When MGM was almost a ghost town, the Arthur Freed unit hit one last ‘special’ factory musical out of the park with this strangely melancholy ode to faded ambitions. Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd put in great, memorable work, while the glorious Dolores Gray is practically a living Tex Avery cartoon. And it’s designed in wide, wide CinemaScope.
It’s Always Fair Weather
Warner Archive Collection
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date November, 2016 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, Cyd Charisse, Dolores Gray, Michael Kidd
Cinematography Robert Bronner
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons, Arthur Lonergan
Film Editor Adrienne Fazan
Original Music André Previn
Written by Betty Comden & Adolph Green
Produced by Arthur Freed, Roger Edens
Directed & Choreographed by Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly
Back in the late 1980s, I first became aware of the future of home video when Criterion introduced a line of laserdiscs that proudly boasted a new feature: letterboxing that preserved the original aspect ratio of ‘scope and widescreen movies. Aspect ration interested me; I confess that I once or twice taped cardboard to my old Sony TV, masking off areas of the frame to matte movies being shown flat. Criterion offered discs of Forbidden Planet, Zulu and Invasion of the Body Snatchers with ribbon-like images not seen before on television screens. For an MGM musical they chose the all but forgotten 1955 It’s Always Fair Weather. Here was a movie that wasn’t even worth bothering to watch in a pan-scanned version. I rented the disc more to see the letterboxing than the movie itself, and was immediately hooked. The entire movie seemed an experiment on how to use the ‘Scope frame, and some satirical scenes were like a live action Tex Avery Cartoon.
It’s Always Fair Weather might be better called “Always unfairly overlooked.” For outright entertainment value it’s one of the better MGM musicals, period. Many viewers are still baffled by some of MGM’s ideas of taste and culture, such as the formula “Esther Williams + Technicolor = Art.” But they might be pleasantly surprised to find a comedy musical that attempts a more serious theme. Fair Weather has been called a cynical and depressing downer, but I think the reasons for its lack of success were much simpler than that. The film probably had a tough time fitting into 1955 movie-going habits because its “Rah-rah” ad campaign was just too bland … I mean, the best Ad art available, even for the disc cover, is just pitiful. The three stars just spread their arms wide, like umbrellas. Add some nails and they would look as if they’d been crucified.
It’s Always Fair Weather is a total screen original, which makes it more of a gamble than most of MGM’s big musicals — it’s not adapted from Broadway or an older catalogue of hit tunes. As with Singin’ in the Rain, the story is just as important as the songs, some of which admittedly take a few viewings to stick in one’s memory. The film is less cuddly and more satirical than Singin’, and its observations about disillusioned ex-soldiers are well thought out. It also directly criticizes commercial culture. Not many mainstream 1955 entertainments do that.
G.I.’s Ted Riley, Doug Hallerton and Angie Valentine (Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd) return from Europe at the war’s close, and make a pact to reunite at Tim’s Bar and Grill in ten years — October 11, 1955. All three show, but their reunion is a flop. Doug wanted to paint, but he’s become an unhappy advertising man and his marriage is in bad shape because of his drinking. He looks down on Angie, the happy owner of a hamburger stand, who now has a wife and family. Both of them are surprised to find that the brightest and most ambitious of the three, Ted, has become a cheap gambler and boxing promoter. Ted disillusion fades when he meets Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse), another advertising person. She works as a production aide on the live TV show Midnight With Madeline, starring the stunningly insincere Madeline Bradville (Dolores Gray), a flashy blonde with a huge show-biz smile.
We’re told that It’s Always Fair Weather was not a happy production, that co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen fought like dogs on the set. As veterans of MGM, they must have been depressed by the downsizing on the lot. With most actors no longer under contract every show was an expensive undertaking, a new roll of the dice. Organized as a factory, the studio was running at a fraction of its capacity. The show was in production just as MGM was ramping up an image campaign, with promos and a TV show pushing the illusion that the studio was doing better than ever. In reality, the Culver City studio was almost in mothballs.
