What’s black and white and destroys Western Civilization?
It’s Always Fair Weather is not the last of the big fifties musicals, but perhaps it should have been. Betty Comden and Adolph Green had the idea of a “ten years after” take on their 1944 “three sailors in the Big Apple” Broadway hit On the Town, turned into a “smash” musical-comedy hit for MGM in 1949, starring Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin. The idea was to show what ten years of peacetime had done to the once carefree buddies. But in fact, the show was more about what ten years had done to Comden and Green, and, even more, what the cathode ray tube was doing to Broadway.
Comden and Green wanted to go the Broadway route with their new show, but Gene Kelly convinced them to take it straight to celluloid. Instead of Leonard Bernstein doing the music, they got André Previn. Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd were recruited to replace the “difficult” Frank Sinatra and the no longer popular Jules Munshin, with Cyd Charisse recruited to play the only real female lead, with the whole shebang to be shot in Cinemascope, the classiest of all the big-screen formats.
On the Town had been a huge hit for MGM, and the suits naturally expected more of the same. What they got was a remarkably dark film, all about aging, regret, deceit, and shattered dreams. Clearly, no one who knew from box office was watching the rushes. Despite the no-expense-spared format, instead of a big premiere, It’s Always Fair Weather was packaged as a double-feature with another un-MGM film, Bad Day at Black Rock, which examined the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II — in the suits’ eyes, apparently, a sort of double-bill for degenerates.
Gene Kelly was coming off a string of glossy, happy, successful musicals and presumably was ready for dark. Gene, though he obsessed over his image as “the boy next door” (the boy next door in skin-tight pants), liked playing dark. He got his first taste of fame on Broadway in perhaps the first “dark” musical ever — the first one to make money, at least — Pal Joey. In Les Girls (1957), he played a prick impresario (“Give me your best performance tonight, girls! Because I’m firing one of you afterwards!”) and in Inherit the Wind (1960) a Menckenesque atheist!
The film begins with, in effect, a flashback, the boys arriving in New York home from the wars, soldiers rather than sailors, for some reason, heading for their favorite bar and whooping it up in the stylized, pseudo-adolescent fashion that, according to forties/fifties Hollywood, was standard behavior for GIs. They vow eternal friendship and engage in a frenetic slapstick number, “The Binge.” This is the one in which the guys “dance” with garbage can lids on their feet — perhaps the least felicitous trope in Kelly’s entire oeuvre and which serves as a harbinger of unfortunate things to come.
In fact, Kelly’s choreography, as well as that supplied by co-director Stanley Donen, is consistently disappointing. We get a great deal of “bad Gene” — frantic, seemingly compulsive mugging, thrown desperately at the audience to conceal a painful lack of inspiration. And Previn’s score, and Comden and Green’s lyrics, don’t help. There isn’t a decent song, or a decent dance (almost), in the entire film.
Bad music, bad dancing, okay, this is not a happy way to start a musical. Ten years after, when the guys return, we see a not terribly clever montage showing us that life hasn’t been kind to any of them. Michael Kidd, dreaming of being a cordon bleu chef, runs a burger joint in Schenectady. Dan Dailey, expecting to paint masterpieces in Paris, works in an ad agency in Chicago. Kelly, supposedly destined for the Senate, is a “heel” — a two-bit gambler who finds himself in the fight business after winning some palooka’s contract in a crap game.1
Dailey is the first of the three to actually make it to Tim’s Bar, where he’s confronted by a painting he did, though Tim doesn’t recognize him or even remember the guy who gave him the painting in the first place. He stares briefly at this emblem of his lost hopes. Once he painted the truth; now he “creates” dancing mops on television, hawking “Klenzrite” to brainwashed housewives.2 But he can’t even savor that humiliation, because he’s got to make a phone call to his wife, who’s fixin’ to be his ex-wife, because he’s so focused on his career, always flying off to New York to hang with the home office bigshots and network execs.3
When Gene and Mike show up, it’s like old times, for about ten seconds, and then the ennui and disconnect set in. Fortunately, Dan has an idea. He’ll take the guys out to lunch at a fancy restaurant to show them what a success he’s been. It’ll be a real treat for them, and it won’t cost him a dime, because he can put it on his expense account. It’s easy to be generous when someone else is picking up the tab!
The restaurant Dan takes them to is so fancy it has a string quartet, playing the “Blue Danube” waltz, which is nice, because the boys’ conversation is halting at best. In a too-cute bit, the boys take turns singing “soliloquies” along the lines of “my buddies are jerks, are jerks! And I am a dope, a dope!” Mike starts whining about the food, which pisses Dan off. It’s a free meal, for Christ’s sake! Probably ten times as good as the slop you serve at your little joint in Schenectady!
