It’s Always Fair Weather
Dir. Stanley Donen, 1955, U.S.
by Nick Pinkerton
Though It’s Always Fair Weather often receives credit for being a wiser, more grown-up kind of movie musical, one needs to bear in mind how low the bar had been set for adult film content in Hollywood circa 1955. By depreciative coincidence, the night after re-viewing Fair Weather on DVD, I saw the Japanese director Mikio Naruse’s 1955 rural melodrama Summer Clouds—it’s a wonderful movie, Tolstoyian in its love of land, frank and unhysterical about sex, love, abortion, class, and any other subject that might, alone, prompt 90 minutes of gutty overacting if made on the other side of the Pacific. It’s an aside worth making if one wants to have a clear-eyed view of our national cinema.
So, no, there’s no sober realist tract squeezed between the film’s ten show-stopping numbers set in “New York City” aka Culver City, CA, but It’s Always Fair Weather is deprecatingly funny and downbeat, and has a pensive melancholia which, if not entirely adult, is on the way there. The film is a pseudo-sequel to the 1949 Kelly-Donen collaboration On the Town—also with Betty Comden-Adolph Green songs, though their stage score was largely gutted—in which Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, and Jules Munshin made a 24-hour shore leave in NYC into an ardent spree of innocuous skirt-chasing. In Fair Weather, again, we’re introduced to a trifecta of servicemen unleashed upon Manhattan, GIs returning from the WWII European front—Kelly remains, though Michael Kidd (recently the choreographer of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) has taken over the wiry little Italian slot from Sinatra, and Munshin has been replaced by a graduate of many forgotten Fox musicals, Dan Dailey. (The backstory of the production—including the failure to reassemble the original On the Town cast—is covered in a well-produced DVD featurette.)
Freshly stateside and civilian, though still in military get-up, the “Rover Boys” hit their old clubhouse, Tim’s Bar & Grill, roiling with hup-hup energy as they bust in—establishing the movie’s overplayed idea of masculine camaraderie as a jumble of boisterous tumbling. Limitless ambitions are aired out: scholar and gentleman Ted (Kelly), is primed for law school and some sort of Who’s Who status; Doug (Dailey) plans to return to the carcass of Europe and study painting—though judging from the butt-ugly, thrift store-ready canvas he gifts to Tim’s (“Looka like a pizza pie,” comments cook Silvio—love those stock wops!), he’s only primed for the Freed Unit academy where Jerry Mulligan in An American in Paris learned his stuff. As for Kidd’s Angie, well, he’s just happy to be home. After a noisy boozed-up gambol (with garbage can lids standing in for taps—witness the genesis of STOMP) under a mock Third Avenue El, they reel back to the bar in the sentimental mindset of four a.m. and, wanting to prove the durability of friendship, pledge to meet at the same spot in ten years time.
A montage of presidential inaugurations and biographical snippets follows (CinemaScope was mostly a curse to the musical, but Fair Weather gets some good mileage out of trisecting the screen between its principles), and it’s 1955. Ted, thrown over by a sweetheart, has made the unlikely leap from Rising Somebody to small-time poolhall chiseler; Doug never got back to Europe—he’s a big man in a Chicago ad agency now, with the ulcer and impending divorce to suit the gig; and Angie, well, he’s just happy to have a home, flipping burgers back in Schenectady.
Everybody shows up, but the chemistry between these Rover Men is awry—all that keeps everyone in the city for the night are the machinations of a dishy TV producer (Cyd Charisse, at her most blank and unappealing; she only comes alive when she gets a chance to throw her legspan across the widescreen) who, after catching Kelly’s attention, conspires to make him and his pals the subject of a mawkish human interest story on the “Midnight with Madeline” variety show (hosted by gruesome, horse-faced Broadway import Dolores Gray, who belts through a couple of brassy, forgettable showcases). The whole shebang goes out as rowdily as it came in, with a big, stoopid brawl nearing the acrobatic absurdity of the battle royal in A Clockwork Orange, pitting the fellas against some Runyonesque hoods.
So It’s Always Fair Weather is by no means a great movie musical, or even at home among the better of Kelly’s pictures—but, as per the melancholic irony of its title, it’s touching for the sustained tone of piquant disappointment in its middle passages. Though they’re working inside big, bright characterizations, Kelly and especially Dailey curdle into levels of self-hate rarely seen in Eastmancolor over respectively dropping and selling out. And Dailey gets damn fun in a desperate bid to regain his old élan with a dozen company cocktails (tippling is essential to life-force here—I have no complaints), fizzing over into a babbling drunk routine, slapping a lampshade on his head, loose-limbed hoofing like hell, and crooning Stephen Foster.
Kidd fares worse; though the movie never condescends to his “Little Angie” as baldly as supercilious hostess Madeline (“a sweet, simple person…one of that vast army of little gray men”), he bares the unenviable burden of being the settled, un-neurotic, solidly middle-class member of the Rover Boys—not coincidentally, a dignified mouthpiece for folks of the social background that would most likely heap the family into the sedan to catch the latest MGM extravaganza. The movie’s sobering, rather stultifying lesson, to be extracted from Ted and Doug’s high talk of the future at Tim’s, while Angie’s always just happy, is that disappointment is scaled according to aspiration—don’t dream too high, don’t fall too far. And though it may be a bit much to expect existentialist despair from Comden and Green, to not allow the short-order cook from Schenectady with a half-dozen kids his own batch of problems is to take a bit of his humanity.
The movie’s centerpiece is ditty called “I Like Myself,” sung by Kelly, in that frail voice, as he roller-skates through a foam-and-plaster Midtown. The number has a lovely swoop and sweep to it, though the staging isn’t Kelly’s best—the army of mute, admiring onlookers keep the musical break-away earthbound. But I like the smiling revelation in the lyrics very much: “Could it be I like myself?/ Always used to dislike myself…Now my love has got me ridin’ high/ She likes me so so do I!” It’s not just a love song, but a self-love song, and it points to the quality that’s best in the film: it’s understanding of how other people can show us different angles of who we are, or who we’ve become over passing years (“I hated them because I hated myself” says Kelly of being reacquainted with his pals).
Along with the aforementioned featurette, there are a smattering of mute deleted numbers (apparently Kelly was overeager to snip dancing scenes that didn’t feature him), and—why not?—some cartoons: a jamboree of Tex Avery sadism, “Deputy Droopy,” and a weird, garish-and-ghoulish Hanna Barbera cautionary ‘toon called “Good Will Towards Men,” where (I swear to God) a boy’s choir of mice in the guts of a shattered cathedral learn about the nuclear demise of humankind from their old coot teacher on one snowy Christmas Eve. Seen alongside the feature, they help give a full picture of American entertainment’s weird genius.