You can’t tell it by watching the movie. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were originally inspired to revisit their hit On the Town, carrying forth the story of that film’s three exuberant sailors. They instead suggested a bigger idea than just boy meets girl. Structurally, Fair Weather is not unlike the second half of Into the Woods, where the fairy tale characters have achieved their short-term goals, but now must deal with real-life issues. Ten years after swearing that they’d always be pals, the trio of soldiers now seems completely incompatible. Artistic Doug Hallerton never went to Europe to paint; he hates himself for being an auteur of cheap commercials, designing animated-mop characters to sell ‘Klenzrite’ detergent. A pending divorce and an ulcer gnaw at his insides. Ted Riley has become not a ‘great man of the people’ but a small-time hustler. Artie Valentine opted for a big family and a modest living running a hamburger stand. He’s the only one satisfied in his work, but his manners are unrefined and the other two consider him a hick.
The show opens with the trio going on a big Manhattan drunk in 1945, playing games with taxicabs and dancing with trash can lids on their feet. None of roughhouse dancing in these scenes looks easy, a pattern that that continues through all of the musical numbers. Only a couple of numbers involve people just standing and singing, and several pose conceptual challenges. If there’s not some complicated matching-action optical happening, then the actors are shown singing, acting, and doing difficult action all at the same time, in long, unbroken cuts.
In 1955 the bars are jammed, but nobody looks happy. Doug keeps feeding his ulcer alcohol and cigarette smoke. The boys can’t eat their celebratory lunch, and mentally criticize one another (“a snob / a hick / a hood”) to the tune of the Strauss waltz The Blue Danube. Their misery is compounded when their reunion is made public on the garish Midnight with Madeline live TV show, hosted by the incredibly insincere Madeline (Dolores Gray). This proto- reality TV variety show pretends to perform a public service, but is completely dedicated to awful commercials and self-promotion for its glamorous but air-headed hostess. Madeline doesn’t care what her viewers love or hate, “…as long as you love — ME!”
More than a predictable Hollywood jab at TV, the show is the perfect vessel for Comden and Green’s satirical attack on the whole 1950s ‘glitz’ mentality. Singer Madeline is reminiscent of Dinah Shore, but her every word drips with phony sentiment. Her smile is voracious, like a shark’s. She plays her big number, “Thanks a Lot but No Thanks” as broadly as a Tex Avery Cartoon. Various suitors tumble into the frame offering fabulous gifts; she kills them all Wile E. Coyote style, with guns, trap doors and dynamite.
Midnight with Madeline also connects with our three leading characters. Failed artist Doug Hallerton is made sick by the show’s built-in commercials and cultural pretensions. Leggy chorines dance, their bodies covered by big boxes of Klenzrite soap. A creepy, unctuous announcer (Frank Nelson, hilariously oily) brings Madeline on stage like Liberace, singing an annoying Klenzrite jingle to another classical tune. At one point Doug stares into the TV camera, and calls his association with the show “the fitting end to a life of degradation.”
Madeline tries to peg Angie as ‘one of a vast army of little gray men,’ the workaday slobs that make society go. The supposedly uncouth Angie refuses her condescending attitude politely but firmly. Ted responds to Madeleine’s hollow praise by admitting to the world that he’s mixed up with a bunch of shady gangsters and unqualified to be a role model: “Don’t be like me, kids,”
Ted eventually sees an escape from depression via the love of Jackie Leighton, a representative of the ‘educated female’ so feared in mainstream ’50s culture. Ted respects Jackie enough to want to reform for her. The plot comes to a head with an effective early use of the clever “live TV” gag of tricking a criminal (crooked boxing promoter J. C. Flippen) into blabbing his crimes on the air. If one wants to psychoanalyze the film even further, it’s curious to note that the malaise affecting our three ex-warriors is only banished through more good-vs.-evil violence, in a televised brawl with the gangster thugs. Naturally, the opportunist Madeline gleefully steps in to use the fight as one of her Midnight with Madeline exclusives (para): ” … and gambling racketeer Charlie Culloran has just made a confession that will probably put him behind bars for forty or fifty YEARS!”
