It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) paints a post-war world in Technicolor and CinemaScope—a combination of a quaint painted postcard and an image of modern life so large it threatens to consume us. This movie, like the era it portrays, has been forgotten in some circles, but Gene Kelly has unwittingly left a very special documentary about this era in the unlikely form of musical comedy. It’s not the valentine that Singin’ in the Rain (1952) was to the 1920s; the 1950s of It’s Always Fair Weather has less parody and more chagrin, even bitterness. I would submit that as a work reflecting its era this is a movie of greater value than Kelly’s more successful films.
This post is a contribution to the Gene Kelly Blogathon sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association. Have a look here for a list of other participating blogs.
Three returning vets played by Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd return to the states in 1945 and have one last (several) drinks together before parting company and heading back to civilian life. They pledge eternal friendship, and promise to meet in this bar in ten years’ time. Before they split up, they dance with garbage can lids on their feet.
There’s a lot of “incidentals” to this movie that make it special. First, the film was supposed to be a sequel to On the Town (1949), which Kelly made with Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin as three happy-go-lucky sailors on shore leave. Sinatra turned down It’s Always Fair Weather, and Gene Kelly and his creative partner Stanley Donen decided to change the premise of a reunion between the three sailors to different characters, this time soldiers who face not just the challenges of civilian life, but their own apparent failures at meeting those challenges.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the clever team who gave us On the Town crafted the script and lyrics for It’s Always Fair Weather. Music was by André Previn. So far, so good, but other incidentals turned the making of this film into what Donen called an atmosphere that “was really horrendous. We had to struggle from beginning to end. I can only say it was an absolute one hundred percent nightmare.” (Gene Kelly- A Life of Dance and Dreams by Alvin Yudkoff, Back Stage Books, NY, 1999, p. 234).
Kelly has been acknowledged by many partners and co-workers over the years as a difficult taskmaster as a director and choreographer. He and co-director Donen clashed a great deal over this film, and their relationship permanently deteriorated, probably not helped by Kelly’s romantic relationship with Donen’s ex-wife Jeanne Coyne. A couple of years later, Kelly divorced Betsy Blair, and eventually married Jeanne.
Though Gene Kelly is sometimes accused of being a camera hog, one must note that the two other men that he picked to round out the trio of buddies in this film were top-notch dancers. Kelly knew and appreciated talent. Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd were able to handle anything Kelly could dish out. It’s especially gratifying to even see Michael Kidd dance on film, since he didn’t make too many movies, and was known for his stage work both as a dancer and choreographer. He won five Tony Awards as a choreographer for Broadway, and we owe to him, among other spectacular screen moments, that vigorous ballet of woodsmen in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954).
Another lucky “incidental” for us is the appearance of Dolores Gray, who like Michael Kidd is known more for her stage work than movies. Here she’s a hoot as the self-involved TV host diva, a kind of Miss Piggy with better legs. She gets a great number “Thanks, But No Thanks” which she dances with chorus boys who ply her with jewels and such. She turns them down, brushing them off with disdain, with gunshots, with a detonator plunger removing her Romeos with a burst of TNT, and finally, by pulling a lever and dropping a cluster of chorus boys through a trap door in the stage. It’s a jazzy number with clever lyrics.
Add to this a voiceover by the great June Foray as an animated character in a TV soap commercial, and you have a movie that preserves talent for the ages.
Even Pope Pius XII gets a cameo.
Back to the boys. The years fly by us in a montage of dates and newsreel images. Dan Dailey, once an aspiring artist, has become an advertising man for a big agency. He is disillusioned and dyspeptic, and his marriage is on the rocks. Michael Kidd runs the Cordon Bleu, a grander name than usual for what is just a roadside eatery. His real success is his growing family. Gene is a gambler, a fight manager, and a hustler on the make for his next big break, but always broke.
They reunite with disappointment. They are strangers now, and can barely stand each other. This sudden revulsion could be thrown around as a comic tool, but is used in this movie with great poignancy and allows us to see into the lives of these men. Their disappointment in each other is matched by their disappointment in themselves and what they’ve done, or haven’t done, with their lives since the optimistic days of their Army discharge. They are unhappy with themselves, looking in the mirror at what frauds they’ve become.
Cyd Charisse is the program director for Dolores Gray’s TV show, “Midnight with Madeline”, a kind of “reality” variety show where one segment of the program is devoted to spotlighting man on the street “hard luck” stories and audience participation. When their guest sucker for the evening is scrapped, Miss Charisse comes up with the plan to use the three Army buddies on the show instead. She takes charge of Gene Kelly, keeping him occupied until she can get him to the studio to be surprised, and embarrassed, on live TV that evening. Another executive babysits Dan Dailey, and Dolores Gray entertains Michael Kidd.
The chief challenge in making this movie, and possibly its chief triumph, is working in CinemaScope, but apparently the budget was cut for this movie under production head Dore Schary. Kelly and Donen had to be especially careful in how to use the monstrous widescreen technology in a movie that essentially takes place in tight interiors. Close-ups, as well, could be really pretty ugly in CinemaScope. We mentioned here in This Happy Feeling (1958) how awkward the widescreen setups can be.
