Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
It's Always Fair Weather might be better called "Always unfairly rated." For plain entertainment value, I've always found it to be one of the better MGM musicals. Viewers baffled by some of MGM's ideas of taste and culture (Esther Williams + Technicolor = Art, for one) will be pleasantly surprised to find a musical with a more mature viewpoint. It's been called a cynical and depressing downer, but I think the reasons for its lack of success are much simpler. The film probably had a tough time fitting into 1955 movie-going habits because its "Rah Rah" ad campaign was just bland ... I mean, Warner DVD searched for the best Ad art available and look what they came up with. Add some nails and the three male stars would look as if they'd been crucified.
It's Always Fair Weather is a total screen original, which makes it more of a gamble than most of MGM big musicals -- it's not adapted from Broadway or an older catalogue of hit tunes. As with Singin' in the Rain, the story is just as important as the songs, some of which admittedly take a few viewings to stick in one's memory. The film is less cuddly and more satirical than Singin', and its observations about disillusioned ex-soldiers are brilliantly thought out. It's Always Fair Weather' directly criticizes commercial culture. Not many mainstream 1955 entertainments do that.
G.I.'s Ted Riley, Doug Hallerton and Angie Valentine (Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd) return from Europe and make a pact to reunite at Tim's Bar and Grill in ten years -- October 11, 1955. But their reunion is a flop, as Doug is an unhappy advertising man who looks down on Angie, the owner of a hamburger stand. And both of them are surprised to find that the brightest of the three, Ted, has become a cheap gambler and boxing promoter. Ted is disillusioned as well until he sees Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse), another advertising person. She works as a production aide on the live TV show Midnight With Madeline, starring the stunningly insincere Madeline Bradville (Dolores Gray).
We're told that It's Always Fair Weather was not a happy production, that co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen fought like dogs on the set. As veterans of MGM, they must have been depressed by the downsizing on the lot. With most actors no longer under contract every show was an expensive undertaking, a new roll of the dice. The studio was a giant factory running at a fraction of its capacity.
You can't tell it by watching the movie. Betty Comden and Adolph Green were originally inspired to revisit their On the Town, but their new show has broader ambitions than boy meets girl. Fair Weather is like the second half of Into the Woods where the fairy tale characters have to deal with real-life issues. Ten years after swearing that they'd always be pals, the trio of soldiers now seems completely incompatible. Artistic Doug Hallerton never went to Europe to paint and instead became a cog in the advertising world, designing animated-mop characters to sell products like "Klenzrite." A pending divorce and an ulcer gnaw at his insides. Ted Riley has developed not into a 'great man of the people' but a small-time hustler. Artie Valentine opted for a big family and a modest living running a hamburger stand. He's the only one satisfied in his work, but his manners are unrefined and the other two consider him a hick.
The show opens with the trio going on a big Manhattan drunk in 1945, playing games with taxicabs and dancing with trash can lids on their feet. None of it looks easy, a pattern that is continued through all of the musical numbers. Only a couple of them involve people just standing and singing. If there's not some complicated matching-action optical happening, then the actors are shown singing, acting, and doing difficult action all at the same time, in long, unbroken cuts.
In 1955 the bars are jammed, but nobody looks happy. Doug keeps feeding his ulcer alcohol and cigarette smoke. The boys can't eat their celebratory lunch, and mentally criticize one another ("a snob / a hick / a hood") to the Strauss waltz The Blue Danube. They're forced into a miserable public reunion in the film's brilliant invention, the Midnight with Madeline live TV show, hosted by the incredibly insincere Madeline (Dolores Gray) -- who doesn't mind what her viewers love or hate, "...as long as you love --- ME!"
More than a predictable Hollywood jab at TV, the show is the perfect vessel for Comden and Green's satirical attack on the 1950s mentality. Singing hostess Madeline is reminiscent of Dinah Shore, but her every word drips with phony sentiment. Her smile is voracious, like a shark's. She plays her big number, "Thanks a Lot but No Thanks" as broadly as a Tex Avery Cartoon. Various suitors tumble into the frame offering fabulous gifts, and she kills them all Wile E. Coyote style: Guns, trap doors and dynamite.
Midnight with Madeline also connects with our three leading characters. Failed artist Hallerton is made sick by the show's built-in commercials and cultural pretensions. Leggy chorines dance, their bodies covered by big soap boxes. A creepy, unctuous announcer (Frank Nelson, hilariously oily) brings Madeline on stage like Liberace, singing an annoying Klenzrite jingle to a classical tune. He calls his association with the show the fitting end to a life of degradation.
Madeline tries to peg Angie as "one of a vast army of little gray men," the workaday slobs who make society go. The supposedly uncouth Angie refuses her condescending attitude politely but firmly. Ted responds to Madeleine's hollow praise by admitting to the world that he's mixed up with a bunch of shady gangsters and unqualified to be a role model.
