Many years ago when Mark, the proprietor of this site, was preoccupied fighting for free speech here in Canada, I told him that while I appreciated the herculean work he was putting into the cause, it was a shame that it had taken him away from writing about popular songs and songwriters – columns I enjoyed immensely. I told him that if I were a rich man, I would pay him to write a book about the Freed Unit at MGM – the production entity responsible for pretty near half of Hollywood's really great musicals, from The Wizard of Oz to Meet Me In St. Louis to On The Town to An American In Paris to Singin' In The Rain to The Band Wagon to Gigi.
A decade later, free speech is still in peril, I'm still not a rich man and Mark hasn't written that book, so I'm going to take a loping run at producer Arthur Freed's twenty-year streak making musicals for the biggest, richest studio in Hollywood.
There's enough written about Freed's hits, so let's start with It's Always Fair Weather, an obscure product of the Freed Unit, partly because it flopped, but mostly because it's one of the bleakest, most cynical musical films made, at least until they tried making musicals again in the '70s, long after the moment that made a film like Singin' In The Rain possible had passed.
When it was released in 1955, there was no reason to expect that It's Always Fair Weather wouldn't be a hit. It took Gene Kelly, a huge star, and reunited him with director/choreographer Stanley Donen, who had worked closely with Kelly on On The Town and Singin' In The Rain. Their collaboration had brought out the best in their work, and effectively made their reputations. The two men were even married to the same woman (at different times.)
The film also reunited Kelly and Donen with writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who were also involved in the earlier films, and were fresh off the success of The Band Wagon with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse the previous year. Charisse was cast as the female lead, with music provided by Andre Previn. On paper it was a smash.
It's Always Fair Weather was originally conceived as a sequel to On The Town, reuniting the trio of sailors a decade after they were demobilized. Kelly was keen, but of the original male leads, Jules Munshin's fame had waned and Frank Sinatra – in the middle of a notorious career slump in 1949 and eager to please – was a big star again, expensive and notoriously difficult.
So the story was reimagined with a trio of GIs who promise to reunite in a Third Avenue bar ten years after their return from overseas. Ted (Kelly) is the polymath of the group, destined for a career in law and politics; Doug (Dan Dailey) is the artist, eager to return to Europe and the painter's life, while Angie (choreographer Michael Kidd) dreams of opening a cordon bleu restaurant.
After Ted gets a "Dear John" letter from his sweetheart, they go on a bender, hit every bar in Lower Manhattan, and then share a drunken, exuberant dance ("The Binge") under the Third Avenue El (or its MGM backlot facsimile), goofing in and around a yellow cab before sticking their feet through trashcan lids and launching into a wild, athletic routine regularly appears in clip reels of golden age Hollywood dancing.
After this giddy start – a throwback to and evocation of what made Freed Unit musicals so thrilling – the film's tone turns darker. It might have started as On The Town's sequel, but in spirit it feels more like a musical fantasy on what might have happened after the credits rolled on William Wyler's 1946 drama The Best Years of Our Lives.
Wyler's film was a nervous, elegiac story about three very different men returning to their hometown in uniforms they're about to shed, one of them disabled from combat wounds, all of them unsure about what awaits in civilian life.
It's a justifiably famous picture, beautifully acted and directed, and one of the few movie documents we have of that anxious moment for the victors, between war and horror and the postwar economic miracle they didn't really expect while the rubble was still smoking. White Christmas, a smash hit released a year before It's Always Fair Weather, had a rosier view of war buddies and veterans' reunions. Kelly and Donen's film didn't.
No junior senator or crusading district attorney, Ted has become a small time hood, managing meathead boxers and betting on fixed fights. Doug gave up the artist's life and rose to an executive office in an ad agency, an ulcer, and a failing marriage in Chicago, while Angie runs a burger bar in Schenectady.