Kelly and Donen successfully manipulate the unwieldy CinemaScope with some clever shots. We see the men in the restaurant thinking privately to themselves how much they dislike each other, to the tune of “The Blue Danube” waltz. Each gets a normal-sized close-up pasted together to avoid the distorted facial close-ups normally rendered in a CinemaScope shot. Two main locations, the gym and the TV studio-ballroom are larger spaces that accommodate CinemaScope well. In most situations we see the screen filled with a lot of people in the background, which keeps the central figure, usually a dancer, from looking diminished and insignificant in the huge spaces of widescreen.
Cyd Charisse gets only one number here (her singing dubbed), the energetic “Baby, You Knock Me Out” done with boxers in the gym.
Gene Kelly’s big solo number is the now iconic roller skate routine so masterfully done. We have to admire, again, his marvelous athleticism and creativity.
I particularly admire Dan Dailey’s number, “Situation-wise” which mocks the corporation mentality that pre-dates Jack Lemmon’s famous “Kubilek-wise” in The Apartment (1960). Dailey, who we last saw here in Meet Me in Las Vegas (1956) had the ability, greater than the formidable Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, to act. He could be sensitive, deep, and all in the simplest of movements and facial expressions. He had a clear face, for want of a better term, that reminds me of Gary Cooper. Not that they resembled each other, but that each man was able to convey his deepest emotions transparently on his face with no affectations. Dana Andrews was like that, too. It’s as if they find a serene spot in the emotional turmoil and just let it be.
The “Situation-wise” number allows Dailey to act while he sings and dances, having had too much to drink at a cocktail party at his boss’s home as he faces his failings and self-disgust. It is a very inventive dance as well, because as he gets more out of control, he uses objects from the elegant living room as props. It all looks very natural and spontaneous. Often in Astaire or Kelly dance sequences, we see them placed in a situation where we anticipate what props are going to be used—a hat rack, a broom, etc., because they are as much on display as the dancer. There is a foreshadowing of what’s to come. But here, Dailey’s raucous slide into drunken mental breakdown is such that we don’t know what’s going to happen next as he snatches apparently improvisational props from around the living room. It is both heartbreaking and really funny at the same time. Look for the brief “Jerry Lewis-wise” lyric where he slaps his hands on his head and spasmodically struts like Jerry Lewis’s screen nerd character.
All three men reach their nadir, and their ultimate triumph, when they are dragged on stage to be feted and humiliated by Dolores Gray. Michael Kidd, who unfortunately we don’t get to see that much of in this movie, refuses her consolation gifts of a washing machine and shoes for his children because he is proud, and decides that his roadside diner is nothing of which to be ashamed. Dan Dailey likewise finds dignity in humility and wryly acknowledges that this moment on live TV is a “truly fitting climax to ten years of self-degradation.”
Gene Kelly goes a step further, mocking himself on camera, “I’m a bum. Boys, don’t be like me, be clean, use Klenzrite.”
We have our happy ending of sorts when the mobsters who are chasing Gene Kelly get their comeuppance on live TV in a spectacular brawl with a lot of bodies tossed on collapsing tables. The three buddies bond in fisticuffs defeating the bad guys, and when they at last part again, there is some satisfaction in their lives and their renewed friendship.
The final shot is another fine use of CinemaScope, the men walking off in different directions on the wet streets. The nighttime New York City skyline fills the widescreen nicely.
Even at the time it was made, It’s Always Fair Weather was recognized for capturing a slice of real life not usually noticed in musical comedies. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther pronounced the film to be, “Howling with derision at such recognizable idiocies of TV as singing and slobbering commercials, audience participation shows, give-away plugs for mundane products and the wise-talking agency boys.” He called it “continuously entertaining” and “a winning show.”
It was winning, and would be one of the last times Gene Kelly helmed a major vehicle of this genre. Musicals were on the wane, stories about WWII GIs were fading into the past, and perhaps the only thing that marched into the lasting future was the note of cynicism felt by the characters of this movie. That was prescient.
A few more fun incidentals: Oily TV announcer Frank Nelson—you may not know the name but the voice is unmistakable from a bushel full of TV guest spots. He delivers a commercial for H2O cola, possibly the first diet soda, also prescient.
Madge Blake, used as a prop in the party scene by Dan Dailey, whose frilly, befuddled “clubwoman” screen persona lent itself to TV supporting roles, including a hysterical stretch as Larry Mondello’s mother on Leave It to Beaver.
Phil Arnold, who is one of the boxers known as Butch, singing in his deep bass voice to Cyd in the gym. Another long career of roles without screen credit but whose face and voice is part of our shared TV memories.
A new DVD release of It’s Always Fair Weather contains some numbers that were relegated to the cutting room floor, which is always appreciated by fans, but just what’s here in the final cut is still plenty.
Have a look at the CMBA website for more posts celebrating the career of Gene Kelly and please visit the other blogs participating in the Gene Kelly Blogathon.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century.