“Shot in earthbound Eastman color, It’s Always Fair Weather doesn’t look or feel like the Technicolor froth that preceded it.”
There’s a scene in the 1949 musical On the Town when Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin greet their friend and fellow sailor, Gene Kelly, with such enthusiasm after being separated for a scant few hours that it leads onlooker Ann Miller to comment, “You’d think they hadn’t seen each other in twelve years.” By 1955, On the Town‘s writing team Betty Comden and Adolph Green conceived of a sequel of sorts for their upbeat day-in-New-York musical, one that would answer the question of how three military buddies would actually react upon meeting each other after years of separation. The resulting film was the cynical and engaging It’s Always Fair Weather, which marked the third and final pairing of co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, whose previous efforts (first On the Town and then Singin’ in the Rain) have become legend.
The film’s unique cynicism reflects the unhappy milieu from which it sprang. In the intervening years between On the Town, or even Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s Always Fair Weather, a great deal had changed. The popularity of movie musicals and the powers of the major studios were waning. The MGM machine was running out of gas, and budgets were being slashed. The studios were also terrified of the emergence of television, a fact reflected in It’s Always Fair Weather‘s satirical swipes at the new medium and its gaping Cinemascope aspect ratio (Cinemascope being one in any number of gimmicks the studios employed in the hopes of outdoing TV). By this time, Kelly had also suffered a great disappointment after decamping to Europe to direct his dream project, a risky all-dance film, only to see MGM shelve it unfinished (that film, Invitation to the Dance would be quietly released in truncated form in 1956). Donen, meanwhile, was reluctant to team with Kelly again, having by now struck out on his own with successful films like Royal Wedding. Conditions on the set were tense by all accounts, and Kelly and Donen’s partnership and friendship seem to have permanently ended with this production.
Intentionally or no, that malaise carries over into the film itself. Shot in earthbound Eastman color, It’s Always Fair Weather doesn’t look or feel like the Technicolor froth that preceded it. It lacks any of those big dream ballets that Kelly’s films are often building towards, and feels altogether less whimsical, loaded as it is with broken friendships and dashed dreams.
As MGM deemed it impossible or at least impractical for Munshin and Sinatra to appear in the semi-sequel to their previous hit musical, dancer Dan Dailey and choreographer Michael Kidd (with Kelly and Donen on set) in one of his few film appearances were cast opposite Kelly. It’s Always Fair Weather also trades gobs for dogfaces, reuniting three WWII soldiers, not sailors, ten years after they make a pact to meet again in their favorite New York bar. Kelly stars as Ted Riley, a small-time gambler and boxing promoter who once seemed poised to make his name in politics or law. Dailey plays Doug Hallerton, a would-be painter turned adman who unconvincingly insists, “I don’t miss la vie boheme one bit,” and Kidd is Angie Valentine, who dreamed of being a master chef and now tries to class up his hamburger joint in New Jersey by giving it the hoity-toity name The Cordon Bleu.
Where On the Town brings to mind perky, inseparable young sailors, each with a bright smile and a lovely lady to dance with, the grownup characters in It’s Always Fair Weather are defined by their disappointment and alienation. Ted, Doug, and Angie dance together early on in an impressive bit called “The Binge” that employs trashcan lids, but even the premise of this number has a certain bitterness: the returning soldiers get drunk out of their minds after Ted discovers that his sweetheart didn’t wait for him. Upon meeting again, each of the three men individually regrets showing up to meet the others, and mentally improvises insulting lyrics to strains of the “Blue Danube Waltz” instead of singing with his friends (Sample lyric: “Old pals are the bunk/This guy’s a cheap punk/And that one’s a heel/And I’m a schlemiel”). Later on Kelly and Donen devise a split screen that captures Kelly, Dailey, and Kidd all performing the same dance number in perfect synchronization, each alone, and in different rooms. And while the film offers us one final pairing of Gene Kelly with love interest Cyd Charisse, Dailey and Kidd’s wives are only faraway voices on the telephone, and even Kelly and Charisse fail to share a pas-de-deux (their not-overly-romantic duet “Love is Nothing But a Racket” was cut from the final release).
Yet I don’t mean to suggest that It’s Always Fair Weather is in any way a joyless endeavor. Comden and Green’s wit is intact, and their compassion for their characters allows us to view them with both humor and a bit of cautious optimism. Along with the great dancing by the male leads, Charisse gets a chance to show off her famous gams while surrounded by a chorus of authentic-looking boxers in “Baby You Knock Me Out.” Stage actress Dolores Gray has a ball as the condescending TV hostess Madeline, who gets to sing the one lyric you are most likely to remember from the film: “I’ve got a guy who’s Clifton Webb and Marlon Brando combined,” in the amusingly odd number “Thanks But No Thanks.”
And Kelly gets a solo.
Actually, Kelly gets one of his very best solos. With roller-skates strapped to his feet for reasons that don’t matter all that much, Kelly’s Ted realizes that he is loved, and he is in love, and for that reason, he can stop hating himself. The revelation leads him to sing the infectious Comden and Green/Andre Previn tune “I Like Myself” and dance blissfully. Kelly taps in the skates as if it were the natural thing to do, then he immediately glides for a few feet in one single long take, just to prove that these aren’t trick skates, and that there aren’t any camera tricks either. It’s just grace and athleticism, pure and simple, and it’s exactly the type of moment that one watches musicals for. Coming at a time when the genre was on the cusp of extinction (or at least landing a spot on the endangered list), and from a formerly embittered character like Ted, the number feels like a twofold miracle.
It’s a shame then, that It’s Always Fair Weather is relatively unknown, having received paltry distribution upon its initial theatrical release and later desecrated by a pan-and-scan transfer to VHS that destroyed the effect of the co-directors’ fanatical filling of their Cinemascope screen. A new DVD release from Warner Brothers goes a ways towards righting the wrong. It restores the theatrical aspect ratio and also provides fans with some extras. Included is a featurette (albeit one mainly stitched together from archival interviews), deleted numbers, and a segment from MGM Parade in which MGM star (and future California Senator) George Murphy offers us this gem: “Well I suppose all the children in the neighborhood will be trying to learn to do a tap-dance on roller-skates. Mom and Dad, don’t you be too quick to stop them because it’s good fun and it’s good exercise, and I never heard of a juvenile delinquent on roller-skates, did you?” Thank you Mr. Senator.