The reunion quickly turns sour; the men have grown very much apart. In a tony uptown eatery Doug pays for with his expense account, they call each other names in "Blue Danube (I Shouldn't Have Come)", a waltz played out in their heads:
"A snob...a hick...a punk...a heel...a goon...a dope...a square..."
It's worth noting that Ted and Doug hate their lives and the decisions that brought them there, while Angie – a burger cook with a wife and three kids in rubesville, upstate New York – is actually happy with his life, and only resents being called a hick by his self-loathing onetime buddies.
The production unit that Arthur Freed ran for twenty years wasn't the only musical production unit on the MGM lot, but it was the most famous, the most successful, and the artiest – three things that don't always coincide. It began with the stunning success of The Wizard of Oz. As the film's (uncredited) associate producer, Freed was rewarded with his own team at the studio.
A lyricist whose most famous collaboration was with songwriter Nacio Herb Brown, Freed had an eye for spotting talent, importing people like Camden and Green, Vincente Minnelli, Kay Thompson, June Allyson, Zero Mostel and Johnny Green to Hollywood from Broadway, and creating vehicles for MGM contract players like Kelly, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams, Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen that usually turned out to be among their best work. Freed also had a knack for reviving old standards, and recycling songs from MGM's catalogue; the score of Singin' In The Rain, for instance, is composed entirely of tunes written in the '30s by Freed and Brown.
Fifteen years after his death, Freed was accused by child star Shirley Temple of exposing himself to her during a 1941 meeting in his office, after she had been signed to MGM. The charge was made in her 1988 autobiography and during an appearance on Larry King's TV show. Temple, barely a teenager at the time, said that her response was giggles, and that Freed threw her out of his office. Temple only made one picture with MGM.
As their letdown of a lunch is breaking up, Doug runs into one of the fat cats from his agency's New York head office, there to meet with Jackie (Charisse), who runs programming on a TV show the agency's clients sponsor. Ted wolfishly hits on Jackie, a modern career woman with no time for heels who quenches their ardour by demonstrating her ferocious intelligence. Ted becomes interesting, however, when he tells her about his bummer reunion; desperate for a human interest sob story to feature on that evening's show, she sets about roping the three men into being ambushed onscreen for the filming, giving herself the task of stringing Ted along.
The story of It's Always Fair Weather might be bleak (you have to assume by now that the title was sarcastic), but the musical numbers aren't. Meeting up with Ted in a boxing gym, Charisse gets her showcase musical spot in the film, not in a romantic duo with Kelly, but with the cauliflower-eared mugs who haunt the place.
"Baby You Knock Me Out" is one of Charisse's best numbers, her leggy majesty scissoring and jackknifing amidst a chorus of magnificently-cast gymrats with faces like smashed assholes, as the kids say these days. It's textbook Freed Unit – masterful CinemaScope camera work and production design married to impeccably choreographed and rehearsed dancing.
Kelly, Donen and the Freed Unit go one better with the musical number featuring actress and singer Dolores Gray as Madeline Bradville, the host of the TV show. It's a shame Gray is little known today; she takes shark-sized bites out of the picture in Madeline's scenes, using her outsized features to create a show business narcissist who long ago swallowed her own PR.
Her number is a musical film staple – a rehearsal filmed as part of the story, a standalone confection not meant to advance the plot. In a sequinned, strapless pink gown with a furry pouf circling her hips like a mushroom cloud, Gray sings "Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks", a song about a gold digger who found a better offer.
The chorus of tuxedoed dancers slide, vault, somersault and literally drop onto the stage with her; she declines their offers and dispatches them with escalating comic book violence – first with a gun, then dynamite, and finally a trap door that opens in the floor. She's like a Bond villain with cleavage, and as noted elsewhere, the whole sequence plays like a Tex Avery cartoon with real people.
The scenes around Madeline's show bristle with contempt for television – the medium that was taking ticket buyers out of theatres and putting them in front of the small screen, with its puerile programs, relentless, tinny jingles and strident pitches for products like Klenzrite washing soap and H20 Cola. ("The effervescent cola that's pure as water, as non-fattening as water, but oh boy that cola taste that ZOOMS you up to the sky!" according to the unctuous pitchman played by Frank Nelson, Jack Benny's foil on radio and TV, once famous for comic catchphrases like "EEEE-yeeeeeeeesss!" and "Oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oh, DO they!")
It contributes to the sourness of the non-musical portions of the film, with a distinct message that the world created by ten years of peace and prosperity has turned out to be a disappointment. In The Movie Musical, her recent, sweeping history of the genre, Jeanine Basinger compares It's Always Fair Weather with Singin' In The Rain:
"Singin' has a nostalgic, loving sense of Hollywood's past and a tolerance for its foibles. Fair Weather is angry at the competition from TV, openly scorning its goals and its audiences. Running underneath the story of friendship gained, friendship lost, and friendship regained is a depressing sense of something good that America had lost, and the something mean and small that had grown in its place."
If people were really disappointed with America after ten years of peace, wait till they got a load of the next twenty. This unease was real; William H. Whyte Jr.'s The Organization Man would be published a year later, a book lamenting that American society was becoming more collectivist. Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders came out the year after that, detailing how advertising used psychology and subliminal tactics to manipulate consumers. Both books were best-sellers.
The last musical showcase of the film is Kelly's, and it's an obvious attempt to replicate the title number of Singin' In The Rain, replacing the umbrella with roller skates. It's as kinetic and athletic as anything Kelly ever did, and he glides and taps all over the midtown Manhattan backlot streets.
The only problem is that he'd already done it, perfectly, in another picture, and mostly alone on that rain-drenched soundstage street with only the odd cop and passerby to watch. Kelly and Donen attempt to goose the onscreen excitement with crowds of thrilled spectators, but it plays like a needless reprise. (Dan Dailey's feature in the film – "Situation-Wise", an anarchic parody of ad speak and business jargon – is also fantastic, but just as obviously an echo of Donald O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" and "Moses Supposes", the comic highlights of Singin' In The Rain.)
The umbrella dance in Singin' felt joyous, even spontaneous, despite Kelly's customary, relentless rehearsals. It doesn't help that his song in Fair Weather is called "I Like Myself" – an only slightly smug expression of Ted's self-respect returning after meeting Jackie, and not a highlight of Comden and Green's career:
Feeling so unlike myself
Always used to dislike myself
But now my love has got me riding high
She likes me so so do I.
It's hard to believe now, in an era when anthems to self-love are easily as common as love songs about other people, but there was a time when self-esteem was considered a strange and even distasteful subject for a song, attempted with caution. I kind of miss that time.
Nobody could accuse Gene Kelly of not liking himself. Everyone in It's Always Fair Weather got a showcase except Michael Kidd, whose "Jack and the Space Giants" was filmed but cut, apparently because Kelly didn't want to be upstaged. (It's included as a bonus outtake on DVD releases of the film, and while Kidd is fantastic, it really added nothing to the picture.)
Filming was difficult, mostly because working together again strained Kelly and Donen's relationship. Junior partner no longer, Donen was much less tolerant of Kelly this time around, and constant creative arguments pushed their friendship past the breaking point. They never collaborated on another picture, and rarely shared a kind word about each other.
Their last movie – a Freed Unit picture, once the apex of the studio's release schedule – opened to good reviews but was sent out to drive-ins by MGM as part of a double bill with Bad Day at Black Rock, a dour thriller about racism and murder starring Spencer Tracy. (The only thing they had in common was Andre Previn's music.)
It's Always Fair Weather wasn't the end of the Freed Unit. There was at least one more triumph to come, but something was changing – at the studios, and in the audiences and culture who once thronged to movie musicals. The MGM that created the Freed Unit and released It's Always Fair Weather no longer exists; the company has been bought and sold many times over, with news this week that the latest owner will be Amazon. I personally anticipate a musical comedy set in a Fulfillment Center warehouse, with a chorus line of delivery drones.
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