Meanwhile, Cyd shows up, an elegant career gal, conducted by the maitre d’ to her “usual booth.” Gene, being a “heel,” flirts with her, to her intense irritation. Then Cyd’s “date” shows up, who turns out to be Dan’s boss, “Mr. Fielding” (perennial bigshot/lard butt Paul Maxey). Cyd is the program coordinator for TV’s biggest hit, Madeleine at Midnight, and it’s sponsored by Klenzrite!
Dailey’s trying to escape from his two loser buddies, but when his boss shows up, naturally he has to introduce them, and Fielding, who’s got a big heart to go along with his big belly, suggests that they all head out to the set, so the boys can watch a TV rehearsal! Dan’s not excited, but Mike’s glad to piss off Dan, and Gene’s glad to keep Cyd company. In fact, he manages to maneuver things so that he gets a little one-on-one with Cyd in a taxi on the way over to the TV studio. When it’s clear that Gene isn’t going to calm down anytime soon, Cyd plants a hot one right on his kisser, and then recites a few salient facts about Max Planck and the genesis of the theory of relativity, finishing things off with a quote from The Tempest, Act II, Scene VII, “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly.” Plus, she knows the record and measurements of the palooka that Gene is managing!4
It’s simple male psychology, Cyd explains, once Gene catches his breath. Men can’t stand a woman with intelligence. Show them a little brainpower, on any subject whatsoever, and they’ll run like scared rabbits. Which is just the way she likes it.
Gene is frustrated, though intrigued to meet someone whose view of human nature is as unromantic as his is. He tells Cyd that if she ever feels like a little feigning or folly, she can usually find him at Stillman’s Gym. Oh, and, by the way, that quote isn’t from Act II, Scene VII of The Tempest, it’s from Act II, Scene VII of As You Like It. Heigh-ho sing heigh ho unto the green holly!
Once Cyd gets rid of Gene, she has a real problem, in the form of TV diva/superstar Madeleine (Dolores Gray), whose show is an elaborate take-off on a variety of different early fifties boob-tube phenomena. Madeleine herself is clearly derivative of forgotten blonde bombshell Dagmar, though Gray probably got the part because she had a big mouth (literally) rather than a big bust.5 The frame for the show is that it takes place in a fancy supper club, with the audience seated at tables, who have to make sure the hidden cameras catch all the action, reminiscent of The Stork Club, which supposedly took you inside the famous nightclub in real time.
Cyd enters just as “rehearsal” is starting, with Madeleine belting out a big number, “Music Is Better Than Words” — a disappointment, like all the other tunes in the film. One has to feel particularly sorry for Gray. Like everyone else, she’s stuck with second-rate material, but unlike the others, she is also required to appear “vulgar” and insincere even while singing, constantly flashing a false, piano-key smile.6
Once she’s done singing, Madeleine comes to her “favorite” part of the show, “The Throb of Manhattan,” demonstrating that beneath, or among, those cold canyons of steel, the Big Apple has a big heart.7 A number of early live shows featured tear-jerking drama in the form of surprise reunions and other stunts pulled on unsuspecting “little people” in the audience,8 a shameless form of audience manipulation that Broadway sophisticates like Comden and Green clearly detested. Last week, Madeleine tells us, the show reunited a man with his wife and family after he spent thirty years in prison! What a reunion that was! This week, well, they’re going to send some poor schmuck on an all-expense tour of the Orient, something he’s dreamed of all his life, a trip he “earned” by spending sixteen years constructing a model of the Taj Mahal out of chewing-gum wrappers!
Sixteen years! Chewing-gum wrappers! Even Madeleine is gagging on this one, and Madeleine don’t gag easy. Let’s get something better, kids, or Mommy don’t go on tonight. Find a better story or find yourselves another bombshell.
Cyd and the others cower before Madeleine’s fury. This woman holds forty million viewers in the palm of her hand, and you better make her happy! Comden and Green lovingly caricatured showbiz egomania just a year earlier in the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse classic The Bandwagon , but that was Broadway ego. TV ego was a whole different breed.
Comden and Green sensed that TV was taking control of American popular culture away from the Great White Way. The way it was supposed to work, you came to New York, and if the right people liked you, you got the chance to make it big, and if you made it big, your name would make the great leap across the Hudson to the benighted masses, and you would become rich and famous. But however big you became, it all started on Broadway, and the Broadway first-nighters — the critics, the café crowd, and the penthouse folks — they were still the gatekeepers. They got the first look, and the first word, on everything that counted.
But TV trashed all that. Even though, in 1955, network TV was entirely located in the Big Apple, the Big Apple no longer counted. It was the folks across the Hudson who got the first look, the first word, and the last word, too. Broadway was no longer the fabulous invalid. Broadway was dead, and Comden and Green knew it. Which explains the venom directed at poor Madeleine, so vulgar, so gauche, so in your face, so not New York.