The musical numbers contain some great highlights. Although Cyd Charisse doesn’t dance with Gene — an omission to be regretted after their pairing in Singin’ in the Rain — her “Baby, You Knock Me Out” with a gymnasium full of boxers is a terrific number. It’s designed along ’50s graphic lines — flat perspective, like a mural. Although dancers get involved for the really difficult stuff, Kelly rehearsed a bunch of broken-nosed and cauliflower-ear types to participate in the opening dance moves. It’s a full roster of standard ugly-mug extras, led by the diminutive Lou Lubin (Irving August in The Seventh Victim) as Lefty Louie, a gym trainer.
This may be Dan Dailey’s best film. His solo number requires him to act drunk, trash a fancy room and dance with a lampshade on his head, and he actually gets away with it. All of the dances in Fair Weather are demanding, but Kelly saves the toughest for himself. When Ted Riley foils the gangsters and rediscovers that, “I Like Myself,” he does an entire routine on roller skates … tapping, dancing and gliding on MGM’s exterior New York set. It all looks too easy — we can imagine that even Kelly must have taken a nasty fall or two.
Fair Weather finishes on a subdued note, with a reprise of the friends’ “The Time has Come for Parting” song. Angie and Doug are returning to their wives while Ted has found Jackie. Their televised military victory has made them feel good about themselves again. But this time when they part, no plans are made for a future reunion — it’s as if they know that they just aren’t natural friends anymore. Comedy writers Comden and Green really put some thought into this story.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of It’s Always Fair Weather reproduces the presentation of WB’s 2006 DVD, with the feature arrayed in the full early 2:55 aspect ratio, and the audio track remixed to 5.1.
As with most Warners reissues, the extras lineup reproduces what was on earlier editions. A featurette from Going Out on a High Note is surprisingly critical of the film, indicating how it’s always suffered by comparison with earlier ‘classics’ and its status marking the end of the road for the MGM musical tradition. I suppose that’s true: although audiences never stopped liking musicals, 1955 was the big year of the independently produced mega-musical Oklahoma!.
The TV promos I describe above are included as well — two B&W MGM TV show clips with Charisse and Kelly. We also see some daily outtakes from “The Binge” (the trash can dance), an audio outtake from an unused musical number, and dailies from two deleted numbers, including Michael Kidd’s elaborate “Jack and the Space Giants” number. The trailer is included as well … it seems awfully old-fashioned for 1955 audiences.
The presentation also has two MGM cartoons from 1955, that appear to be remastered in HD. Deputy Droopy is a Tex Avery short that reminds us that we’re still waiting for a full Blu-ray Avery collection. Good Will Toward Men is a CinemaScope remake of a 1939 cartoon called Peace on Earth that Savant reviewed when it turned up on the DVD for A Christmas Carol. The grim message of the older cartoon, released for Christmas just as Europe was engulfed by war, is that continued conventional fighting will make mankind extinct. This time around the apocalyptic analogy is literal … the cute little animals have inherited the Earth because humans have been eliminated by a (frighteningly pictured) nuclear war. The cartoon’s anthropomorphic tricks are a little inconsistent — the mice, squirrels and Owl don’t know what the Bible is, but they say ‘Merry Christmas’ to one another and congregate in a church to sing Christmas Carols. Hanna & Barbera, the makers of the Oscar-Nominated cartoon, also skirt the fact that any nuclear holocaust that would eradicate humans would also take out most cuddly animals… although we might think that rats and mice could adapt to most anything.
The two cartoons really do complement the main feature: one mirrors the cartoonish overall design, and the other amplifies the kind of ’50s angst that preys upon our three disillusioned heroes. What a strange decade — imagine, the people who gave us Tom & Jerry made a pacifist MGM cartoon in CinemaScope and color, at the height of the Cold War.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It’s Always Fair Weather Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Featurette It’s Always Fair Weather: Going Out on a High Note, 3 outtake musical numbers: “The Binge/Trashcan Dance” (alternate takes), “Jack and the Space Giants” (with Michael Kidd) and “Love Is Nothing but a Racket” (with Gene Kelly & Cyd Charisse); Two segments from “The MGM Parade” featuring Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly; MGM cartoons: Deputy Droopy and Good Will to Men; Audio-only bonus: “I Thought They’d Never Leave” outtake featuring Dolores Gray’s unused vocal; Trailer.
YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 6, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson