Saturday, June 27, 2020

I'm fairly pretty, which is a nuisance


Directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green

Spoiler alert: moderate

As the 1950s marched on, and the contemporary brand of Hollywood musical seemed to lose its luster, the man who embodied the current form as much as any other individual, Gene Kelly, simply kept plugging away, and, between 1954 and 1957, he made three last musicals for the studio synonymous with the genre, MGM.  He did other stuff in between: he appeared in a few straight acting roles; he did a cameo for his sometimes-co-director Stanley Donen in '54's Deep In My Heart; and the film he'd made in Europe earlier that decade, Invitation to the Dance, finally got a premiere in '56, if only to be wasted on a limited release scheme that doesn't seem to have actually been implemented in bad faith on MGM's part, but might as well have been.

And, as for those three films that Kelly starred in for MGM during the waning years of its Freed Unit-style musicals, every single one of them contributed to his genre's decline, at least in terms of dollars earned, though it is also true that the balance of them are mediocre.  But while '54's Brigadoon is a romantic fantasy battered half to death by a storm of shitty subplots and creaky worldbuilding, and '57's Les Girls eventually becomes unpalatable despite an intriguing start, when it comes to 1955's contribution to the uneven back third of Kelly's career as a superstar, the reasons for its commercial failure are harder to comprehend, because It's Always Fair Weather edges right up against greatness.  It's possibly my second favorite of his works insofar as I have any right to have a "favorite" in the first place, and while my first favorite is the boring choice (plain old Singin' In the Rain), Fair Weather has so many advantages that, if it had pressed them, I don't think it'd even be a contest.

It doesn't press them, which is a pity, and the honest truth is that Fair Weather is a slight mess on the screen, arising from a terrible Goddamn mess behind the scenes; but it's one loveable mess anyhow.  It began as a notion dreamed up by librettists Betty Comden and Adolph Green, for a stage show that would, nevertheless, be a sequel to the Donen-directed film version of their On the Town, up to and including reteaming Kelly with Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin.  I have no idea how they expected this to work, either narratively or logistically, and obviously it didn't.  Kelly told them that if he was going to do it, it was going to be a movie, and the plans to re-acquire Kelly's co-stars were scrapped, whereupon it stopped being an On the Town sequel as such.  This is probably for the best, yet you could call it a spiritual sequel, if you liked, Fair Weather beginning shortly after V-E Day, as three servicemen—Ted Riley (Kelly), Doug Hallerton (Dan Dailey), and Angie Valentine (Michael Kidd)—return home.  They're soldiers instead of sailors now, I guess, but the biggest difference is that this time they're all highly-trained dancers (Kidd was, himself, an accomplished choreographer).  And this is why it's amusing that all the secondary performances are significantly richer than On the Town's even when there is no dancing, whereas nothing distractingly bizarre (like Kelly's dream ballet with strangers dressed like his friends) must occur in order for there to be dancing of any complexity.

Ecstatic to be back in America together, the trio has a fun, dance-inflected bender across all the bars and grills of New York, ultimately winding up back where they started, at a tavern run by a man of their acquaintance, Tim (David Burns), who throws the cold water of truth in their faces as he asserts that soon they'll have all gone their separate ways, and probably won't ever see each other again.  They stridently disagree, and make Tim a wager: they shall reunite, in his very bar, ten years later to the day.  That decade passes in a montaged flash, as Doug abandons his artistic ambitions in exchange for reliable work in the ad industry, the better to support his wife, though now they don't even have the time for children or each other; Angie trades in his dreams of being a great chef for the proprietorship of a humble hamburger stand and for his own, more fertile family; and Ted, hailed by his best buddies as the great legal and political talent of his generation, doesn't even appear to try to achieve any goals.  Presently, he's a small-time operator in crooked boxing, reduced to borrowing pocket money from his barber.

Despite all this, they remember their old friendship with sufficient fondness that they make their appointment in 1955.  Sadly, they each soon realize that their friends have changed—and they have changed—so completely that not only do they no longer have anything in common, they kind of despise each other, not least because being around each other makes them despise themselves for not living up to the great expectations they once had.  They'd simply part ways after an awkward lunch, but in the process of trying to extricate himself, Doug introduces Ted to Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse), a woman in his sprawling media organization.  The three men's reunion gives her an idea on how to fill a half-hour on the television program she runs for proto-talk-show personality Madeline Bradville (Dolores Gray); and, after Ted's desperate bids for her attention fail, she turns right around on him, all sweetly-like, to embroil the trio in a plot to get them all on Madeline's show in order to replace the even lousier human-interest story her star had rejected.

