoint of the whole film. We don’t need any words here as the joy that’s expressed silently by them is all we need to be convinced of their friendship. The much more melancholy “Once Upon A Time,” which presents the men dancing in synch via split-screen while in three separate locations is kind of a marvel—maybe it’s on record how difficult it was to accomplish this, but I’d almost rather keep it a mystery. Cyd Charisse’s big song “Baby, You Knock Me Out” is fun and it’s the only time we see her dance in the whole film (for some reason, she never gets a dance with love interest Kelly) but it’s once of those numbers that only has tangential relation to the plot at best so it winds up feeling like it was squeezed in just to give her something. No complaints, but these things do play better when it feels like they belong. Much better is Kelly’s solo number “I Like Myself” which is very much positioned to be this film’s “Singin’ in the Rain” and while it of course doesn’t measure up (I’ve watched it a few times and I still couldn’t hum the song to you right now) his earlier bitterness makes his happiness this time around that much more rewarding as we get to see him sailing on roller skates through MGM’s New York backlot as he alternates between skating and dancing without missing a beat. It feels like there’s an element missing but overall the film is very enjoyable and the downbeat nature gives it considerably more resonance than certain other MGM musicals I could name. One issue might be that with the exception of the trash can lid ballet the direction of Donen & Kelly never feels quite as elegant as the feeling that Vincente Minnelli would bring to these films, something I was reminded of when I saw BELLS ARE RINGING a few weeks ago. That said, this early film shot in CinemaScope, something Donen was apparently unhappy about, continually makes inventive use of the frame particularly during the numbers with the three guys and it compares favorably with certain Scope films made around this time that don’t try to do much of anything with the visuals.
Going up against Gene Kelly on his roller skates can’t have been easy but both Dailey and Kidd make good impressions with their lesser amount of screentime. Dailey almost has the biggest character arc to play and does it convincingly while Kidd is very funny, particularly during his “Midnight with Madeline’ appearance. The chilliness some people complain about with Cyd Charisse actually works very well here, fitting perfectly with her New York career gal and she’s actually more likable in this film than I’ve ever seen her. Dolores Gray is almost too effective as the ultra-phony Madeline (“I want people to sit home and cry and love me!”)—she gets two songs and no dance for Kelly and Charisse? Frank Nelson, the guy who always said "Y-e-e-e-s?" to Jack Benny is instantly recognizable as the TV show announcer.
IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER was by all accounts an unhappy production with co-directors Donen and Kelly constantly fighting. Its lackluster reception at the time seemed to mark the beginning of the end of the MGM musical as it was known. It has its problems, yes, but it is at least an attempt to lend some maturity and depth to what was by then a much-tested formula by the studio. The joint revelation the three men make at the end feels quietly satisfying and though some of the conclusion’s bitterness feels slightly buried it still feels different from how these movies usually go—the characters have all realized once again that they really will be “friends until they die” but they’ll still have to move towards the future without going back. As they seem to have discovered, there’s no returning to what once was. It’s a thoughtful note to leave on and the movie correctly doesn’t try to make more of it than it is. And sometimes it’s good to remember that about life as well, with or without dance numbers.