Ted eventually sees an escape from depression via the love of Jackie Leighton, a pushy intellectual female type feared by our 50s culture. Ted respects Jackie enough to want to reform for her. The plot comes to a head with an effective early use of the clever "live TV" gag of tricking a criminal (crooked boxing promoter J. C. Flippen) into blabbing his crimes on the air. If one wants to psychoanalyze the film even further, it's curious to note that the malaise affecting our three ex-warriors is only banished through more good-vs.-evil violence, in a televised brawl with the gangster thugs. Naturally, the opportunist Madeline steps in to use the fight as one of her Midnight with Madeline exclusives (para): " ... and gambling racketeer Charlie Culloran has just made a confession that will probably put him behind bars for forty or fifty years!"
The musical numbers contain some great highlights. Although Cyd Charisse doesn't dance with Gene -- an omission to be regretted after their 'Monumental' pairing in Singin' in the Rain -- her "Baby, You Knock Me Out" with a gymnasium full of boxers is a terrific number designed along 50s graphic lines -- flat perspective, like a mural. Although dancers get involved for the really difficult stuff, Kelly rehearsed a bunch of broken-nosed and cauliflower-ear types to participate in the heavy dance work, led by the diminutive Lou Lubin (Irving August in The Seventh Victim) as Lefty Louie, a gym trainer.
This may be Dan Dailey's best film. His solo number requires him to act drunk, trash a fancy room and dance with a lampshade on his head, and he actually gets away with it. All of the dances in It's Always Fair Weather are demanding, but Kelly saves the toughest for himself. When Ted Riley foils the gangsters and rediscovers that, "I Like Myself," he does an entire routine on roller skates ... tapping, dancing and gliding on MGM's exterior New York set. It all looks too easy -- we can imagine that even Kelly must have taken a nasty fall or two.
Fair Weather goes out on a subdued note, with a reprise of their "The Time has Come for Parting" song. Angie and Doug are returning to their wives while Ted has found Jackie. Their new "military victory" has made them feel good about themselves again. But this time when they part, there are no plans for a future reunion -- it's as if they know that they just aren't natural friends anymore. "Comedy" writers Comden and Green really put some thought into this story.
Warners' DVD of It's Always Fair Weather finally obsoletes treasured laserdiscs, a 1989 edition when letterboxing was a new craze, and a pricey 1996 combo box with a much better transfer. Although my slightly over-scanning projection television doesn't show me the whole image, this is said to carry an authentic 2:55 early 'Scope aspect ratio. The audio has been remixed to 5.1.
The featurette Going Out on a High Note is surprisingly critical of the film, indicating how it's always suffered by comparison with earlier 'classics' and its status marking the end of the road for the MGM musical tradition. Clip extras include two B&W MGM TV show clips with Charisse and Kelly, daily clips from "The Binge" (the trash can dance), an audio outtake from an unused number, and deleted scenes from two numbers, including Michael Kidd's elaborate "Jack and the Space Giants" number. The trailer is included as well ... it too does not seem aimed very well at 1955 audiences.
The disc also has two cartoons. Deputy Droopy is a Tex Avery short that makes us wonder when an Avery collection will surface. Good Will Toward Men is a remake of a cartoon called Peace on Earth that Savant reviewed when it turned up on the DVD for A Christmas Carol. This time around the apocalyptic analogy is literal ... the furry little animals have inherited the Earth because humans have been eliminated by a (frighteningly pictured) nuclear war. The cartoon's anthropomorphic tricks are a little clumsy -- the mice, squirrels and Owl don't know what the Bible is, but they congregate in a church to sing Christmas Carols, and say "Merry Christmas" to one another. Hanna & Barbera, the makers of the Oscar-Nominated cartoon, also skirt the fact that any nuclear holocaust that would eradicate humans would also take out most cuddly animals as well ... although we might think that rats and mice could adapt to most anything.
Warners' disc planners don't just throw their extras together -- they must have seen the 50s-angst musical It's Always Fair Weather as an appropriate venue for the doom-laden cartoon short.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
It's Always Fair Weather rates:
Sound: Excellent (Dolby Digital 5.1)
Supplements: Featurette It's Always Fair Weather: Going Out on a High Note, 3 outtake musical numbers: "The Binge/Trashcan Dance" (alternate takes), "Jack and the Space Giants" (with Michael Kidd) and "Love Is Nothing but a Racket" (with Gene Kelly & Cyd Charisse); Two segments from "The MGM Parade" featuring Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly; MGM cartoons: Deputy Droopy and Good Will to Men; Audio-only bonus: "I Thought They'd Never Leave" outtake featuring Dolores Gray's unused vocal; Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 13, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson