It's Always Fair Weather (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Darragh O'Donoghue
Produced by Arthur Freed; directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; screenplay and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; cinematography by Robert J. Bronner; edited by Adrienne Fazan; music by André Previn; art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Arthur Lonergan; starring Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, Cyd Charisse, Dolores Gray and Michael Kidd. Blu-ray, color, 101 min., 1955. A Warner Archive Collection release.
It’s Always Fair Weather was conceived as a sort-of-sequel to On the Town (1949), Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s first credit as directors after a decade of collaboration on stage and screen. As with Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) at the beginning of the decade, On the Town has, independently of its content, the youthful brio and wonder of young theater wunderkinds being given access to the fabled film-industry “train set.”
It’s Always Fair Weather, by contrast, was Kelly and Donen’s last collaboration, and has the pain and disillusion of once-inseparable friends who can no longer stand the sight of one another. This, as it happens, is the theme of the film. Where On the Town telescoped time to follow three love-hungry U.S. Marines on an eventful day’s leave, It’s Always Fair Weather has three GIs returning from the war in Europe, pledging to meet again in ten years to pick up their seemingly imperishable friendship. Ten years and geographic separation wreak their havoc, and the reunion is a disaster. Doug Hallerton (Dan Dailey) is a dyspeptic and pompous ad executive who has betrayed his original dreams of painting in Europe to the disgust of his wife who has begun divorce proceedings. Angie Valentine (Michael Kidd) has exchanged his grand ambitions of becoming a cosmopolitan restaurateur for the narrow spiritual confines of a hamburger joint in Synecdoche (pretentiously named the Cordon Bleu), and a noisy, ever-expanding family. Of the three, however, it is Gene Kelly who seems about to definitively sell his soul—his friends’ faith that he will become a vaguely defined but definite “Great Man” is belied by his precarious “glamour” lifestyle of gambling and womanizing. When the film catches up with him in October 1955, he is about to make the move into actual criminality when the boxer he won at cards is instructed to throw a fight.
The relative lack of the film’s success during the Golden Age of the MGM musical is usually ascribed to its downbeat tone, themes, and scenarios. From the opening minor chords of André Previn’s beautiful score, It’s Always Fair Weather can be considered the melancholy reflection or shadow of On the Town. Item numbers were still in place—Cyd Charisse’s boxing gym routine “Baby, You Knock Me Out”—all legs, hips, and lump-faced old bruisers [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bJv7hA-iSUQ]—is one of the few sequences of unadulterated joy in the film, but the breathtaking ballet sequence (here “The Binge,” a drunken fantasia through the bars of New York after Ted Riley [Gene Kelly] is jilted by his fiancée, and making ingenious use of dustbin lids) was moved to the beginning, leaving a long sense of anticlimax that is appropriate to the film’s themes but clearly not what a mid-1950s audience wanted.
Besides the ravages of time and the betrayal of youthful idealism, It’s Always Fair Weather narrates the dehumanization of American society (and particularly of American men) by advertising, Big Brother-style television, and duplicitous and/or career-ambitious women. There is a misogynistic streak in Donen’s work that occasionally flares into real ugliness, most notoriously in the mockery of Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. Such social tendencies turn three formerly virile war veterans into less-then-men, part-human, part-machine, on the verge of psychic breakdown. It’s Always Fair Weather shares these themes, as well as a gorgeous mid-1950s CinemaScope mise en scène with contemporary melodramas by Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, and Vincente Minnelli (another legend of musical film, Donen’s favorite director, and a frequent collaborator with Kelly) and the comedies of Frank Tashlin (Dailey imitates Jerry Lewis in an extraordinary Jerry Lewis–like number, “Situation-wise”).
The film’s dénouement is pure Tashlin, with emotional redemption processed by television and choreographed to women dressed as cereal boxes, as is the cartoon-like freedom with split screens and masks, which culminates Donen’s experiments in films like Cover Girl (1945), where Kelly dances with his shadow, and Anchors Aweigh (1945), where he performs with an actual cartoon, Jerry Mouse. The closing shot (a telephoto zoom away from the departing friends to a wide view of New York at night) seems to crown the happy ending, but is a repeat of the shot early in the film when the friends last fatefully departed, and their lives fell apart. This repetition qualifies any hopes for their future happiness, either together or apart.
If this sounds bleak, things were pretty gloomy off-screen, too, as an informative featurette on this Blu-ray demonstrates. In the six years between On the Town and It’s Always Fair Weather, Kelly and Donen had reached the pinnacle of Singin’ in the Rain, but had also worked separately, with mixed results. Kelly’s career expanded on the high-cultural pretensions of the ballets in On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain in a full-length ballet film, Invitation to the Dance, made in 1952, but still awaiting release three years later. Donen, on the other hand, had recently crowned a series of modest but inventive romantic comedies and musicals (including Love is Better Than Ever , which includes an early treatment of the satirical TV theme) with the breakthrough success of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, its legendary dance sequences choreographed by Kidd. Flush with this success, he was less than keen to return to the compromises of co-direction. Kelly’s overbearing interferences extended to cutting down his co-stars’ screen time, in particular that of Kidd, but in fairness to Kelly the artist, if not the man, it is hard to see what such material, preserved in outtakes included on this disc, could have added to the finished work, however dazzling in its own right.
Kelly and Donen never worked together again. So, along with its many other virtues, It’s Always Fair Weather stands as the swansong to both the greatest artistic collaboration ever to flourish in Hollywood and the Arthur Freed cine-musical that was being eclipsed by lumbering blockbuster stage adaptations, such as the same year’s Oklahoma!
This Blu-ray is another exceptional release by Warner Archive. The transfer of the once-faded Eastmancolor image is revelatory. Along with the extras previously mentioned are two contemporary cartoons—a subpar Deputy Droopy from Tex Avery, and Good Will to Men, a remake of a 1939 antiwar animation, turned by Hanna-Barbera into a Cold War parable that stands as one of the most subversive Hollywood films of the 1950s.
Darragh O’Donoghue, a Cineaste contributing writer, works as an archivist at Tate Britain in London.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 2