Fair Weather has been called an unusually cynical musical, which suggests that the bar for cynicism is set much lower for a 50s film, since it's practically the opposite of that (Sining' In the Rain is surely as cynical about Hollywood as Fair Weather is about its satirical target, television).  But it is wistful, almost punishingly so, and spends an inordinate amount of time soaking in its heroes' realistic regrets.  (Or, more accurately, Ted and Doug's regrets.  As Angie has no real regrets, he doesn't really get to be in the movie, and part of the "mess" I mentioned is how obvious it is that Angie is getting pushed into the deep background while Doug and Ted's battles against mediocrity are diligently pursued, their third wheel coming out again only when they need him for a dance routine.)  Still, I suppose it captures as well as any light dramedy could (and by all means, Fair Weather is feather-light) the sense of mid-century ennui endured by a generation that beat Hitler yet were rewarded with languish.

Meanwhile, Charisse gets vastly more to do as Jackie than she did in Brigadoon, and while her character's arc isn't anything too terribly special (she's a career woman who—get this—nurses a secret desire to be loved), the character herself is an extraordinarily well-conceived version of the type, with her obvious competence balanced by fun comic traits, particularly a photographic memory that she personally isn't too impressed with.  Certainly, the initial phase of Ted's courtship represents much worse manners than one should be comfortable with, but it's presented as likeable-enough mid-50s sex farce (indeed, maybe just a touch ahead of its time), and quickly melts into one of the more sweetly plausible romances one's likely to find in movies that too often roughly shove their leads together because, hey, it's a musical; and when Jackie sees the stand-up guy that Ted could be, or at least could have been, one gets the feeling it's because she's such a good observer of human beings.  Likewise, when she realizes she likes him enough to be disappointed in him, it's tempered with self-awareness of her own compromises.

It's hard to say if Kelly's feelings on his own less-than-triumphant homecoming inform one of his better turns as an actor—but I'm sure there's at least an echo of it.   Either way, this keen (if somewhat self-absorbed) sense of yearning and lost potential is a constant undertow even in the silliest moments, and provides what might've been just another musical with genuine emotional depth and, at times, remarkable pathos, without going too overboard into melodrama.  As much as Kelly is the star, the movie gets wrested away from him frequently by Dailey, whose Doug is easily the most damaged and deadened of the three: he gets a solo number, "Situation-wise," a little more than halfway through, which plays pretty much as his full-on nervous breakdown, as he gets shitfaced drunk and begs to be fired from his soul-crushing job.  99 times out of 100, this scene would be utter cringe.  But here, it's just silly enough for us to still have fun with it.  (It concludes with him trying a trick he'd perfected on a smaller surface in the first act, snatching a tablecloth off without knocking anything over, except now he's doing it on a full dining table in a mansion; if some special effects trickery had managed to let him succeed, instead of just destroying the crystalware, I'd be tempted call this movie a magical realist masterpiece.)

But then, Fair Weather's problem is never what is in it (though both the media satire and the gangster film—oh, did I not mention that by the third act it's also a gangster film?—are maybe slightly undercooked).  No, the problem is what's not in it, and as enjoyable as Fair Weather is even when it's flailing around, one becomes faintly distressed by just how many opportunities it's missing, because it is some serious low-hanging fruit.  Reputedly, this was partly thanks to a toxic production environment: when Kelly ran with Fair Weather as a film, he roped in his old partner Donen to co-direct.  Why isn't clear to me—maybe Kelly felt he didn't have enough experience, maybe MGM required it—and, for his part, Donen had no desire to re-enter the shadow of the man who'd made him, now that he'd carved out his own career.  He did it anyway, and was proven right to be wary (the general consensus seems to be that despite Donen's presence, Kelly ran the set like a tyrant).  In one of those Hollywood ironies, by reuniting Kelly and Donen, this movie about old friendships ended its directors' forever.

