This reviewer used to own Warner Home Video's earlier DVD of Brigadoon (1954), but never got around to watching it - and with good reason. The 4:3 letterboxed image was murky with a lot of artifacting, suspiciously looking like it had been mastered off an old laserdisc transfer. Warner's new Brigadoon is, in the crowded field of remastered DVDs, an upgrade actually worth buying, though it too falls short in other ways.
The movie was adapted from the 1947 Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical that ran 581 performances and won a Tony for Agnes De Mille's choreography. It was made during MGM's sad decline as the leading producer of movie musicals, when brassy original works "Made in Hollywood, U.S.A." were being supplanted by expensive roadshows adapted from proven Broadway hits, often produced outside the confines of the L.A. basin. Brigadoon, therefore, is only partly an attempt by MGM to change with the times.
Americans Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson), are "two weary hunters that lost their way" in the Scottish Highlands, eventually making their way to the quaint village of Brigadoon. While Tommy falls in love with statuesque lassie Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse) and Jeff drinks a lot, the village prepares for the wedding that day of Fiona's sister, Jean (Virginia Bosler) to local favorite Charlie Chisholm Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson). The citizens of Brigadoon react to the arrival of Tommy and Jeff in myriad ways: some are frightened, others are bemused, while others still are insatiably curious about the pair.
It soon becomes clear that Brigadoon is a centuries-old community that appears out of the mist once every 100 years, putting Tommy in a rather difficult position with his new girlfriend.
Brigadoon was a box office disappointment, and in retrospect it's easy to see why. In those earliest days of wide screen cinema, it was thought by some that new formats would invite filmed theater - with static cameras basically documenting a performance. There's some of this in the early Cinerama films, and newsman-turned-producer Lowell Thomas reportedly wanted to film Porgy and Bess just that way. Though some sequences in Brigadoon, such as "The Chase" near the end, are aggressively cinematic, in some respects, particularly in some of the musical numbers, the film wants to just be a filmed version of the Broadway show, and that's not enough.
As one of the earliest CinemaScope films, Brigadoon to its credit makes full use of the new screen shape but is hopelessly studio bound, shot as it was on elaborate studio sets representing Highland exteriors. Many early CinemaScope movies went to far off places like Rome and Hong Kong, giving these early wide screen movies a travelogue quality, with sights and sounds that couldn't be experienced on Free TV. Brigadoon, on the other hand, opts for a more theatrical presentational approach, and the utter unreality of the painted skies and elaborately but artificially landscaped hillsides certainly contributed to its relative failure at the box office. Had it actually been filmed in Scotland Brigadoon probably would have made more money, though it also would have been much more expensive.
Ultimately, you either accept the picture on its terms or you don't. (It eventually won me over, after some resistance.) With a little suspension of disbelief the Highland sets almost work at times, particularly during "Heather on the Hill" and "The Chase," where sweeping tracking shots give the sets featured in those numbers a three-dimensional quality not present in shots where the camera is locked down.
Gene Kelly, of course, is a major asset. No one could express the joy of falling head-over-heels in love better than Kelly, and he and Cyd Charisse work overtime selling a romance that, as written, is pretty hard to believe. Less successful is Van Johnson's cynical boozer; he's fine, but the character is such a downer (his sardonic wit being his one saving grace) that he becomes pretty annoying before the film is over. Worse, there's no real payoff with the character at the end - he's simply abandoned.
The production numbers, choreographed by Kelly, are elaborate but subtler than his other works, which tend to be energetic, acrobatic and joyous, or earnest but pretentious (see Invitation to the Dance). Several songs have become standards (especially "Almost Like Being in Love"), and the show is among the most frequently revived at high schools and universities.
Video & Audio
Warner's new DVD of Brigadoon is a vast improvement over the older release. The image is, finally, properly presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, in its original CinemaScope (2.55:1) aspect ratio. (The very earliest CinemaScope films had 4-track magnetic sound only; when optical tracks were added to release prints around 1954-55, the theatrical screen ratio was reduced to about 2.35:1.) On the downside, Brigadoon was released in tepid Ansco Color, just about the ugliest color process ever devised. There's been an obvious effort to pull back as much of the intended hues as possible, and indeed Brigadoon has never looked better. For the first time, the colors are strong and bright, while the graininess of early CinemaScope seems greatly reduced. The only flaw, really, is that somehow in its digital scrubbing a strange "raining" effect becomes noticeable. Instead of scratches, what looks like a light, hazy drizzle appears in some shots, though this is only mildly distracting.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack is generally okay, though this reviewer prefers listening to CinemaScope movies in their original 4-track magnetic mixes. The new mix is overly aggressive at times: when Kelly and Johnson do a soft-shoe dance during "I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean," their feet clatter as if they were wearing horse shoes. As was common to many of the earliest CinemaScope films, voices tend to have a mildly disembodied quality and, in one scene at least, the sound seems out-of-synch by a frame or two. A mono French track is included, along with optional subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.
As perennial a seller as Brigadoon seems to be, Warner Bros. has short-changed its fans in the supplements department. The only extras are a Trailer, also happily 16:9, and a series of Outtakes. Presented in 4:3 letterboxed format, the three short scenes, "Come to Me, Bend to Me," "From This Day On" (the finished film cuts oddly without it), and "Sword Dance," are offered minus text or anything else to put the clips into context. Some background on precisely where the sequences originally fell, when in the editing process they were deleted and why would have been helpful. One song, "There But for You Go I," is included as audio only.
Brigadoon is reportedly one of that handful of early CinemaScope releases in which a "flat," non-CinemaScope version was shot simultaneously. If that's correct (and I have my doubts)** it's too bad Warner Home Video didn't include this alternate version. Production notes, a commentary track or archival interviews, and a 1966 television version (with Peter Falk!) immediately come to mind as obvious extras that might have been considered.
Brigadoon is something of an anomaly among MGM's '50s musicals. It's not as innovative as On the Town, as thoroughly entertaining as Singin' in the Rain, classy as The Band Wagon, wistful as It's Always Fair Weather. But it does have a charm all its own and it's a film that, at long last, can be enjoyed on big, widescreen TVs in all its CinemaScope glory.
** Several readers have written to confirm that a flat version was indeed shot and is sometimes shown on TCM and elsewhere. Given that Brigadoon began shooting after the first CinemaScope release, Fox's The Robe had already proven the process a box office powerhouse, it's a bit surprising that MGM still hedged its bets.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.