Balletic, stylized and rather aloof, MGM’s biggest musical for 1954 still has what musical lovers crave — good dancing, beautiful melodies and unabashed romantic sentiments. Savant has a bad tendency to fixate on the inconsistencies of its fantasy concept — in which God places an ideal Scottish village outside the limits of Time itself.
Warner Archive Collection
1954 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date September 26, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Cyd Charisse, Elaine Stewart, Barry Jones, Albert Sharpe, Virginia Bosler, Jimmy Thompson.
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor: Albert Akst
Original Music: Frederick Loewe
Screenplay, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
Produced by Arthur Freed
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
MGM underwent some severe cutbacks in 1953; most of its contract players were dropped including the majority of its proud roster of stars. The studio would have to adapt to a new kind of Hollywood, making separate deals for each picture just like the smallest companies in town. Just as budgets were being slashed, Arthur Freed’s unit proposed filming Brigadoon on location in Scotland, as its subject demanded. Not only did that not happen, the entire film ended up being shot on interior sound stages. It was also filmed in less-than-glorious Ansco Color: more economizing at work. Just the same, the film is impressively grandiose — with scores of gigantic indoor sets surrounded by those vast MGM cyclorama backings.
Brigadoon was one of the first MGM/UA DVDs released in 1997, when the company still distributed Turner product on home video. It has finally arrived on Blu-ray, a format that can give us a much better look at its wholly designed, studio created fantasy.
Adapted from the Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner Broadway hit, Brigadoon proposes a fanciful alternative to the Big City Rat Race. New York businessmen Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas (Gene Kelly & Van Johnson) become lost on a hunting trip in Scotland. A village called Brigadoon suddenly appears where no village should be. The two discover a perplexing bunch of villagers that behave as highlanders did two hundred years before. Tommy meets a local lassie named Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse) and falls in love. The truth of Brigadoon is finally offered by Mr. Lundie (Barry Jones), one of the elders: thanks to a bargain with God to keep the town untouched by the outside world, Brigadoon sleeps hidden for a hundred years between days, when its inhabitants awaken as if no time at all has passed. Its residents have experienced only two full days since 1754. Tommy needs to choose whether he wants to leave or stay with Fiona. But once a person becomes a citizen of Brigadoon they must forever remain within its narrow boundaries. Anyone who leaves will break the spell, and the village and its people will disappear forever.
Brigadoon has several pretty songs and a couple of fun dance numbers. The staging is elaborate, but the show doesn’t quite make it to the top tier of the MGM musical pantheon. The real stars are the studio artisans that mounted the immense scenic backdrops that MGM used as backgrounds for its CinemaScope movies. The film doesn’t seem to be taking place on a theater stage, nor does it attempt to be realistic. What it looks like is a giant museum diorama, the kind with painted backgrounds behind stuffed animals. Color-coordinated briars and heather are stuck around the ground like Easter decorations. It’s not artificial-fake, it’s artificial-claustrophobic, even with the cyclorama backgrounds.
The tone of the film is High Art, with the accompanying lofty emotions established and maintained through the balletic movements of Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly, even when they’re not dancing. Not every film of 1954 needed to pursue the new Brando mode of realism, but Brigadoon comes off as a bit formalist. Most of Frederick Loewe’s songs aim for romantic sentiments of the kind that exalt True Romance as a nearly impossible ideal. Only “Almost Like Being In Love” and “The Heather on the Hill” are melodic standouts. Gene Kelly is called on to mostly sing, his weakest talent, while the dances are tasteful but not particularly memorable. Only the “Go Home With Bonnie Jean” dance develops a communal sense of fun. Otherwise the film has the feel of a pageant.
The concept of Brigadoon, a magical destination for those tired of the chaos of modern life, is pure soft-boiled hooey. Anybody looking for the roots of White Flight might find that the play touches the same ‘retreat to the safe past’ sentiment. The wish to ignore the rest of the world and make one’s ‘perfect’ neighborhood last forever is a weakly disguised isolationist-reactionary fantasy. It fits the complacent 1950s just as Lost Horizon’s escapist colonial fantasy was a predictable response to the fears of 1933: rather than deal with modern reality, the heroes of these stories prefer to run away to a dream world.