But that only explains some of it; for example, Kelly's jealousy could explain why Kidd's solo number was cut from the final film.  (Then again, watching the scene, I can think of some alternative explanations, like "it's terrible"—yet one suspects a lot of Kidd's material got cut, as I couldn't hazard a guess as to how it was ever supposed to have been slotted into this story.)  Other omissions, however, are truly mystifying: this is the Kelly/Charisse movie that does not have a Kelly/Charisse number.  They did have one.  It too was cut, and I have no earthly idea why.  I believe there was even supposed to be another, never filmed but memorialized in an unused song, "I Thought They'd Never Leave," and I suspect this was written to serve as a proper ending to a wistful movie that is, yes, about friendships being repaired, but also being carefully put away.  And so Charisse, whose major talent, of course, was dancing and not character acting, no matter how well she acquits herself here, gets one single number, and Kelly is literally called out of the room for it to happen.

On the bright side, "Baby You Knock Me Out," involving Jackie impressing all the haggard fighters at Ted's gym with a combo of gams and an encyclopedic boxing knowledge, is fairly excellent, with a lot of three-dimensional staging around the ring itself—the way Charisse moves through the air is downright magical (as a 5'7" athlete, she could not have been that light)—yet it's still maybe the least of Fair Weather's full production numbers.  Consider the film's first showstopper, "The Binge," a delightful use of the CinemaScope photography that Kelly was forced to use despite his misgivings, allowing some splendid arrangements of the three leads as they leap and prance down the street across the narrow rectangle of the frame.  The highlight of the sequence, obviously, is the trash can tap they do, using the metal lids as a percussive instrument, and evidently this was, like, crazy dangerous, Kidd recounting that they if they'd missed just one step they'd have broken their ankles.

The film's most famous scene doesn't exactly look safe either, this being Kelly's "I Like Myself," where, as Ted decides to be a better man, he finds himself out on the city streets in roller skates, sliding and tapping out his joy to all the passersby.  It is blatantly patterned on "Singin' In the Rain," but it's terrifically unique anyway; and it forcefully competes with that sequence for the most adorable dance number Kelly ever performed.  There is, finally, Dolores Gray's "Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks," the closest thing Fair Weather has to a dream ballet-style formal break (oddly, as a TV performance, it is one of the few numbers that is fully diegetic).  Anyway, it's an interesting parody of Monroe's "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," though the "interesting" part is that it's kind of backwards, inasmuch as parodies don't typically make fun of things by making them squarer and more in-tune with normative morality.  Well, it still has fun set design.  It should be admitted that none of the Comden and Green songs that drive this musical are especially memorable (or even good), though having seen it twice in two weeks, I've found they've grown on me a bit.  Still, it isn't exactly a triumph that the film's best song is the best because it's "The Blue Danube," only now with funny lyrics.

That said, they're tremendously funny lyrics, supplemented with even more stylishly-funny visuals, and even without a single dance step, "I Shouldn't Have Come" is very much my favorite sequence in a film that, whether they were at each other's throats or not, Kelly and Donen direct the hell out of.  I tend to credit this particular bit more to Donen than to Kelly, because it really plays with the fundamental format rather than with choreography, but whoever's idea it was, it's an amazingly-well-built gag scene wherein every element works with machinelike precision: it's the moment that the three guys realize they might genuinely hate each other, and we are invited into their resentful inner monologues—accompanied by a narrowing of the 'Scope frame to a tiny, boxy closeup of each man's face as they make the most wonderfully cartoonish expressions of disgust—and, finally, their monologues start to overlap to the tune of the classical music playing at Doug's boring posh restaurant, each of them reaching a screaming climax of despair all at once.  Donen and Kelly even mirror this later on, with a much more sedate sequence, marrying the erstwhile pals in fuzzy splitscreen as they contemplate what jerks they've been, each doing a little soft-shoe in time with the rest, unaware that their rhythms are reflected in the friends they've abandoned.  This kind of playfulness is all over the place here, and for all that the film does spin out of control a little, and neglects to do some downright obligatory things, the things it does do are often clever and meaningful, driving home the more serious emotions lurking right underneath the goofy fantasy.  It's a lovely film, too, poppy and colorful—I haven't even had the chance to mention Helen Rose's uniformly smart costumes (Gray's purple-and-black dress is freaking beautiful)—but it's also bittersweet and thoughtful, in ways that walk a tightrope between silly laughs and middle-aged desperation, and in pulling off such a difficult balancing act, It's Always Fair Weather is all the more powerful for it.

Score: 8/10

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