Critics and fans have already appropriately canonized Singin' in the Rain as a musical film classic, but they seem to consistently forget about the jaw-dropping next (and final) combined effort from directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and producer Arthur Freed.
Of course, It's Always Fair Weather from 1955 had a famously difficult shoot, with Donen resentful of being called in to co-direct when he was doing just fine on his own, career-wise. Plus, the initial audience response was cool, with the film doing little better than breaking even, box office-wise. But, the proof is in the pudding and, creativity-wise, this follow-up is an unmitigated triumph.
Then again, maybe the film just plays better if you've got a bit of darkness in your soul. Despite its desperately optimistic title, It's Always Fair Weather is an often sharp (one hesitates slightly to say "cynical") depiction of post-World War II disillusionment. In other words, by 1955, the Greatest Generation wasn't doing so great. The story illustrates this fall from optimism by featuring three war buddies -- Ted (Gene Kelly), Doug (Dan Dailey), and Angie (Michael Kidd) -- who make a pact to meet again at their favorite New York bar exactly ten years after the day they are discharged from the army.
When the former G.I.s hesitantly meet back up, it's nothing like old times. Ted, who was planning on becoming a lawyer, instead has become a small-potatoes hustler who recently won a boxer in a card game and figures he'll give managing in the fight racket a try. Doug, who was planning to become an artiste, has instead become a bitter advertising executive, responsible for drawing insipid ad campaigns, speaking in meaningless jargon ("situation-wise," "saturation-wise"), and pushing his wife to divorce him. Finally, Angie, who had dreams of becoming a chef, instead became a family man who runs a hamburger stand in Schenectady that he nonetheless calls "The Cordon Bleu." When the three men see what they've become through the eyes of their former pals... well, they hate it. And they end up hating each other besides.
If that premise sounds a bit dour, in execution, Fair Weather is anything but. The film is packed to the gills with stunning dance numbers that dazzle both in their on-the-day execution and in the way cinematic effects are used to accentuate them. For example, the mournful "Once Upon a Time" number shows its three leads, in three different locations, in split screen, executing the exact same graceful dance moves as they bemoan their lost friendship. "I Shouldn't Have Come," a comic tune set to the "Blue Danube," is sung entirely in voice-over with the three actors silently sitting side-by-side, using their facial expressions, coupled with careful framing and editing, to create the tense dynamic of the scene.
It seems inevitable that the three former friends will reconcile, so smarty-pants ad woman Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse), who works at Doug's agency, suggests the trio be tricked into appearing in a This Is Your Life-type segment on a live TV variety show that the agency is producing later that same night. Inveterate hustler Ted lets his attraction for Miss Leighton be known within milliseconds of setting eyes on her (can you blame him?), so she decides to play along and babysit him until the show starts. This leads to a tremendous dance number in the boxing gym, "Baby You Knock Me Out," in which Cyd Charisse proves she's as much an athlete as any of the busted-nose palookas in the background behind her.
Theater star Dolores Gray plays the wonderfully "showbiz"-y host of the TV show that is set to feature the three men's story. Her comic instincts are as impressive as her pipes, and her late-film solo number "Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks," plays as an amusing retort to the "Diamond's Are a Girl's Best Friend" sequence in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, while offering an energy boost right when the flick looks like its about to sag.
Thankfully, it never does. Famously, Michael Kidd got his solo number cut from the film -- most likely due to jealousy coming from co-star/co-director Gene Kelly -- but the film benefits from not sprawling out to a full two hours. Sure, it's hardly fair (ha ha), considering that Dan Dailey gets to go hog wild in a number where his character is blackout drunk, wreaking havoc on his boss's lavish apartment, and Kelly executes the most gorgeous tap scene ever committed to film (yeah, it's hard to top the Nicholas Brothers in Stormy Weather, yet Kelly does, in my book). But, you know, sometimes decisions that were made for bad reasons turn out good anyway.
And let's just take an extra second to appreciate the ingenuity and insanity of Gene Kelly's big number. While performing a song called "I Like Myself" (a sly joke on the singer by Comden and Green?), Kelly dances in roller skates. Sometimes tapping, sometimes sailing along on a mock-New York street, he does it all in relatively long takes so that we can tell he's doing the switch in style for real. We can see that they haven't subbed in skates with locked wheels to make it easier. He's doing something so physically difficult, but with the same aplomb and casual ease as when he smiled and told the heavens to "come on with the rain."
If you don't like It's Always Fair Weather, I don't know what to tell you. Maybe you're emotionally stunted. Maybe you've never had a hard day in your life, so you don't know the relief that comes from experiencing pure joy. That's what this movie is. It is a bizarrely joyful expression of despondency and disenchantment. Yep, nutshell-wise, that's what it is.