A Scot of 1754 is supposed to have made a deal with God to initiate the miracle, yet the storybook-pure Brigadoon isn’t shown to have any Christian influence. Brigadoon has existed for only two days in this isolated state and already it has a dissident. The unhappy jilted suitor Harry Beaton (ballet dancer Hugh Laing) agonizes about being stuck in an enclosed world that holds no future for him. The rest of Brigadoon, even Harry’s own kin, appear to be in denial. Everybody’s happy, so Harry must be the problem. Frankly, we sympathize with Harry’s anxiety. Jerry Lee Lewis could dedicate a song to what everybody’s thinking about the hamlet of Brigadoon: there’s got to be “a whole lotta in-breedin’ going on.”
Alan Jay Lerner takes his fantasy seriously, and the theme that Love conquers Time was apparently the right message to make the show a Broadway hit in 1947. I’m afraid that I interpret Alan Jay Lerner’s fantasy as anything but whimsical. When Harry Beaton tries to escape, Brigadoon suddenly resembles Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A malcontent that cannot conform is dangerous and must be restrained. A convenient accident resolves the issue.
Brigadoon is the kind of romantic fantasy that’s supposed to be appreciated for its charms and not examined too closely, and on those terms it won’t disappoint. Comic relief is provided via a funny sidekick, who models the cynicism the hero wishes to leave behind. Serving as a substitute Oscar Levant, Van Johnson’s main purpose is to provide a bad example and deflate Gene’s romantic mood.
Brigadoon is not about the afterlife, exactly, but it probably does qualify as a Film Blanc. As is typical of Entitlement Fantasies of the Convenient Kind, unalterable fantasy rules yield to true love, especially when above-the-title talent is involved. Just as in Lost Horizon, the hero finds paradise, loses it and returns to search for it again. Kelly should have to wait 99 years and eight months for Brigadoon to re-emerge from the mist, but the magical town leaps back to life just for him. It’s kind of like God telling Adam and Eve, “Come back to the garden, I was just kidding.”
My wicked self cannot resist examining the Brigadoon concept more closely. Wouldn’t allowing Kelly’s Tommy Albright into the community defeat the purpose for which Brigadoon was created in the first place, contaminating the magic town with modern ideas and knowledge? When he sees that Brigadoon’s customs, superstitions, and scientific and medical state are mired in the Dark Ages, is modern-man Kelly really going to keep silent about things like basic hygiene and nutrition?
Typical of the loose ends that are left dangling, Van Johnson’s Jeff is abandoned at the edge of Brigadoon without comment, or even a close-up to tell us his state of mind. Knowing that the doubting cynic has witnessed a real miracle, wouldn’t Jeff’s change of heart be just as interesting as that of the Gene Kelly character?
I have a hard time believing that nobody pegged the story as a re-thinking of Lost Horizon, even though it is ostensibly based on much older folk tales. Brigadoon’s theme is really no more resonant than ‘stop the world I want to get off.’ The unyielding, cruel spirit of Brigadoon won’t let poor Harry Beaton pursue his dream, but Tommy’s personal love life is important enough to void the laws of Heaven and Earth. An obvious solution to this gross unfairness would also erase the direct parallel to Lost Horizon. How about an ending in which American Tommy Albright and Brigadoonite Harry Beaton switch places? Each would get what he wants: Tommy could have his 18th century farm girl and a life without plumbing or modern medicine. Harry could travel through time 200 years into the future, and take Tommy’s place on the dance cards of all those spoiled Manhattan babes. Perfect.
Gene Kelly is smooth, sweet and perhaps too fond of his ballet-like poses. Cyd Charisse moves as gracefully as one could imagine. But neither are particularly warm-blooded personalities, so most of the chemistry generated comes through the romantic melodies of the Lerner/Lowe songs. Their poetic pas de deux is often quoted in highlight montages, but it doesn’t have nearly the emotional impact of the corresponding Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse romantic dance in The Band Wagon.
Van Johnson is hemmed in by a part that makes him simply unlikeable. Barry Jones (the rogue nuclear scientist in the tense thriller Seven Days to Noon) does little more than dispense information, and assure our lovers that everything works out for the best. Our favorite Leprechaun Albert Sharpe adds a few bright moments. The rather important character of Harry Beaton is simply not showcased, giving dancer Hugh Laing little opportunity to make an impression. Even when he must run for his life, Brigadoon’s dissenter is more or less ignored to death.
The featured dancers Jimmy Thompson and Virginia Bosler highlight a couple of Scots-inflected large-scale dance numbers, choreographed by Gene Kelly. Barrie Chase is one of the Brigadoon maidens, and George Chakiris is said to be one of the dancers. Unbilled in the cast are Madge Blake (from TV’s Batman) as a town baker. Stuart Whitman pops up for a second in the crowded New York bar, as does Peter Hansen When Worlds Collide. In for one thankless scene is Elaine Stewart (The Most Dangerous Man Alive) as Kelly’s unwanted fianceé back in Manhattan. To make Brigadoon seem an attractive place to spend eternity, this noisy bar full of phonies is the only outside reality that director Minnelli dares show us. We’d prefer living almost anywhere to a place that looks like an ant farm for people.
Vincente Minnelli, always the art director, performs technical feats to deliver the fantasy in as poetic a manner as he can. This is an early CinemaScope picture and Minnelli uses his crane quite well, especially during the lovers’ emotional sprint up that hill with the heather on top. There’s also plenty of rapid camera movement through the countryside during the midnight search for poor Harry Beaton. But many scenes seem static anyway, such as the meeting of the clans amid some old ruins.
Shouldn’t some ambitious critic compare the ‘meeting of the clans’ with a similar scene in Kobayashi’s stylized horror epic Kwaidan? Technically speaking, both the Scot and Shogunate feudal clans are ghosts, and both are surrounded by artificial art direction. The effect in the Japanese movie is static horror, not nostalgic charm. Kobayashi would surely interpret Tommy Albright’s ambition as a Death Wish.
We’re told that, just as with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Brigadoon was filmed simultaneously in both CinemaScope and in flat 1:75. MGM wanted product for theaters that couldn’t convert and was also hedging its bet in case Fox’s new anamorphic system did a belly flop. In the Turner docu When the Lion Roared Van Johnson told of making the argument that because he had to film everything twice for two different versions, they were two different movies and he should be paid twice. That idea didn’t go over very well.
Not long after this, Frank Sinatra showed up to film Carousel and found out that Fox wanted him to perform his role twice, one for a 35mm ‘scope camera and another time for a Camera 55mm version. He quit the show outright, leaving Fox with a stack of playback recordings for all his songs, which could not be used.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Brigadoon is mostly redeemed through a careful new HD transfer. It was filmed in Ansco Color, a process derived from German Agfacolor (which also provided the basis for Sovocolor). The colors are a bit muted and (to my eye) skewed toward browns; red lipstick can stick out rather rudely. Yet MGM’s Lust for Life was filmed in Ansco Color and printed in Metrocolor, and looks brilliant.
Director Minnelli stays so consistently with wide shots in Brigadoon that even in the good 2005 DVD it was difficult to read many faces. That problem vanishes in Blu-ray, allowing us see who’s who in group shots and to better appreciate the dressing of those enormous interior-exterior sets. The colors are also more consistent. The lossless 5.1 audio presents Conrad Salinger’s orchestrations (and new compositions) beautifully. If you just like the high quality MGM approach to musicals (this is from the Arthur Freed unit), this disc will be a delight.
The extras repeat from the older DVD. An audio outtake is presented for a song called “There But for You Go I.” We see three musical outtakes, the songs “Come to Me Bend to Me”, “From This Day On” and “Sword Dance.” That last number gives us an opportunity to see more of Hugh Laing’s dancing talent. He resembles a more rugged Timothy Dalton. An original trailer is present too.
Warners released the alternate flat version of Seven Brides on DVD; I wonder if the corresponding Brigadoon flat version even exists.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Supplements: 3 Outtake musical numbers, one outtake audio track; trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 21, 2017
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson