Finally, finally, finally. Today Warner Home Video finally releases one of the best, most overlooked movies of the 1950s: the joyous yet bitter 1955 MGM musical It's Always Fair Weather.
The genesis of this film seemed simple: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen had directed two of the best musicals ever made, On The Town and the peerless Singin' In The Rain. The screenwriters of those pictures, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, had a notion to do a ten-years-later sequel to On The Town. It mutated into an unrelated story of three WWII vets who swear friendship for life, and what happens when they get together for a ten year reunion.
One (Dan Dailey) has sold out his artistic ambitions to be a Madison Avenue suit. One (Michael Kidd) opened a hamburger stand and is plagued by a sense of inferiority. And one (Gene Kelly), seemingly the best and brightest, has become a slimey boxing promoter.
As the story unfolds, all three men will, of course, rediscover their better selves. But the journey is surprisingly bitter, the tone at times downright corrosive. This is a musical for the Age of Anxiety, made at a time when Mad magazine and satirists like Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce started exposing the dark underside of Eisenhower's America.
It's Always Fair Weather lacks the gloss and eye-popping Technicolor of Donen and Kelly's previous collaborations. Largely this is due to penny-pinching by MGM moneymen by the mid-fifties--musicals weren't the cash cows they once were--but it seems appropriate for the story being told here. Donen and Kelly clashed repeatedly during production, and again some of this acrimony may have carried over on-screen. The tone is all over the map--clearly the filmmakers were torn between delivering the light entertainment audiences were expecting and following their own darker leanings. And if they never quite strike the right balance, the movie is probably all the richer for it.
As entertainment, if it's not quite in the league of Singin' in The Rain--and seriously, how could it be?--it's still a treat. Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd were easily the best male dancing partners Kelly ever had, and Cyd Charisse has an aptly-named number called Baby You Knock me Out. Dailey's performance is probably the best, as the reservoirs of self-loathing he finds in his character are surprisingly potent, and he gets the movie's best song, Situation-Wise.
Incidentally, Warner Home Video's programming of the DVD is as admirable as the movie itself. In addition to a making-of short, you get outtakes, trailers and a pair of cartoons, Tex Avery's Deputy Droopy and Good Will To Man, about cuddly cartoon animals celebrating Christmas in a world in which humans have been destroyed by nuclear holocaust! A nice memento of a time when Americans felt the world was teetering on the brink, and a sense of disillusionment was starting to settle in.
Thank goodness times have changed.