The Forecast Is Unsettling in 'It's Always Fair Weather'
Not all musicals present a slap-happy world.
It's Always Fair WeatherDirector: Gene Kelly, Stanley Donen
Cast: Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse
Distributor: Warner Archive
Release date: 2016-11-22
A musical drama about postwar malaise? That's what director-choreographers Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, producer Arthur Freed, and writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green chose to follow up their stunning success of On the Town (1949), only now with three ex-infantrymen in New York instead of three sailors. The result is an unusual widescreen MGM musical that's kind of a downer, albeit a spectacular one. This box-office disappointment has worn very well, partly because of its maturity, and that too is why it's not the usual feel-good musical.
The first reel uses montage to establish that three buddies have survived WWII together and arrived at a favorite watering hole in New York for their discharge to civilian life. The first sour note is struck when Ted Riley (Gene Kelly) gets a "Dear John" letter from his girlfriend. His buddies, tall Doug Hallerton (Dan Dailey) and short Angie Valentine (Michael Kidd, after choreographing Seven Brides for Seven Brothers the previous year), join him on a bender all over New York, during which they perform a stunning dance while each wearing trash can lids on one foot. It's the kind of routine made for Cinemascope, and certain shots and dance moves foreshadow West Side Story (1961).
Then they vow to meet again at the same bar in exactly ten years. One split-screen montage later, and they're all disappointed men who never quite achieved their glorious dreams. Reuniting awkwardly, they quickly realize they've become so different they don't even like each other anymore. They are the opposite of "fair weather friends", since they were inseparable buddies during the worst of war and have cast themselves adrift in postwar prosperity. They separately perform an "internal" song expressing their dislike of each other, and later they perform a matching split-screen dance, also separately.
Hallerton, who'd dreamed of going to Europe to become an artist (because nobody paints in the US?), settled for being a commercial artist in advertising. This is depicted as a soul-killing if profitable sell-out, as per items like The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a bestselling novel of the same year. Such was the common take on the era's "ad man", seen as purveying drivel with jingles and cartoons on asinine TV shows, like the one hosted by the glamorous, shiny, annoying Madeline (Dolores Gray) as a cross between a variety show and This Is Your Life. For his sins of becoming a boring success, Hallerton's wife threatens to divorce him.
Angie runs his own burger joint, but he's bothered that it's not the upscale restaurant of which he'd dreamed, and meanwhile he has many mouths to feed. The worst disappointment is Ted Riley, who has frittered the decade on nothing much and now manages a promising boxer without realizing he's a patsy for the fight syndicate. He's a shallow, womanizing spendthrift who's gone nowhere.
They meet a smart, high-fashioned, successful modern woman who's doing exactly what she wants in the advertising world, Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse). She knows how to brush off guys like Ted; conveniently, it's by kissing him right away in order to scare him off, and then dazzling him with her memory for trivia. This attitude of "male initiative" is guaranteed to put the ice on men. However, since the story requires them to fall in love after they lower their brittle masks, she's also required to admit that she's been disappointed in love.
In ironic refusal of its title, It's Always Fair Weather is a moody movie that takes the temperature of "the American Dream" and finds it lukewarm at best, dominated by money, "the fix" and the phoniness of that new plague, television. In the course of 24 hours, the characters will be reconciled or rejuvenated, and it's going to happen via this new medium of live TV broadcasting, in between the plugs for detergent.
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As an urban study of maturity and disenchantment, it harks back to Pal Joey, the 1940 Broadway musical on which Kelly and Donen first worked together, and which was so advanced that a bowdlerized film version wasn't made until two years after It's Always Fair Weather.
Michael Kidd, Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey in It's Always Fair Weather
Punctuating the characters' ennui is -- we'll say it again -- a series of spectacular numbers. Aside from the trash can lids dance, we get a typically leggy show-stopper from Charisse in which she's surrounded by lugs in a boxing gym. We get Gray pulling off a colorful bit of nonsense surrounded by acrobatic chorus boys -- whom she shoots! Here's another vision of the independent successful woman who threatens the nation of manhood. Most astoundingly, we get Kelly tapping through the streets on roller skates, applauded by admiring bystanders. This jaw-dropping scene is truly one for the time capsule.
What we don't get, surprisingly, is a dance between Kelly and Charisse. In fact, they shot one, and it's included among outtakes without dialogue. Set in a costume store, the scene is okay without being sublime or show-stopping. Omitting it was the right decision, especially since the movie evolves their relationship credibly without it, and also without contrived misunderstandings or dumbing Jackie down.
Another justified cut is Kidd's solo number in a kitchen with kids, for it has no clear place in the story and consists of little but jumping with food. Thankfully, we can judge for ourselves, since people in the making-of discuss its omission as some egocentric ploy by Kelly against the wishes of Donen. If they disagreed, we must say Kelly made the right call.
Other bonuses on this Blu-ray, which upgrades the contents of a previous DVD release, are two promotional pieces that aired on an MGM promotional TV series, the studio's first step to co-opting the demon competitor. We also get a Droopy cartoon co-directed by Tex Avery, and a widescreen Christmas-themed cartoon, directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, in which mice in the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral recall how humanity wiped itself out with atom bombs. Plenty of heavy weather in that one, too.