Image from legs.free.fr
The word "sour" is often used to describe It's Always Fair Weather, the 1955 MGM wide-screen musical at long last released on DVD. Pauline Kael described this film's tone as "a delayed hangover...sour." In his review of the boxed set Classic Musicals From The Dream Factory, a 5 DVD set that includes It's Always Fair Weather, the estimable Steve Daly of EW calls this cult musical "sour, cynical." In Ethan Mordden's 1981 book The Hollywood Musical, Fair Weather is listed under the chapter "The Energy Peters Out." And Mordden zeroes in on the sequence of buddies Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd and Gene Kelly singing about their loathing of one another as more than just the dissolving of a partnership; to Mordden, it's a sign of the end of the line for the classic Hollywood musical.
Sour? Savory is more like it. There's no disputing palates, but Betty Comden and Adolph Green-scripted musicals were never completely gossamer dreams. New York-based cabaret-trained performers that they were, Comden and Green always included some razory satire of the entertainment business. They made a comedy out of the tensions of staying afloat in short-memoried showbiz in The Band Wagon, where 1930s icon Fred Astaire adjusts himself to the gaudy post-war world of Times Square, pulp fiction, and "Technicolor and stereophonic sound." Singin' In the Rain is similarly about future shock, as sound technology comes in to mess up the comparative ease and order of the silent film world. The Comden-Green It's Always Fair Weather uses elements that's all over noir: post-war dissatisfaction, the Kefauver report on organized crime, and the pressures of conformity on the returning GIs. Golden hindsight reduces the 1950s in today's imagination to a decade-long dance night at Jack Rabbit Slim's. Cop a look at Peter Biskind's Seeing is Believing, not just to unearth the true meaning of 1950s monster movies as symbols of the nuclear menace, but of also to study the political strife between the radical right and the centrists that gave those bug-eyed-monster attacks deeper textual significance. (President Dwight Eisenhower was a compromise candidate between these two political extremes. No wonder Ike was brought back as a figure of compromise in Why We Fight.) And no wonder Jacques Demy soaked up the undertones of the MGM musical and recreated them in his films, figuring it was appropriate to use musical comedy tropes in a story of a drafted gas station attendant and his pregnant girlfriend.
"It's always fair weather when friends get together. ..." -- It's a hoary old proverb. Fair Weather is the 10-year reunion of a trio of WW2 soldiers (Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and actor-choreographer Michael Kidd) at the Third Avenue bar they'd closed down together in 1945. At the reunion, the booze has no kick, and they find out they've got nothing to say to each other. Gene Kelly's Ted has gotten into the fight racket, and is taking a pummeling in it. In his personal life, he's handling his girlfriend (Cyd Charisse) badly. Dailey's Doug is a self-disgusted TV advertising man hawking "Klenzrite"; Kidd's Angie is a nobody, a fry cook in upstate New York. In a three-part round set to the music of "The Blue Danube" ("I Shouldn't Have Come") the trio sings about what bores and snobs their former buddies were. (Classical music parodies wend through this show, since co-writer Andre Previn was aboard as co-composer.)
Anticipating reality TV in the decades to come, the reunion of the three soldiers becomes the catch of the day for an inspirational broadcast by an insufferably syrupy celebrity. Dolores Gray's Madeline honors an era, as Christopher Durang put it, When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth. Beaming blindingly at the camera, Gray's utters a line that ought to be as famous as Lina Lamont's deathless quote about bringing joy into the humdrum lives of the little people: "I hope you will love this song. And if you don't, I hope you will love me."
I love both Gray and the song, "Thanks A Lot But No Thanks," which she belts out like a champ during a cartoony massacre of wealthy playboy suitors in tuxes. Other lovable moments are the long-stemmed Cyd Charisse in a boxing match dance routine, as well as repeated demonstrations of Kelly's unbelievable athleticism; ask Jackie Chan sometime how much Kelly meant to him. Kelly stamps out a number on roller skates, and the ensemble does an ash-can ballet routine that still is a high water mark for stunt choreography. As in The Man in the Iron Mask, these three unhappy civilians rediscover why they fought together in the first place. It's more inspiring, and satisfying, than sour.
The rest of the 5 CD package isn't up to the standards set by It's Always Fair Weather. Three Little Words is a bio-pic of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. It's a literally wrong-footed movie, in that Fred Astaire's Kalmar is immobilized with a bad leg for most of the picture. Red Skelton plays Harry Ruby, a songwriter who Groucho Marx used to claim was the funniest man he ever knew. Ruby (played by Red Skelton) composed "Hurray for Captain Spaulding," which we hear in a Groucholess, bowdlerized version. More interesting is Debbie Reynolds made up as baby-talking singer Helen Kane; she's reportedly dubbed by Kane during the tune "I Wanna Be Loved By You." If this routine looks familiar, it should; Kane later sued the creators of Betty Boop for plagiarism. As a long-time non-fan of Skelton, I'd love to be taken on a tour of movies that prove that Red Skelton's reputation is neglected today; such a tour would not include this movie, or Skelton's funny-baseball routine, or his wide selection of ethnic dialect comedy.
Summer Stock has one show-stopping Kelly number, a superb soft-shoe on torn newspapers. I've never gotten past the animated statues at the beginning of The Ziegfeld Follies (the sequence is scarier than clowns, even). And Till the Clouds Roll By's Wong Kar-Wai-like title conceals a crypto-bio of Jerome Kern, and about two dozen show tunes: It's justifiable for the sake of Lena Horne's ventricle-scalding "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" and maybe for a look at the actual Dinah Shore for purposes of comparison. There's enough sweetness on display to make up for any residual sourness left over from It's Always Fair Weather, one of the forgotten highlights of the MGM musical era.