But vulgar or not, Madeleine has a point, not to mention a gun, pointed at the head of both the network and the sponsor. She’s so upset she threatens to go off her diet, terrifying Mr. Fielding. Fortunately, Cyd has an idea — “the foulest suggestion I’ve ever had, but it’s all for the greater glory of Klenzrite.” Those three war buddies who hadn’t seen each other for ten years — we’ll bring them together on “Throb of Manhattan” as a complete surprise. Our boys, blissfully reunited! Madeleine loves it, so it’s a deal. Fielding will handle Dailey, Madeleine will take care of Kidd, and Cyd will head on over to Stillman’s Gym.
Gene, of course, is delighted to see Cyd again. Dames are all alike! Cyd gets her one big production number, a “class meets palookas” routine that sticks her with a sad collection of aging chorus boys in sweatpants, a serious waste of her time and talent if not of theirs. Once the dance is done, Gene is naturally starting to feel frisky, a problem for Cyd. She has to keep him on a line until eleven, but he wants to leap in the boat right now!
There’s a minor complication along the way when Gene learns that his mug, Kid Mariacchi (Steve Mitchell), has thrown the fight, so that Gene has to switch all his bets around, but fortunately a couple of dozen phone calls handle that problem. Meanwhile, Fielding has his hands full with Dan, who’s growing increasingly dyspeptic on the subject of the advertising game. He wants to go back to Chicago, to try to pull together his failing marriage. To cheer him up, and to distract him, Fielding invites him to a fancy dinner party at his penthouse/mansion, the walls of which are unfortunately lined with great art. Humiliated by thoughts of what might have been, a well-lubricated Dailey spins out of control in an extended, and tediously heavy-handed number, “Situation-Wise,”9 ridiculing first advertising and then pretty much the entire goddamn lousy capitalist system before he’s done.
When he isn’t singing and dancing, Dailey is insulting Mrs. Fielding. Being rude to a fat old biddy, even if she’s rich, doesn’t strike me as particularly clever. Comden and Green deride both TV and advertising for failing to deliver witty, sophisticated entertainment, but then fall down on the job pretty dramatically themselves.
Meanwhile, Gene and Cyd are, of course, falling for each other and developing consciences, though of course Cyd can’t tell Gene everything. In the one clever bit in the whole film, Gene “explains” to Cyd that her problem is that she’s frigid (though he doesn’t use that term) and won’t let anyone get close to her emotionally. She thanks him for the two-bit analysis and then returns the favor, explaining his own fear of commitment — “Which was it? A short blonde or a tall brunette?” Gene sportingly acknowledges the hit: “That was no two-bit analysis, lady, that was my life.”
But in musicals, when people fall in love, they dance together, and Gene and Cyd never do, leaving a very serious hole in the film. Gene had a bit of a problem when it came to dancing with women. He never mastered the formula for the big romantic dance that was Fred Astaire’s trademark. The DVD for It’s Always Fair Weather has an outtake, sometimes with a soundtrack and sometimes without, of a discarded Gene/Cyd dance, “Love Is Just A Racket.” The lead in is Shakespeare’s “Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly,” which sounds promising. But Betty and Adolph really can’t keep up with Will, while Gene can’t think of anything for Cyd to do but some frenzied hoofing that lacks either femininity or romance. Seeing the outtake, one understands why it was dropped.
So Gene and Cyd don’t dance, but they do decide that Gene can’t be a party to a fix. They remedy the situation, supposedly, by beating Kid Mariacchi unconscious, so he can’t show up for a fight.10 In the real world, I would assume that a forfeit would be treated as a loss, but somehow in IAFW-land, if the fighter you bet against forfeits you lose, or at least you don’t win. So now the mob is after Gene. He sends Cyd away, since it’s not her fight, and ultimately escapes from the gang via roller skates, the one decent number in the film. Gene on skates is likely to be pretty good, and he is, but since the tune “I Like Myself” is not a biggie, and since the pleasure one feels from temporarily escaping from gangsters is not exactly comparable to the pleasure one feels from being in love, we’re a long way from “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Ultimately, Gene, Dan, and Mike are all assembled for their reunion live at “Madeleine at Midnight.” Gene refuses to fake sincerity, and confesses to the watching millions that the one good thing to come out of this reunion with two guys whom he used to love so much is that he has to confront the fact that he has wasted his life — an echo, perhaps, of Terry Malloy’s famous confession in On the Waterfront: “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contenda. Instead of a bum. Which is what I am.”
Horrified, Madeleine struggles with this unprecedented outburst of emotional honesty, but the show is further disrupted by the arrival of the gang of mobsters pursuing Gene. Cleverly, Gene goads the leader into confessing how he fixed the fight. Hidden cameras record the whole thing, so that his admission of guilt goes out to millions. This is followed by a tediously choreographed, and tediously prolonged donnybrook, during which dancing dudes Gene, Dan, and Michael all prove they’re pretty handy with their fists. After that, well, Dan goes back to his wife and Gene and Cyd are ready for wedding bells. Finis the film, and finis, say Comden and Green, is Broadway. All hail the Bitch Goddess TV!
Of course, Broadway wasn’t completely dead, as Comden and Green proved just a few years later, scoring a big hit first on the Street and then on the Screen with Bells Are Ringing, doing both the book and the lyrics, with Julie Styne doing the tunes. The show included two pretty serious standards, “Just In Time” and “The Party’s Over.” After that, well, they had to make peace with the Tube, even doing a script for The Monkees.11
Kelly wasn’t quite through with musicals either, turning out Invitation to the Dance (1956) and Les Girls (1957) before the combined impact of both rock n’ roll and TV crushed the old-fashioned big-screen musical altogether. Invitation to the Dance, supposedly “all dancng,” but in fact largely frenetic miming, is a serious disappointment. The first two segments, “The Clown,” which “borrows” heavily from both Chaplin’s The Circus and Marcel Carné‘s legendary Les enfants du paradis, and “Ring Around the Rosy,” a look at “the way we live now” (basically, “shallow”) are not terrible, but the third (and longest), “Sinbad the Sailor,” is terrible — lots and lots of Gene “dancing” with cartoon characters to no end.12 Fortunately, his last musical, Les Girls, was much better, thanks in large part to his three leading ladies, Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor, and Tiana Elg. Apparently, Gene finally realized that chicks are box office.
Cyd Charisse’s final musical was one of her best, Silk Stockings, which I’ve raved about (more or less) here.
- Gene’s “heel who finds redemption” character is heavily based on “Sky Masterson,” the male lead in Guys and Dolls. Kelly wanted very much to play Masterson, but MGM wouldn’t lend him to Goldwyn to do the film. Supposedly, MGM agreed to do It’s Always Fair Weather to make up for this. [↩]
- We never get to see a close-up of the painting — apparently, it’s some sort of night battle scene — probably because it’s not very good. Back in the day, I was always amazed at the cheesiness of the “art” featured in Hollywood films. [↩]
- Comden and Green never had to prostitute their talents, establishing themselves in show business in their early twenties, which makes it all the easier for them to throw a few dozen punches at the folks who “create” to sell rather than to enlighten and entertain. There were many novels and films in the forties and fifties that depicted the soul-destroying effects of life on Madison Avenue. Frederic Wakeman started the ball rolling in 1946 with his novel The Hucksters, portraying ad men as skirt-chasing, booze-swilling anti-Semites a full fifty years before Mad Men. Wakeman’s steamy potboiler was so hot that MGM paid $200,000 for the screen rights before the book was even published. The film version, out in 1947, starred Clark Gable, Deborah Kerr, and Ava Gardner, was not a box-office success, but is available now on DVD. Comden and Green may have also read Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, published in the same year that It’s Always Fair Weather was released. [↩]
- Cyd’s encyclopedic knowledge of boxing suggests that her character was based in part on the career of Dr. Joyce Brothers, who first rose to fame as a boxing expert on the famous/infamous TV quiz show the $64,000 Question. However, from what I’ve read, Brothers didn’t start appearing on the show until late 1955, which is when It’s Always Fair Weather was released. [↩]
- A big mouth and a big voice. Gray did little work in the movies, although It’s Always Fair Weather gave her an entrè into musicals that lasted a full two years, when Hollywood stopped making them. [↩]
- Presumably, movie audiences were not supposed to notice that Gene Kelly loved to show off his dentures as well. The impact of his greatest dance, the über-classic “Singin’ in the Rain,” is reduced by about 5 percent thanks to the frequent overhead shots of Kelly, head tilted upwards, with an immense grin on his face. Who choreographed this thing, his orthodontist? [↩]
- The aural “throb of Manhattan” is supplied by a stolid stagehand, holding a microphone to his heart. [↩]
- The show People Are Funny had a gimmick, probably originally developed for radio during World War II, that would reunite a couple in the audience with a son serving at some military base overseas, flown in and given a special three-day pass. [↩]
- Aka “Saturation-Wise.” Dailey uses both terms as samples of Mad Men lingo. [↩]
- Since the Kid agreed to throw the fight without even telling Gene, I guess he had it coming, but still, attacking him with no warning seems a bit tacky. [↩]
- I have no idea how this happened — probably some sort of in-joke or favor. [↩]
- He also dances briefly with a twelve-year-old boy, but never with a woman. [↩]